Punk Rock at the Lyric Theatre

Fifteen minutes before I started writing this post, I was standing outside the Lyric Theatre waiting for a taxi. The matinée performance of Simon Stephens’ Punk Rock had just ended, and the people leaving the theatre seemed slightly frantic. A young man whistled as he walked past an acquaintance: ‘Jesus’ was all he said, eyebrows raised, head shaking. A woman in her fifties strode out purposefully, her mobile phone already dialling through to someone. ‘I just had to tell you,’ she was saying. ‘It’s wonderful. You have to go.’ I was feeling edgy myself, and not just because I was worried about catching the last train back to Dublin. Punk Rock is the kind of play – and the kind of production – that leaves people feeling shaken, but also feeling compelled to react in some way to what they’ve just seen.

There are several reasons to support the production, but perhaps the best is that it’s a very good play. Set in an exclusive Stockport grammar school, the action takes place over roughly a month – a period in which seven final year students are preparing to sit mock exams. The play is set entirely in a library that has become a sort of common room for this group: a place for them to study, to perform to and for each other, to flirt, to confide in each other, to play out dramas about power and identity. The presence of books (mostly ignored) and the distant sound of a train place these characters in a historical, cultural and societal context – which they nevertheless seem quite separate from. The play is rooted in time and place but feels like it could be happening anywhere.

Perhaps because of that feeling, the play will immediately seem familiar, if not overfamiliar. Each of the characters seems to fall into recognisable types – the troubled one, the bully, the mathematical genius, the good-looking bitch, the jock, and so on. With its use of music and a schoolroom setting, it seems at first like a hardened-up version of The History Boys, moving at times into The Lord of the Flies.

But those early impressions are quickly dispelled, and by the third scene, the play and its characters prove themselves difficult to categorise. Are we watching a comedy or a thriller, a tragedy or a melodrama, a conventionally realistic drama or something more mysterious? What follows are several surprises (for the second time this summer, I found myself shocked by the unexpected arrival on stage of a young girl), until in its second half it becomes almost unbearably tense.

That deliberate shifting of categories seems apt for a play about adolescents – people who are themselves trying out different roles, working out who they are and who they want to be. And this decidedly is a play about adolescence in the way that The Butcher Boy or The Catcher in the Rye are about adolescence: it shows how the teenagers’ experimentation with different forms of identity can cause them to shift imperceptibly from fantasy into delusion – and it shows too how the freedom offered from fixed roles and adult responsibilities can be enabling, but can also lead to self-destruction.

But we don’t need to see a male and female standing on stage with an apple, Garden of Eden style, to understand that this play is also using the schoolroom as a metaphor for human life more generally. A key concern is with power. Throughout the action, the characters flex different kinds of muscle, experimenting with various forms of power: sexual, intellectual, physical – and we see how they can transform the dynamics of a conflict by changing from one form of power to another, the bully being overpowered by knowledge, the pretty boy disarmed by an ugliness of spirit, and so on.

Perhaps the most interesting form of power game at work here relates to social class. These characters all have privilege in common, and seem mostly complacent about the road that lies ahead for them: an Oxbridge education, a lucrative role in society, and other forms of influence and entitlement. As director, Selina Cartmell quietly underscores that treatment of social class by placing on stage – before the action has even begun – a cleaning woman, who mops the library floor before the pupils arrive, while we catch the distant tinny sound of a White Stripes album playing somewhere offstage. Her face is almost invisible, her actions almost ritualistic, and Cartmell’s inclusion of this figure (who leaves the stage before the action properly begins) emphasises that the privilege of these characters is built upon the disadvantages imposed upon others (or, as one of the characters will say during the play, “everything good that human beings ever make is built upon something monstrous”).

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The inclusion of the figure of the cleaning woman is a simple gesture, reminiscent of the opening movement of Romeo Castellucci’s Bruxelles sequence from Tragedia Endogonidia – which also used  a cleaning woman to suggest how spaces like galleries and museums (spaces designed to display art) are managed by ordinary working people, who are rendered invisible in a place where the artwork demands to be seen. And it’s reminiscent too of the way in which Oscar Wilde placed servants onstage to act as unspeaking choruses, silently judging the actions of Wilde’s aristocrats, dowagers, clergymen, spinsters and puritans.

This is not the only intervention made by Cartmell. Each scene is intercut with punk classics, from The Stooges, Mudhoney, White Stripes, and others – but rather than simply changing the scene, the actors all engage in a sequence of movements (choreographed by David Bolger) which both respond to the music and play out in new ways the shifting dynamics between the characters. This draws out the fact that the songs have been chosen not as filler but as commentary. I haven’t seen such a careful linking of action with music since Tom Stoppard’s Rock and Roll (another play that we really need to see in Ireland).

This is not to suggest that Cartmell’s directorial influence is felt only in the extra-textual material. She has a reputation for visual effect – and while that reputation is thoroughly justified, it sometimes means that we pay less attention to her strengths as a reader. What struck me very powerfully here is the clarity of the actors’ linking of movement with line delivery: there was a discernible relationship between the use of space on stage and the thematic arc of the play itself. I found myself wondering what Cartmell could do with a play like Murphy’s Whistle in the Dark or McGuinness’s Observe the Sons of Ulster, both of which function through a conflict between language and space.

There are also some fascinating changes to the published script, notably in the final scene, in which a dialogue with a psychotherapist is recast as a monologue delivered directly to the audience. This introduces new ambiguities but also eliminates any sense of distance between us and the stage. The effect is unsettling, but it ensures that the impact of the play is more than mere sensationalism.

Cartmell also deserves credit for the strength of the performances. Most of the actors are making their professional debut, mostly from the Lir – so this offers one of the first opportunities to see those graduates in a professional setting.  Rhys Dunlop – a Belfast native and Lir graduate – displays both discipline and intelligence in the play’s most difficult role: he could easily have done an impersonation of Christian Slater in Heathers (or any of a number of similar characters) but instead makes his character both sympathetic and frightening, both credible and disturbing. Something similar can be said of (GSA graduate) Ian Toner’s performance as the group’s resident asshole: we find him despicable but are not indifferent to what happens to him from one scene to the next. There are nice moments too from Laura Smithers and Rory Corcoran – and if the other actors are given comparatively less interesting things to do, the performers all show depth and discipline both individually and as an ensemble. In his show programme note, Jimmy Fay says of these actors that ‘at least you can say you saw them here first, on the Lyric stage’. That’s not hyperbole: this really is a good opportunity to witness the emergence of the next generation of Irish actors.

It’s also a great opportunity to see how Jimmy Fay will fare in his role as Executive Producer of the Lyric. Someday I’d love to conduct some kind of study of Irish AD’s first productions, since it’s clear that many of them attempt to set the tone for everything that follows (the best example I can think of here is Garry Hynes’s 1991 Plough at the Abbey). I find it interesting that Fay chose not to begin his inaugural season with his own production of Pentecost (that’s coming next, and that too is a major statement of intent on his part), but with a play that – in his words – “aims to appeal to a younger audience not just in years but also in outlook”.

Punk Rock definitely is a young person’s play, in the way that Reservoir Dogs and Betty Blue are young persons’ films – or Never Mind is a young person’s album. What matters in those works is not the care of the composition (and if you don’t think Smells Like Teen Spirit is carefully composed, you aren’t listening to it properly). What matters, rather, is the intensity and authenticity of the emotion that is both evoked and portrayed. Illustrating this point, in his programme note for the show David Roy quotes Kurt Cobain’s observation about punk:

Punk rock should mean freedom – liking and accepting anything that you like. Playing whatever you want, as sloppy as you want. As long as it’s good and has passion.

This play is not sloppy, and nor is the production. But it does have passion – as I left the theatre, what impressed me most was that no-one was talking about what they thought but how they felt. There is much to think about too, but that will come later… I find it  exciting that Fay chose to begin his tenure with a new(ish) play and young actors. It’s a brave choice and it deserves to pay off.

Another reason to find this production exciting is that at last we’re getting to see some new international work in Ireland. I have been saying for quite a while now (such as in this blog post from last year) that we in Ireland are badly missing out by failing to engage with what is happening in English and Scottish theatre right now: something that the rest of the world is excited by, and which is having a major impact on the careers of many of our best writers and actors.

Simon Stephens is one of England’s most interesting dramatists (he also has roots in Belfast, though I believe I am right in saying that this was not a factor in the Lyric’s decision to produce the play). By staging his work the Lyric is not just bringing good drama to its audience – it is also giving actors, designers, directors and other ‘creatives’ (I hate that word) the chance to do work that pushes their craft in new ways. It’s not an accident that one of the best productions in Ireland last year was the Gate’s Streetcar Named Desire: we need productions of great plays if we are to develop theatre-making across the full range of arts it encompasses.

Such productions are important for a few reasons. There’s been some debate in Ireland recently about the future of the Abbey (sigh), with the suggestion being made that it should focus exclusively on Irish plays. And in comments on previous blog posts here, some theatre-makers have stated that they think there is no funding available in Ireland for productions by writers such as David Greig or other exciting British and American dramatists.

I don’t know if the Abbey will follow the advice about sticking to new Irish writing, and I don’t know if it’s actually formal funding policy that new Irish writing should be prioritised in the Republic generally. But history shows that the best way to promote the development of new Irish writing is by staging the best international work. If we didn’t have the Dublin Drama League doing writers like Pirandello in the early 1920s, we would not have had the Gate in the late 1920s. We would not have had Druid without Garry Hynes’s exposure to American theatre. We would not have had Rough Magic without their early productions of British dramatists. And perhaps it’s also true to say that we would not have seen the explosion of devised practice in Dublin during the last ten years without visits to Ireland by Victoria and Ontroerend Goed, Rimini Protokol, Forced Entertainment, DV8, and so on.

In short, the one way to kill off Irish writing altogether is to insist that the Abbey focus exclusively on Irish plays (consider this: the last person to implement such a policy was Ernest Blythe). And that goes for Irish theatre more generally: many Irish playwrights report that part of their development involves rejecting Irish models for international ones – and then finding their way back to Ireland circuitously (for instance, Tom Murphy found his way to Synge via Lorca, just as many younger writers find their way to Beckett via Mamet and Pinter).

History suggests, in other words, that if young people are writing plays in Belfast two or three years from now, they are more likely to do so under the influence of Punk Rock than of Pentecost – or even the new plays in the Lyric’s programme from Marie Jones and Owen McCafferty. Irish drama will always illustrate the truth of Synge’s Playboy of the Western World: that to discover your own creativity you have to kill your Da – even if you later end up embracing him. Punk rock has a similar kind of message: the most normal thing in the world is for young people to reject anything they consider to be normal.

I’ve seen better productions this year (the flawless Beckett Trilogy from Lisa Dwan stands out), and I’ve seen better plays (specifically, Ballyturk). But I haven’t been quite as excited upon leaving a theatre as I was after Punk Rock. Something important is happening in Belfast, and it deserves support: there were only about 40 people in the auditorium this afternoon (though it’s very early in the play’s run, so I assume this will pick up). Plays like this won’t keep appearing unless people actually go. So I recommend it, not only for people who enjoy good Irish theatre, but also to people who want to support Irish theatre.

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