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From loneliness to hope – inside the world of ‘Pornography’ at 53two

Oliver Hurst, co-founder of Red Brick Theatre Company, discusses his fascination with Simon Stephens' thought-provoking play, 'Pornography.'

Manchester playwright Simon Stephens’ work was recently seen at HOME with Song From Far Away, starring Will Young.

His highly acclaimed piece Pornography explores eight stories, set in London and it was written as a response to the 7/7 bombings, which came after the euphoria of Live 8 and Olympics announcement.

Oliver Hurst is local theatre company Red Brick’s co-founder and he decided the time was right to bring Pornography to the arches of 53two in Deansgate. We caught up with him to find out more and why he wanted to direct this fascinating character study.

Interview with Manchester Director Oliver Hurst

What attracted you to Simon Stephens’ acclaimed play?

It’s a play that I studied while at university, with the intent of directing a production of it at the time.

Then the world went into lockdown, and any hope of staging the production went out of the window.

But it’s a text that I’ve been mulling over ever since – I think my understanding of many of the themes, particularly loneliness, isolation and disconnect have grown over the last couple of years.

They feel as though they’re ever more relevant now, in 2023, than they were when written 18 years ago.

I’m also a massive fan of the work of Sarah Kane.

I think Pornography, in many ways, is similar to some of Kane’s work with its explorations of form and narrative.

After seeing HER Productions produce Crave, which was incredibly exciting to me, it felt like the right time to return to the text.

It felt like there was a potential appetite for this kind of work in the Manchester theatre scene.

We rarely see a suicide bomber doing everyday things that are humdrum as it humanises them. Was that a draw for you?

I think what’s really clever about the text is that it places all of its characters on a level playing field.

We meet 8 characters, who’s lives unfold over the span of a week. All of whom commit their own act of transgression or violence.

By placing a suicide bomber at the centre of that, amongst these seemingly normal people, he blends in with their mundanity.

Even though we go in with an understanding of what is about to take place, I feel that an audience can identify and even, at times, empathise with the character.

That really excites me as a director, how do you make an audience abandon their preconceptions?

What is it about Simon’s writing that keeps you invested in his plays?

For me, Simon’s writing is so incredibly human.

He somehow manages to take these monumental themes and ideas about the world, and boils them down into these little concentrated nuggets of life.

When doing the text work with the cast, it became apparent just how littered with subtext his writing is.

Each character is fully drawn to life, and speaks with real purpose – no line is a throw away.

There’s a real sense of energy that courses through the text. It buzzes and swells.

That, paired with the episodic nature of the text, provides excitement.

You never know which way the story will turn next.

This piece can be very simply staged and seems tailor made for 53 two, as we are so close to the action. What will this space add to the piece, from your perspective as a director?

You’re completely right.

The text provides almost no stage direction, it’s completely open to interpretation – to the point that in the text, even the dialogue isn’t delegated to individual characters.

The text becomes a launchpad for invention – it’s a totally blank canvas.

I think 53two, as a space, really lends itself to this.

You can really strip it back to it’s bare bones, then rebuild it with the vision you have in mind.

As an audience member you’re never too far away from the action – when the space is so intimate it becomes much easier as an audience member to find the nuance and truth in every performance.

Some may be put off by the 7/7 bombing references. What would you say lies beneath that, which audiences may find thrilling and worth leaving the house for?

I think any preconception that the performance is JUST about the 7/7 bombings does it a real disservice.

It’s a text that explores human connection in a really interesting way.

There’s a real kinetic energy that bounces through the production – and it’s certainly not shy of tension and conflict.

We’ve got such an excellent cast that are playful, truthful and really take risks – which to me is palpably the most thrilling thing in the world!

And in the end it’s all wrapped up with a barbecue chicken shaped beacon of hope (If you come and watch you’ll see exactly what I mean!)

 Pornography is at 53two from 26th – 30th September and tickets can be booked here.

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