Six maladjusted, downtrodden schoolboys trickle into a decrepit inner-city classroom. There are no books, no chalk, and they certainly aren’t expecting a teacher to arrive, but they wait for one anyway. After a while, their angry, swaggering leader decides that, in the absence of a teacher, they will take turns giving each other lessons. “Knowledge”, he insists, is important. But what kind of knowledge? Talk of sex and gardening soon turns to vandalism and racist diatribes, and we know that it’s only a matter of time before things turn really nasty.
Nigel Williams’ Class Enemy is a 1978 punk-influenced British play steeped in the immediately pre-Thatcher social malaise (little knowing what was ahead), starring an intriguing group of misfits who are variously bored, stupid, confused, depressed or simply angry. United by little else than hardship and circumstance, these young men have nothing and expect even less, their fragile camaraderie creating a combustible “us and them” attitude to the world of teachers, police, social workers, parents, politicians and the like. Their ringleader, by virtue of his dominating machismo, soon declares that it is them against the world, that everyone outside this room is the enemy. Yet it becomes readily apparent that, although these boys are genuinely disadvantaged, perhaps their worst enemies are themselves, and maybe each other.
Williams’ play provides a totally engrossing dissection of a group of overgrown boys who have little to live for, ground down by a system that (quite explicitly) doesn’t care, and their resulting rage, destructiveness and despair. It is an extremely male play, with no female characters nor hardly any consideration of them beyond bragging references as sex objects. It’s almost a study in masculinity gone wrong in the wasteland of the lower classes, each boy having a different reaction to the encroachment of their devalued and directionless manhood.
Although very specifically set in a different time and place, this play does not seem at all dated. While it is an annoying fallacy for revived plays to always be judged on the petty basis of so-called “relevance”, Class Enemy is a play that seems pertinent to just about any society or era due to its subject of the disaffected male youth of the disenfranchised, sadly a perennial reality.
Terence Clarke has expertly directed this tight, all-male cast, led by Ivan Donato’s captivating and at times almost terrifying performance as the bullying leader Iron. Donato is shaping up to be a consummate character actor (barely recognisable from his comedic role in Marivaux’s The Game Of Love And Chance back in April), having absolutely nailed the subtleties of this complex role. It would be so easy for an actor to mishandle this part; to be simply obnoxious or excessively charming without making allowances for the other, or to make the switches between the two seem schizoid, or worse still to tip one’s hand too early as to the character’s ultimate emotional meltdown and genuine vulnerability. Donato gets it just right, perfectly balancing the role’s appealing and repellent qualities, affording this rather extreme character the crucial nuances that assure his believability. Class Enemy is worth seeing for his performance alone.
This is not to downplay the contributions of the other actors, who on the whole do excellent work with their less dramatic parts. Paul-William Mawhinney is excellent as Skylight, the group’s optimist (well, comparatively speaking) and thus Iron’s opposite number and antagonist, managing to stand up very effectively to Donato without simplistically trying to match him in belligerence.
Second-year student Julian Curtis is particularly charismatic as the effete Sweetheart, and would steal the show given a more prominent part. Fellow guest actor and past graduate Jamie Irvine gives an impassioned turn as a teacher, the smallest role in the play yet a crucial one, and Irvine punches above his weight as the frustrated educator.
The other three schoolboys Nipper (Ben Welford), Racks (John Shrimpton), and Snatch (Pacharo Mzembe) each get their moment to shine, particularly Welford who is convincing and sympathetic in delivering his tirade blaming “the blacks” for their collective poverty. Mzembe gets his chance at an indirect rebuttal of sorts, in his memorable “nigger” speech.
Special mention also goes out to the excellent production design by Brigid Dighton (set), Paul Matthews (costumes) et al., including the novel idea of dressing the corridor into the theatre as a dilapidated locker room.
Class Enemy is a terrific piece of theatre, a riveting slow-burn perfectly realised by its exceptionally talented young cast.
by Nigel Williams
Venue: Parade Studio NIDA | 215 Anzac Parade, Kensington
Season: 10 - 20 October | Matinee Saturday 20 October
Performances: Evenings 7.30pm; Matinees 2pm
Prices: Adult $25 | Conc $15 | Groups 10+ $15
Bookings: 1300 795 012 or ticketek.com.au