The Panopticon @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The National Theatre of Scotland's adaptation of Jenni Fagan's novel creates an angry, defiant, magical and symbolic world

Review by Joanna Brown | 21 Oct 2019
  • The Panopticon @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

The panopticon of the title is at once a building, a theatre set and a projection screen. Our lead character Anais, a disenfranchised yet spirited teenager stunningly played by Anna Russell-Martin, tells us that a panopticon is a building that is designed in a circular way so that all the residents can be observed by a single guard. It is this theme of being watched, and, by extension, judged, that plays out throughout the performance. 

Anais, under suspicion for an assault she did not commit, arrives at the panopticon aged 15. Having been in over 30 care homes already, she has a deep mistrust of the system; yet despite this, or perhaps because of this, she is unapologetically alive. ‘I begin today,’ she tells us at the end of the performance, and we believe her. The soulless circular monolith, used as a young offender’s institution, is brought to life in this production by Max Johns’ insightful design. And its potency remains throughout – a crucial reminder of just how much of an impact it has on the lives of the residents, and shamefully, how much damage.

This production, by the National Theatre of Scotland, is based on the book of the same name by Jenni Fagan which is informed by her own experiences of the care system. Fagan has also written the play; her writing is by turns wistful, funny, poetic and, crucially, authentic and multi-layered. It is brilliantly performed by the ensemble and complimented by animation (Lewis den Hertog) and sound (Mark Melville), which is eerily sinister and intense at times. Though clearly a contemporary play – evidenced by such comments as ‘Everyone is watching everyone; Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Instagram, all reporting back to the Panopticon’ – its themes are timeless.      

Each element of the performance combines to create an angry, defiant, magical and symbolic world: one in which we begin to ask questions about control and power, about self-worth and confidence, about how to get back up when we’re knocked down. ‘I’m a bit unconvinced by reality,’ Anais says at one point. And, in times like these, so are we. But with its joyous, funny, heartbreaking and unrelenting no-holds-barred attitude, this performance reminds us that there is still room for the fight.  

The Panopticon @ Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, run ended