There might have been a nip in the air this morning in Belfast, but things were certainly heating up in the Lyric as rehearsals got underway for the production of prolific playwright Simon Stephens' acclaimed drama Punk Rock.
The powerful teen drama will see a four week run at the Lyric; and with opening night just over a month away, it was time for the young cast to get to grips with the gritty script. After a lively meet and greet in the Café Bar for the cast and theatre staff, it was straight to the rehearsal room for the first read through ; and the full work force of the Lyric was in attendance to provide a captive audience. With seven chairs, one for each of the conflicted main characters, looming in the centre of the rehearsal room, the anticipation was palpable even before a word had been spoken.
Punk Rock is Selina Cartmell’s directorial debut at the Lyric. Her reputation certainly precedes her, with her recent productions including the award-winning Sweeney Todd at the Gate Theatre, in addition to Big Love, Woman, and Scarecrow for the Abbey Theatre. Renowned for her bracing approach to direction, Punk Rock will be no exception, and the passion, energy and drive she brings to the production is tangible just from stepping into the rehearsal room. Stephens’ material unquestionably gives Cartmell and her hugely talented young cast a lot to work through; a script that deals with everything from exam pressure and university applications to mental health issues such as depression and self-harm would undoubtedly create difficulties for even the most experienced of actors. However it is apparent from the opening lines of the read-through that the cast are up to the challenge.
For most of the cast, Punk Rock will be their professional stage debut; Rhys Dunlop, Lauren Coe and Rory Corcoran have just graduated from the Lir Academy in Dublin, and Laura Smithers also recently graduated from the Lyric’s own Drama Studio. Aisha Fabienne-Ross, Ian Toner, and Jonah Hauer-King make up the budding, seven-strong cast; and all of the actors easily captivate their audience in what was an extremely professional first read-through. Given the early stages of the production, minimal reliance on their scripts and an impressive level of engagement with the audience helped to showcase the cast’s high level of talent, with Belfast’s own Rhys Dunlop standing out in particular as the plays conflicted protagonist William Carlisle. Punk Rock is an undeniably visceral portrayal of today’s youth, and by the end of the seven scenes the audience find themselves torn between empathy and consternation.
Simon Stephens is praised as one of the most prolific English playwrights in recent times, and his work is performed in theatres throughout Europe. Best known for his adaptations of famous works, such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and The Cherry Orchard; but Punk Rock represents a departure from traditional theatre, and as Stephens himself claims, his aim is to make the audience feel as if they are experiencing something between a piece of theatre and a rock concert. That’s something Cartmell has certainly taken on board with her interpretation, as tracks from acts such as The Stooges and The White Stripes pound over the rehearsal room’s stereo system during scene changes.
The acting and directing talent is apparent even in these early stages of preparation, but what provides the audience with real food for thought is the script itself. Hailed as ‘Lord of the Flies meets Skins’, Punk Rock follows a typical group of sixth formers, detailing their preparations for university, and juxtaposing their hopes, aspirations and expectations against their self-doubt, disillusionment and disquietude. From teen angst, peer pressure, and parental expectations to darker issues concerning mental health, all against the pressurising backdrop of the ‘academic zoo’, any audience member could identify with at least one of the problems presented by Stephens. Given their struggles it is hard not to feel empathy with the characters, despite their flaws and ultimately harrowing trajectory; and perhaps it is in this that the real appeal of the play lies. Stephens’ certainly doesn’t shy away from sensitive subject matter, and his themes are becoming more and more relevant to modern society.
Jimmy Fay, newly appointed Executive Producer of the Lyric, stated that the theatre’s new season, entitled Northern Soul, would aim to present ‘inquisitive, adventurous and vibrant theatre’. Whilst Punk Rock is definitely not for the faint-hearted, it will, without question, achieve that goal. Explosive and fearless, Punk Rock will both electrify and unnerve audiences.
Punk Rock previews from Sun 10 August, opens on 14 Aug and runs until Sat 6 September on the Danske Bank Stage of the Lyric. Student tickets just £10 throughout the run.
Blogger Emma Patterson, from Moira is a Cambridge University student. This blog appears on news and reviews website Pastiebap.com