The stars of Simon Stephens' Punk Rock on their characters, their experiences and the meaning behind the play
Meet William Carlisle, a painfully shy and bright seventeen-year-old boy with something of a "God" complex. He genuinely thinks he's better than everyone else in his Stockport school. An awkward, over-compensatory, nervous, kind, funny and unpredictable soul, William's world will be turned upside down when he falls for new arrival Lilly Cahill from Cambridge.
Lilly herself is far from nervous, but eager to please. She has moved around a lot and finds her new surroundings very welcome. On the outside, Lilly is worldly, cocky, streetwise, opinionated and superior, but inside she hides neediness, loneliness and emotional insecurity. And her very arrival will be the catalyst for the central chain of events in Simon Stephens' Punk Rock.
For almost a month, Belfast's Lyric Theatre has played host to the trials and misadventures of seven confused teenagers at Stockport Grammar School. The tension between William and Lilly, brought to life by Rhys Dunlop and Lauren Coe on their stage debuts, is the nucleus of the play.
Dunlop & Coe, both graduates of The Lir, Ireland's National Academy Of Dramatic Art in Dublin, speak to Si's Sights And Sounds about their roles in and experience of making Punk Rock.
What does Punk Rock mean to you in the context of this play? Personally, I see it as representative not so much of the music, but of the personality that goes into the music; the flip side of good vibrations and teenage kicks.
Rhys Dunlop (William): I agree completely. The children in the play are by no means "punks" but rather share the energy that the music lends itself to. It charges the scenes and play accordingly.
Lauren Coe (Lilly): Definitely. To me, it means anarchy, rebellion, the constant struggle against authority, which is often the main cause of a violent undercurrent in teenagers. It's in these characters' every attitude, vocabulary and the way in which they wear their uniforms. They're trying to carve out an identity for themselves in a world of adults who either show little interest or far too much.
Dunlop: Simon Stephens, the writer, inserted songs into the script for the top of each scene, which really do give a unique dynamic to what follows them. He said he wanted to give audiences the feel of being at a rock concert, and I believe the explosive energy of the music between scenes helps to achieve that.
Coe: Punk Rock is also hugely about hormones. Sex and lust are massive themes within the play, to the point where pent-up desire is almost unbearable, and the action of sex provides some sort of animalistic release from the systems of emotional instability.
How did you decide to approach playing your characters?
Dunlop: Because, to me, the play's text is so good, I found that if you just trust the language and punctuation, then the character takes care of itself. It is often said that character is as character does, or says. I think that rings true for William in Punk Rock.
Coe: Lilly has never had a place to call home, therefore she has no reference point for her identity. So she has created a shield of bravado around her, to feel protected. At one point, she reveals to William that she cuts and burns herself; I spent a bit of time on self-harm forums as research, to get an understanding of the self-harmer's psyche.
But what I found really interesting was that a lot of sufferers said their self-harm wasn't an attempt at suicide, but a way of dealing with emotional pain: coping and surviving. To me, Lilly is a survivor. The animals she uses to describe herself in the play – a wolf, a leopard, a rhinoceros, a gazelle, a cheetah, an eagle and a snake – are all predatory. They survive because they are clever, strong and ferocious, just like her.
Dunlop: Of course, there are also a number of technical obligations regarding preparation; dialect, back story, social & cultural context, to name but a few. Thankfully we explored a lot of this in the rehearsal room. (Director) Selina Cartmell invested a lot of time in creating the world of the play together as an ensemble and sharing our research materials with the group. We also worked with dialect coach Brendan Gunn right from the start of rehearsals, which was massively important.
How do you view the compelling dynamic between William and Lilly in Simon Stephens' script? Having seen and reviewed the play myself (read the review here), I'm convinced that one would struggle to get by without the other...
Dunlop: I think they are very similar in many ways, despite their possible diametric opposition on the social ladder. They see the world through the same frame. William finds an equal in Lilly, someone worthy of his presence, conversation and indeed life. I mean that in a marital sense as opposed to a sacrificial one.
Coe: In the rehearsal process, Selina Cartmell talked a lot about the idea of matter versus antimatter. She asked, were our characters matter (positive) or antimatter (negative)? Lilly knows that William is, in many ways, part of the same "antimatter" tribe as her; explosive and dangerous. He notices her scars. They understand each other within the "academic zoo" of Stockport Grammar School. They both have a contempt for the mainstream and they feed off each other, and need this connection to validate themselves. They are two dangerous energies, and when they collide, it detonates and causes a tragic outcome.
Dunlop: Lilly is the catalyst for all that happens in the play, the kerosene that sets William's journey alight and ultimately causes it to burn out of control. You're right, they do struggle to get by without the other, or at least William does, further evidenced in the play.
Coe: I think Lilly knows she's playing with fire with William. She knows he really likes her, but she can't resist feeding the flame because her own desperate need to feel wanted makes her ask for more. Her flirtations are overt, so it's no wonder that William builds up the confidence to ask her out, thinking she'll say yes.
But, of course, it's not all about William and Lilly. There are five more characters in this Stockport Breakfast Club – bully Bennett, cynical Cissy, sporty Nicholas, idealistic Tanya, and extremely geeky Chadwick. How do you think your characters perceive them?
Dunlop: Intellectually, William acknowledges Chadwick's brilliance, and he is indeed a friend. However, he still positions himself above Chadwick in his head, due to his social background. I think William hates Nicholas, because he's probably everything William wants to be: athletic, good looking and charming, with the power and social position to step in and stop the bullying in the play. William admires and is jealous of the relationship that Cissy and Bennett have. He wants a girlfriend; if he has one, he believes that he will be seen as the alpha male of the group, not Bennett.
Coe: Like William, Lilly has a superiority complex. She seems to have something to say about everyone; she tends to be judgmental. After being at the school for merely a week, she's not entirely sure she trusts Chadwick, nor likes him: "He's not normal". She also says Bennett does her head in, and I don't think she's alone there! But I think that when Bennett becomes increasingly cruel to Chadwick, Lilly feels really bad about judging Chadwick so quickly. She's very contradictory, which makes her a very truthful teenager and really enjoyable to play.
Dunlop: As William free falls through the play, I think he is trying to make his mind up about how he perceives everyone else. He gravitates to and from them all at different points in the play, suggesting a dissociation with the group and arguably society.
Coe: I think Lilly's relationship with the other girls is an interesting one. They have a laugh, but I don't think she would be friends with either of them without the other. Neither of the two girls are exactly Lilly's type of person: Cissy is a girly girl, very bitchy, and Tanya's a bit hyperactive, though I think Lilly admires her kindness. Lilly has a strong sexual chemistry with and physical attraction to Nicholas... in my opinion, Nicholas's level-headedness and normality provide Lilly with positivity, a respite from her own mental health issues.
How challenging have both of you found this, your stage debut?
Dunlop: Massively challenging and equally rewarding. I've been so lucky to work on such an amazing character with and an incredible company. Long may it continue!
Coe: A fantastic experience. It's been really comforting to work with two of my peers from drama college and a cast of other people from our age group. We've had a lot of fun together and I'll miss them a lot. I guess the biggest challenge is the length of the run, and the size of the theatre – you need a massive amount of stamina! Lilly's a very complex creature as well, so there was a lot of problem solving along the way too.
Are you pleased with the reception so far, both from audiences and critics?
Dunlop: It's been great that the play has been received so well. I think this is a really exciting piece of work and fearless programming from Jimmy Fay. I just hope that it gets supported by good houses so that we can earn and ultimately expect new, bold and exciting work like this from now on.
Coe: Responses have been incredible. The play really seems to blast a hole in the centre of people, which I'm sure was Simon Stephens' intent. We've had very vocal audiences too – lots of laughter, applause in random places and even a few "Oh God" cries!
Contemporary theatre is so important to me, as I believe theatre should always be reflecting the present day real world. Hopefully Punk Rock will be a step towards more new writing being programmed in Irish theatres, and drawing new, younger audiences.
Punk Rock runs in Belfast's Lyric Theatre until Saturday September 6 2014, with a special performance featuring a post-show discussion with writer Simon Stephens on Thursday September 4.