The Temporary Theatre, National Theatre, London
Alistair McDowall’s Pomona has become something of a phenomenon. First staged by the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama last year, it was picked up by the Orange Tree’s new artistic director, Paul Miller who despite having his Arts Council funding cut on the day he arrived, has continued to pursue a determinedly brave programme – none more so than Pomona.
McDowall’s fantastical nightmare born partly out of inspiration conjured up Manchester’s real life derelict dockland and partly RPGs (Role-Playing-Games) divided audiences but quickly became a cause célèbre. Taken up the National, it moves off up north to Manchester’s Royal Exchange after its Southbank run.
Pomona is more evidence of the new theatre beginning to emerge that divides audiences generally, a generational one spawned by intimate acquaintance with video and online games, sci-fi and comics. To those of us less versed in mythic deities, memes and the rest, it can come as something of a challenge.
McDowall’s abiding symbol is a mask head representing Cthulhu, `a fictional cosmic entity created by H.P.Lovecraft’, his opening gambit a long speech describing a scene from Raiders of the Lost Ark by Mancunian magnate, Zeppo, dressed in trainers, y-fronts, dirty t-shirt and dark glasses.
Within these two poles – one mythic, one a larger-than-life satire on reality – McDowall rolls out a terrifying message of cruelty involving gangsterism, prostitution and horrifically, baby and organ trafficking.
Yet the plays nihilistic substance, reeling between terror and very dark humour, like the best of dystopian visions, carries within it a ferocious moral commentary not just to do with despair at the world we’ve created but on negotiating the bombardment of our technological information age. As Zeppo says early on, `Knowledge is responsibility’. And choice. Zeppo chooses not to get involved; he is an observer. He chooses not to see and know. It allows him to dominate – and stay aloof. And alive.
Director Ned Bennett produces a pulsatingly visceral production dominated by the octopus-head Cthulhu and a sloping, grilled drain that, like a spinning roulette or a cosmic black hole, sucks the life out of anyone who comes near. The company, needless to say, bring McDowall’s turbulent imagination brimmingly to life.
A warning note from the dice throwers.
Pomona is at the National Theatre to Oct 10, 2015
First published in Reviewsgate, Sept 2015