Teenagers are strange creatures. The transitional phase from child to adult, where the body changes and chemicals are being thrown around to the point of nausea. Where appearance matters, and sex and alcohol are experimented with like a toxic cocktail that will only end in disaster. That’s teenagers, the raucous rabble that they are. Misunderstood because they won’t behave like adults, and shunned from childhood because they’ve had their time. Teenage Riot by Ontroerend Goed, the Belgium-based company that brought us For Once And All We’re Going to Tell You Who We Are So Shut Up And Listen and All That is Wrong, returns once more to peel back the idea of teenagers as creative individuals.
Sitting on the Unicorn Theatre’s stage is a large cube, which acts as a container for the teenagers during Teenage Riot, a metaphor for the enclosure in which we adults attempt to confine their rioting. On the outside a projection is shown, fed from a live camera inside the cube. We see a haphazard attempt at storytelling using small cardboard puppets: a small girl walking through the woods is captured by a paedophile and dragged into his cave. Then the chaos ensues. With pounding music the teenagers, under the direction of Alexander Devriendt, let loose. They party, they kiss, they demonstrate how men can sexually gratify women, and eventually they crumble under the weight of responsibility and oppression that growing through adolescence forces upon us. It is messy, honest and gutsy, and is a poignant reminder that theatre for or with young people doesn’t have to consist of ‘issue-based plays’, it can swell with riotous glee.
Similar to Ontroerend Goed’s previous show For Once And All… this piece shows the complex and revealing thoughts and actions of young people in a show that is truly their own. It doesn’t tell adults to “fuck off”, but it does implore them to remember when they were younger, and to recall the difficult transition that gives you the desire to act seemingly uncontrollably. There are poignant scenes where one actor takes the camera and stands looking at the back wall of the theatre: “I can’t look at you”, he tells the audience through the camera, “you’ll think I’m stupid”, before going on to reveal his personal thoughts on life and growing up. Two cast members give their tips on losing weight, whilst another is confused how parents tell their children to eat more but are continuously on diets. The contradictions between being a teenager and an adult are brought into the fray, and Teenage Riot sets fire to this tension with thrilling and often humorous scenes of rebellion.
Whilst the piece gives space for creative play by the performers – a device used by Devriendt during rehearsals to build up material that comes directly from the teenagers’ own sense of fun – Teenage Riot feels controlled. Perhaps it is because the show is often contained within the cube structure on the stage, with our experience of it being seen through a camera that distances us from the work. Unlike For Once And All… which felt like the teenagers were going to explode from the stage, into the auditorium and out further into the world at large, Teenage Riot feels muted. It’s much more thrilling than some of the work produced by young people that the Unicorn Theatre has presented before, but it doesn’t feel as out of control and riotous as it could. This could just be a natural maturity that is developing from Ontroerend Goed’s teenaged cast who have worked with the company for several years now. It was, however, excellent to see a spin-off of work from the Edinburgh Fringe last year (in the form of XXXO) by two of the performers who have been in the company’s shows before.
There is still life left in the exploratory work of Ontroerend Goed with teenagers, and it would be fair to say that they are a company which shows the true potential of work for and with young people. Teenage Riot may feel distanced, but it does offer a thrilling and revealing experience that throws up questions of adulthood and teenage acceptance. Even at the age of 25, my teenage years feel like an alien and distant lifetime ago. To be reminded of those is no bad thing, and to let go of the restraints that we find ourselves in as society and adulthood wrap around us can only lead to reflection – and, I hope, a reminder that I need to have fun.
Teenage Riot is playing at the Unicorn Theatre until 11 May. For more information, visit the Unicorn Theatre Website.