The auditorium is flooded with mangled, discordant screams. Pale fluorescent light creeps across the stage, illuminating a snapshot of horror with the clinical blandness of the hospital ward. And all around me, audience members stifle laughs.
This is the moment from Morning that is etched most vividly on my memory. Being seated in the middle of a group of teenagers, the demographic with which Simon Stephens’ latest, horribly compelling play concerns itself, offers a fascinating perspective on this piece – certainly not one likely to be found on press night (just one reason why it can be helpful to occasionally step out of the herd of ferociously scribbling critics, but that’s a subject for another time). Ripples of discomfort swell through the theatregoers around me as they drink in a cocktail of strangeness and recognition to which the only response is a nervous titter. As one boy put it on his way out, with a hint of awkward admiration, “that was bare weird”.
The “bare weird” show that Stephens and director Sean Holmes have created with the Lyric Young Company centres on Stephanie, a fiercely intelligent but disturbed teenage girl played with terrifying precision by Scarlet Billham. Sick with sadness yet unable to stop smiling, she dispenses viciousness without a flicker of concern. Stranded in an antiseptic suburbia where all the meticulously kept gardens look exactly the same, ennui is a permanent state for Stephanie and her friends – one of whom, Cat, is about to escape for university. Before she leaves, however, Stephanie has recruited unwitting boyfriend Stephen in a scheme for a savage send-off, an escalatingly brutal scene around which the play nauseatingly pivots.
I expect that numerous comparisons will have been made with Punk Rock, another unsettling Stephens play that takes modern youth as its subject. Not wanting to disappoint, I admit that such thoughts did strike me while watching Morning; in many ways these are quite different pieces, but a direct line can be drawn between William Carlisle and Stephanie. In each case, Stephens’ protagonist is startlingly intelligent, an intelligence that acts as an uncanny counterpoint to their respective brutality and apparent emotional detachment. Eschewing the hoodie-clad image that haunts portrayals of contemporary teenagers, Stephens’ portraits of this generation are all the more blackly horrifying.
What strikes me as being particularly important, perhaps for this play even more so than Punk Rock, is the teenage perspective. This is perhaps because my ears are still ringing with the words of Ontroerend Goed’s Alexander Devrient, who said something along the lines of teenagers being at a stage of life in which they can see what is wrong with the world but are not yet able to formulate any remedial ideologies (I’d recommend listening to his full, thoughtful, softly spoken interview for Theatre Voice, in which he speaks eloquently and at length about his work with young people). But what if they only see diagnosis without cure because that is the unacknowledged truth of the world?
Perhaps what we can take from Morning is the incisive awareness of a world in which, in Stephanie’s words, “everything is fucking shit”, an awareness not yet blunted by ideology or philosophy or religion – teenage nihilism three times distilled. But there is a taut, oddly appealing ironic tension between this apparent nihilism and the quotation from Marx that Stephanie prints in bold felt tip: “the philosophers have only interpreted the world; the point, however, is to change it”. The knowledge that this piece has been made specifically for and with the age bracket represented then adds another fascinating layer; how have the astonishingly talented members of the Lyric Young Company influenced this final, unblinkingly bleak vision of the world?
Which brings me neatly, if not uncomplicatedly, onto my next point. As discussions of Stephens’ work tend to veer towards considerations of collaboration, especially in the wake of the extensive critical discussion around Three Kingdoms, and as I’m ever more conscious of the disingenuousness of critically portioning a production into writing, direction, design and so on, it seems apt to reflect on the ways in which the various elements of this piece feed into one another.
In considering the aesthetic of the whole, the words that rise most stubbornly to the surface of my mind are “antiseptic” and “clinical” (neither in a negative sense, I should add, but one that feels crucial to the piece). From stark fluorescent lighting to unsettlingly alienated performances, there is a sterile coating that settles over the production like the shimmering sheets of plastic that shroud Hyemi Shin’s set. The design itself is what first snatches at the attention: the large, half-filled glass tank of water, the industrial fridge containing a single bag of blood, the forensic tent, the assorted lights, the plastic – there’s lots of plastic. This seeps into the plasticity of the performances, a sort of blank, detached distortion of naturalism that could just be taken for stiff acting in the opening moments but that soon emerges as a very particular style, one that is married to the coldly artificial quality of the design and the dislocated realism of Stephens’ text (a misleading and loaded word, as I’ve discussed elsewhere, but one that will do in the absence of a more precise vocabulary).
In place of the domestic settings to which Stephens’ dialogue refers, the production is littered with forensic paraphernalia, an implicit nod to the current ubiquity of the detective narrative, but this is a crime scene in which nothing is solved (a nice example of how a non-literal interpretation can be a more perceptive comment on the text than one which sticks rigidly to its real-world inferences). It also hints at a certain clue-hunting critical approach to theatre, a quest for meaning that Stephens – and indeed the whole production – actively eschews.
Without listing every aspect of this intriguing staging, the other element of the production that merits particular mention is Michael Czepiel’s nightmarishly distorted soundscape, which is produced live on stage with both Czepiel and the sound desk in full view. As well as peeling away the illusions of theatricality, this choice pulls on strands of voyeurism and plants another of the production’s subjects as a permanent presence, the (mostly) silent youth glued to the computer screen.
Returning to nihilism, this multi-layered whole produces an anarchic, punk-inflected void of meaning, a great black gaping hole where we might expect to see hope or redemption or some kind of “message”. Perhaps deflecting some of the criticisms that have been levelled at his work in recent years, the concluding words of Stephens’ script (yes, sorry, I’m attaching elements to single individuals once again, but let’s just assume for sake of ease that these words are purely Stephens’) are a gutting “fuck you” to any demand for an optimistic chink of light. But just to contradict that – and to once again overturn my simplifying attributing of authority to Stephens – the production itself goes on to complicate this appropriately teenaged gesture of rebellion.
Morning is the sort of uncompromising piece that inevitably cleaves opinion, if not perhaps to the same impassioned extremes as Three Kingdoms (which I will, eventually, stop going on about – probably). Potent reactions spill tangibly through the audience throughout the painfully gripping hour of the play’s length and pour out into the packed foyer after the final bow. The one response that is markedly absent from the teenagers around me, however, is shock. Like Stephanie, they emerge smiling. After all, if you know already know that there is nothing but terror, what else is there to do but laugh?