[Written for CultureWars]
The prospect of a new Simon Stephens play is greeted by pretty much the same excited anticipation as we used to wait for new records by the Pixies. Formally inventive, intelligent, raw, Stephens’s work frequently demonstrates what is great about New Writing.
Set in the present day, in a fee-charging grammar school in Stockport, Punk Rock is a one hour fifty minute slow build in tension and intensity to an explosive, yet oddly calming, climax, with a static/feedback coda.
William Carlisle (Tom Sturridge) is a model of intelligent, alienated youth everywhere. His obvious and immediate attraction to pretty, spiky, clever new-girl Lily (Jessica Raine), an evident dislike of his fellow six-formers and increasingly erratic behaviour set up a chain of events leading to an apparently inescapable tragic conclusion.
Thanks to the pre-publicity – interviews with Stephens in which he talks about the Columbine shootings, for example – the audience already knows in which particular direction this messed-up kid is heading. Carlisle seems pitched as a school-age Hamlet: given his intelligence and his situation, the shape of his tragedy seems almost pre-determined.
Sarah Frankcom’s production is a strangely mixed affair. Designer Paul Wills’s set conjures a lofty, semi-circular gothic library, seemingly situated at the top of some distant turret. The looming dark wood recalls Muriel Gerstner’s design for the Hamburg world premiere of Stephens’s Pornography. Brueghel’s Tower of Babel is here replaced by the equal impossibility of a weight of knowledge represented by the unreadable number of dusty leather bound tomes.
The black school uniforms suspend the characters half way between a Harry Potter romantic ideal of school life and the modern world of mobile phones, short skirts and faintly ludicrous bright green puffa jackets. Stephens’s script also sees the characters shift between fully realistic dialogue and something more knowing or stylised. Characters themselves pastiche different registers. Bennett Francis in particular, played here by Henry Lloyd-Hughes as a kind of aesthete school bully (not a million miles away from School Bully in Ripping Yarns (05.35)), frequently deploys antique schoolboy slang lifted wholesale from the pages of PG Wodehouse or Anthony Buckeridge with a host of ironic “I say”s and “old chap”s. The text is at once on a level with the pupils and knowing a lot more about them than they know about themselves, sometimes resonating with precisely the sort of constructions used by precocious teens and other times sounding wise well beyond their years, like disaffected, nihilist History Boys.
At times it feels as if Frankcom hasn’t quite decided how she wants to approach the text. Some of the actors (Banks, West) dealing in fine-tuned naturalism and others – Lloyd-Huge and Sophie Wu as Francis’s girlfriend Cissy – turning in much more stylised performances. Tom Sturridge’s Carlisle seems to fluctuate between “being” and “showing”. That’s not to say any of the performances are bad – quite the reverse, they are all fascinating, but sometimes the whole feels a little over-directed. Similarly, because of the ostensible naturalistic casting – albeit with the audience having to overlook that 17-year-olds are plainly being played by actors in their mid-twenties, and with accents obviously playing a part in the construction of the world of the play – I started longing to see the German premiere, ideally with all the characters played by 70-year-olds so that one could appreciate the text, without worrying about nit-picky issues of detail and realism. There’s a sense that because the play itself isn’t just simple naturalism – it’s somehow too intelligent, too knowing for that – and the bits of naturalism that do filter in end up distracting from one’s appreciation of the play.
There’s the strange question of “being convinced”. Do we buy Carlisle’s slightly too sign-posted mental illness? Are the bits of research on Columbine that have filtered into the text perhaps a little too noticeable? When Carlisle talks about his sense of feeling better than everyone else in the school, are we not hearing a playwright’s précis of Harris and Klebold? It feels that this production wants us to put that out of our heads, but at the same time, its attempt to create a hermetic world continually draws our attention back to its constructedness and its relation to a wider reality. Perhaps that is the point.
For all that, this is an electrifying piece of theatre. Stephens has a real feel for amping up tension. The way that the play trades on the accumulation of small cruelties, both deliberate and unintentional, winding a situation toward breaking point, is perfectly pitched. The penultimate two scenes are masterclasses in stretching an audience’s nerves to breaking point. Sharp bursts of fractured grunge tracks (the White Stripes, Nirvana, Mudhoney) are administered like electric shocks in the scene breaks.
The play resonates on a number of levels, like an If... for the post-ideology generation. It suggests the way that intelligence and sensitivity can be curdled into unacknowledged proto-fascism by pettiness and the meaninglessness of everyday teenage life. As a title, “Punk Rock” is brilliant. Crucially, no actual punk music is played or mentioned in the show (no, of course the White Stripes and Nirvana don’t count). Someone at press night suggested that, in common with Country Music, Stephens has structured the play like the songs. I disagree. Punk music was, at its inception, about as formally reactionary as it gets. Intro, verse, chorus, verse, chorus, guitar break, chorus, end. Punk Rock, by contrast, is a long, slow deliberate build with a white noise fade-out. It’s more like Einstürzende Neubauten than The Damned. However, it’s precisely that reactionary tendency within something theoretically rebellious that Punk Rock identifies and explores – how teenage rebellion winds up spouting the rhetoric of the far-right and the individualist.
We already know that Stephens is a playwright of enormous compassion and moral anger, here we see that manifested almost as a blunt end result. “Look at this,” he seems to say. “Is this what we want? Because it’s what we’re making.” As with his earlier play Herons, with which Punk Rock shares a number of similarities, or indeed Pornography, it’s not a piece that claims to offer answers or a unified theory of everything, instead it shows a human situation and forces the audience to ask the questions and then go out and look for the answers.