[The following contains spoilers.]
Simon Stephens’ “Herons” was first performed in 2001 at the Royal Court and it has now percolated down to the Pleasance Zoo, courtesy of the Exeter University Theatre Company (EUTCo). The dramatis personae are supposed to be a mixture of young teenaged children and distant adults, and something is lost in translation with an all-student cast of roughly equal ages and sizes. A play which is calculated to shock becomes less shocking.
It is still pretty shocking. The first half of “Herons” culminates in a WTF scene in which a fourteen year old boy is raped with a beer bottle. The people in the row in front of me hid their faces. Compared with the slow-burning menace of the preceding scenes, the rape seems to leap almost merrily out of the play. Perhaps the emblem of the heron somehow reflects our plight: we are like fish ripped out of the murk and exposed to unbelievable horror. The rape scene has a blinding, somewhat stupefying effect, and the ostensible danger for “Herons” is that we cannot discern the rest of the play through the dazzle.
The young protagonist Billy (Jamie Manton) is set apart from his grotty peers by his plum voice and shrill decency. His father (Ryan Whittle) had witnessed the aftermath of a murder and his testimony had helped to convict the biggest gangster on the estate. Billy and his father are consequently ostracised from the community and whenever the gangster returns from prison the chips will be down.
“Herons” retains its atmosphere of invasive paranoia so long as Billy’s dreams of escape are not vindicated by events within the world of the play. He strikes up a stoical romance with the cocksure but anguished Adele (superbly played by Hannah Lawrence). This is so affecting since Billy is at heart unconvinced that she can ever really save him. He instead looks to Nature, doting over the peace of the canal and the promise of the open sea simply because they do not remind him of anybody other than his father.
All good English Literature students know that impotence and fishermen are a natural pairing. We surely cannot imagine this Billy ever landing a fish and beaming over his trophy. The audience are this time cast as a canal – how many Fringe plays have I reviewed where we are either the sea or the restless fields beyond a farm’s veranda? We have not a fish between us and so Billy will get nowhere forlornly dangling his rod over us.
In taking on the gang, Billy’s first weapon is the truth and his second a gun. Billy is sodomised after telling the leader of the gang (George Watkins) that his convicted brother is a “nonce” and that “everybody hates your family.” We may admire Billy for speaking truth to power and then exacting a violent revenge when this fails. Yet it all seems suspiciously like a fantasy. In the real world, a criminal gang would not fall apart at the first sight of a gun. In the real world, decent people are often humiliated and eliminated.
And this is part of the trouble with the writing of “Herons”: everything is a bit unlikely. What village in England is so remote that a violent gang would contain only three members? The dialogue seems dated even for 2001, with its references to “geezers,” “boffins” and “winos,” and there is too much of it during the scenes of intimidation. People do not recite what they are thinking when their fists are raised.
Some promising characters, such as the pair of kids who launch a Pythonesque rant against a defenceless tree, get too little dialogue. Others get way too much. That Charlie remains living in danger because he still loves his estranged wife is a compelling storyline, but we do not need to see his wife repeatedly on stage to get the idea. We garner a good sense of Billy’s character from his constant clinging to a book, but we do not need to hear repeated passages from it.
Although “Herons” is already powerful, it needs to be stark as well as shocking. Perhaps this play should not let a good theatrical rape go to waste and it should be content to dazzle.