As the recipient of the JMK Award 2015, Liz Stevenson joins a list of 16 past winners that include Caroline Steinbeis and Polly Findlay. In Memory of James Menzies-Kitchin, who passed away in 1996 at just 28 years old, the award gives emerging theatre directors a chance to fast-track their careers with a run at The Young Vic as well as a cash prize. Stevenson’s winning entry is a stripped back version of Barbarians, which has showed in London already this year; Tooting Arts Club brought the hard-hitting to the Former Central St Martins School of Art in October.
Stevenson uses a similarly bare design in her production, with wooden walls for the characters to bang and crash against when erupting in aggressive cheers or violent outbursts. Louis (Fisayo Akinade), Jan (Alex Austin) and Paul (Brian Vernel) are a group of unemployed young men in 1970s Lewisham. Anarchy is in the air (and on the stereo) as the boys grapple with boredom, rejection and an unflinching allegiance to their beloved football club Manchester United. Each is determined to make their mark in one way or another – “We will not be ignored” according to an enraged Paul (Vernel) outside Wembley Stadium.
The play is intense, loud and packs a punch in a way that writer Barrie Keefe intended. Stevenson focusses on lighting and set design over props to allow the actors to make full use of the space, and they do take full advantage of the three dimensional design. Jumping through the audience, intentionally smashing down the fourth wall and acting almost in the round hits the audience with the force of the material. The different characterisations that the actors bring is also effective in building up the overall picture – Louis (Akinade) is more reserved and aspirational; Jan (Austin) simple yet loyal; but both completely subservient to Paul (Vernel), who often confuses passion with anger.
Some of the attempted devices don’t quite strike home, the spotlight monologues of the actors and the scene segues in particular. But the story itself has ebb and flow – the audience are let into the inner workings of the characters bit by bit as situations parody their personalities. The individual need for each youth to have a familial connection and sense of belonging is reflected in their passions for football or the cadets: “Something to make my blood bubble, to look forward to, to mean something” as Paul forlornly states echoes the words of a generation at this time when unemployment is rife.
The ending is abrupt and unexpected yet not out of place – eventually the subject of race was bound to rear its head. The direction here doesn’t seem to resolve the story completely but is strong and clear throughout most of the rest of the play. It sets out to pack a punch and it clearly achieves that aim.
Barbarians is playing The Young Vic Theatre until 19 December 2015. For more information and tickets, see the Young Vic website.