[The following contains spoilers.]
“Daniel,” an ambitious student drama from Sheffield, is still showing at the Pleasance Zoo until the end of the week. It recounts the story of an eighteen-year-old boy who was convicted in 2013 of possessing over 50,000 pornographic images of children. Daniel never – and this is definitely a spoiler – appears in his play.
The stage is set by way of a brilliant theatrical device. The audience descend into the basement theatre and seat themselves around an empty stage. Presumably, the first few at the front of the queue can sense what is afoot. Once everybody is seated, the lights dim, there is an expectant pause… and then, quite surprisingly, an audience member begins to speak. Soon others are talking as well. They, and by implication we, are attending some kind of group therapy session for Daniel’s distressed friends. The four rake over their memories of him: how could they have missed the signs? Did they ever really know him at all? Uneasily, they come up with hopeful, somewhat fanciful excuses for his behaviour.
If those who were closest to Daniel were unable to read his character for paedophilia, we audience members had similarly no inkling that we were sitting next to, or behind, the actors. Had we seen and missed the actorly glint in their eyes? Was there some mannerism, some synthetic way in which they had played with their hair, which should have exposed their secret?
We are also discomfited by the possibility that Daniel is still lurking amongst us somewhere in the audience. Is he that guy who is sitting next to me and looking altogether too innocent? Nobody would conceivably choose those glasses autonomously – they must be a prop!
So the theatre is the perfect setting to analyse paedophilia because the paedophile is characteristically an actor, with his blameless life as a continuous, calculated performance. Unfortunately, this punchline has been delivered in the opening minutes of the play, and “Daniel” thereafter wanders calling across a forest of unanswered questions. The play swarms around its invisible man, scrutinising his inscrutability. Daniel seems to be very lucky with his friends – they stick with him and they want to understand him – but their anxiety about his welfare is not wholly disinterested. In their determination to believe in his goodness, they really want to preserve the truth of the world’s appearances. If Daniel wasn’t real, then how can anything be?
This play was devised by the cast and it has its moments. Daniel’s cousin Alex (Isaac Whiting) tells a blurry anecdote in which he leaves his home in the middle of the night, drunkenly and armed with a miniature cricket bat, to beat up the relative who he has forgotten is actually in prison. The realism is here served without a trace of mixer. Later, one of Daniel’s old schoolfriends meditates upon her own usage of hard-core pornography. There is something strangely uncomfortable to how she speaks so openly and frankly about a region of her life, and all of our lives, which is normally unshared. If we are really opening these sealed mental boxes, what had lain in Daniel’s was surely qualitatively different to what festers in ours, surely?
You may be content with the mystery of this story, but I confess that I was also interested in its details. How could an eighteen-year-old boy come to possess images of what are basically 50,000 undiscovered crime scenes? Could he have really purchased these photos, using a credit card and a bank, or, as is supposedly more commonplace, did he trade them for images which he had manufactured himself? The mazes of this hell remain untrodden by his friends – they are probably afraid of what they will find down there. So much silence in the theatre comes from Iago. Perhaps Daniel is far away, laughing at these deceived people who are still trying to explain and excuse him. Or perhaps their love is the only thing that can save him.