To say that Yen is absorbing would be an understatement: better to say that you get to the end and realise you’ve been holding your breath for minutes at a time. Better to say that it’s a play you come out of to find yourself surprised by the details of your real life because you’ve forgotten it exists, stopped believing in a world outside the one you’ve just been watching.
Yen is a tense, punishing play about two teenage boys – Hench and Bobbie – half-abandoned by their mother. She looks in on them from time to time, but she’s moved away to live with her boyfriend and left them behind in the flat they all shared, living together in one room, stealing food and cigarettes from local shops. It’s the child’s dream of independence, freedom, sweets for breakfast, come horribly to pass – Hench and Bobbie are sixteen and thirteen years old respectively, and we find them crouched in the ruins of their childhood between the high, rusted-climbing-wall bars of Georgia Lowe’s striking set.
They sit about. They play video games. They watch porn. They talk about women a lot and when they do they break them down into body parts: women they don’t know or don’t like aren’t people, they’re a tit as big as your head or a fanny with hair on it or an arsehole stretched, stretched out, unnatural, inhuman, bits. Internet porn is literally the background noise to their existence and all the women they know are just Bits except their mother Maggie (a perfectly pitched Sian Breckin). When she drops by, Alex Austin’s prickly, disquiet Hench has a loving way of hating her, while Bobby (Jake Davies, sliding perfectly between bursts of energy and desolation) is painfully tender in the face of her not-quite-but-nearly indifference.
It’s a devotion that borders on sexual, not that he’d recognise it: he spoons her while she sleeps and crouches over her shirtless when she is passed out drunk, they touch each other’s faces, necks – it’s a physical intimacy that looks unnatural between a mother and son, but not to Bobbie. It resembles nothing sexual the boys have ever seen. No cumshots.
And then Jennifer arrives.
Jennifer, played by Annes Elwy, who somehow manages to seem young and preternaturally wise all at once, is sixteen like Hench, and like both boys she has a dead father and a grief-stricken, emotionally withdrawn mother. When the three of them meet – she loves animals, she lives opposite, they clearly aren’t looking after their dog properly – it quickly becomes clear that Jennifer is self-assured and better educated and knows how to make the semi-parentless hinterland they are all in somewhere good to be, somewhere fun. Hench looks at her with so much love in his eyes that it makes him desperate, furious, and the boys scrap and snap at each other for her attention like two caged hounds.
Because Jennifer’s life has been different to theirs, full of love, and other family members who will take you in when things go wrong, and people to keep an eye on you – her experiences are wildly far from the multiple systemic failures that have left Hench and Bobbie fending for themselves. Most crucially, Jennifer’s life has taught her how to like herself and to be kind. She understands that she is worthy of love, and so sex for her comes naturally, its intimacy an extension of affection and not just a bodily function, dismal but exciting.
Yen‘s an unforgettable, almost unwatchable play filled with strange beauty and depth, and which manages to talk about the dangers of too much, too young (porn as well as everything else) without being moralising or prudish. What’s most remarkable about Anna Jordan’s writing is the taut mixture of incipient violence and utter, heart-wrenching tenderness: Yen is an angry play, but Jordan cares about her characters and treats them with respect, and they are tortured not by hatred or even really by anger, but by love. Directionless, desperate love with no outlet; a yearning without a name; a yen.
Yen is at Jerwood Theatre Downstairs until 13th February. Click here for tickets.