There have been moments when I’ve almost given up on the Australian Theatre for Young People troupe. Well, a moment. Cockroach was the last one I remember. A play that should never have seen the light of day. But one never knows what one’s going to get, on any stage. You can’t rely on hype. Let alone reviews.
So it came as an immensely pleasant surprise (if pleasant is the word for such a tough play), if not a downright relief (as with ATYP’s last production Animal Farm), to discover award-winning British playwright Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock, directed, in a Pantsguys production, by Anthony Skuse.
You might think a bunch of middle-to-upper-class English public school twats holed-up in their sixth form common room, or library, might be a little too far removed from anything to which we, down under, might readily relate. But strip away the accents (brilliantly executed, thanks in no small way, one assumes, to voice and dialect coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley) and this really could be a suburban Sydney high school. After all, we know who Lily Allen is. We know what it is to have volatile hormones thrashing around our adolescent bodies. We all have memories of first-time sex. And the long and winding route to getting it. We know what it is to feel disaffected; cut off; alienated; from our selves; parents; friends; teachers; everything and everybody in general. Without wishing to invoke undue sympathy for the perpetrator, perhaps that’s how The Joker felt, when he shot up innocent patrons at an Aurora, Colorado cinema. Photos tend to reveal him as a nerd-nobody and, just maybe, that’s his problem. This is the kind of speculation one can hardly help in taking in Punk Rock. The person least likely to might just turn out to be, in hindsight, quite the opposite.
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Stephens has committed to an admirably dangerous biographical course in setting this play in his home town of Stockport, (Greater) Manchester. He’s put his characters under pressure, setting the action at the time of their A-level ‘mocks’; what we refer to, or used to, as trials. (And, as I remember them, they were certainly that.) A number of the seven students under our scrutiny, as well as each others’, seem eager to embrace the life that awaits beyond school; others are clearly apprehensive and fearful, or in denial. This and plenty else is horribly familiar, even for one remote from those years by a terrifying span of 35.
On the one hand, these students seem self-assured and certain of their destinies, attending Cambridge, or Oxford. On the other, they’re plagued with doubt. There can be no better example than William (Sam O-Sullivan), who we meet first, chatting up new girl, Lilly (Darcie Irwin Simpson). William, we discover is constantly caught between truth and lies; he’s so adept at mingling the two, it seems he’s lost the ability to distinguish fact from fiction and fantasy. Yet he’s so charming, it’s all too easy to look past this monumental failure of character. Recognising each other’s intelligence right away, William and Lilly quickly develop an affinity and playful repartee which is as engaging for the audience as the characters.
Unfortunately, William overestimates his ability to inveigle the independent-thinking and more mature Lilly and is devastated to learn she’s already dating (to indulge that quaint American euphemism) another in his circle. He never gets over it and it’s on this, as much as anything else, that the whole plot pivots, as we see William change from quiet and, as Lilly describes him, “very still”, to chronically angry. It’s the point at which everything and everyone seems to turn unrelentingly bleak, as if to embody Chadwick’s prophesy that “everything human beings do finishes up bad in the end”. He extrapolates, “everything good human beings ever make is built on something monstrous; nothing lasts; we certainly won’t”.
It leads us to realise stillness and quietness can be deceptive, a mask for seething, simmering rage, from which all hell can break loose. It also reminds us that amidst our shock, violence and cruelty can be exhilarating in a way we can’t control, let alone admit: a deep-seated evolutionary trait which goes against the grain of our self-image as a ‘civilised’ species.
This is Michael Apted’s documentary series Seven Up gone completely awry. The wonder of Stephens’ work is that it tilts truth by only the slenderest margin, if that: the scenario and characters are completely believable, as evidenced by the expressions of genuine horror on the faces of the audience. Stephens documents how very little it can take to transform someone that might be deemed normal into someone that will probably be construed as a monster. He shows, lest we forget, that the monster dwells in all of us and can be awakened suddenly and, perhaps, irrevocably; that we are good and evil, magnificent and monstrous, at once.
Of course, William and Lilly aren’t the only compelling characters. All the others are seeking, in their own ways, according to their own emerging values and aspirations, to individuate and express themselves. They each aspire to something more; something better.
William has been indoctrinated into his divine right to an Oxbridge education. At the same time, the seeds of doubt about his purpose and desires are sprouting, fertilised by Chadwick’s apocalyptic prognosis for humanity. Lilly is rebelling against her rootless upbringing, earthing herself in the loving arms of the comparatively benign and compassionate Nicholas (Owen Little). Cissy is self-interested to the point of narcissism, with an understandable yearning to spread her wings and travel. Her escape from insular Stockport is to pretend she wasn’t made, born and bred there. She ignores her boyfriend Bennett’s (Graeme McRae) incessant tormenting and bullying of Chadwick and indulges in humiliating him herself. it’s left to Tanya, William and Chadwick himself to make any kind of defiant stand against Bennett.
In fact, one of the most depressing aspects of the whole situation is the propensity for the members of this group, loosely-tied as they are by circumstance, to retire from confrontation, preferring to keep their values to themselves. Mind you, there’s nothing that doesn’t ring true about adolescence, adolescents, or society at large: we are, in the main, cowardly.
Clementine Mills is fine, in a cameo as Lucy, Bennett’s inevitably embarrassing little sister, as is erstwhile assistant director, Paul Hooper, as prison psychiatrist, Dr Richard Harvey. The rest of the cast, to a man and woman, is little short of spellbinding: the characters are not only brilliantly written, but beautifully played; so much so, I can’t think of any actors, living or dead, who’d perform more credibly or convincingly. For casting excellence and in extracting such exacting characterisations in this Olympic year, Skuse deserves ‘gold, gold, gold!’.
Alistair Wallace’s sound design is powerful, featuring music that resounds with rebellious spirit, while Gez Xavier Mansfield’s set and costume design, in concert with Sara Swersky’s oppressively fluorescent lighting makes for just the right bland, blank, bureaucratically cookie-cut canvas on which to paint: just as I found it (one I attended, the other I’ve imagined), there’s precious little discernible difference between the institutional environments of school and jail. Ruth Horsfall’s stage management, as well as light and sound operation set a particularly high bar.
For me, both play and production are a case of ‘what’s not to love?’ Stephens so passionately addresses big, enduring, increasingly topical questions; his is a vital voice, as social spectator and commentator. Having lived through the punk era, he seems to recognise that despite all the in-your-face, violent posturing of that movement, its anger was accompanied with a sense of optimism and appetite for something better, whereas these poor, young souls see few, if any, escape hatches from pervasive thoughtlessness and rampant, uncontrolled self-interest. Stephen shows us manifest violence, but is just as concerned, if not much moreso, with the creeping, sneaking, surreptitious violence that seeps through all the cracks in government and society and even (or especially) shows up in our everyday language and behaviour. He points to the cumulative damage and emotional erosion this can cause.
Skuse, via Žižek, quotes a telling anecdote about a German officer who visited Picasso in his Paris studio during the Second World War. The officer was, as the story goes, shocked and outraged by the chaos portrayed in Guernica and asked, accusingly, “did you do that?!”; to which Picasso calmly replied: “No, you did.” Even the laws of physics tell us that, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. When will we get that and cease adhering to simplistic moralising?
Though everything works as in a theatrical wet-dream as is, I have one question for Ant Skuse: why not have made these Aussie kids? It would be an easy and apt adaptation.
The details: Punk Rock plays the ATYP’s Studio 1 until August 11. Tickets on the company website.