Intelligent. Articulate. F***ed.

I have a tendency when reviewing that I have to rein in consciously and constantly, which is to fixate on a single aspect of a play – a particular insight I think the writer offers, or a nuance of one of the performances, or an unusual staging technique – and worry at it until I’m satisfied, at which point there’s usually no room left in the review to talk about anything else, like what the play was actually about, or whether it was any good.

I stop myself doing it because it’s self-indulgent and as unhelpful to the cast and crew as it is to the review-reading public, but that doesn’t stop me wanting to fix those thoughts into prose. I’ve reviewed Simon Stephens’s Punk Rock for the British Theatre Guide, so if you’re after a review – i.e. a shortish article explaining whether or not the play is worth seeing (it is) and why – spare yourself the following waffle and read that instead.

I’m hoping the waffle might provoke some discussion of the play, or at the very least encourage you to think about it more deeply than perhaps you otherwise might. If not, at the very least I’ll get some personal satisfaction out of serving up stuff that would otherwise just stew in my brain.

Rupert Simonian and Laura Pyper in Punk Rock

Rupert Simonian and Laura Pyper in Punk Rock. Image courtesy of Amy Belson (Press Manager, Lyric Hammersmith)

I reviewed Punk Rock when it premiered in September 2009, and again this week just before it heads off on a UK tour, and both times I talked a lot about Bennett Francis – partly because I expected that everyone else would focus instead on the main character, William Carlisle, and partly because I think the play’s most significant moments all pivot on Bennett’s actions.

But the reason I figured all the reviews would focus on William – and the majority did, or at least on Tom Sturridge, who played him in the premiere – is that he is a walking discussion piece. The question “Why does William Carlisle do what he does in the penultimate scene of Punk Rock?” could support a two-hour A Level Drama paper on its own. The play sets up many, many possible contributing factors, all of which William himself dismisses explicitly in the final scene. That’s why he’s such a good showpiece part for a young actor like Sturridge, or now Rupert Simonian – he’s unfathomable, open to interpretation, a fine balancing act.

I think to come down on the side of one or other motivation would be to misunderstand the play, but I also think that what William does is a symptom of the worldview all Punk Rock‘s 17-year-old characters have in common. It’s a bleak one to say the least. The thought of the world beyond the grimy library windows leads Lily to burn herself habitually with cigarette lighters, Chadwick to fantasise about eradicating everything with a zillion gigatonne antimatter bomb, and Tanya to long for the structure and protection of kept-womanhood. Bennett makes a point of transgressing the personal and social boundaries he knows will shackle him in later life, which doesn’t help matters. If William didn’t snap, it’s entirely possible one of the others would. The question in that case would be, not “Why does William do what he does?”, but “Why William and not someone else?”

One of the other reasons I focused on Bennett in my reviews is that William spends a lot of the second act lingering on the downstage right lip, easily forgotten, observing without acting, and that, I think, is the key factor here: William listens, absorbing everything. He’s also intelligent and perceptive enough to synthesise, extrapolate and form conclusions others might shy away from. Throughout the play, he asks questions other people either wouldn’t think to ask, or would be too embarrassed to – about people’s personal lives, but also about the world at large. (Bennett asks personal questions, too, but he does it to humiliate the other party.)

Everyone in Punk Rock is intelligent, observant, perceptive and articulate, and that high-achiever status is their curse, because it allows them to look at the world around them, to really see it, to collate their observations and experiences and to conclude that the world is a big bloody mess and isn’t getting any better. Chadwick puts it eloquently in a long speech about how insignificant they all are in the long run. Bennett puts it more pithily with his parting shot to Tanya: “You’re sad because you’re fat. You’re fat because you eat too much. You eat too much because you’re depressed. You’re depressed because of the fucking world.”

We could conclude that ignorance is bliss, I suppose. Or we could conclude that we all need to pull our collective finger out and try to make the world the sort of place that doesn’t make 17-year-olds want to burn themselves, vaporise themselves or do what William does.

In many ways the least constructive response to what William does – either in the play or when it happens in real life – is to arbitrarily select one of the factors that may have contributed and dump all the blame on that, but somehow that option is even more attractive than burying our heads in the sand. Choosing ignorance means accepting that there’s something to ignore, which means accepting a portion of the blame, even if we deny it immediately afterwards. Blaming individual parents, teachers, bullies, films or video games places the blame-thrower on a false swell of moral high ground.

If you saw Punk Rock – either version (as I mentioned in my review, they’re near enough identical) – I’d love to know your thoughts in the comments. Am I reading too much into the play? Am I crediting the characters with insight you don’t think they possess? Is my logic faulty, or does my argument meander too much? Let me have it!

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