S-27, 'a play written by Sarah Grochala,' directed by Stephen Keyworth

IssueJuly - August 2009
Review by Patrick Nicholson

In 1975, the Khmer Rouge took control of Cambodia and embarked on a four-year reign of terror and genocide. During this period, over 14,000 so-called “traitors” were processed through the secret prison S-21 set in a former school, with confessions extracted under torture. As part of the process, captives were photographed prior to execution.

S-27 is a play inspired by these real events. May’s job is to take the photographs. We follow her as she begins to question what she is doing, and her humanity begins to re-assert itself, despite the terrifying environment in which she is forced to live and her complicity in unspeakable acts. May grasps at the opportunity of a life beyond the walls, to leap free from the madness. S-27 is the winner of Amnesty International’s first “Protect the Human Playwriting competition”, and it’s well worth making it along to this four-week premier run.

I found it enthralling and very moving, and for me it worked both dramatically and intellectually. It resonated with current issues like the growing culture of surveillance (May in her black fatigues and emotionless face reminded me of police FIT or Forward Intelligence teams), and got me thinking about the guts needed to follow one’s conscience in authoritarian states where it is literally “kill or be killed”.

After seeing the play, I found myself delving again into the history of Cambodia’s Year Zero and the wider crucible of conflict from which it emerged. It’s tempting just to close our mind to these horrors, but this play opens a window into the darkness and in the light there is hope and courage.

In parallel with this play, there was until 26 June an exhibition of photographs – “Facing Death: Portraits from Cambodia’s Killing Fields” – at Photofusion Gallery in Brixton.

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