First published in The Times, Thursday October 17 2019
It seems that you can’t move these days for stage adaptations of literary works. A familiar title is a strong draw, whether it’s the dramatisation of Matt Haig’s mental health memoir Reasons to Stay Alive or the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Red Dust Road, which just completed its Scottish tour.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s stage version of Jenni Fagan’s novel The Panopticon is unusual in that the author has adapted her own book. Where literary adaptations can often fall down by being too reverential to the source, Fagan gamely opens out her dense, highly subjective first-person monologue. Her smart, witty, vulnerable protagonist, 15-year-old Anais Hendricks (played by Anna Russell-Martin), is still the major focal point here, but Debbie Hannan’s production is very much an ensemble piece, with the eight-strong supporting cast required to embody a variety of vivid secondary characters.
Pic: MIHAELA BODLOVIC
Fagan based her novel in part on her own experience of growing up in the care system, including multiple moves and more than one failed adoption. The title refers to the regimented young offenders unit in which Anais will serve out her final weeks before she can start to enact her rich interior life out in the real world. There is one snag, though: after several run-ins with the law, Anais is on her final warning to settle down or risk transfer to an adult institution.
The suspense of whether Anais did or did not brutally assault a police officer (and will thus forfeit her chance at freedom) propels both novel and play. Hannan’s production is episodic, though, charting the highs and terrible lows of Anais’s journey and using a variety of techniques, including arresting video by Lewis den Hertog, to illuminate the story’s mix of realism and fantasy.
Pic: Mihaela Bodlovic
There are awkward elements to the staging, with Max Johns’s set of revolving blocks proving unwieldy, and a couple of restrained, barely audible performances. Russell-Martin sustains Anais’s contradictions beautifully, balancing the humour and compassion that makes her character so likeable, with the anger and volatility that places such a question mark over her fate.