You are not an example. You are a warning,” says an adolescent boy to his adult audience. The audience cringes in response: is this what he really thinks of us? For most of the last hour, he has been shut away – along with seven other teenagers – in a white cube. Armed with a video camera, the audience has seen their riotous antics projected onto the whitewashed façade of the box for most of the play.
There has been drinking, drugs, violence, self-harm and sexual experimentation – including a monologue from a young man about how to finger a girl which was as heartbreaking as it is hilarious. ‘Teenagers are strange beasts,’ the play seems to be saying, ‘here they are in all their angst for you to observe and attempt to understand.’
Except that it is difficult to understand them, for although the teenaged actors were no doubt involved in the creation of the performance, it is piece of theatre that has been driven by adults. Where Teenage Riot triumphs in its communication of the feeling of safety the adolescents take in online voyeurism, which is rendered through the use of the live-streamed camera. “When you look at me,” says one boy, staring straight into the camera “I just can’t find the right words.”
The teenaged performers are natural and talented, and as an ensemble they evoke both the isolation and camaraderie of adolescence with equal potency. Particularly moving is a series of close-ups on one or two adolescents being pestered, prodded and poked by the adults in their lives, played with conviction and accuracy by the young actors.
Teenage Riot flourishes when the control is given to the teenagers themselves: they play out scenes of seemingly unscripted, seemingly absurd yet, to the young people, completely rational chaos. It is here where they attempt to sort through the rubbish that is adolescence in the hopes that they’ll uncover some sense of self. And as the audience catches glimpses of those selves, the intensely human and universal undercurrents of the play really shine through.
Performed in the relatively large Fairfax Studio at the Arts Centre, Teenage Riot felt as though it would thrive in a smaller space in which the audience was forced to bond together and get through it. This point was proven when the audience stood in line after the show to file through the teenager’s cube to take a look at the site of the riot. As audience members stood beside one another in line, simple physical proximity forced them to bond together in a shared experience that enriched the performance (even after it had ended!).
Teenage Riot is an important play, because it illuminates a stage of life that is too often forgotten or dismissed. Teenagers have something to say, and they must be listened to. It is a credit to Belgian company Ontroerend Goed for tackling the subject matter in a thoroughly interesting and gripping way; the creators Joeri Smet & Alexander Devriendt and, most importantly, the teenaged rioters themselves, ought to be congratulated.