The Panopticon

Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

Neil Cooper


WHEN the teenage schoolgirl in star-shaped shades that is Anais Hendricks steps out onto the stage as played by Anna Russell-Martin at the start of Jenni Fagan’s adaptation of her searing 2012 novel, Anais’ defiant swagger is a statement of intent that sets her up as rebel, vagabond, outlaw and anti-establishment heroine for our times. Her arrival at the care home that gives the play its title marks the beginning of the end of a journey she survives with a street-smart strength that others in the centre’s mini community don’t have.

Framed by Anais’ potential guilt for putting a policewoman in a coma, the play is actually more about a far more existential search for a sense of self as Anais attempts to shake off the demons that haunt her, with copious amounts of sex, drugs and after-dark nightmares en route. The latter are brought to life in Debbie Hannan’s no-holds-barred National Theatre of Scotland production through a fusion of Cat Bruce’s nightmarish animations, Lewis den Hertog’s shadowy video work and Mark Melville’s rumbling electronic score.

Played out by an exceptional cast of nine on Max Johns’ ingenious semi-circular set, the result is a fearless condemnation, not just of the broken system it lays bare, but as a far bigger metaphor for a society where everyone is under surveillance. With Fagan’s script updated to include the all seeing eye of the social media age, as Russell-Martin addresses much of Anais’ story out front, even the audience watching her become complicit in the conspiracy.

As Anais, Russell-Martin is a revelation. Onstage throughout the play’s two-and-a half-hour duration, she presents a young woman who is by turns angry, funny, vulnerable, desperate and, by the end, flying blissfully high on her own sense of reinvention. Amongst the pain, there is a sense too of the camaraderie, support, and, yes, love, she finds among her fellow residents of the Panopticon. As Anais takes on the world beyond it, she looks set to keep on burning no matter what.