According to the program notes, director Lucy Clements was mesmerised ten minutes into watching Anna Jordan’s YEN when she saw it overseas last year. Having seen her work before, one can understand why the pull was so strong to bring this show to Australia and why this gritty, uncompromising script would squat itself inside the intimacy of Kings Cross Theatre.
The production, from New Ghosts Theatre Company, has a visceral, raw unpleasantness that is expressed with the predictability of disillusion and errant hopelessness. But putting poverty porn on stage is not enough reason to mount the show and hurl it at an audience. What Clements does instead is to fuck with what one believes theatre should be, should show, and should say… brilliantly.
Bobby, 14, and his older brother, Hench who is 16, exist in shut-in filth where they watch graphic porn and play Call of Duty all day. Only going out, one at a time because they need to share their only T shirt, to steal shit. Their existence has its ups and downs of brotherly engagement and distance balanced out by shooting games and gynophobic observations and the dog that is being caged, unloved, in their other room. Their mother, Maggie, staggers through their lives occasionally, the generational tradition of absence also reflected in their Nan’s escape to parts unsure. Enter a civilising influence, Jenny. Improvement? Probably more of the same is pre-ordained for these loveless boys.
This is a wonderful cast, innit? From their command of the accents to the stagecraft of highly realistic fights on the small stage, they bring the characters to life with a complexity which adds a mystery element to proceedings. Clements lets them loose all right, she even finds the many moments when the audience has leave to laugh uncomfortably, but she also reins in her cast such that we can only guess at why these characters are like this. What has formed them into the lumpen things we see on the surface?
As Bobbie, the always reliable Jeremi Campese, is wired … never still. And the joker in him is so well expressed within his lack of perception about his circumstances. The psychology of why children love flawed parents, the attraction of vulnerability in authority, is in his every interaction, including in the desperation of his sibling relationship. Ryan Hodson as his older brother is a riven character. Very aware of his responsibility, trapped by it, hopeless within it and suffering it with a disturbingly malleable angry compassion, Hodson’s depths are drivers to the limited narrative of the work. And the mystery of piece.
Hayley Pearl, as their mother, holds no mystery when she first arrives … as shapeless and liquid as the alcohol inside her, the physicality of her performance is stunningly well achieved! Maybe read on the page, judgement of Maggie might be easy but Pearl doesn’t let the watcher off that easy. Volatile and a victim of long standing poverty, abuse and lack of agency this is a character created with the complexity of having absolutely no consistency… more to be pitied than blamed. Whereas Jenny, played by Meg Clarke arrives with her heart on her sleeve and Clarke endows her creation with an openness, and a glimpse of what might be possible with an undefended sincerity. Clarke is especially skilful in her silences when the watching is active and sensitive.
This production will challenge any audience member who engages with the text and it is brutal in places, there is a list of trigger warnings that should be taken seriously. But it is not offensive in its theatricality. The images on the TV are blurred, the noises of porn discreetly muffled and it eschews violent effects in lighting and audio. The set is mouldy and manky and raised up so that the floor sequences have very good sight lines. A bare bulb hangs and the colour palette is slightly tinted until the all-encompassing white glare of a late scene. The sound effects are well sourced and operated and the music is extremely evocative. Those long notes and low pitch bring the depth of despair, single notes fracture and reverb is passionately applied.
So… superbly created theatre. But not just. YEN is a mind-screw, a challenge to why we view, to why we think we understand why we view. In these characters and in their miserable, unredeemed lives, this production has the potential to forcibly imprint itself in the clay of our theatregoing: stretching and spreading our empathy as it dries hard within our expectations of what moves us.
YEN from New Ghosts Theatre [Facebook] in association with Bakehouse Theatre Co [Facebook] continues at Kings Cross Theatre until October 13. You can read an interview with Jeremi Campese about the production here.