A lot of what goes unsaid or unseen in Yen is what you want to be looking out for. It is a fraught play with interconnected questions about family, responsibility, and blame; these lurk under the surface and provoke the painful culminating act which we do not see.
The technical aspects of Yen are impressive: the projections, scene-changes, and sound effects (if you’ve seen the play you’ll remember the sound for a particular, gruesome scene). Despite this, the show’s emotional heart and the audience’s attention remain with the characters themselves as they wrangle with cycles of abuse.
Yen touches difficult subjects, but it does it well. There’s a passing reference to their mum’s boyfriend giving Bobby a chinese burn, then a few scenes afterward we see Hench using the same punishment to shut Bobby up. The parallels aren’t emphasised; Jen mothering the boys sets her up as a younger version of Maggie, but the true weight of this comes later – Jen and Hench’s relationship rapidly goes sour when he turns his own shame into anger at her. It works better that this is not explicit; you see how unthinkingly young people can slip into or recreate abusive situations.
In conveying this, body language consistently says more than lines, especially in the immediate impact of aggression on Bobby’s behaviour – in the face of his brother’s violence he’s as much of a wounded animal as the dog they both neglect. Bobby’s growth is disturbing; throughout the play you watch him learn how to treat people and, significantly, develop an understanding of blame and punishment.
Yen passes over the influence of violent video games and porn on the boys. There’s definitely more to explore here, but it’s almost better that this production focuses on accountability between the characters. Watching them negotiate this pressure is what makes this play so engaging; when Hench’s protectiveness of Bobby oversteps into aggression, or when the affection that Maggie lavishes on Bobby leaves Hench (sometimes deliberately) isolated. Even so, the idea that the brothers are responsible speaks to a wider problem in which youths are lost in the system and allowed to be left behind; the absence of workers from Bobby’s unit, or teachers, social care, or local authorities – especially post-incident – speaks volumes.
Although this silence works, towards the end Yen needs to recognise its content more. The issue of sexual assault weaves between the boys’ porn habits and graphic discussions of women; Maggie’s abuse from Hench’s father; and finally Bobby’s assault on Jen. Other than the brothers talking, we don’t see any of this violence. A lot is normalised in this play – racism and homophobia as well as sexual assault – but despite being at the crux of Yen, the assault itself is almost lost. This is the only time I felt that Yen could have tried harder; the scene between Jen and Hench didn’t fully recognise the trauma of Bobby’s attack.
This production manipulates what we see pass between the characters, as well as what we can’t see. It does this beautifully. The brotherhood is palpable and watching them both grow up and go wrong tugs at the heart.
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