Wednesday 2 June 2010

Bunny - Sir John Mills Theatre (Pulse '10)

Pulse ’10 kicked off with a rehearsed reading of Jack Thorne’s new Nabokov commission, The Siege. Being a work in progress, the first thing we learn is that The Siege is now called Bunny. Fairy nuff.

Being a rehearsed reading of a work-in-progress, much like with Mike Bartlett’s Bull last night [Weds 26th], it’d be wrong to write something that pretended to the status of “a review”. I mean, it *was* open to the public, charging for entry, and indeed kicking off the Pulse Festival 2010, so it seems fair to write *something* about it. It’s not like it was meant to be a secret. But at the same time it’d be wrong to think of the below as “a review”, more as a note-to-self so I’ve got a record of my original impressions when the finished version materialises (it was very useful to have my first encounter with Laura Wade’s Posh written up when the final version breezed into town). I thought Bunny was good anyway, so I don’t know why I’m apologising so much. Anyway...

Noting that Jack Thorne is a writer whose body of work has underlying themes would be worthy of a Pulitzer Prize for understatement. Throughout his work there’s a preoccupation with sexual violence against women. There’s also an issue about class. And his plays focus on teenagers more often than not.

If I’m honest, I used to find it quite troubling. After all, writing play after play about violence against women is like picking at a particularly nasty scab and it results in a body of work in which bad things kept happening to quite young women.

But then, violence and sexual violence shouldn’t be comfortable subjects. And they are important subjects. I think I used to worry a bit too much about the gender of the protagonists (the female speakers in monologues) compromising the gender of the writer (or vice versa).

As a result, I rather wish I’d seen Bunny in kind of theatrical double-blind trial. On one level, it’d have been quite helpful to have had to assess the writing from scratch, rather than going in confident of a level of quality because I already knew Thorne could write. But much more that this, I’d have been really interested to have known what I’d have guessed about the age and gender of the writer.

Those misgivings aside, I think Bunny represents a real shift for Thorne as a writer – which sounds ludicrously pompous. Actually, scratch that. It represents a tangible widening of scope for Thorne as a playwright/writer-for-theatre. Whereas texts like Special and Stacey seemed much more focused on actual violences against specific women, Bunny – with much less explicitly happening to its narrator – paints a much nastier picture of a world made up of pre-fabricated violences; hand-me-down attitudes and second-hand nastinesses which morph into actual acts of aggression just because they’re already hanging round in the air, in the zeitgeist.

Bunny is a nasty, itchy, scratchy little play. Its subject is nominally Katie (is that her name as well as the name of the actress?), a year thirteen schoolgirl (that’s an upper-sixth former) and what she does on one evening after school.

The trajectory of the monologue is the imperceptible slide from quite a cocky, assured-but-self-deprecating start to a sickening rush into situation that you don’t quite see coming and events which shouldn’t really follow on from each other.

The devil here is as much in the digressions and self-corrections as it is in the details. The rhythm of the whole piece is stop-start, stop-start... The device is the delivery of a simple, bland truism – such as might be tossed out unthinkingly by any sullen teenager – which is then worried to death with endless revisions. Like a hysteric version of the “Well, I say A, but B. Well, I say B, but...” formula. Or a hyper-articulate “yeah, but, no, but”.

As a character, [Katie] is a fascinating creation. She delineates where she fits into the overall scheme of things, into the intricate social hierarchies of the common room and wider world, with an obsessive precision. She knows pretty much exactly where she stands, although this self-knowledge is underscored by a hefty dose of self-doubt, which in turn is underwritten by a certain amount of cynical realism. She’s also interesting for being pretty upfront about sexual desire. She actually articulates some, which – it strikes me – still seems rare for a female character on stage outside the work of Howard Barker.

On one level it adds up to a very precise portrait of one girl’s sexual self-hatred. At the same time, Thorne’s focus isn’t so myopic. There are other issues at play here too. Race, for example: Katie has a black boyfriend (“He’s not that big, so *that*’s a myth...”), and the overarching narrative of the monologue concerns the fallout from said boyfriend getting into a fight with a younger Asian lad.

If anything, even gender and race are overshadowed by place. Thorne’s Luton is perfectly captured imperfection. It exists as a series of small flaws. I don’t think there’s an outright description of a single place, and yet you see it all in the mention of the chipped this or the badly planned that, and the sides of town divided into ethnic groups, and the parts of town that people move out of as soon as they can, and the takeaways on housing estates that are closed mid-week.

It works beautifully as a backdrop for Katie, who seems to hate herself about as much as Luton hates her. She doesn’t like Luton much in return. And isn’t a racist. Because she’s got a black boyfriend. And her parents read the Guardian. Although she does have some residual nasty bits of British culture stuck in her head. When an Asian man she’s been fancying suddenly turns nasty, she in turn whips out a description of him as a greasy kebab shop worker.

This is another of the piece’s strengths – Thorne’s eye for the nasty turn of phrase, for the tiniest bit of suspect thinking. The half-uttered, immediately retracted epithet. All turning and spinning like clockwork keeping the bigger, nastier story running. What’s also fascinating is the way that none of the characters seem to own these thoughts. They just lazily reach for the nearest bit of recycled tabloid nastiness to throw at each other.

In a way, it’s a perfect picture of how England goes wrong. Over-tired, over-worked, anxious, financially insecure people taking out their frustrations on whoever or whatever comes to hand; justifying it with whatever half digested, half-believed bigotry comes to hand.

As a rehearsed reading , it seems silly to spend much time on the “production”, other than to record that [Katie (no programmes) reading/performing the part of (Katie?)] was excellent.

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