S-27 (or Security Prison 27) was a former secondary school in Phnom Penh that was used by the Khmer Rouge to imprison, interrogate, torture and execute those who were deemed to be enemies of the regime. From 1975 to 1979 an estimated 20,000 people were incarcerated there, of whom almost all were killed. Forced confessions and denunciations were used to arrest others – including family members and friends – who were in turn tortured and killed, in a vicious cycle.
The prisoners were photographed on arrival and forced to give an account of their lives up to the time of their arrest, before being stripped of their clothes and belongings and sent to their cells to await interrogation. Many of the prison guards were teenagers or in their early twenties – including children taken from prisoner families – and lived in terror of breaking the rules and being arrested, interrogated and killed themselves.
British playwright Sarah Grochala’s play S-27 was first produced at the Finsborough Theatre in London in 2009. Based on prison records and interviews, the play is set in an abstract fictional world that makes no direct references to Cambodia (there are no geographical markers, and the characters all have English names) but that clearly draws on the unique circumstances of that particular hell.
The action takes place in a room where prisoners are photographed and interrogated on arrival before being sent through a doorway – implicitly to their deaths. The central character, May (in a tight-lipped performance from Gabriella Munro), is a young female prison photographer, and the play consists of a series of physically as well as emotionally torturous interactions between May and a procession of newly arrived prisoners, including a former policeman from her village (Samuel Addison), a woman with a newborn baby (Caitlin Griffiths), and a former lover (a touchingly vulnerable performance from Samuel Ireland) – as well as her equally immature but more emotionally hardened colleague, June (Trinity Emery Rowe)
S-27 is a relentless study in betrayal and the cost of survival. The writing is sharply etched and rigorous, and the action and emotions heightened and taut. It reminded me of Brecht’s The Measures Taken, which has been much misunderstood as an apologia for revolutionary violence and rigidly enforced party discipline, whereas Brecht himself pointed out that it was actually a story about someone who participates in their own self-extermination. As one of the most famous passages in that play clearly states:
It is a terrible thing to kill.
But not only others would we kill,
But ourselves too if need be,
Since only force can alter this
Murderous world, as
Every living creature knows.
In a sense May too – and even more so her emotionally damaged colleague June – are engaged in an act of self-murder (the German word for suicide, Selbstmord, seems appropriate here) regarding their souls if not their bodies (though physical extinction is also their likely ultimate fate).
This production of the play by Feet First Collective is directed by Teresa Izzard and staged at Fremantle Arts Centre – a 19thcentury Gothic structure of local limestone built using convict labour, which was formerly used as a psychiatric hospital or ‘asylum for the criminally insane’ and later as housing for homeless women and ‘delinquent girls’. As such it has a somewhat sinister and even haunted ambience, especially at night.
The performance began in ‘immersive’ mode, with the audience aggressively rounded up and herded inside one of the buildings by the cast, who were dressed as black-clad guards and armed with truncheons. We were told to form two lines, and our valuables confiscated, before each being given a lanyard with a number and marched upstairs. Those of us who had chosen at the box office to wear a wrist-band indicating that we were willing to be manhandled by the performers were singled out for special abuse and mistreatment. Meanwhile some of the ‘guards’ were dragged off by others to be interrogated for failing to do their duty, and angry shouts and cries of terror were heard echoing through the building.
I found this the weakest part of the performance. It felt somewhat unconvincing (and even a little tasteless) to be treated like prisoners, especially while holding plastic glasses of wine in our hands; and the actions and demeanour of the ‘guards’ were (perhaps inevitably) a little half-hearted. Things improved once we were seated in traverse in an upstairs room, and the play was performed in a more or less traditional format, apart from stylised ‘post-modern’ movement sequences between each ‘scene’, which I felt were a little affected, especially in the context of such a brutal and uncompromising play.
I also felt that the emotional and technical demands of the play and the production were somewhat beyond the reach of a young and relatively inexperienced cast. Despite some highly atmospheric original music by Rachael Dease and subtle lighting by Andrew Portwine, the production as a whole seemed to fall slightly uneasily between student and professional standards of expectation, so that I wasn’t quite sure what genre of performance I was watching, or how to engage with it. Consequently the play itself didn’t hold me as powerfully as I felt it would in more confident hands.
In sum: S-27 is a gripping and complex play about a harrowing period in history, which has important things to say about dehumanisation that are more relevant than ever today, when systems of surveillance and punishment are on the rise even in so-called democracies like our own. As such, this is a worthwhile production, even though some of the artistic choices – in particular the gesture towards ‘immersive’ staging – didn’t entirely come off.
S-27 is at Fremantle Arts Centre until Sunday July 21