The media rarely report on the people beneath their criminal labels.
Those finer details fade into the background, behind grabby news headlines where culprits appear as hardened, irredeemable figures, unequivocally deserving of punishment.
And yet those most harshly judged by society are sometimes also the most vulnerable.
This New Ghosts Theatre Company production of Anna Jordan’s Yen is firmly tuned to this hidden but necessary truth, yielding a compassionate but uncompromising depiction of two teens living on the fringes of a wider social system.
We meet half-brothers Bobbie (Jeremi Campese) and Hench (Ryan Hodson) in a run-down, rancid social housing unit in suburban England. They’ve been abandoned by all parental figures.
Grandma ‘Nanny’ has run away with her partner. Their mother, Maggie (Hayley Pearl), a struggling alcoholic, lives with her boyfriend, and only occasionally visits in her drunk slumbers.
The teen boys don’t have much but they’re surviving: they camp out in the living room littered with minimal furnishings, sharing a sofa bed and a single T-shirt.
Their relationship is coupled by an aggressive physicality. They frequently tussle on the floor of the apartment. Their skin-on-skin play-fighting becomes rough as they pin each other down, wrapped up in each other’s bodies. An unspoken bond between the two stops their unruly play just short of violence, however.
Jordan’s naturalistic dialogue rings with an authenticity that feels plucked right out of this dingy space. Each of its characters is fully-rounded and profoundly real.
Bobbie (a staggeringly endearing Campese) shifts from a puppy-like sensibility to a naivety that borders on offensiveness. And it’s the same for Hench, who oscillates between two extremes. Hudson delivers a soulful performance whose solemn, more withdrawn persona bursts out erratically into a more defensive, frenzied self.
New Ghosts’ production gets to the heart of what makes these two boys slip through a system destined to work against them. Cooped up in this tiny room, the boys’ escape manifests in the form of explicit porn and violent video games.
It’s an obsessive, destructive consumption that feels closely linked to their unpredictable temperaments.
Their closed world cracks open slightly when Jenny (Meg Clarke) arrives at their doorstep, offering them a friendship that allows them to discover themselves and each other.
Lucy Clements’ direction gently portrays this newfound relationship with a sense of joy but also one of inevitability. She strikes a tender and delicate balance between softly pushing across the boys’ good-hearted affections and confronting the issues that prod more tragically at the complexity of these characters.
The den-like space of the Kings Cross Theatre adds a layer of intimacy to Ester Karuso-Thurn’s flexible and simple set. It’s accompanied by Louise Mason’s lighting design, which maps the time-of-day and the play’s dramatic beats with blinding artificial lights or dangerous shadows.
Chrysoulla Markoulli’s evocative sound design is similarly moody. This thoughtful technical amalgamation builds the world around its characters, elevating the all-round excellent performances of its four-person ensemble.
Opening to rave reviews in London and New York, Yen’s timely ramifications aren’t lost in this fresh Australian staging, and New Ghosts’ powerful production makes it impossible to vilify anyone as a villain or a one-note cardboard cut-out.
There’s no right answer to the results of society’s messy structures, but this humane and astringent play paints a fuller, intricate picture that gets to the heart of its very problems.