Saturday, 30 April 2016

Punk Rock - Murdoch Theatre Company (28 April 2016)

It’s a scenario that has become frighteningly prevalent in recent times – a lone gunman wreaking havoc and misery on innocent people who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. At school, at work, in a café; no public place seems immune to the criminal insanity. We watch in disbelief as school shootings become incomprehensibly commonplace in the US. We are brutally reminded despite tighter gun laws in the wake of the Port Arthur atrocity that this type of evil can strike on our own shores, the Martin Place siege a case in point. Oftentimes it is the act of disaffected youth – radicalised, marginalised, traumatised. We lament what could make someone do such a heinous act?      

This brings us to Punk Rock, a slow burn drama that builds to a harrowing climax. Set in an English school where students are preparing for their mock exams, it explores the pressures and preoccupations that might lead a person to spiral so completely out of control. Among the many are bullying, sexual identity, relationship dramas, rejection and the pressure to succeed, to conform, to rebel. It’s a powder keg of adolescent emotions and power dynamics where any of the students might snap.

At first it is a familiar world – the teasing, bullying, and knockabout ribaldry of high school where identities and pecking orders are forged and refined. But there’s a sense of dread that creeps in as we slowly come to realise something isn’t quite right here. This is where Murdoch Theatre Company’s admirable attempt fails. Too many elements detract from the creation and ratcheting up of that tension.

Foremost of these is the sound design. Live music is performed by Michael Bennett-Hullin and William Burgess on guitar and drums providing authentic bursts of punk music to start the show and between scenes. However, once the guitar amp is switched off there is a muzak-like soundtrack piped in from the speakers high up on the back wall of Studio 411 that was distracting to say the least. I sighed with relief once it stopped after what felt like 20 straight minutes only for it to sporadically return throughout including, most unfortunately, the lead-up scene to the moment where a gun goes off. I didn’t understand why it was there in the context of scenes set in a school library or why it came in and out without any seeming rhyme or reason. It totally undercut any attempt to build that atmosphere of dread.

The lighting design also periodically confused me as again, the action takes place indoors so changes in the intensity of lighting during scenes didn’t make much sense especially when linked to dialogue about the level of heat in the room. If it was supposed to reflect emotional intensity then I would argue that this is the job of the actors to convey.

The set design was very good with all the trappings of a school in decay – battered tables and chairs, graffiti strewn cushions and a warped row of cupboards to represent lockers. Except for one important aspect – the band was visible behind a lattice framework that was the centrepiece of the back of the set. Once they completed their punk interludes all the musicians could do was watch the action with nowhere to hide from the audience. This posed another distraction. At one point a section of that framework was opened as a ‘window’ by an actor at the start of a scene. The guitarist closed it before the start of the next scene! This totally wrenched me out of the supposedly hermetically sealed world of the story.  

To the performances and Mike Casas brought immediate creepiness and intensity to his portrayal of William instead of perhaps modulating this to incrementally build as his character’s arc deepens. It is a difficult role and he plugged away at it but often he was caught out Acting in a tic laden, mannered performance. Thomas Dimmick gives the bully Bennett a sneering verbosity but I didn’t get a sense of physical menace or unpredictability. He did handle the ‘lipstick scene’ well after the perennial target of Bennett’s scorn (Chadwick played by Sean Welsh) questions his sexuality. Welsh delivers the memorable monologue about all the woes of mankind with straight forward earnestness and plays the reserved ‘nerd’ with nice understatement. 

Paige Mews is the new girl, Lilly, who becomes the object of William’s misplaced affections while already sleeping with Nicholas (Will Moriarty). It is a steady performance but I didn’t feel the inner turmoil that would drive a character to deliberately burn herself with a cigarette lighter. Shannen Precious has some nice moments as Tanya, another target for Bennett’s anger. She adds fleeting moments of humour and a touch of backbone within the group hierarchy. Will Moriarty’s Nicholas was oddly lacking in swagger or charm as Bennett’s presumptive buddy and object of Lilly’s attentions. Bella Doyle rounds out the cast as Bennett’s put upon girlfriend Cissy bringing equal measures of mean girl snark and helplessness as the character’s relative status is determined by his behaviour.

The climax is still disturbing – how could the depiction of cold blooded murder not be? But its power is diluted by the wide spacing of the performers whereas a more claustrophobic configuration would have worked better – they are trapped and there is no way out. The final scene was omitted. I’m in two minds about this. In many ways it’s superfluous as it provides no easy answers. What it does do, however, is let the audience breathe again before releasing them back into the world. A world you would like to think is safe but one where what they have just witnessed is a terrifying possibility.

Co-directed by Tay Broadley and Justin Crossley, Punk Rock is one of the more ambitious productions I’ve seen staged at Studio 411 (formerly the Drama Workshop) and should be commended for that. Ultimately though, there were too many aspects working against propelling the themes and narrative into truly compelling dramatic territory.

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