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UK bombings spark train of thought

A controversial play about the 2005 London terror attack is coming to Melbourne, writes Sonia Harford.

IN THE past decade, terrorist attacks with staggering death tolls have raised a disturbing question: is a terrorist a monster or simply one of ''us''?

A new production of British playwright Simon Stephens' play Pornography keeps the question festering. Stephens wrote the play in response to the London underground bombings of 2005, and the shockwaves of grief and incredulity that followed. High on the news that London had been chosen to host the 2012 Olympic Games, Britons plummeted into an abyss of national soul-searching following the terrorist attack.

''The English public was totally mystified by the fact the bombers were actually English,'' said the play's director David Myles.

''Initially they thought 'if it's a terrorist attack, someone has flown in from Pakistan'. But in fact they were young boys who were products of their own environment.''

While Pornography appears at first blush to be a play of its time, Myles says its explosive core - transgression, crossing a moral line - is universally understood.

''In this production we are honouring the British accent and the particular time and place but I'm drawing everybody into the humanity of the story. It's not British or American or German.''


The production at the Malthouse will be the first in English to be staged in Melbourne. The play was originally commissioned by Deutsches Schauspielhaus in Hamburg, and it was this version that came to the 2009 Melbourne Festival, performed in German with English surtitles.

It took some years to reach a British stage, says Myles. ''No company would touch it because of the sensitivity, its genesis in the bombings''.

A veteran director of theatre and television in Australia and Britain, Myles is intent on widening Stephens' reach.

''He is one of Britain's leading playwrights and it's alarming that his work isn't performed here. He's written 25 plays in the past 15 years, at the National Theatre and the Royal Court. He's formidable. Major companies should be doing his work.''

Reviving Pornography in 2013, Myles says he was drawn to the drama of crisis, when people do things under pressure. The killing of 52 people may be the most heinous act of transgression in the play, while other characters cross a line on a more domestic scale. The title's perverse promise is thwarted. What shocks is not sex but brutality, the end result of our increasing isolation, in Stephen's view.

He has said he was struck that at the heart of the London bombers' act ''was an alienation from the people they were going to kill and from themselves. This seemed to be symptomatic of a consumerist culture, which objectifies everyone and everything''.

Myles adds: ''The incredible technological revolution is separating people, more people are isolated and that's not going to stop - there's a theory that more people break the rules when they're isolated. Stephens says that by opening up stories hopefully people will stop and think about the human beings behind the headlines.''

The current production is a collaboration between Myles and a creative team calling itself Green Street Theatre. Myles' theatre and screen credits date back many years, including working at Britain's National Theatre with leading directors such as Peter Brook and Ingmar Bergman, and many television and independent theatre productions in Australia.

Green Street has private funding, allowing him the unusual luxury for independent theatre of using a major theatre and paying the cast. He won't reveal his backers' names, saying only they're supporters of the arts.

Such was his determination to stage Pornography, Myles has taken on one of the more challenging texts in contemporary theatre. Stephens gives no character names and few stage directions.

''His instructions are that it can be played by any number of people in any order. When you read the script at first you have no idea who's talking to whom. Directorially it's a fantastic challenge.''

Pornography is at the Beckett Theatre at the Malthouse from February 20 to March 3.