Originally written for Exeunt.
Can you ever really know a person? That’s the disturbing question around which Footprint Theatre’s Daniel queasily circles. Are there signs, giveaway hints, that someone is harbouring abusive desires? Or are we all just too skilled at composing the mask we show to the world to ever let the ugliest parts of ourselves become visible?
The show’s name marks the absence at its heart. The eponymous teenager, whose arrest for the possession of child pornography is the dramatic catalyst of the piece, is never seen or heard. Instead, his crime stands in for him as a person, in the same way as it does for those in his community who react with horror, disgust and vitriol to what he has done. The four individual voices that we hear from, though, dig beneath shock and sensation. They ask: is a person really defined by one action, no matter how abhorrent?
Footprint Theatre’s quartet of performers speak to us from within our own space, seated amongst the audience arranged on four sides of the studio. Tim Crouch’s The Author is an obvious influence, both in terms of form and content. Here, as in Crouch’s show, the set-up is designed to make us feel complicit, while Footprint Theatre make similarly powerful use of the imagined but unseen. Four of those who knew Daniel – his cousin, his best friend, two mates from school – talk to us and to one another, interspersed with voicemail messages on Daniel’s phone and detached, third-person narration of his mother’s numb response to his crime.
The treatment of this difficult, troubling material is impressively nuanced and complex. Some of the speakers respond to what Daniel has done with uncompromising anger and condemnation. Others are confused and bewildered. None of them can match up the person they thought they knew with the person who has been revealed.
Most challenging and intelligent are the tentative attempts at compassion and the searching questions about society’s treatment of paedophilia. Daniel’s best friend, desperate to “do right” by the boy he has grown up with, reaches towards possible explanations, imagining the terrible isolation of unacceptable desires. He also hits out at a system that targets symptoms rather than causes, punishing those who watch child pornography in lieu of attacking its far-reaching roots.
Another of the speakers probes what we think of as “acceptable” pornography, filled with young women dressed to look even younger being taken advantage of by older men. As she points out, we live in a world that violently condemns paedophilia but at the same time insistently sexualises teenage girls. “I think maybe we need to talk about this,” she says, looking around at the audience. In these more accusatory moments, as performers get up from their seats and occupy the forum in the centre of the room, the space feels dangerously charged.
At just 45 minutes long, Daniel is a slender piece, ending as abruptly and disturbingly as it began. It bombards its audience with questions and then retreats, leaving us to sift through the debris. As a dramaturgical strategy, it offers an effective provocation, but I was left wondering if there was still more that the company could tease out. The positioning of the audience, meanwhile, could do with just one further step of interrogation. What is our role? At times, we are clearly and uncomfortably involved, but at others it’s uncertain how we sit alongside the tortured discussions of these four friends.
Nonetheless, this is brave and compelling work, especially from such a young company. Footprint Theatre are unafraid to explore the darker recesses and moral ambiguities of a subject that, especially in the wake of successive high-profile revelations of child abuse, remains a seeping public wound. They are also unafraid to betray the selfishness of some of their characters’ responses, acknowledging the aftermath of a crime such as Daniel’s in all its knotty complexity. And they hold their nerve by allowing the unseen protagonist to remain as unknowable to the audience as he was to those closest to him.