Outstanding focus

22 April 2019

Joseph Winer is enthralled by the drama of Yen

I come away from Yen with my notepad practically empty. Sometimes a production is so engrossing that the critic temporarily loses their hat. They become a spectator, like everyone else, not there thinking on the clever words they could compose when they leave, simply enthralled by the drama. That this drama succeeds in keeping its audience so intensely focused for nearly two hours is a feat in itself. Matt Owen’s production of Anna Jordan’s cutting text is a masterclass in the construction of intimacy. Of an intimacy that feels wholly authentic in a world that doesn’t slip away for a second.

We’re told that ‘yen’ means longing; to long for something. But how can you know what you’re longing for if you hardly get an escape from your bedroom? Owen turns the room into a pressure cooker, an in-the-round space which slowly boils, locking us inside. Two boys, teenagers, share a single bed. A mattress rots with piss. Their language is homophobic. The discussion of women is dangerously misogynistic. And yet something compels our investment. These boys had no chance to learn any other way. And that’s a failure of the system. How can we be so heartless towards the families that didn’t stand a fair chance to begin with? We can’t. Well, some of us can’t. Does this excuse their behaviour? A brutal attack on a family pet. A sexual assault on a stranger wanting to help? Of course not. But it does force us into an uncomfortable questioning of where the blame lies. As violent video games, television cartoons and internet pornography drown this living space, the floor flooded with vibrant colours of projected clips, we realise that the cause of the problems isn’t in the room itself or its history; it’s something that’s been going on outside of this flat.

The actors are outstanding. I don’t for a second question their intentions, their existence, their realities. Tom Kingman performs body tics, a habitual convulsion developed as a result of Bobby’s ADHD. Oscar Sadler clenches his face, but this always seems to be a disguise for an inherent vulnerability. We see this in his eyes. In the uncertainty of a head looking downwards. The brothers playfight. They hold each other. From the moment Eliza Beresford makes an entrance, she completely commands the entire stage. Her intimidating presence pervading the space. She mocks her older son with a total ruthlessness. Olivia Holmes as the girl next door takes a little bit longer to establish her character, but soon settles in, offering a gentle chemistry with Sadler during their intimate encounters.

I become a bit lost when the final part of the play takes us somewhere else. It spends so long setting up this isolated space, that the writing loses its intensity when it moves away from it. But I think it’s important that it doesn’t let the assault be the play’s conclusion. This can’t be the result of a dramatic build up, it needs to be justified with something deeper. And the return to family leaves the play on a note of bitter sorrow.

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Photo credit: Beatrice Debney