Against a backdrop of concrete and perspex bus shelters, Simon Stephens’s gritty and devastating Port is being revived in a production by War Horse co-director Marianne Elliot at the National Theatre. Set within Stephens’s hometown of Stockport Port follows thirteen years of Rachel (Kate O’Flynn) as she struggles to escape a town that constantly strives to bring her crashing down. From a destructive family to an abusive husband, Rachel’s resilience barely holds her together against the grey of Stockport and its inhabitants.
If there is one aspect of Port you can’t shake after leaving the theatre it is the blow-by-blow accuracy and honest reality (others have called it ‘social realism’) of Stephens’s dialogue. Filled with swearing and fragmentation, the dialogue is delivered with razor-sharp certainty. It is as if the sludge of the sewers have been festering within the stomachs of the cast and during the show they spew their foul and repulsive words across their fellow cast members and the audience alike. Such is the toxic nature of Stephens’s writing, which, as you can imagine divides the National Theatre’s audience and brings in a much-needed youthful crowd to the Lyttelton Theatre.
It’s not just Stephens’s writing that leads the precision within this performance. O’Flynn as Rachel is a formidable force, her performance is like nails down a blackboard; sharp screeches that are terrifying to watch and listen. Yet for the chill down your spine that O’Flynn creates, there is a complete mesmerisation too, to the point that we find ourselves encouraging Rachel to break free from the restraints of Stockport and to fly.
It could be argued that Elliot’s direction struggles with pacing, but with much of the action being contained within static positions and locations; at chairs or within cars, the ability for the cast to use their dialogue to propel the action is where the direction is focused. In times of physical outburst, a hotel scene for example that sees Rachel’s husband Kevin (Jack Deam) exploding with violence throwing objects and punches at the walls, the friction of the characters and intensity reaches breaking point. This is as much in praise of Elliot’s contained but energised direction as it is for Stephens’s controlled writing.
Lizzie Clachan’s design with Neil Austin’s lighting has a particularly long-lasting affect upon the production and the method for transforming the playing space between scenes. Clachan’s stark concrete is almost clinical, even during the scenes that make use of the full expanse of the Lyttleton’s stage. The character’s whilst compressed within Stockport feel considerably small and at the hands of the elements within Clachan’s concrete walls and enclosures. Even the transitions have a feeling of confinement as the scenery mechanically shifts in and out of position with no stage managers or human-contact to be seen. Austin’s lighting aids the atmospheric qualities of a grey and lifeless town; opaque almost.
Port offers a particular slice of British life upon the stage, again hinting at the notion of social realism, but it’s understandable to see why. First performed in 2002, Stephens has a particular ability to capture the rumblings of troubled youth where the casual looting of a Boots store just for fun echoes some years later the riots where glass littered the streets of London just for fun. The character of Rachel transcends beyond just being a young female in bad circumstances to the plight of the everyday citizen trying to make a better life for themselves. Whether we’ve had a better upbringing or circumstances for our living, our understanding of the harrowing desperation that is so tangible within O’Flynn’s performance is universal in our understanding of ourselves and our society. Which makes for the ordeal to be even more devastating, if that could be possible.
Elliot’s production is at times quiet and still, but when the anger and ruthlessness boils beneath the performers, a powerful and emotive performance is unlocked that leaves its audience gasping for breath. Stephens really is the writer of our time. Thank heavens Nick Hytner recognises this within his programming, however much it might go against the grain of the traditional National Theatre audience member.
Port is playing at the National Theatre until 24th March. Tickets can be purchased from the National Theatre’s website.