On Pomona

BEWARE: SPOILERS ABOUND

First up – I’ve rarely been so happy that a show exists. It had the feeling of the first time I saw Philip Ridley and thought ‘aaahhahahhahha you brilliant idiot, in that you’re a bit of an idiot for thinking this should be done but you’ve pulled it off because you’re brilliant’.

This is ‘epic theatre’ as ‘epic theatre’ deserves to be enacted – vast, imperfect, and not inspired by so much theatre that it’s lost the concept of ‘what makes interesting art’ as a whole. The AD of a reputable new writing company once said to me that he couldn’t get his head around the idea of a play being sci-fi, which just shows you how limited some people’s idea of theatre is. If there’s some idiot somewhere shaking their head in disbelief at the idea of D&D being engagingly depicted onstage then I don’t think anyone can help you. Congratulations – you are the problem with theatre.

In fact, it’s almost like Pomona goes out of its way not to be theatrical. It references film, TV drama, roleplay, novels, almost anything but theatre, chewing them up and making its own creation out of them.

It doesn’t always work.

Much as Nadia Clifford is a tremendous Ollie (and her sister – or not – possibly…) her story feels like it’s just there to enable the rest of the action. I didn’t care about her by the end as much as I felt the story wanted me to. Was that intentional? Possibly. Maybe the circular ending (of which more later), was supposed to highlight that we care about the wrong things – apply our emotional effort to things that won’t ultimately make any difference. Certainly I cared more about Moe.

Oh god. Poor Moe.

The play seemed to want to lean us towards Charlie, but you know what, fuck Charlie. He was a bit ‘obvious central young disaffected person’. A bit contemporary. A bit hopeful. I’d rather have seen his backstory, and in a distracting way. Much as I enjoyed seeing D&D onstage, it felt… tacked on. The kernel of how the play began, maybe, only now the idea had outgrown it. The point of the oak tree is that it’s nothing like the acorn, or something. Other than being a wee bit manic pixie, I wasn’t sure what Keaton was doing there either, much as Sarah Middleton gave some very good other-worldly emptiness, the best I’ve seen since Jasmine Breaks in ‘Remembrance of the Daleks’ (which, translated from Whovian to Human, is ‘very high praise’). The overlap between her and Ollie’s actions was neater than it was satisfying. Is McDowell saying that we’re not in control of ourselves? That all we need is structure of some kind, however guided and impenetrable and manipulative?

Coz that’s a lovely theme. I loved the bleakness, and it was *almost* the best kind of bleakness – avoidable, ridiculous, the sort of thing that shouldn’t be happening but lol it is anyway and your tragedy is that you’ll die refusing to believe it.

Yes, I said ‘almost’. For something as mythic and loopy as Pomona started off being, every reference to the unseen ‘others’, every grounding of the threat in a world that we recognise diminished it slightly. It squelched together ‘8mm’, ‘Get Carter’ and ‘The Wicker Man’, trying to get the best out of all of them, but it felt like the importance was being stacked – like we were being defied to deny how horrible this was. As an audience member, I naturally defy being defied. Maybe that means I’m the problem McDowell is talking about – ‘real world problems aren’t big enough for me, white, middle-class Western hetero man that I am, YOU MUST DO MORE TO MOVE ME’ – or maybe it means I’m just so pretentious (I just wrote ‘I naturally defy being defied’, for fuck’s sake) that I’ve lost sight of what’s my personality and what’s an affectation too far.

Anyway, my point is that in drama ‘stacking’ evil diminishes fear. This is probably best summed up in a quote from ‘Cube’, one of my favourite films ever:

Nobody is in charge. It’s a headless blunder operating under the illusion of a master plan.

That would’ve been scarier. That evil just sort-of occurs without even the concept of being evil. That’s why I loved Moe. He’d looked into nothing and nothing had looked back. Not ‘Nothing’ – nothing. Such that even the horror and the wickedness has no actual meaning, not even horror and wickedness. We like to think we’re Charlie, innocent on some naïve level, but really we’re Moe, and we know it. Maybe it’s just Sam Swann’s irrepressible charisma, but I felt ‘comfortable’ when Charlie was with us. It was a safe space, and I didn’t want one, it felt like the play constraining itself. The ending was the same – a closed loop, one that you can’t enter. It could have spewed outwards, endlessly, slowly, insanely and it didn’t. It lurked without ever making me truly afraid. I respect McDowell for making the sense of it that he did, holy crap he’s a good writer, and I think he’ll write or directly inspire the best plays of this generation, but he added structure to a world that was more horrific for its chaos, and thereby lessened the impact.

Pomona is a play I remember in shards: Moe and Fay sitting in her room, talking about violence, feeling the threat of absolutely none but the weight outside of a world of it, Sean Rigby and Rebecca Humphries being majestic in a scene that I suspect will outlive all of us, director Bennett and McDowell letting them breathe whilst sucking the air out of the room like backdraft; Guy Rhys almost incoherent in his frantic pretence of control; Grace Thurgood begging for her money to be burnt. What an ensemble, possibly the strongest I’ve ever seen.

Fuck it, everyone was great. Everyone was brave. Everybody committed – McDowell, the cast, Ned Bennett, Georgia Lowe, Elliot Griggs, Giles Thomas, Polly Bennett, Pam Donald, Paul Miller. Every motherfucker. Pomona doesn’t care about being the last word in something. It’s the beginning. Beginnings are uncertain. Beginnings are exciting.

I’ve never been this excited about theatre.

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