Saturday, 18 October 2014

Punk Rock - WA Youth Theatre Company (16 October 2014)

If you’re going to run into walls best do it full tilt.

That’s exactly what director Renato Fabretti and his talented cast of young actors have done in every sense with this uncompromising play. I had not seen the WAAPA version earlier in the year and, having never read the play, did not know what was in store.

What unfolded at the Subiaco Arts Centre studio was a slow burn production that was shocking, uncomfortable and powerful. It elicited several visceral responses from the audience as it built to a brutal climax and then lingered in the aftermath to let us all breathe again. That the cast was predominantly made up of young teenagers was remarkable.

The story itself starts innocently enough – students in an English school common room discussing their mock exams, the teachers, and each other with the usual group dynamics and hierarchies firmly in place. There is the inquisitive William (Luke Binetti) who is keen on the smart new girl Lily (Chelsea Gibson) who will turn down his request for a date because she’s secretly seeing the suave Nicholas (Sven Ironside) who is mates with bully Bennett (Declan Brown). Bennett takes particular delight in picking on quiet intellectual Chadwick (William Everett-Knight) while the meek Tanya (Claire Thomas) occasionally cops his ire as well. Bennett’s girlfriend Cissy (Naomi Denny) is powerless to control him as indeed is everyone else who appear paralysed in the face of his escalating antics. Until one of them makes a stand and matters spiral out of control in horrific fashion.

The decision to not have an intermission is a critical one. As the tension builds I quickly come to realise that what at first seems like typical teenage antics is going to mutate into something far more primal and disturbing. The seating configuration means the audience is right on top of these characters and the confined space adds to the pressure cooker atmosphere. A break would have leached out that gnawing sense of impending dread. Instead there is no respite as the stakes are ratcheted up and we’re right there with the characters. It’s exhilarating and draining in the best possible way.

The external expectations of parents, test scores and their own personal ambitions be it Oxford or Cambridge pile on the pressure for these teenagers but it’s their isolation from the school body that is telling. In this hermetically sealed world of the common room their worst instincts can run amok as secrets are revealed, lies exposed, true character traits hinted at, and monstrous acts born of dispassion are allowed to flourish.

In this Declan Brown gives a wonderful performance as the utterly loathsome bully Bennett. He is a physical presence that intimidates all of the others but it’s his use of pointed sarcasm and humour that hits home early before he goes too far with his humiliation of Chadwick. He has a beat with Thomas’ Tanya that was utterly unexpected and had me gasping. It’s such a brave moment from both performers and was a clear signpost of how far this production might dare to take the escalating psychological and physical violence. At one point when Bennett was in full flight and none of the characters would even look at him let alone challenge his behaviour I wanted to get out of my seat and clock him one. Kudos, Mister Brown.

The main target of Bennett’s rage is given a moment of quiet dignity and respect as Everett-Knight delivers a fascinating monologue about the true nature of mankind immediately after Chadwick is debased in sickening fashion. It’s a highlight as he neither flees nor resorts to any forlorn attempt at retaliation other than to express his contempt for Bennett as representative of our inevitable worst aspects as a species.

Gibson is intriguing as the smart and engaging Lily. She is playful and clever in the opening scenes but slowly teases out a darker undertone as Lily’s sexual relationship with Nicholas is revealed and she appears quite callous at times to the feelings of others, notably William. Ironside is all charm as Nicholas and works well with Gibson in their more intimate moments. Denny adds sass and attitude as Cissy though that front is easily pricked by her boyfriend’s bluster. Thomas' Tanya is maybe the one true innocent even though the character's delusions about being in love with one of the teachers and wanting to have his babies hints that all of these characters are fundamentally flawed. Together they are a fuse away from exploding.

Then there is seventeen year old Binetti who gives a spellbinding performance as William. Initially he appears to be the good-natured nerd, full of questions and hopelessly out of his depth in attempting to woo Lily. We gradually see that he has his own delusions and secrets that are carefully revealed until he appears before us an entirely different prospect. For that transformation and its consequences to be handled so convincingly is a testament to Binetti’s skill.

Not only were the performances impressive I loved the sense of play throughout this. The stage ends up a complete mess as the actors use every inch of it – drawing on the walls, clambering up, under and over the tables and chairs, throwing all manner of stuff at each other, and totally inhabiting the space. They eat, drink, cavort and react spontaneously which is such a delight to see. Well done to Fabretti and his crew for letting them loose on the set. In what could have been a dialogue heavy, sit and deliver play this instead always had someone in motion or doing something interesting even if they weren’t featured in the scene. I should also state that Simon Stephens’ writing was excellent with clever dialogue and a dark sense of humour.

The penultimate scene is performed in near darkness illuminated only with a torchlight that enhances the chilling climax that was difficult yet enthralling to watch. The final scene is one that was debated after the show as structurally it felt overlong and redundant but serves the purpose of letting the audience down after the harrowing scene before it and attempts to cast some light on the reasons for what we have just witnessed. David J Rose adds support here and the cast is rounded out by a cameo from Tahlia Norrish as Lucy who also provides a live score.

WAYTCo are to be applauded for tackling such a powerful piece and doing so in a full-throated manner. Directed by Renato Fabretti and Written by Simon Stephens, Punk Rock stars Luke Binetti, Declan Brown, Naomi Denny, William Everett-Knight, Chelsea Gibson, Sven Ironside, David J Rose, Claire Thomas and Tahlia Norrish, names we can expect to hear more of in the future.   

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