School shootings are highly uncommon in a civilized coutry like England where citizens are not allowed to carry firearms. Thus the bloodbath at the climax of Simon Stephens's PUNK ROCK is all the more shocking. Stephens, one of Britain's best playwrights, is a chronicler of the madness that lies just under the surface of middle-class life. His plays often tell the story of a seemingly normal person who becomes unhinged, commits an act of violence then, purged, seems quite normal again. MOTORTOWN showed us an Iraq veteran, a seemingly nice guy, who commits a mad, brutal act, then in the next scene seems saner than the people around him.
PUNK ROCK takes place in the library of a high school for bright, middle class kids in Stockport, near Manchester. We meet seven of the best and brightest. In the first scene, William welcomes the new girl at school, Lily. William seems friendly, but his questions and responses seem a bit detached. He's sweet and charming in a slightly geeky way, but there's something wrong. He talks too much, confides more than he should to a stranger. Lily, the new girl, is eager to have an ally though it isn't likely that she will be attracted to eager little William. Instead, she quickly makes a beeline for the best looking boy who also turns out to be the most decent of the lot. The other students who meet in the library are an odd bunch. Bennett is a vicious bully, Tanya obviously has little self worth, Chadwick is a genius with visions of the end of the world. Bits of violence bubble up. Lily burns herself. Bennett bullies Chadwick and Tanya merciessly and no one stops him. The play starts normally enough. These are bright, articulate, self-aware kids but something is wrong with the picture. We watch William's slow, inexorable descent into madness and when he tells Lily not to come to school the next day, we Americans in the audience know what will transpire. After the shooting we see William with the prison psychiatrist. He doesn't understand why he just can't get on with his life as planned, as if his murders don't matter at all.
Stephens isn't interested in writing a problem play (What's wrong with middle class kids? Why do kids kill each other?). He's interested in specific characters living here and now. He doesn't explain their actions -- he just shows us. A former teacher, he has an ear for the way kids talk and assert power over one another.
This is a harrowing play, but an effective one. And what a fine young cast. Rupert Simonian is brilliant at tracing William's unraveling. It's a demanding role. William is barely offstage from the beginning to the end. Everyone else, some making their professional debuts, is equally good. This is an ensemble piece, but the characters don't really connect on any meaningful level. It's a play abut separateness, not relationships. If there are deep sexual or emotional experiences, the highly articulate characters don't want to talk about them.
When this play first appeared last year, the critics all raved. In this return engagement, I can see why.