I was having a bit of an anxiety attack on Tuesday morning (a near death experience with a double-decker bus and a strange email sent my brain whirling) and when I sat myself down at the Traverse Theatre to see Simon Stephens's new play Morning, I knew I was fucked. Morning will dial your anxiety up to eleven.
Stephens's play about teenage girls who take a boy out to a field and end up engaged in something truly grisly is not the least bit light and will not bring peace to anyone's mind. But staged with elegance by Sean Holmes, and executed with finite precision by the young cast, the uncomfortable play is a powerful but searing trip into the mind of disturbed children.
Stephanie (Scarlet Billham) is a bored teenager left to care for her dying mother and whose best friend Cat (Joana Nastari) is moving away. She thinks nothing of stealing her brother's (Myles Westman) iPod to give to Cat as a present or thrusting her unsuspecting boyfriend Stephen (Ted Reilly) into an uncomfortable situation or bite his mouth as she kisses him because she can. We are led into the mind of Stephanie where things are set aflame, drowned, and buried. The more she speaks the more she lays out the logic of her disturbance and all we can do is watch the inevitable violence that will come from this.
From the texture of the set pieces (tarps, glass, harsh lights) to the ominous sound, Morning works on all levels to create tension with the audience. Stephens's script keeps us guessing as to what is coming next as characters enter and exit, come and go without introduction or warning. Holmes takes that tension and pulls stunning performances out of the young cast.
When I saw them later in the theater cafe I was still a little too shaken up to see them as anyone but their characters. Ted Reilly was wide-eyed innocence, half-wondering whether he had scored big or was actually freaked out. Scarlet Billham pulls off the challenging role of conveying Stephanie's off-kilter point of view and still flying below the radar of adults who would question her. Myles Westman was the worried little brother who wanted comfort or relief from his big sister and getting none--one of the few characters to call her out on her disturbing behavior.
With a rich and dissonant soundscape (sound design by Nick Manning) that is built live on stage as we watch, we endure repeated strands of terrifying sound layered on top of each other so that there is no balm for our eyes or ears. Much like a gruesome episode of The Peanuts, there are no adults here to monitor these children, see the warning signs, or address their pain. "Living young and wild and free" these teens are adrift. Some are
falling in love, some are moving away from their small town, and some
are innocent pawns in Stephanie's game. Stephanie takes control in the only way she knows how.
I kept seeing interconnectedness between the plays and shows I saw in
Edinburgh. There was a line in one of the Will Eno plays at Northern
Stage that came back to me after watching Morning. A professional
football coach, late in his life, addressing a press conference says
"When is high school over. When do I begin my life as me on earth."
That perpetual search for adulthood is always weighing on us, but does
it weigh any heavier than it does on teens when they think that is all
they want, and when they have no concept of what it means.
Stephens's play might be disturbing but it is disturbing for a purpose. We are offered a world without hope and the terror is so successful because of the plausibility of such a place. The play does not explain, moralize, or counsel. You could grasp at the reasons for "why" Stephanie does what she does but it's not the point. I could not help but feel that Stephens has created characters who behave like real children: hoping that if they ignore the problem it will go away, not quite believing what they have done. Nothing feels real to them but it feels all too real to the audience which is why it is so effective.
Stephanie feels invisible, so she chooses to make her mark. Stephanie quotes Marx writ large with red lipstick on the side of her house: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world. The point is to change it." And so she does. Maybe Sondheim was right, Children Will Listen.
Morning will next play at the Lyric Hammersmith in London.