Bush Theatre, London W12
Opened 16 June, 2008

Watching Anthony Weigh’s play, I was struck by what a powerful diptych it makes with Anthony Neilson’s Relocated, just opened at the Royal Court. Two plays involving child abuse, Neilson’s a dark dreamlike fantasy in which terror is always present but nothing definitively happens, Weigh’s a parable about the legislative and vigilante witch-hunt that we could so easily lurch into. Only on my return home did I learn that 2000 Feet Away is not a parable. Iowa, where the play is set (in Eldon, location of Grant Wood’s famous painting American Gothic), has passed a law prohibiting registered sex offenders from living within 2000 feet of locations such as schools, parks, childcare facilities etc. The result has been that up to 20% of registered offenders now have no fixed abode, thus achieving precisely the opposite effect in terms of children’s safety from that intended.
Weigh’s play portrays without prejudice or manipulation a range of figures: the offender A.G., forced out of his parents’ home, believing that his crime was consensual and non-damaging; his mother who does not quite understand and father who seems impatient for the legal eviction to be served; a motel owner who is coining it in as a result of the legislation; one of her residents, who takes luciferic glee in hinting at his activities; even a couple of children caught between the innocence we demand of them and the knowledge our culture also requires. (Perhaps the most chilling line of all is when a little girl, who collects offenders’ mugshots for her mother’s church newsletter, remarks casually amid a kind of flirtation with the protagonist, “I’m almost safe. I almost got a chest.”)
The focus, however, is the county deputy, who tries to enforce the law whilst remaining civil to all, who does not quite understand the ramifications of the situation but is well aware that there are many and unpleasant ones, and who is ultimately uncertain even in himself. Joseph Fiennes is entirely true to the character’s lack of conventional focus, and works well with Ian Hart as A.G., whose self-effacement shades into furtiveness. Josie Rourke’s production captures well the rhythms and tone of Weigh’s script, which so often moves into simultaneous multi-way shouting as a deliberate tactic of ambiguity; however, when an audience is seated on three sides of the stage, it might be better advised not to use a set design that encourages actors to play only to two.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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