British writer Anna Jordan’s unflinchingly vivid Yen paints a picture of young men on the cusp of ferality: boys raised in poverty with an alcoholic and largely absent mother, unlimited access to online pornography and violent video games.
Awarded the UK’s Bruntwood Prize in 2013, Yen’s premiere season in Manchester was greeted with critical raves, which led to the play transferring to London’s Royal Court, where it received more of the same.
Its Australian debut, hosted by the Kings Cross Theatre and bAKEHOUSE, comes courtesy of Sydney indie outfit New Ghosts Theatre Company, whose artistic director Lucy Clements came across the play in 2017 during a self-funded theatre education jag in New York that involved seeing 43 On and Off-Broadway shows in three months.
“I saw Yen at the MCC Theater on a cheap ticket deal and I really didn’t know anything about the play,” Clements says.
“I was sitting in the theatre reading the program and it was all about teenaged boys watching porn. I thought, oh God what have I got myself into, this looks terrible. But as soon as it started it was mesmerising. I thought it was incredible. Out of all those shows, it was the one that really hit me. As soon as it began I thought I have to take this to Australia.”
Yen’s depiction of boys growing up aimless and without any kind of effective adult supervision chimed with what Clements had observed in her home town, Perth.
“We had some really awful stories last year, awful things committed by young people,” she says. “You read it and think what makes a person do such a thing? Are they psychopaths? How on earth could this happen? But this play humanised those stories for me.”
“The play asks us to think before we judge,” Clements adds.
In New Ghosts’ production, the role of Bobbie, the 14-year-old boy is played by Jeremi Campese. Ryan Hodson plays his half-brother, Hench, 16, the main focus of the story.
Hayley Pearl plays the boys’ troubled mum and Meg Clarke is Jenny, a young, animal-loving neighbour.
“Jenny is the ‘other’ in the play,” Clements explains. “She comes in and shakes everything up for these two boys who don’t know anything about women, affection or love. She is the bright beacon of light.”
Despite first appearances and their hugely dysfunctional and dangerous behaviours, Jordan’s voicing of Bobbie and Hench make them difficult to dismiss as “animals”, says Campese.
“Bobbie is colourful, essentially like a puppy,” Campese says. “He is extraordinarily active and energetic and every time he is in a scene he is pushing the pace. He’s a kid whose mind just zips between thoughts constantly and so he can be incredibly funny. But he has also got a dark, feral side to him because he’s been brought up with no restraint. Aggression comes out very quickly.”
Bobbie, despite everything, is also “a bit of a mother’s boy”, Campese adds. “There are all sorts of colours to his character that make him really great to play. He’s always making grotesque jokes about sex but on the other hand, he’s joyful to watch. I hope audiences will be able to look beyond what he does and says and are able to consider why and how it happens.”
Among the issues broached in Yen is the way pornography shapes adolescent ideas of sex and relationships. For Bobbie and Hench, hardcore porn is easier to access than a square meal or a clean T-shirt.
“Porn is shaping Bobbie’s entire perception of women, his entire perception of sex, and you see that in the play,” says Campese. “It’s as if there is a movie going on in his head, non-stop.”
The playwright’s focus on the warping of young male perspectives on sex and relationships is crucially important, Clements believes. “We need to ask everyone to think about where the responsibility lies in teaching young men about sex and how to treat women. For that reason, we are trying to get some school groups in to see the show. We really want to open that conversation.”
Some of the practicalities involved in doing so are proving a headache, however.
“Because you can see everything on this stage, we have to blur the images out so audiences are not fully exposed to what the boys are watching,” Clements says. “But there will be sound so they will know exactly what they’re watching. And it’s a fairly long exposure, too. We don’t want people to be scarred by the experience. We will have some trigger warnings.”
Proceeds of Yen’s school and matinee performances will be donated to Blue Knot Foundation.