We are living in desolate times. Politically, socially, and economically the Western world is struggling. YEN, a 2013 play from English playwright Anna Jordan, zeros in on a flat in a dodgy English town called Feltham and the small horrors that take place there. Under different circumstances, this could be a simple boy-meets-girl love story; but under different circumstances it might not have happened at all.
Hench (Ryan Hodson) and Bobbie (Jeremi Campese) are typical teenaged brothers in that they watch grotesque porn, play Call of Duty together, and alternate between beating each other up and taking care of each other. Their flat is pretty derelict and they share both a bed and a t-shirt but they seem alright, or they want it to seem like they’re alright. They want it to be normal and okay that their mother has ostensibly abandoned them for alcohol and an abusive boyfriend, that they don’t have any money or food or clothing, that they don’t go to school or know what they’re doing with themselves. Bobbie is happier to maintain his wishful thinking but the cracks are showing in Hench and it’s unclear how much longer he can live like this.
It’s telling that the point of entry for Jenny (Meg Clarke), their neighbour, is the mistreatment of the dog Taliban. It is so much easier to gloss your eyes over mistreatment of children and people under the guise of politeness or propriety, to save yourself the embarrassment of concern than with animals, because an animal never deserves it. This isn’t to criticise Jenny, herself the same age as Hench, but to pick up on the underlying criticism of YEN and its unflinching look at the lives of those at the mercy of a national system that has allowed them to disappear from sight; the lives of society’s truly abject.
The characters of Jordan’s play, including the mother Maggie (Hayley Pearl), are reaching the very edges of hopelessness and do not have the resources to help themselves, never mind that their community also does not afford them the resources to get better and improve their futures. Hench describes the entrance of Jenny into his life as like someone opening a curtain so that the light streams through. Jenny offers Hench the opportunity to be seen and touched in a way he’s never been before.
These children are all incredibly troubled, raised on death, abuse, fear, and anger and they are represented as starved of affection and connection. Hench is particularly recognisable as a young man psychologically and emotionally abused, a parentalised child who is incapable of coping with his grief and trauma. Hodson plays the vulnerable child and the dangerous thug as two sides of the same coin, expertly aligning the weaknesses of each to portray a deeply flawed but captivating boy. His relationship with his brother Bobbie is tender and protective, bittersweet in its beauty when considering what brought them to this place. Campese is hyperactive, a little ball of energy bouncing between walls. His character arc from a boy just reaching the crossroads of his autonomy to a vicious defender of his way of life is absolutely heartbreaking; you will remember his final words long after leaving the theatre.
The women in this work equally hold their own as fierce characters fighting for themselves in a world that gives nothing for free. Jenny has been dealt blows but her trajectory seems the most positive before meeting the brothers. Her curiosity is undulled which makes her a wonderful alternate energy to Hench. Pearl’s Maggie is another recognisable figure: downtrodden, perhaps pressed further into the earth than most would consider possible. Can you find it in your heart to forgive the hatred she was taught to spread?
Lucy Clements direction of YEN is sharp without too often cutting to the quick. The impact of each joy and disappointment is crystal clear as they flick across the actors’ faces and solidify in the atmosphere of the room. The set, designed by Ester Karuso-Thurn allows the filthy walls to speak for themselves, finding horror in absence, particularly when watching the boys string up plastic rope for a clothes line. The sound and lighting design also use the realist genre to crisp up edges under a harsh fluorescent glare.
YEN is bleak. In the practise of other English writers like Kate Tempest and Zadie Smith, the dejected populations of London and wider communities are put on stage to challenge notions of comfort and safety. But rather than just creating more pity-porn to bolster charitable spirit, YEN cries out in longing, in wanting for the basics of touch and security and self-worth. There is a possible redemption here, when Hench learns to say, “No” and Jenny enters in a flash of hot pink; perhaps this life will not repeat yet again and these children will carve a new story to tell.
YEN is running at KXT from October 3rd – 13th.