The Panopticon, Traverse Theatre, review: a sparklingly realistic dystopian play with Margaret Atwood on its mind

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Anna Russell-Martin (r) leads an impressive cast in The Panopticon
Anna Russell-Martin (r) leads an impressive cast in The Panopticon Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Jenni Fagan’s 2012 debut novel The Panopticon was a literary hit. The book follows the travails of Anais Hendricks, a 15-year-old girl who, following a desperately broken and insecure childhood in state care, finds herself in the titular institution for miscreant adolescents.  

Now, in an adaptation written by Fagan herself, the National Theatre of Scotland is bringing the story to the stage in Edinburgh. There is an admirable boldness and ambition in its decision to do so. Fagan’s novel is not a straightforward work of gritty naturalism. Rather, it surfs between the depressing realities of life for youngsters let down by the care system and a broader, more abstract sense of a deeper, dystopian malaise.

Anais talks repeatedly about The Experiment, a malevolent external power that controls people through coercive surveillance. This dimension of the book has led to Fagan being compared to writers such as George Orwell and Margaret Atwood.

The beauty of director Debbie Hannan’s tight, stylish production is that it establishes this bleak, somewhat otherworldly atmosphere from the outset. The Panopticon itself is embodied in designer Max Johns’s set, by turns impressionistic and representational, by a semi-circle of nine, movable triangular sections.

Anais is accused of beating a police officer into a coma. As her (often drug-amplified) experiences unfold, they are illustrated by impressive projections (including malevolent, black-hatted figures representing the ever-vigilant Experiment) and enhanced by a vigorous, electronic soundtrack.

'Dynamism and emotional complexity': Russell-Martin Credit: Mihaela Bodlovic

Young Scottish actor Anna Russell-Martin creates a sparklingly intelligent, sharp-tongued and frenetic Anais. She reflects profoundly the deep-seated pain, terrible rage, human decency and quick-witted humour of her character.

Russell-Martin deserves praise, not only for the dynamism and emotional complexity of her performance, but also for playing the physically demanding role – we see Anais engaged in numerous fights and a daring escape from the police – while wearing a cast on her right arm (a consequence of an injury she sustained during rehearsals).

The superb lead actress is supported by a fine ensemble, including the always splendid Gail Watson, whose roles include the darkly comic, larger-than-life brothel madam Auntie Pat. Paul Tinto is engaging, too, as the sympathetic social worker Angus, who struggles visibly to contain his anger at the iniquities of the youth-justice system.

There are drawbacks. Kay McAllister’s playing of the vulnerable Panopticon inmate Isla is nuanced and emotive, but hampered at times by the actor’s insufficient vocal projection. The effectiveness of the visually spectacular set is also undone in various moments, as actors struggle to manipulate its moving parts. Such shortcomings aside, however, The Panopticon is a very palpable hit. This premiere run is too short. It deserves to be revived.

At Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh until October 19; 0131 228 1404