THE BLOG
01/02/2016 03:50 GMT | Updated 31/01/2017 05:12 GMT

'Yen' at the Royal Court - Why Are We So Squeamish About Britain's Underclass on Stage?

Richard Davenport

Why do we freak out about class so much in this country?

Yen, by Anna Jordan, is an utterly extraordinary, fearless, funny and disturbing play about life in poverty in 21st Century Britain. It tells the story of two boys left to fend for themselves by their alcoholic mother; they have only one t-shirt to share between themselves, they kill people all day on the xBox, and their only interactions with women are watching porn on a screen.

Jordan's talent is matched by Ned Bennett's playful direction, and startlingly brilliant performances from the cast. Many have recognized what an incredible piece of writing this is. It won the Bruntwood Prize for Playwriting in 2013, and has received an extremely positive response from critics in both London and Manchester.

But there's been a thread in some of the critical responses that betray a worrying squeamishness about the working class. It's been described, more than once, as a type of poverty porn. Others have suggested that we've seen this sort of thing too many times before.

When the lives of the working class and the underclass are already inadequately represented in a culture that is dominated by those who come from privilege, it's even more dangerous to dismiss the works that do.

The function of theatre, books, art - telling stories creatively - is to illuminate the human condition. It helps us make sense of the world we live in, and the people we share the planet with that are not us. One of my favourite descriptions of the theatre is that it is an 'empathy gym'.

If Yen is trying to tell us one thing, it is that people become brutalised by a system that neglects them, but we can all have a chance if someone or something can remind us that we're not invisible, that we do have something to offer the world. It's also exploring the inadequacy of our welfare structures, and how men are so ill-equipped to deal with feelings of shame that they resort to violence, and that isolation and a lack of community makes all of us poorer.

Describing a work that attempts to humanize the de-humanized as 'porn' only re-asserts that de-humanisation. It feels like an easy way to avoid engaging with writing that has something to tell us. It criticises Jordan for doing the very thing that good theatre demands - writing something compelling, that we can't draw our eyes away from. It mischaracterises our engagement as dirty voyeurism, cheap gratification. If Yen is poverty porn, why isn't Husbands and Sons at the National poverty porn? Because it was written by DH Lawrence? Because the safe distance of history means we look at the poor more romantically?

And it's disturbing to hear the play criticised for feeling too familiar, like we've seen it before. It seems to suggest that if you've seen one play about the working class, you've seem 'em all. I think it might be possible for us to have more than one play about working class life. In fact I think that might be quite important.

When fantastic writing that interrogates the social landscape comes along, it deserves more than being labelled as 'gritty' and dismissed as just another depressing play about the poor. It deserves to be watched, and watched again, by those who actually have the eyes to see what it is saying and what it is doing.