As Australia, and the world, inch closer towards totalitarianism, with raids upon the free press and the subversion of key components of the rule of law, S-27 is a reminder and a warning; humanity has the capacity for immense evil when society collapses due to war or revolution, and it is our institutions and democratic structures that keep our shadow side, our darkest impulses in check.
According to some neuroscientists, the human species possess an intricate nervous system that has evolved over millennia and features three distinct modes: the primitive survival instinct of fight or flight, the communal and cooperative safe and social mode, and shutdown or immobilisation, which occurs when fight or flight is not possible.
It is difficult to anticipate, while in a safe and social state, when life is comfortable and no threats to life or security are imminent, how you will respond when you are in danger. As a work, Feet First Collective’s production of Sarah Grochala’s S-27, which was inspired by interviews with survivors of the terror of the Khmer Rouge’s Tuol Sleng Genocide, examines the various ways that fight, flight and shutdown manifested in the most extreme of survival circumstances.
Through this immersive theatre production, where the audience is processed as political prisoners, traitors, then marched into the extermination camp by screaming guards, you develop a small glimpse of what survival mode feels like. The immersive component of S-27 is effective for this reason, but it is the authenticity of the acting on display once you take your seat that truly transports you to the prison camp.
Almost the entire creative ensemble alternate throughout the play from brutalising guards to trembling prisoners, and it isn’t until the lights lift and the performers take their bows that it clicks that the actors played dual roles, such was the skill of their transformation; or maybe I was just too scared to look carefully at them when they were guards. The makeup artistry by Hannah Pedley is to be commended. The lighting design by Samuel Ireland and Andrew Portland was also pivotal in creating the terrifying atmosphere.
While the entire cast receives moments to shine, it is the rivalry between Gabriella Munro and Lauren Beeton, who play externally callous prison photographers, and the incremental revelation of what motivates their characters, around which the play hinges. They are superb.
S-27 is bleak but also hopeful. Even in the most dehumanising of places, the flicker of our better nature cannot be entirely snuffed out, not in everyone. The darkness cannot last forever, and there will always be those who fight against the dying of the light.
Reviewed performance: 13 February 2020