Family struggles

17 April 2019

Pound of Flesh's Yen is a heart-wrenching depiction of children in poverty, says Marina Johnson

I had been brimming with concerns and preconceptions before even getting through the door for this show. I have already seen and reviewed a production of Yen this year. The previous production left me feeling like the show had uncomfortable connotations of poverty porn designed to shock and awe sensitive middle class audiences; and without revealing too many spoilers, I could not fathom how Jennifer came to the decision she makes at the end of the show. Pound of Flesh have changed my opinion. This production could not have been more different.

I just wanted to give everyone a hug. These neglected children, who are still trying to do the right thing, but can only copy what they see. The show emotionally wrecked me – specifically because there is no easy answer, solution or happy ending. There is nothing simple about the the questions of responsibility, cause and effect, and who was to blame for the cycle of abuse. We watch the mechanisms in place by our society continually and repeatedly fail these families. Then the creaky arm of the law comes into play and enacts legal responsibility and punishment. In a way that is utterly unsatisfactory. Questions abound: has Jen become free of the cycle of violence and abandonment though forgiveness? Or is she following in the footsteps of the boys' mother Maggie? And will she in the future tell some broken child they are just like their father?

Tom Kingman and Oscar Sadler beautifully captured the layered bond of siblings in their performances. As Jennifer says, “family's important”. The show team have nicely handled the tricky job of showing both the importance of family, and also its power to be a terrible manipulative source of trauma. Family is far from an unassailable bond of purity and love, particularly in Yen. I have personally spent so much of my time helping friends unpick the long term damage and scars enacted upon them by their families. This supposedly secular country is still deeply built around the Christian commandment to 'Honour thy father and thy mother'. It is about time drama and theatre troubled this narrative and showed a variation on this theme on stage.

I have always found the role of Jennifer to be a bit of a plot foil. She sweeps in and tries to improve the boys' lives with this sense of feminine wisdom, and then has a trite and unnecessary violence enacted on her. Olivia Holmes really captured the fact that she is sixteen, still a minor, but also responsible enough to make her own decisions. Her entrance into the boys' world was a wonderfully captured piece of teenage activism, and desire to do the right thing. Which made it a beautifully awkward and tense scene.

I must admit, after the team did such a nice nuanced job with the character, the staging of the production was weirdly identikit to the last version of the show I saw. Which makes me feel like both were trying to emulate the Royal Court production. However, these similarities melted away under the AV. The floor projection washed the stage in colour and made the scene changes just and absorbing and watchable as the scenes themselves. The images the brothers have been surrounding themselves with literally swamp the stage. The violent and pornographic mixing with animated childish cartoons, recreating the contradictory nature of being a teenager; not quite adult, not quite child.

@noffmag / [email protected]

Image credit: Beatrice Debney