S-27 won Amnesty International’s first Protect The Human Playwriting Competition back in 2007 and this production is a fine first showcase for playwright Sarah Grochala’s powerful work.
Based on events that took place at Tual Sleng prison in Cambodia, the play captures the last interviews of six prisoners as they are photographed by young soldier-turned-photographer May (Pippa Nixon) before being executed. A corrupt police chief, a young boy weeping for his mother, a fellow cadre accused of sabotage; all come before May’s camera, unaware that these moments are their last. Assisting May is June (Brooke Kinsella), eager to learn the photographer’s art and frustrated by May’s refusal to train her.
They are an uncomfortable pair, each of the women trying to reconcile similar feelings of guilt, fear and longing to stay alive, yet finding no comfort in their shared experience. They veer between condemnation of the actions of some of the prisoners who come in front of their camera and realisation of the heavy burden of their own sins. Nixon gives a strong performance, but Kinsella is the subtler of the two, portraying with greater depth the moral predicament that June finds herself in. That said, the scene in which May is faced with the task of photographing her former lover is moving and electric in its intimacy.
The set and staging are simple and effective and for the most part compliment the directness and honesty of the writing itself. At stage right stands May’s tripod, at stage left, beneath a naked bulb, the chair where the prisoners are invited to sit for their last photograph. Upstage is the door the prisoners must leave through, a chink of light shining under it as a reminder of the horror that lies beyond. The door is a powerful image, but its message is muddied due to the unfortunate circumstance of never being able to achieve a full blackout at the Finborough; Grochala’s stage directions call for the prisoners to simply disappear in the darkness at the end of their scenes but instead we must watch them slope off stage right, effectively postponing their ends.
Although set in Khmer Rouge-run Cambodia, the situations and characters portrayed in S-27 might be found in any number of totalitarian regimes around the world. Grochala underlines this point by avoiding specific references to the Cambodian experience and withholding names from the majority of her characters.
Rather than an exploration of a particular time and place, her play is an examination of human responses to terror and our capacity for cruelty. May and June are not innately bad; they have just been forced to bury their humanity deep within themselves in order to survive. Some of the play’s most affecting moments are when we are granted a brief glimpse of the tenderness and decency in these hardened characters.
Despite its harrowing subject matter, Grochala’s play is not utterly hopeless and this is perhaps one of the reasons why Amnesty International chose it above the many other entries to win the Protect The Human Playwriting Competition. Amnesty’s work is about persuading people the world over to be decent to one another and part of that work is believing that such decency exists, even in the worst situations. S-27, with its unerring portrayals of universal characters, is a strong testament to this fact.