Ransom's controverisal new production delivers 'a badly needed shot of ambiguity'

Ransom return with their most troubling and provocative production to date. Never a company to shy away from the darker, more ambivalent aspects of human nature and history, Transparency takes us into the bleak, challenging maelstrom of a horrific crime, the nature of punishment and even redemption.

Thankfully, it offers no easy solutions as we join Simon, the handsome young forester and his sassy young radiographer wife, Jess, in their sickeningly bourgeois idyll. New home, in love, close friends, dinner parties, squash, champagne – there’s even a sub-art school style x-ray collage to celebrate their wedding anniversary. So far so nauseatingly perfect.

Cracks are evident almost immediately, however, and a disconcerting ambience hangs over the couple, like blood-spattered wallpaper in an otherwise familiar room. Likeable, kind, strong new man Simon is clearly someone with a past and the cosiness of this theatrical Surbiton is soon tarnished by the disappearance of a two-year-old girl in the area.

With this unsettling framework in place, we gradually witness an initially close and loving relationship disintegrate. Simon’s reluctance to dress as Santa for a children’s Christmas party, his reticence in holding Jess down during foreplay and his sudden rages are all pointers to a hidden history and the inevitable, heart-stopping showdown.

Tackling a play about child murder, even when it laudably shies away from the gratuitous excesses of melodrama, was always going to be a difficult, not to mention controversial, business. But it’s one that Ransom navigate their way through successfully, merging the unfolding human drama with a very real and thoughtful examination of the abject and unending greyness that people mistake for moral certitude.

The set, starkly encircled sentry-like by an array of grey and glass panels, and the long shadows they cast, brings out the wintry chill of both setting and context.

Writer Suzie Miller come from a legal background, and her detailed research offers a forensic and holistic approach to the subject and the characters. No person is without failings, flaws or conceits and at times Simon is easily the most likeable character on stage.

Director Rachel O’Riordan assembles the play into a series of fast episodic cuts that have the effect of providing dozens of little emotional jabs rather than a colossal sucker punch – something which makes the denouement, when it arrives, almost painful to behold.

But the pace, while fast, never feels hurried. Like Jess and Simon’s x-ray wedding collage the rapid presentation of scenes and settings offers the audience a sense of collaboration, of gradually piecing together the jigsaw as the full picture is gradually revealed.

Richard Dormer as Simon is the heart of the play, giving a bravura performance as the troubled soul who can never truly escape his past. The simultaneously moving and terrifying scenes where he questions his own humanity, his own sense of moral rectitude are almost too much to bear. That he creates a real character out of Simon is the key to the play’s power.

When Simon and Jess’s friend Camille drunkenly ponders that ‘without the truth we’re just animals’, she’s exposing him to the lie that binds so many relationships together. And it is Simon’s painful need  for transparency that causes his only chance at ‘normality’ to unravel.

A state-sanctioned new life and a new start are nothing more than a gilded prison for him. The state is represented here by a nicely supercilious performance from Alexandra Ford as Simon’s psychologist. Her hypocritical attitude to Simon is justified in her own mind by her absolute faith in his programme – a putative panacea for child offenders that reflects uncomfortably the Labour government’s politicisation of areas of psychological treatment (such as the ubiquitous introduction of cost effective CBT programmes at the expense of more clinically beneficial but expensive treatments).

Ideas of rehabilitation for criminals generally leaves a lot of people feeling uncomfortably suspicious that it is at the expense of both genuine punishment and the tax-payer. A lot of this is to do with the scaremongering that the media engenders about murderers and child abusers on every corner and the appallingly backwards but surprisingly prevalent idea that evil is an unyielding and pre-determined disposition in individuals (as is the general and shocking consensus for capital punishment in Britain and Ireland – if there was a referendum on the matter, the ‘yes’ campaign wouldn’t need two bites at the cherry).

When Simon is recounting the horrific moments leading up to the terrible act that he was party to, he relives it as his ten-year-old self. The self-realisation that he felt exhilarated and empowered, that for once ‘I was the strong one’, is chillingly understandable. That an abandoned, abused and brutalised child probably feels ok or better when inflicting pain on another child is an uncomfortable reality.

In the manner that we are always horrified by the idea of senseless violence (as opposed, of course, to meaningful and profound violence) and instinctively have an urge to take revenge, so Transparency shows us that to demonise these ‘monsters’ amongst us is to close off any opportunity for breaking the patterns of violence. But importantly it doesn’t suggest that rehabilitative treatment is the catch-all solution either. There are no easy answers, only people. Victims, perpetrators, loved ones, family who all live, die and operate within the parameters set for them by their societal circumstance.

Transparency is a profoundly important play if only for the fact that it beautifully demonstrates that nobody lives, acts or reacts in a vacuum. We’re all of us, given the conditions, capable of doing wonderful and terrible things, often both. Our instinct as a society for punishment is borne as much out of fear, ignorance and hatred as it is of a sense of justice – the very motivational forces that cause people to do terrible things in the first place.

None of us are too far away from the amorality that leads to a child’s head being smashed in and there’s more than one kind of victim in our society.

For anyone who has ever thought ‘string ‘em up’, or indeed rather contrarily ‘hanging’s too good for them’, this is a badly needed shot of ambiguity.

Joe Nawaz

Transparency runs at the Old Museum Arts Centre, Belfast until Saturday 10 October and then on tour. For more details check out Culture Live! listings.