The Panopticon (3 stars)

The Panopticon

credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

A rough and tumble journey into the othered

In commissioning the adaptation of Jenni Fagan's novel, the National Theatre of Scotland demonstrated a commitment to bringing marginalised stories to the stage: following the experiences of a young woman in the Scottish care system, the script highlights the mistreatment of women in the youth care system, the prejudice of the police and panels that judge them and the harsh lives of those condemned as an underclass. And the dynamism of the production, directed by Debbie Hannan, captures the disorientating and disheartening whirl of protagonist Anais Hendricks' experience, played with ferocious intensity by Anna Russell-Martin. It's a restless, probing production that upends lazy assumptions about the care system, with an astonishing and powerful use of projections and video from Lewis den Hertog and a rough dramaturgy that embodies the tensions of lives lived in the shadow of the economic and social mainstream.

Against this, the production is undermined by some uneven performances from the ensemble cast and the emphasis on Anais Hendricks leaves the supporting characters underdeveloped – their tragedies and deaths are underplayed – and the transition from novel to script leaves behind scenes that add little to the narrative. A vicious depiction of sexual assault is appropriately disturbing, but appears to lack any consequence for the character, becoming just another incident, and the superb scenography, lighting and projection is balanced against a scene that uses chairs to represent a car – a simplistic and unconvincing strategy that is too familiar from school plays.

The Panopticon promises to evolve into magic realism – again, den Hertog's visuals add a lush and disruptive chiaroscuro – but is caught between a gritty naturalism and a poetic longing for escape. The clash between the rich inner world of Hendricks' ambitions and belief, and the shocking reality of uncaring care is suggested, but never quite resolves into a moving or dynamic tension. The production is a strong statement of intent, a passion and striking engagement with its raw, uncompromising material, yet its intelligent reflections on the conditions of the protagonist rarely coalesce into emotive drama.

Traverse, Edinburgh, until Sat 19 Oct.

The Panopticon

A whip-smart counterculture outlaw, a bohemian philosopher in sailor shorts. Fifteen-year-old Anais Hendricks is smart, funny and fierce. She has also been let down by about every adult she has never met. Sitting in the back of a police car she is taken to the Panopticon, a young offender institution. Inside the circular…

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