Stacey Gregg’s Perve, currently being staged at the Peacock Theatre as part of the Abbey’s 2011 new writing strand is an uneasy blend of Brechtian dramaturgy and soap-opera style. While the play seems to be striving towards the non-naturalistic strains of Epic theatre – several of the characters are referred to by their place in the hierarchy of Gregg’s world: Taylor’s Mum, for example, and a figure known only as Authority – there are also scenes that could have been lifted straight from ‘Fair City’. Róisín McBrinn’s production doesn’t quite marry these two opposing forces, and the scenes lurch awkwardly between polemic and melodrama. And yet Perve still manages to be a compelling piece of work, posing pertinent moral questions about contemporary society and changing attitudes to sexuality in the digital age.
The concept for Gregg’s play hinges on a social experiment being carried out by young filmmaker Gethin (Ciarán O’Brien). Fascinated by the mass hysteria that attends paedophilia, he asks his sister Sarah (Roxanna Nic Liam) to spread rumours about him. His ostracisation when he has committed no crime will vindicate his theory: the reversal of habeas corpus in the modern age; that the accused is now guilty until proven innocent. Needless to say, it all goes horribly wrong, and Perve is at its most compelling when Gregg begins to suggest that Gethin may not be as transparent as he seems.
Alyson Cummins’ bowl-like set suggests a small-scale gladiatorial pit or possibly a skate-board park, in evocation of the urban landscape that the play unfolds in. It is bordered by a windowed tunnel, which runs across the back of the stage and serves as a waiting area in the detention centre where the final scenes take place.
The central playing area, however, presents a problem for the production and especially for the actors, who don’t quite seem to physically inhabit this abstracted space, which is used to represent some of the realistic sites of action in the play. During a family meal, the actors stand uncomfortably around an invisible table, while conducting a painstaking pedestrian dinner-conversation that is used to establish the family dynamic: “pass the salt” turns into Sarah stomping off because Gethin is like sooooo annoying.
At other points in the play the characters are forced into implausible seated positions on the banks of the playing area because the raked sides of the bowl-stage doesn’t allow them to move around the space with ease.
Indeed, the set really only makes sense in the final scene when Gethin stands alone under Aedín Cosgrave’s grey wash of lights as the other characters look down upon him. The glass waiting room has now become a series of mirrors, multiplying the characters’ reflections so that they are both watched and watching, being judged and judging, in that complex conundrum of complicity that defines the virtual age.
Despite the physical constraints, the performances are otherwise excellent, particularly from O’Brien, who masters the fall from hubris to humiliation, and Nic Liam, who convincingly brings emotional depth to the teenage tantrum.
Perve serves as an interesting complement to the Peacock’s production of No Romance by Nancy Harris early this year, introducing two new gutsy writers who are thoroughly engaged by some of the difficult challenges of the modern world. To some extent, you might read Gethin as Gregg’s alter-ego, determined to bring a taboo topic to a mainstream audience. While Perve's denouement is a bit unconvincing, it leaves the audience with as many questions as answers – the most important one being: what would you do?
Sara Keating writes about theatre for The Irish Times and The Sunday Business Post.