After last year’s success with TES, his reworking of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Steve Larkin returns to the Buxton Fringe with a more personal show – recounting his year as a poet in residence at a high security prison. It follows Larkin into some dark places, physically and emotionally, personally and professionally, but ultimately reaffirms the benefits of creativity.
N.O.N.C.E. opens with a disclaimer: the show is based on real-life experiences, but names have been changed to protect the innocent. And the guilty. We’re straight into an account of two men discussing the role of accidental or deliberate ambiguity in poetry. One is Larkin; the other is a child murderer.
This unsettling juxtaposition, of intelligent debate and creativity with the obscene acts of the most reviled members of our society, runs through the show. Yet there is plenty of humour too, and unexpected practical considerations; Larkin and his colleague are desperate to get enough participants in their poetry and lyric writing programme, or they’ll have to give the money back to the Arts Council. And they don’t want to do that.
There are lines here that are difficult to draw and difficult to walk. Treating with humanity those considered to have committed inhuman acts; safeguarding the young female students that come into poetry workshops in a prison full of violent men, yet without being over-protective and patronising. At one point, after witnessing performances by these sex offenders in a prison, Larkin goes to perform at a feminist fundraiser – and recounts his own sexual desire for the student that accompanies him.
It’s an intensely personal show all round, as Larkin weaves his prison experiences together with relationship problems in his personal life. The impact of constant exposure to talk of violence reduces it to banality (“Murder’s just a word”), and we experience the strangeness of an environment where the repeated explanations of brutal sexual crimes reduce him to thinking, “I hope it’s just rape”. What kind of world is this, he asks, and what is it doing to him? Is it making him casual in his attitudes to the use of pornography – even making him prone to anger and possible violence? The arguments over desensitization that we encounter in the media are addressed personally, directly and unflinchingly.
There is perhaps a looser feel to the poetry than there was in TES, but still an acute awareness of how its techniques heighten the impact or introduce ambiguity (there is an amusing nod to Prufrock, despite an early jibe at TS Eliot). Larkin is a natural performer at ease with the torrent of words, and he uses subtle shifts in posture and changes in accent to bring in other characters; the prisoners, their guards, academic colleagues and students. There are simple but effective lighting changes to change the scenes, the most effective being the black-outs when he talks of his dreams. More than just emphasizing that it is night-time, they reflect the darkness of those dreams, as topics from prison directly impinge on his personal concerns in that uncontrollable unconscious world.
In the end, there is perhaps a rather swift resolution – moving from the grimness of incessant acquaintance with violence, to the catharsis of successful creative endeavour. But Larkin deserves his release from prison. It’s hard to find fault with this difficult but superb spoken-word show; consider it essential viewing.