Theatre review: The Panopticon, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh

From The Cheviot, the Stag, and the Black, Black Oil through to Black Watch, every major turning-point in Scottish theatre is different in mood; but if you want to hear a new generation of Scottish women roar – with a style and ferocity that could echo round the world – then the Traverse is the place to be, over the next week, as it plays host to the National Theatre of Scotland’s dazzling new stage adaptation of Jenni Fagan’s acclaimed 2012 novel The Panopticon.

Anna Russell Martin in The 
Anna Russell Martin in The Panopticon

The Panopticon, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh ****

Set by designer Max Johns on a towering half-circular stage that reflects the classic prison design of the title, The Panopticon draws on Fagan’s experience of growing up in the Scottish care system to tell the story of Anais Hendricks, a remarkable 15-year-old apparently trapped by the care and criminal justice systems, but also powered by an imagination so rich, full and fantastical, and so brilliantly fuelled by her constant reading, that it just possibly opens the way to a magnificent escape.

If Fagan’s novel and stage adaptation are the key to the Panopticon project, though, its realisation also depends on two other brilliant young women. Scottish director Debbie Hannan – currently an associate at the Bunker in London – brings Fagan’s story of harsh reality and fabulous imagination to life with a huge fertility of visual and theatrical ideas that is at time almost overwhelming.  

There are moments when she needs to prune back a little, cut the odd special effect and allow more space for the raging calm at the centre of Anais’s character, but overall the richness and vividness of the production is unforgettable, powered by weird and magnificent video design from Lewis den Hertog, animations by Cat Bruce and sound by Mark Melville.

And then, at the heart of the show, there is Anna Russell-Martin’s truly stunning performance as Anais, a figure of defiant glamour, unbearable pain and fierce exhilaration, profoundly vulnerable and yet absolutely undefeated.  

Around her an eight-strong ensemble double and treble their roles with some flair, with Gail Watson and Kyle Gardiner excelling as harassed social workers and Kay McAllister as a heartbreakingly fragile fellow inmate.


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And if Fagan and Hannan perhaps need, towards the end, to cut the odd narrative digression and prune a few verbal variations on themes already explored, these are minor imperfections in a show that blazes with brilliance throughout, transforming Fagan’s story and poetry into a shared theatrical rallying-cry for a broken world, one that can only be redeemed by the dreams of the young – and the braver and wilder, the better. Joyce McMillan