It was a new experience to watch a theatrical production in the basement of a student house. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little uncertain as I waited outside the front gate. My mood lifted once I was warmly welcomed in by producer Kate Chalmers who oversaw the makeshift front of house (the kitchen). My intrigue grew as I sat facing the basement door, before melting into apprehension and unease as I descended the dark steps into the basement wherein Yen was to be performed.
How to describe the spectacle that greeted me? Director Matt Owen’s ominous vision for the piece was immediately apparent. Our two male protagonists – 16-year-old Hench (Oscar Sadler) and 13-year-old Bobbie (Tom Kingman) – sat on a single mattress, aimlessly watching pornography and playing Call of Duty, surrounded by discarded pizza boxes, milk cartoons, beer cans and dirty trainers. Around them in the stripped-back basement were exposed wires, two dark holes in the wall that barely constituted windows, and clips from Saw, Superbad and Silence of the Lambs being projected onto the grey walls. The performance space was like some grotesque offspring of Beckett’s Endgame and Elsey’s Skins, establishing the bleak setting of the boys’ grimy flat that hinted at the equally bleak story that was to unfold.
It was a new experience to watch a theatrical production in the basement of a student house
Yen follows the story of half-brothers Hench and Bobbie, their turbulent relationship with their alcoholic mother, Maggie (Eliza Beresford), and their doomed friendship with Jennifer (Olivia Holmes). Sadler’s performance as Hench was exceedingly difficult to watch as he encapsulated all the character’s nuances and internal conflicts: throughout the whole performance, he never abandoned the numerous little physical tics and quirks that defined this character, from his awkward snorting laughter to the volatile twitches of his chin. When you stared into Sadler’s dull brown eyes, you felt like you were examining a young man wallowing in his own filth. Refusing to assist his mother after she drunkenly passes out outside his flat, he sneers at Bobbie’s fears that she may be attacked, casually throwing out the misogynistic jab: “Look at the state of that, who would want to rape that?” This contemptuous behaviour was contrasted, however, by his rare moments of intimacy and even protection towards his younger brother, and his awkward attraction towards the charitable Jennifer. This reaches its height in the middle of an intimate sexual interaction between the two, when he timidly confesses “I don’t know how to touch you…none of it feels right, for you.”
Hench would be incomplete without his younger brother, Bobbie who succinctly and humorously sums up their relationship in the opening scene as, “you’re Hench, I’m stench”. Kingman’s stoop-shouldered, energetic and jittering clownish actions were an amusing foil to his loping and awkward older sibling. Of course, the story of Bobbie within the play is one that far transcends mere comic relief. His devotion to his mother and his pet dog, Taliban, shine through the petulant, immature characteristics that he adopts, such as his inquisitiveness about sex (analysing his brother’s porn he asks, “can a man’s arsehole go like that?”). The best example of this takes place moments before the previously innocent and kind-hearted Bobbie attacks and sexually assaults Jennifer, out of the mistaken belief that she has killed Taliban. I watched in speechless horror as Bobbie wrapped his dog’s chain around his fist and glared at Jennifer with vengeful eyes.
I watched in speechless horror as Bobbie wrapped his dog’s chain around his fist and glared at Jennifer with vengeful eyes
Holmes as Jennifer should be congratulated for bringing to life what could easily have been portrayed as a simple do-gooder. Her interactions with the boys could be described as that of an angel who brings food for both the neglected dog and neglected boys, insisting “I don’t want any trouble, I’m just here to help.” Holmes combined the appropriate amount of fear and pity in her initial encounter with the two brothers, so that when they eventually developed into a substitute family for one another it felt natural and not forced. For a character so devoted to bringing light into her friend’s lives, Jennifer, or Yen as her deceased father once referred to her, is perhaps the most tragic character in the play. Her confrontation with Hench following her sexual assault by Bobbie was enough to bring a tear to my eye, in particular the moment when Holmes contorted with pain as she attempted to convey her desire to cut out the “rotten” part of her body, the part that she perceives as violated and unredeemable.
Last but not least, I must applaud Eliza Beresford for taking up the challenging role of the boys’ mother Maggie. Her neglectful abandonment of her two children, her degradation of Hench and her emotional manipulation of Bobbie make it easy to dismiss her as an abuser, and the ultimate catalyst of the whole tragic destruction of the three teenagers’ lives. But such a dismissal would be unfair to the stunning performance by Beresford who did not allow the audience to forget that Maggie is a victim too, of sexual abuse at the hands of Hench’s father and of a volatile relationship with her own mother. When Beresford knelt mere inches away from my feet, praying before her son’s trial, I was reminded of her haunting, embittered line in her first scene with the two boys: “You haven’t walked in my shoes.”
Yen is a story of neglect and abandonment, whether abandonment of a supposedly “bloodthirsty” dog, abandonment by a father due to death, or abandonment by a mother. It is a play that examines the dangers of unrestrained, unregulated masculinity of the most superficial and toxic kind and the cruelties that an individual can indulge in when they shirk responsibility. These weighty and complex themes are all wonderfully conveyed by the four actors under the guidance of Matt Owen. I wish them luck at the National Student Drama Festival.