There’s a great tradition in British theatre of using schools, be they the privileged public school system or the local comp, as metaphors for the various ills that have beset the whole country. The latest foray into this territory comes from one of the most gifted and interesting dramatists of recent times, and presents perhaps the most disturbing ‘school play’ for some years.
Simon Stephens’ piece, following the stir of interest created by Pornography and The Sea Wall, centres on a high school shooting, yet it’s the school itself that might surprise audiences. For here, the privileged children of the elite at a grandiose public school are both perpetrators and victims. ‘The idea that a student can attain a gun and bring it into a classroom, as has happened in Scandinavia and the USA, in Britain is a starting point,’ Stephens explains. ‘But setting it in a school that you’d dream of sending your kids to, rather than one you wouldn’t dream of sending your kids to, the idea of seeing a gun in the hand of a white middle class boy, rather than a young black teenager off a housing estate is a juxtaposition of imagery that’s interesting to me.’
‘We’re used to seeing violence among kids on the stage, but ordinarily there are equations made between class and violence, or race and religion and violence among young people,’ Stephens explains. ‘But I think that there are more forces that are marginalising and alienating people than class, race or religion. There’s something oddly comforting to a middle class audience in that. They’re used to violence in a world that doesn’t belong to them. But there are more things that have gone awry in an acute way in our culture than that.’ Part of the problem, Stephens maintains, is the educational system itself. ‘I think if there’s one thing that runs through a lot of my work, from Pornography to The Sea Wall and on to Punk Rock is the possibility of fear, of celebrating the honesty of doubt and embracing ambiguity. Now there’s 14 years of education that posits itself on the idea of there being right and wrong answers, which puts kids under pressure and is very emotionally damaging.’
King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, Tue 28 Sep–Sat 2 Oct