Jenni Fagan’s The Panopticon is unmissable in its new translation to the stage at the Traverse Theatre. In a dystopian-esque setting, we meet Anaïs Hendricks having just been returned to the custody of her latest care home by a less-than-friendly police officer. Anaïs is suspected of having bludgeoned a police officer into a coma, although currently there is no evidence either to support or contest this theory.
Through Anaïs’ eyes, the audience is allowed unprecedented access into the care system, as inspired by Jenni Fagan’s own experiences. As such, The Panopticon is a vital mouthpiece for society’s most vulnerable, who are imprisoned within a system that falls woefully short of providing an adequate level of support.
Max John’s creation of a section of panoptica on stage expertly incorporates the audience into the drama, though under what guise is debatable. Do we sit in the watch tower capable of observing as prison guards? Or do we flatter ourselves that Anaïs has taken us into her confidence, albeit as other inmates? The effect of the towering circular walls is unsettling, regardless, and highlights the unforgiving reality of life in the system.
The most important aspect of this play is that it humanises the very real people who, otherwise, exist only within statistics. Ultimately, this powerful storytelling is achieved by a convincing cast with remarkable chemistry. Paul Tinto’s desperate plea, as social worker Angus, for Anaïs’ future is stirring and brings a tear to the eye, whilst the adoration shared between Laura Lovemore and Kay McCallister’s characters is heartbreakingly sincere.
Most impressive of all is Anna Russell-Martin, who breathes such unquenchable life into the role of Anaïs. Russell-Martin is unflinching in her portrayal of a girl who still holds herself with strength and dignity, despite the unimaginable trauma she has witnessed. Certainly, she possesses an innate talent that allows her to walk in the footsteps of others as if they were her own.
Such empathy is shared with the audience as ‘The Panopticon’ is not simply an account of the unacceptable treatment of children in care. It also details the devasting harm inflicted upon the human psyche when one is treated as the cause of the misery and injustice surrounding them, rather than as someone who has been failed repeatedly by a broken system.
Lewis den Hertog’s and Mark Melville’s collaboration with audio and visuals is the final layer of this perfect piece. Throughout the play, videos and sound clips are projected across the stage, as though straight from Anaïs’ mind’s eye. Together it is a sinister compilation that infiltrates the audience’s own sense of self, as our heroine’s paranoia seeps out through the theatre.
A story of prejudice, vulnerability and systemic failure, ‘The Panopticon’ is nothing short of harrowing. Yet, it is also a defiant roar of survival for society’s voiceless and a compassionate portrayal of the faceless. It is theatre at its best, working to illuminate the darkest corners of an unforgiving world, which most would prefer to ignore.