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POSTED: 27 MARCH 2010

S-27, by Sarah Grochala

Two Birds One Stone & Griffin Independent | Stables Theatre, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 10 April

S-27 is based on the true story of a Cambodian high school that was converted into a prison called S-21 during the Pol Pot regime. British playwright Sarah Grochala's draws on prison records and interviews with inmates from Tuol Sleng prison, where thousands of men, women and children were imprisoned and executed under the Khmer Rouge. Her character May (Sarah Snook) is loosely based on Nhem En, the staff photographer at the Tuol Sleng.

In what was once a classroom, May photographs prisoners all day, complete with the S-27 tag pinned to their clothes — a tag that means their death is imminent.  May has no family now, except for the regime, having shot her own sister, and the organisation has rewarded her with a job and food, while others starve.

A succession of compelling photo shoots allows the audience to view the picture of the external corrupt world.  This series of duologues depicts children crying, mothers begging to save their babies and former chiefs of police brought to their knees. Some of the faces May captures are rebellious, others compliant, but all are terrified.

Each image presents a cameo of torture and suffering building into a nightmarish, dystopic montage of cyclical power-grabbing. Each performance is superbly crafted and timed.  There are some electrifying performances from Kelly Paterniti as June, psychologically vulnerable yet capable of extreme violence, and Anthony Gooley as Col, the love interest and participant in a most sexually charged scene.

The dialogue is hard-nosed but also elusive; finely drawn but with little shading or detail, suggesting this scenario is timeless and stateless, and makes it a worthy  winner of the 2007 Protect the Human Playwriting Competition.

The production is tight and disciplined, with Caroline Craig (Blue Heelers and Underbelly) making her debut as a director. Her production strips away the overt references to Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the murder of an estimated 1.5 million of that country's citizens between 1975 and 1979. "We're taking it away from its historical context and making it more of a dark, futuristic vision of Australia," Craig says.

Referencing the Tuol Sleng prison's history as a high school, Craig's production is evocative of the schoolyard, "We're deliberately blurring schoolyard politics and real-world politics," she says. "It's like Lord of the Flies”.

Personally, I would describe it as Pinteresque, marked by halting dialogue, uncertainty of identity, and an air of menace.

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