Welcome to the psychic terrain known as Pomona. This guide will be wading all the way through, and as such you can expect spoilers.
The terrain is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes in temporal diameter, and grown from a playtext by Alistair McDowall. The terrain was first opened in 2014 at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama under the direction of Ned Bennett. Bennett went on to take a redesigned production to London’s Orange Tree Theatre, followed by a run at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium, both in 2015. The performance rights have since been made available for companies across the world, and the text is currently available from Bloomsbury Methuen Drama. Unless stated otherwise, all play photographs in this travel guide are from a 2016 production by third-year students at the University of York’s Department of Theatre, Film and Television, and photographed by Harry Elletson.
A greasy man, a young woman, and a masked figure. (Photo: Harry Elletson)
In the empty space in front of you, you’ll see a young woman, an older man, and a silent figure wearing what’s clearly a mask of Cthulhu. They might be seated together, or standing around the space, depending on how long you’re meant to spend working out where they are. You won’t be thinking about these things at first, though, because the man distracts you with his gabbling. He [talks at a ferocious pace], and in fact you seem to have come in mid-sentence – something about Nazis, a basin, and folding chairs – it’s only when he hits the phrase, [‘and Indy and Marion are like tied to this pole at the back’] that anyone in the room really makes the connection. You might hear a titter of amusement from your fellow participants, at least any who intrinsically appreciate that we’re kicking off with a pop culture reference.
Speaking of fellow participants: it’s quite possible that you can see them and they can see you. Don’t be alarmed by this, it’s perfectly normal – a performance in the round, with the audience encircling all or at least most of the playing area (somewhat like a boxing ring) is the preferred format for the ritual. You see the three people inside the empty space, and then outside it you see rows of observers, shrouded in darkness like yourself. You’re all implicated in the same hushed gathering, and you won’t be allowed to forget that.
But back to our mystery man recounting the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. He may appear somewhat greasy and wild, like someone you’d be a bit nervous about coming within three feet of or encountering at night in a strange neighborhood, but he clearly loves this film. It’s a work of fiction that has lingered long in his mind. He may be on the verge of dancing around as he relates the scene. The visceral deaths of the Nazis who look upon the Ark amuse him to no end – [‘and all the nazis are just getting fucking shanked by these ghosts’] – while the mysterious ending in the warehouse seems to be what he’s really driving at. [‘…makes you think, like, what’s in those other boxes, you know?’]
At this stage, maybe between three and five minutes in, you might detect the first wafts of Theme with a capital T. Forbidden knowledge, mystery, unviewable horrors; all of which should perhaps be tickling your Outsideist proboscis. But before you can dwell on that too long, he’s settled back into conversation with his female companion and discovered she’s already seen the film. The audience laughs. This is marketed as a ‘sinister and surreal thriller’, but what’s currently happening on stage is proving hard to pin down as anything in particular.
You’ll notice the man shoveling something into his mouth from a bag or box. Have pity, for eating on stage while giving a speech is a bit of a nightmare, but be sure to log the detail – they’re chicken nuggets – for when we get further in.
At this point, we’ll come to a sudden stop. His mood has changed. The atmosphere of the room has stilled, and you’ll instantly be more aware of the third presence in the space, the silent one you’d almost forgotten. The man says, [‘Pass one of those from that sack back there.’] (NOTE: There may not be a sack.) The young woman obeys, reaching into a bag on the floor and withdrawing a small, immediately recognisable item – a Rubik’s cube. (NOTE: It may not be a Rubik’s cube.)
She hands it, warily, to the one in the mask with the face tentacles.
The Figure receives the cube and immediately [starts solving it rapidly]. (NOTE: The item may be a large die, in which case The Figure will immediately start rolling it rapidly instead. The challenges presented by solving Rubik’s Cubes on stage are self-evident, although York’s students found a relatively simple means of achieving the illusion via a pre-set pattern for scrambling each cube.)
The Figure is not engaged in the conversation, but is here to be fed in this way – to be entertained by this solo activity. Watch the jumble of components being rearranged into ordered sets, a tiny world being brought from chaos to order…then notice how, throughout the next sequence, every time the Figure completes a cube, the man orders the young woman to feed it another. There appears to be no goal here. Only distraction. Which begs the question, what does it need distraction from?
Shortly thereafter comes the information that our two humanoid totems go by the names of Zeppo and Ollie. [‘Like Oliver? Like a boy’s name?’], Zeppo asks his evidently AFAB visitor, and receives an answer in the positive (travel note: Ollie’s female self-identification is not brought into any doubt further on in the terrain. She is simply a female character named after a man – specifically, as with other characters, a star of B&W-era comic film – and in this way, she is already a symbol whose constituent parts willfully refuse to slot together. While gender will eventually be a defining feature of this terrain, for now it is shifted ever so slightly into the alien).
A car journey. (Photo: Harry Elletson)
The next stretch of the terrain is settling into a more comfortable form, namely that of the expositional conversation delivered in a naturalistic style. Though at some point we realise that Zeppo and Ollie are actually in a moving car, and have been the whole time; more to the point, that our notion of space in this story is far from safe or stable. But something resembling a narrative journey comes into focus here, eased along by McDowall’s flair for quickfire dialogue and distinct character voices:
- Ollie’s sister is missing.
- It’s bad. She can’t go to the police.
- Ollie has come here looking for her sister.
- We are in Manchester (UK).
- It’s the middle of the night..
- Someone told Ollie to wait by the roadside for this car.
- Zeppo – or ‘Mr Zeppo’, as she calls him – owns a lot of the city.
Zeppo, while he admits he owns everything, objects to the idea that he is [‘involved in everything’]. In front of you now is where one of the structural keys to this psychic space – and our understanding of it as Outsideists – begins to announce itself very indiscreetly. [
‘You know what the most important ethos is for today’s troubled times?’
‘I – What?’
] Zeppo relates the short tale of his father, whom he apparently inherited his ownership of the city’s property from (thus the hierarchy is preserved), and whose decision to get ‘involved’ granted the text its first burst of non-fantasy violence: [‘They nailed him to a brick wall with a steel rod through his face. Right here. Through here.’]
This in turn will propel you into Zeppo’s second keystone speech. (In one production, he here leapt back out of the seated ‘car’ position to roam about the space again as in the opening.) Besides containing the geographically intriguing detail that he spends all night driving along a ring road that encloses the city, the speech concerns the dangers of knowledge. There is a trick being played here, however; one that you must keep an eye out for.
To make a point about the particular danger of knowledge, Zeppo raises the example of his beloved Chicken McNuggets, of which he eats a hundred every night (a basic bit of horror-consumerism imagery, casually deployed). He presents a hypothetical situation wherein he wants to find out how McDonalds produces them – something that modern technology has made extremely easy, resulting in instant access to a possibly deeply unpleasant answer. The thesis, delivered with charisma and humour, draws on our suspicions and intrinsic mistrust of fast food (neglecting to actually answer the question of the nuggets) to make a point that we still understand is essentially accurate. The danger of being able to find out about the processes underneath our world is the horror that presents – be it visceral or moral horror. [
‘Every part of our lives and culture and diet and health and the clothes we wear and the music we like and the films we watch and the friends we have and all of this – you go deep enough, you’ll find all this stuff, the detritus of our lives, it’s all built on this foundation of pain and shit and suffering. It’s like it’s impossible to be a good person now. […] There’s just people who are aware of the pain they’re causing, and people who aren’t aware.’
] (Speaking of horror, the Figure won’t have moved onto another cube for several minutes now.)
We here arrive at the element which defines Zeppo’s position in the terrain. Indeed, he enables and facilitates all kinds of unseemly dealings that take place in the buildings he rents out to people – but he chooses not to know what they are. [‘Knowledge is a responsibility,’] you’ll hear him say with concern, or perhaps distaste. Zeppo is firmly planted on the furthest edge of our structure – the ring road around the perimeter, distanced from the activity at the centre – though precisely what kind of structure this is will not become apparent to you until you burrow ever so slightly further in.
But here is the trick: over the next few lines, the nature of the danger of knowledge will change. It stops being the mental horror experienced on processing information, and instead becomes the actual risk to one’s person presented by becoming ‘involved’. [
‘I don’t pick and choose – I deal with everyone. My dad only deals with some people, but then those people move on, or they get killed, and suddenly you’re on a side, you didn’t even know there was sides, but you’re on one, and now doors are open and your eyes are open and what happens?’
‘BAM! Steel rod through the head.’
Zeppo. (Photo: Harry Elletson)
] At this point, track back a few seconds and think about those last few lines. The journey from [‘your eyes are open’] to [‘steel rod through the head’], compressed together as seemingly an equation. How did we go from finding out about the people who die to make our iPhones straight to street execution? (Because that’s certainly the effect – Zeppo’s explanation for his wilful ignorance is tacitly overlapped with his explanation for his neutrality, the speech sliding from one into the other then tying both off with the same bow.) And perhaps more pertinently, what’s the missing step between opening your eyes and involving yourself? Why could Zeppo not remain neutral if he were to find out about the things that he’s complicit in – what compulsive force is the thing he’s really trying to avoid?
Anyone familiar with Outsideist rhetoric should know where this is going, but in case you don’t: the answer is empathy.
Empathy is something of a flitting poltergeist within our structure. It’s the spirit that’s animating everything, yet curiously only makes its presence known by implication. The play – and it’s important we start using that word, though perhaps not quite yet – is more than willing to show it, but reticent to talk about it, as you’ll see elsewhere in the terrain. This would be a frustration for an Outsideist, except unearthing submerged things is great fun. That’s something we’ll attempt to do as we go on.
Meanwhile, we should address the matter of Zeppo’s self-justifications – casually traversing, as they do, the whole scale from the ethical consumption dilemma to embroilment in territorial blood feud. It poses a certain challenge for us, because it allows a viewer (not for the last time in this story) to say ‘well, he’s only engaging in Insideism to protect his own life’, and in turns runs the quite horrible risk of giving Insideism a blanket moral pass! If one’s careful, of course, it’ll be evident that’s not really what’s going on…but even so, is it okay sometimes and not okay other times? Do we, as Outsideists, allow our ideology to go limp as soon as our own lives are put at risk? Do we even have coherent moral stuffing when it comes to anything higher-stakes than ranting about art and politics on the internet…?! We’re all prepped to mock Insideists for working so hard to protect their flimsy worldviews, but does that extend to when they’re protecting their very existences?
Let’s put our own weakness, selfishness and fear aside for the minute and say – yes. The Outsideists are an imaginative proposition, so they can do things that humans perhaps struggle to. One can’t run one’s mouth about ’embracing the horror’ and then make an exception for the horror of one’s own physical pain, mutilation, death. One can’t waffle about going ‘outside the self’ and then be cowed by the prospect of getting a steel rod through the face. One can’t preach empathy for other human beings and then be incapable of self-sacrifice. That’s our story, and we’re sticking to it. We’re about to plunge into a terrain where the question of putting one’s own life on the line by engaging knowledge (and thus, implicitly, empathy) is of far greater gravity than the horror of chicken paste – but we have a firm, self-consistent Outsideist stance that we can refer back to.
(And finishing up with that super-tangent…why refer to the whole thing as a ‘trick’? Well, it’s there so that the extremely high-stakes and high-peril moral decisions coming up in the plot, that you and most of your fellow audience members will never face, can feel like they have relevance to our vacuous daily lives. Well played.)
At this point Zeppo will be winding down, so that the form can revert back to naturalistic conversation. One of his final remarks in the sequence is thus: [‘I sit outside, and I facilitate, and I watch. Some people can do that. It’s like a form of time travel.’] It won’t yet be clear to you why he says the slightly non-sequitur-feeling time travel line, but any foregrounding of the words ‘sit outside and watch’ in a theatrical performance should be ringing your alarm bells. Yes, McDowall is implicating you in this, you and the rows of silent observers you can see around you.
It’s a far from perfect analogy, but in some ways Zeppo is to his city what the audience is to the imaginary city about to be conjured in the centre of the room. It’s entertainment, but if he does not reach out and intervene, then it cannot touch him. (Which is cute and everything, but far more interesting here is the hint it gives as to the nature of our structure – the audience-stage configuration is a reiteration of it. Still, let’s not blow our load before we get there.) Punctuating the moment, Zeppo concludes by ordering another cube-pass to our unfathomable Figure in the back.
Although less time has passed in the room than it feels like while reading this, it’s still refreshing when the one woman currently in play gets to have some real dialogue again (if you’re concerned about the shape this trip will take, rest assured that women dominate the list of roles and great material here. An interesting detail or two about McDowall’s choices in representing women will be noted later in our journey). And it’s as Ollie begins to speak about her sister that we get a blink-and-you-miss-it clue to what McDowall is doing with the two of them: [
‘I can’t just- Abandon her-
I can’t stop thinking about it. About where she is, or what happened, or-
I have these nightmares about it. About things happening to her. And I wake up with these cuts all over myself like I’m clawing at myself in my sleep-‘
] (Bolding is mine. Remember this detail, and remember it well. For now it just looks like an implicit intrusion of empathy, that pesky spirit, being the horror that motivates Ollie in her dangerous quest…but we will need to come back here later.)
Conversation continues. Zeppo warns Ollie against getting involved by searching for her missing sister, lest she receive the dreaded steel rod or simply disappear. Another cube is given to the Figure, impossible to placate. Ollie offers money for Zeppo’s help and is laughed off. Zeppo, for his credit, gives us a hint at another motif we will be cycling back to later in the terrain: [‘Most nights it’s just the same, over and over […] and then you’re here and it’s like we can actually have a conversation, you know?’] Returning us to not merely the looping ring motif, but that of its becoming fractured. Mostly, though, this stretch of about half a minute is building up to Zeppo being convinced to drop the next bit of the plot.
Specifically, he somewhat breaks his code of conduct. Perhaps from his fondness for Ollie, perhaps from pity, perhaps mere disaffected fascination, or even perhaps compelled by our naughty poltergeist. You’ll perhaps feel an air of heightened audience attention at this point as the scene begins to get less loud and brash, and more filled with pregnant pauses. He says, [‘People are disappearing’.] As if on cue, the Figure requires yet another cube.
And mere seconds later, as Zeppo says the title of the play, the shape of our terrain reveals itself. [
Pomona Island pre-redevelopment. (Photo: Joel Goodman)
‘Have you heard of Pomona?’
[…] ‘It’s an island. Concrete island. Here. Right in the middle of town.
Strip of land with the canal on both sides. Tram tracks and train tracks and roads all surrounding it. […]
Nothing there but cracked asphalt and weeds. All overgrown. Street lights don’t work.
It’s a hole. A hole in the middle of the city.
Looks like what the world’ll be in a few thousand years.’
] It’s an empty space. More than just a flat field – specifically a hole. Not merely a gap, a hole – holes themself are infinite, containing 0 all the way inwards, and any Outsideist can tell you an empty space is potentially a fiery imaginative hotbed in the same sense that a barren, empty stage can play host to any imagined location. As our journey takes us towards the centre of this hole, towards the deeper hole that it itself encloses, we’ll move from Zeppo’s outer ring all the way in through this dangerous territory. Even as we descend further inside, we will ourselves perhaps be reaching Outside.
But none of these journeys will be simple. The nature of being outside, a little bit like the nature of being Upstairs, is that the space laid out before/beneath you seems to exist as one solid object. It’s only when traversing through it that it takes on a quality of linear time. Meaning that when viewing from outside, one does not necessarily have to view in a given order.
And as Zeppo reluctantly suggests that illicit activity on Pomona could be linked to the disappearance of Ollie’s sister, and one final Rubik’s Cube is solved, you will be approaching our journey’s first swerve. Which is to say, you will use your power as an audience member to do something a bit like a form of time travel – though by this point, you will no longer have any free will in the matter.
At this point, things will probably all go black as the lights die. This, too, is normal and should not be cause for alarm.