Drama: Ex-teacher's school shooting play set in an English public school

4th September 2009 at 01:00
Teacher-turned-playwright draws on the horrors of the Columbine massacre

Original magazine headline: Teen killings played out in `dark' setting of English public school

A teenage gunman consumed with the difficulties of growing up commits a horrific school massacre killing fellow pupils and teachers.

It is a scenario familiar from the Columbine High School shootings in 1999 and from Jokela School in Finland two years ago, where eight died.

This week, two teenagers went on trial at Manchester Crown Court accused of a Columbine-inspired plot to blow up a school and a shopping centre on the 10th anniversary of the tragedy.

The pair, who deny the charges, are alleged to have made plans to imitate the US school killing in which two students - members of the so-called Trench Coat Mafia - murdered 12 fellow pupils and a teacher before turning the guns of themselves.

The idea that an English school could suffer such bloodshed is highly charged. But the possibility is brought to life on the stage in a new work by teacher-turned-writer Simon Stephens.

"I am drawn to Columbine because it frightens me as a parent and as a teacher," said Stephens. "There is an increasing sense that it could happen here. Access to guns is so much easier than it was 10 years ago and it will get worse over the next 10 years."

But the play is not set on a sink estate and populated by young men drawn into gang violence.

Lyric Theatre opening

Instead, Punk Rock, which opens at London's Lyric Theatre next week, is set at a private school in a northern town. Mr Stephens wants to confront his predominantly middle-class theatre-going audience with the view that violence is not confined to state schools in challenging parts of the inner-city.

"It's a generalisation, but a lot of the people coming to see a play may well have kids at private schools or want to send them there," he said. "That makes the play more of a provocation.

"I wanted to portray a school that audience members want to send their children to and then twist the knife and reveal the darkness underneath.

"I don't want to paint a rosy hue, but I have worked in a lot of comprehensives that are fantastic and energised. I have also worked in private schools where there is a tremendous sense of fear and pressure.

"In drama, state education gets such a rum deal. The portrayal of comprehensives is of institutions that are disaffected and brutalised.

"I wanted to say that violence is more than the product of a state school, or of being poor or inarticulate. It pervades all areas."

Mr Stephens qualified as a teacher at London University's Institute of Education and spent a year working at Eastbrook Comprehensive in Dagenham, Essex, teaching English and drama.

But he left to become writer in residence at the Royal Court Theatre and has gone on to considerable success. His play Pornography, about the London tube bombings, has recently finished a run at London's Tricycle Theatre, and Sea Wall was performed at the Edinburgh festival.

Since leaving the classroom fulltime, however, Stephens has continued to work in dozens of schools across the country, both state and independent, teaching students how to write drama.

He especially enjoys working in primary schools, he says, where pupils often use their imaginations more freely than older students who have had their ideas of drama shaped by soap operas.

  • `Punk Rock' opens at the Lyric Theatre, Hammersmith, next week before transferring to Manchester in October.
    • That's entertainment?

      • If . (1968)
        • British public school boys on a shooting spree was the climax of Lindsay Anderson's classic film more than 40 years ago. Malcolm McDowell is the leader of an increasingly rebellious gang of friends. After smoking out the school hall, they open fire with automatic weapons from the rooftop on staff, pupils and parents.

          • Heathers (1989)
            • Christian Slater's rebellious pupil shoots and poisons students at an American high school, then fakes their suicides. Arguably the funniest film about school killings.

              • Vernon God Little (2003)
                • DBC Pierre's award-winning comic novel, published four years after the Columbine massacre, centres on a disaffected 15-year-old who finds himself in the media spotlight after his friend shoots 16 classmates. A stage adaptation came to London in 2007.

                  • We Need to Talk About Kevin (2003)
                    • Lionel Shriver's novel was written from the perspective of a mother whose son carries out a school massacre. A film adaptation is expected soon.

                      • Elephant (2003)
                        • Partly based on Columbine, Gus Van Sant's film follows a group of pupils in the lead-up to a school shooting, some of whom are involved and some unaware. It was briefly blamed for the 2005 Red Lake High School massacre in Minnesota after it emerged the killer had seen the film days before and used a still from it on his website.

                          Michael Shaw.

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