Dystopian fiction has become one of the tropes of our decade. Every other recent work of art is branded ‘Orwellian’ to the degree that term has become more of a tumescent byword for cheap political dysphoria than a connotation of genuine dread. Even the most successful works (The Hunger Games, Divergent et al.) suffer from heavy-handed world building so steeped in its own context that the wider scope of the narrative becomes tedious. Moreover, we have learnt to recognise dystopian tendencies in the world around us to the degree that politicised allegories have lost the elements of fantasy and shock value that once made the concept so compelling. The rise of Black Mirror is testament both to popular conscience of contemporary socio-political descent and to the show’s knack for continually reinventing its own concept. However, such innovation is a rare exception in what is otherwise a stale premise.
Enter Pomona. First performed in 2014 and set in a reconfiguration of contemporary Manchester, Alistair McDowall’s script offers a weave of fragmentary narratives, grotesque and often pithy humour, and gritty intrigue. Very little is immediately apparent; the play doesn’t follow a linear chronology and its world is charged with mystery and confusion. McDowall has a knack for quirky and convincing characterisation, and so his disturbing city tangle is populated by an eclectic range of often strangely affecting characters. The script is smart and striking; sometimes horrifying, momentarily hilarious and continually foreboding, it reinvents the dystopian aesthetic in a distinctly fresh manner.
Staging it, however, is no simple process. Though it certainly has a theatrical quality, there is something overwhelmingly cinematic in the script, from its episodic structure to the snappy, shot/reverse shot quality the dialogue, to the environments of individual scenes, which are deeply evocative of neo-noir. While reading the script I often had to remind myself that I was not reading a screenplay, particularly thanks to a series of structural and atmospheric parallels with David Lynch’s late-career masterpiece Mulholland Drive, fans of which will find themselves hard-pressed to avoid the appeal of this production.
To this end, director Jess Murdoch and assistant director Maya Yousif have had to approach the script innovatively and with their own style to craft a production attuned to theatrical specificity and the ever-bemusing dimensions of the Corpus Playroom. Movement workshops have marked a major part of the rehearsal process and, watching a run of the majority of the play, it was clear from the warm-up that the pair have brought an energy decidedly of their own to the production.
Indeed, without wanting to draw away from the performances of the actual cast members, watching Jess read in for an absent actor for two scenes was an unexpectedly striking experience. I’ve seen directors read in for actors on many occasions, including during one actual performance of a play in the wake of a cast member spontaneously concussing herself, but this almost always comes across as (understandably) makeshift and drab. Not so here: the level of focus Jess maintained with the script and character struck me as that of a director deeply steeped in her own characters; her on-stage engagement with the performance resounded with an earnest sense of intent that the progress of the rehearsal – an early stab at a full performance – would not be disrupted by its incomplete cast.
This intention is unsurprising given the mesmeric nature of what the cast were creating on-stage. The majority of scenes are two-handers and allow distinctive and complex chemistry to shine to its full potential; the cast have the opportunity to develop an impressive level of focus and nuance. Particularly compelling is a scene between Fay (Sasha Bobak) and Moe (Harry Redding) in which the characters’ respective uncertainties and reticence are portrayed in a manner closely sensitive to personal vulnerabilities and physical spacing.
The show’s structure is skewed in a way that introduces many characters at the end point of their chronology, forecasting the progression their arc. Commenting on this, Jess says “It’s tragic, because you’ve seen from the first scenes that no matter how hard the characters try to be good people, you know where they’re going to end up and that their efforts are futile and never going to be enough. It’s like Zeppo [Benedict Clarke] says in the first scene: “it’s impossible to be a good person anymore.” And that’s pretty much the most explicit form of tragedy – knowing that something is fated to go wrong regardless of how people act.”
The progress of the show is by no means straightforward, but Jess is keen to embrace its mystery and ambiguity, describing the process of trying to piece together a sense of background for individual characters and indeed the wider world as “one of the reasons why I went back to see [the first production I saw of Pomona] again.”
“You have to try to fill in the gaps themselves,” she adds, “and it’s so jarring and confusing to be thrown in at the deep end [at start] – to see all these catastrophes happen and not realise why. You have to work hard [as a spectator] and it’s confusing – purposefully. Alistair McDowall [the playwright] said in interview that it’s fine for the audience to be confused as long as they’re never bored. And even though I’ve seen it twice and worked on it for six weeks, I still don’t completely understand it. I’m still desperately searching, and that’s one of the most interesting things about it.”
Regardless of its coherence, Pomona promises an innovative, dark and disarmingly funny experience. It runs from Tuesday 13th to Saturday 18th at the Corpus Playroom.