By Darby Turnbull
What a perfect time of year for a mounting of Simon Stephen’s critically acclaimed drama Punk Rock; students all over the country have graduated secondary school and are now receiving their exam results and reckoning with the legacies of their adolescence. They might find significant catharsis in attending what has been described as an ‘explosive examination of contemporary adolescence’. Seven young people are holed up in a ‘hermetically sealed’ school library studying for their mock exams in preparation for the real thing. They are privileged, bright, articulate and terrified. The library becomes an arena for their violently emotional impulses that will be a be all too relatable for those that only barely survived our own adolescence.
Simon Stephen’s strengths come from his ability to evoke certain parts of the adolescent experience in an academic setting. The casual and deliberate cruelty, the ways that peers become complicit through inaction or coerced participation. On the other end of the spectrum the dangerous, tender confidences that are shared during the rare moments of quiet that are so overwhelming that they must be carefully contained. The highlights come from the dynamics between the seven students when they interact as an ensemble. Karl Richmond has a remarkably volatile presence as sadistic bully, Bennet. His dominance is asserted by stealth and sheer force of will rather than having it come naturally to him. He has an equal partner in his high achieving girlfriend Cissy, played with petulant swagger by the inestimable Ruby Duncan*. They craft a mesmerizingly sub textual connection for these two; they clearly enable their worst impulses to compensate for his insecurity about his masculinity and her perfectionism; it’s one of the most recognisable depictions of a toxic relationship that I’ve seen in a while. Often caught in between their power plays is their ‘friend’ Tanya played with acute self -loathing by Annie Shapero. It is a brilliantly nuanced physical performance; she often seems at odds with her own body that she loses herself within her costume.
The more I sat with the text, my connection with I began to wane as, despite some sharp writing and uniformly brilliant performances, the writer began to show his hand in how he prioritises certain characters. The chief being William (Ben Walter) for reasons that I won’t reveal but some will find genuinely shocking. The audience’s connection with William will be as divisive as Todd Haynes’ Joker. A cynical fantasist with a delusional belief that his intelligence and sense of importance places him on a higher sphere than most people. A chronic liar but waxes poetic about everyone else’s mendacity. He’s Holden Caulfield for the 21st century. Ben Walter is remarkably gifted at creating a cerebral and chaotic inner life for a young man frequently at odds with his emotional responses to the carnage around him. Stephens assigns many of the text’s most erudite speeches and observations to him and Walter’s gift is to take the dialogue and imbue it with fascinating shades and tone; elated arrogance at the depths of his thought process and doubts that anyone could possibly relate to them. The problem, in my opinion, is that the dramaturgical cards are stacked in his favour; Stephens is so clearly fascinated and enamoured with this charismatic outsider that he can’t help but imbue him with nuances and complexity that I didn’t feel he allowed the other characters. Given that William will force himself to the centre of the narrative I believe the emotional stakes are lessened.
For example, Lily (Zoe Hawkins), an enigmatic transfer student is filtered almost entirely through William’s obsession with her. Her opaque disaffection is carefully constructed but despite Stephen’s efforts I didn’t feel that she emerges as a fully formed character. For example, the revelation that she has a volatile home life and that she self-harms seems less about her and more about Williams’ response to it. Zoe Hawkins gives a fascinatingly contained performance; the pinnacle being her ability to be still and let her face take us through every beat of Lily’s internal life. It’s patently obvious why she would be drawn to the well-meaning and uncomplicated (on the surface) jock, Nicholas (Flynn Smeaton). I’m reminded of Lauren Bacall’s line in Young Man with a Horn ‘I bet he wakes up every morning and knows exactly who he his’. Smeaton’s performance is intelligent and perfectly paced; Nicholas’s relative privilege allow him to move through spaces with confidence and Smeaton provides a compelling case for his inaction; the cost of relinquishing his social advantages compared to the growing disgust at the antics around him.
Similarly, Chadwick (Laurence Boxhall) a working-class scholarship student who is subjected to the most horrific bullying is clearly coded as neuro-diverse, but his otherness is written to give him a Cassandra like insight into the way’s humanity is doomed. Stephens chooses not to reveal explicitly that Chadwick is potentially autistic but once again in between some lovely speeches and moments of quiet rebellion he feels like a trope rather than an organic character. It’s a device we’ve seen many times before and consistently feels like careless story telling. Laurence Boxhall, however, imbues the character with a profound sensitivity and resilience; he gives Chadwick a dogged ability to navigate his daily torment with dignified forbearance.
My frustration with the text comes from the fact that Simon Stephens considerable dramatic gifts are blindsided when it comes to the construction of certain characters. Without nuance and specificity, a hollowness begins to emerge that is completely anti ethical to what he is trying to achieve. I don’t have any interest in judging his text from a moral standpoint, but I believe it would be improved vastly if he didn’t rely on tropes instead of subverting them.
Ruby Rees’ production however is more than equal to elevating the strengths of the text and transcending the perceived limitations; it is stylish, energetic and exciting. The play runs for two hours without an interval and it flies by seamlessly. The library scenes take on a clinical fascination; we could almost be associates of psychiatrist Dr. Harvey (Jessica Clarke, excellent in a brief cameo) attempting to find a definitive answer for the actions of this motley crew. The scene changes however are interspersed with violently stylised vignettes that thrillingly provide commentary on the characters and scenes that proceeded them. Given the seating structure she allows her performers to act with their whole bodies allowing for a diverse range of insights into their experiences. Watch closely and you can see any one of the actors take you on an entire character arc using the muscles of their back.
Stage Manager’s Ashleigh Walywn and Brooke Simmonds bring the transitions to life with wit, energy and skill. It’s wonderful seeing the stage management team be allowed such a compelling presence; they practically strut onto the stage.
Freya Allen’s design is deceptively simple but has some very clever tricks that allow for some shocking stage craft. Daniela Esposito and Finnian Langham’s sound are seamlessly controlled and integrated; her soundscape and music choices are timed perfectly to enhance mood and tension. Likewise, Richard Vabre’s lighting is spectacular.
The allure of Punk Rock rests on its ability to provoke discussion; I attribute my ambivalence about the text to my being immune to its attempts to shock and provoke me; instead I was yearning for more exploration for what was written between the lines above all for the female characters to have more narrative agency than they currently do instead of frequently being used to prop up their more charismatic male counterpoints; these dynamics certainly exist but I wanted more compelling exploration into them that would elevate the writing beyond being a well-constructed drama with a few controversial plot beats.
The ensemble at Patalog theatre are consistently producing some of the most sublime local theatre that I am immensely grateful for. The work they are currently doing at 45 downstairs is exceptional and theatre lovers should flock there to bare witness. At the very least you will carefully examine the teenager inside you and hopefully reflect on them with empathy.
Performances: 5 Direction: 5 Light/Sound: 5
Stage Management: 5 Set/Costumes: 5 Writing: 3.5
*Full disclosure I have worked with Ruby Duncan on a few occasions.