Nature versus nurture is a good starting point when thinking about Hamish Pirie’s production of Violence and Son, the new play from Welsh playwright Gary Owen. To what extent does our identity stem from our upbringing? Do we have innate characteristics that are uniquely our own? Do people have the capacity to change and abolish lifelong habits?
Liam, played by the spirited and quick-witted David Moorst, is a 17-year-old boy enraptured by Dr Who. Having recently lost his mum, he now finds himself living with his dad in Wales. Previous to this, he’d never met the man.
Liam’s new home is realised by set designer Cai Dyfan. Green-washed walls evoke mould and decay, a site for disease and bacteria to flourish. Liam is struggling to fit into his new environment with his dad, Rick, and live-in girlfriend, Suze. A gentle, yet mouthy teen is pitted against alpha male Rick, afflicted with a ferocious temper easily bought on after a single can of beer. Life is made manageable by the presence of his friend Jen, and a dependency on the fantastical world of Dr Who.
Owen explores adolescence and what it means to grow up in a violent family home. In one of the more sinister scenes of the play, Suze manages to plant enough doubt into Liam’s mind about whether his father actually laid a hand on him, or whether in fact he just tripped. This moment provides the framework for how we should consider the play: in moments of desperation how much should we put up with to make a situation easier?
Violence and Son has an acute understanding of the corrupting power of violence as something that can eternally simmer below the surface in some people’s lives. Rick is the personification of violence. Like a caged lion, we watch him pace around the borders of the stage, ready to attack if provoked.
In direct contrast to Rick is Liam, his thoughtful, considered and informed son. Liam is able to articulate a balanced and informed opinion on many issues that arise duration conversation with his father, using his words and not his fists to settle disputes.
A major cause of tension during the play is sexuality, in particular to do with the younger pair, Jen and Liam. Jen’s sexuality, and both Rick and Liam’s interpretation of it, is complex. When we are first introduced to Jen, she is wearing a police costume, wearing a short, tight black skirt. She learns that Liam has feelings for her and flirtatiously asks him if he’s into her and whether he thinks about her in a sexual way. She’s in a position of power and lays the groundwork for something to happen between them. She, slightly older and more experienced, leads the way for something to blossom between them. The burgeoning romance is interrupted by the sound of Rick and Suze ferociously going at it in the next room. An oppressive sound of male dominance infiltrates the innocent moment and makes both Jen and Rick feel awkward. As the play continues, Rick becomes increasingly involved in Liam’s actions towards Jen, coaching him on how to engage with women. Initially, it seems out of a desire to encourage his son, eventually this is poisoned by Rick’s inability to make decent decisions for himself, let alone his newly-acquired son. Rick’s own demons begin to infect Liam, whose vulnerability renders him malleable. Ultimately, Rick’s influence has tragic consequences for Jen, Suze and Liam.
Pirie’s production is a fascinating exploration on how much of a person is dictated by nature and nurture. Initially, Liam and Rick are on other ends of the spectrum, but as Liam’s situation grows more desperate, Rick’s dominance wins, moulding Liam to mirror Rick’s actions.
Violence and Son is a multifaceted exploration of grief, identity and brutality; a beautiful portrait of innocence and potential annihilated by violence.
Violence and Son is playing at the Royal Court until 11 July. For tickets and more information, see the Royal Court website.