Artistic director David Fenton on challenging perceptions and tackling issues in Replay's latest production
Penned by an award-winning playwright, produced by an acclaimed children’s theatre company but using the words of real local teenagers, Bulletproof by Replay Productions is a play featuring a teenage brother and a sister - Alex and Michael - and looks, uncritically, at the issues surrounding the mental health of young people.
Playwright Gary Owen interviewed young people in Belfast and used their words and stories to piece together a script which he then transformed into a kind of theatre verité, without varnish, sentiment or irony.
This direct style of theatre, called Verbatim, dissolves the calcified buttress that keeps ‘ordinary’ people at arms-length, not only from access to theatre but from the mechanisms of creating theatre. Other notable Verbatim plays would be Deep Cut, which brought mysterious deaths at the army barracks of the same name to national attention, and David Hare's Enron.
At its very best, Verbatim provides a stage for voices seldom heard in auditoria – theatre for the people by the people - and in the process reveals truths about us all, or, as Replay’s new artistic director David Fenton suggests, 'it transforms the documentary into the dramatic'.
As well as being one the first major commissioned works produced locally in the Verbatim style, Bulletproof is also the first time that Northern Irish audiences will see something of the vision that new boy Fenton brings to Replay, Northern Ireland's longest running educational theatre company.
A personable and chatty Australian, Fenton stepped into the Replay role in early 2009. With Bulletproof, he presents a calling card that perhaps signifies a tougher, more uncompromising version of the Replay remit. 'I think you have to be aware of the amazing history of the company and their reputation but try and wear it as lightly as possible and carry on with your idea of things,' says Fenton.
Over a year in development, Bulletproof is also Replay’s first post-primary production for some time, and tackles a subject that couldn’t be more relevant to young people today. The statistics on teen depression in Belfast alone make for grim reading. Suicide rates, particularly among young working-class males in places like north and west Belfast, whilst being addressed by sterling work within those communities are still ridiculously, tragically high.
Mental health was always a subject that Fenton wanted to tackle. 'I’d had an idea to do something about this subject. Then, with the publishing of the Bamford Review (about the provision of resources for people with mental and physical disabilities) that gave us something to actually hinge a piece off.'
Writer Gary Owen, a Mayer-Whitworth Award winner, came to Belfast for a creative development session with kids from New Lodge Arts project as well as more formal interviews with the (now defunct) OMAC Youth Panel.
For Fenton, the watchword when dealing with subjects of this nature, and translating them to the stage, is ‘authenticity’: 'The language used has to be young people’s language. I’m Australian and the Gary is Welsh, but what cuts right through that is the fact that we’re taking genuine voices of local kids and hopefully using them in an authentic way.
'What’s really great about this is that the kids involved are involved to the finish – they get to see the play and they have a say in how they feel it represents them. It’s a fully consultative process.”
As director, Fenton was keen to alter the straight ‘proclaim to audience’ or ‘earnest dialogue’ conventions that such theatre normally cleaves to. For him, it’s about challenging young people’s ideas of theatre as well as subject.
'My job as a director is to take the script and lift it to a theatrical level. One of the great things about Gary as a playwright is that he doesn’t proscribe how the text should be played. So there are moments when the characters talk directly to us, then there are other moments where their realities merge.
'Dramatically it’s constantly changing. For young people they’re not just dealing with the content but also the form. I think more companies should be experimenting with form and different ways of presenting theatre to young people.'
The play itself forms the cornerstone from which young audiences can engage with the subject and talk about their own experiences, and a 30-page document has also been drafted in association with professional bodies, that includes further information about depression and mental illness. Fenton is adamant that this is a vital part of the project.
'It’s essential that the play is a starting point for people to talk and address the issues that may be personal to them. After schools performances, there will be sessions and workshops and if anybody has been affected by what they’ve seen, there will be one-to-one sessions. I think we’ve delivered a seriously challenging and empowering project with a very keen sense of social justice.'
A year and a half in the making, the distillation of dozens of voices in the process, and a bold opening statement by anyone’s standards, Bulletproof marks not just a new era for Replay but possibly for Northern Irish theatre itself.
Bulletproof has just finished a two-night run at the Baby Grand. It now goes on tour in schools across the country.