Having been quite disdainfully referred to as “The History Boys on acid”, the only similarities between Bennett’s play and Simon Stephen’s Punk Rock is the choice of school setting during A-level time. Punk Rock requires no classic comparison for validation. Dealing with the overwhelming pressures that young adults are put under concerning A-levels, even GCSE’s, and further education, the play provides a glimpse into the environment of those who are busy bettering themselves.
It wasn’t that long ago that I myself was haunted by insomnia and racked with loathing for UCAS forms and anything or anyone associated with them. Sadly, the governmental push on young people to attend university has resulted in not a “if you should choose to go…” attitude, but a “when you choose to go…”. Don’t get me wrong, I adored my university more than anything, however I was the daughter of incredibly supportive parents who were hell-bent on me making my own decisions and smothered me lovingly with an “as long as you try your hardest that’s the best you can do” attitude. Ruth Milne’s character, Cissy, demonstrates how sadly, such support systems aren’t always available to young people, and Punk Rock illustrates the explosive affect that such unbelievable pressures can lead to.
However, there is far more at work here than mediocre fretting about exam failure. The play delves into the social dynamics of an adult-free school environment and the dangerousness of such authoritative freedom: the characters create their own social hierarchy, one that sadly exists all too readily within schools up and down the country. Punk Rock of course acts to magnify the situations that the audience are presented with, but the suppressed and eventually unleashed violence that is shared between characters is resonate with the unbelievable pressures of not just life within school, but life in general. Each and every social situation presents a target like Chadwick [Mike Nobel] or an overbearing bully like Bennett [Edward Franklin]. Punk Rock demonstrates how too readily we become comfortable with such social categories not only existing, but also functioning within our social surroundings.
The comparison between the Columbine shootings and Stephen’s play acts almost like the pink elephant in the room. Even down to the play’s central setting within a library cocoon it becomes difficult not to draw comparisons between the chilling, widely broadcasted, Columbine footage and the going’s-on within the world of Stephen’s characters. However in his intelligent portrayal of the deeply troubled William, Rupert Simonian provides frequent glimpses of the young lad that he could have been had things turned out differently. Simonian presents William as a potentially sympathetic character despite his horrific actions, demonstrating director Sarah Frankcom’s concern with understanding the mentality of the play’s characters rather than portraying them as monsters lacking intention. Despite my best intentions, there was a part of my heart that bled for the tragic seventeen year-old, even up until the end of the very last scene.
It’s obvious as to why the play is now in its second running (the play made its original UK debut in September 2009). Stephen’s provides chillingly realistic dynamics between his characters, embodied superbly by Frankcom’s cast, (which has now become a collection of ‘old’ and ‘new’ cast members since last year). The play’s events, although emphasised, reverberate truly with teenagers across the board.
I was lucky enough to attend a brief Q&A session with the actors which only cemented my opinions regarding the plausibility of the play: the fresh-faced cast members were only too aware of how the personalities and occurrences within the play incorporated themselves into their own school experiences – especially so for the few who were recent graduates.
In a society that pounces upon ‘the youths of today’, it’s refreshing to witness a playwright challenging the typical assumptions made of violence originating from under-privileged or uneducated backgrounds. Questioning our values of the education system, Punk Rock side-steps the easy attribution of blame and opts for a far more controversial origin for the play’s underlying violence, with Stephen’s shedding light upon the shocking cruelty from within a well-respected grammar school.
Shocking but not for the sake of it, Punk Rock isn’t scared to ask big questions and put a difficult subject matter – especially when considering the activities a few months back within the UK – up for discussion. Verdict: Phenomenal.
Punk Rock is performing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 18th September before an extensive UK Tour. For more information see the Lyric’s website.