On 14 April the Royal Exchange Theatre’s Young Company will be giving the first performance of Nothing, which I’ve had the good fortune to adapt for the stage from the novel by Danish author Janne Teller.
I first read the paperback a couple of years back and was blown away by it. The story tells of what happens when teenager Pierre Anthon announces that life has no meaning, and that therefore nothing is worth doing. Fearful that he may be right – and anxious about what this would mean for their beliefs, their plans, their futures – his classmates set about proving to him that he’s wrong. Perhaps inevitably, things spiral out of control and Nothing becomes its own terrifying investigation into meaning, community, individual and collective responsibility and our value systems.
I wasn’t surprised to discover that the novel had won major awards when it was first published in Denmark in 2000 and was saddened though not entirely amazed to read that it had simultaneously been banned in a number of schools and libraries, where it was deemed “unsuitable” for young adults – the people it had been written for. I’m guessing adults were afraid it would encourage young people to think for themselves about the meaning of life and possibly to conclude, as Pierre Anthon, does, that it’s all pretty meaningless. In a western world where children’s mental health crises are soaring through the roof, where teenage suicide is on the rise, and where children’s mental health support services are beyond breaking point perhaps we’re afraid to open a can of worms with teenagers, afraid to openly discuss how in these formative years we think about the meaning of life possibly more than at any other stage in our lives. Whether or not they articulate it, young people are frequently preoccupied with the struggle to make sense of an insane world and their place in it.
It’s also quite a “nasty” story, and I’m guessing some adults will have been shocked by the content, particularly as the tone of the book is so matter of fact. There’s no adult voice here, no moralising. The young people involved reach their own conclusions and go through their own rites of passage through what happens and what they have done.
We rather wish they’d go away, be quiet, get off the bus, be less messy, talk properly, behave like sweet children, grow up…
As soon as I read the novel Nothing I wanted to remake it for the stage, for a group of young people to perform it, and to make it their own. I love that there are, essentially, no adults in this story, and in remaking it for theatre it immediately felt essential that there would be no adults in the play. It shows us young people in the act of trying to make sense of the world alone. They are their own, almost adult-free community with all the pressures, group-think, confusion, power games, capacity for atrocity and for compassion that we see every day in the adult world. I think the characters in Nothing have been let down by the adults in their lives. There’s no sense that any of the young people could talk to the adults about what they are grappling with. And this seems to me to be mirrored by the banning of the book. We’re very messed up, aren’t we, in our attitudes to teenagers? How frequently we over-protect them, are overly fearful for them, and yet we don’t like them very much. We demonise them. They make us uncomfortable. We rather wish they’d go away, be quiet, get off the bus, be less messy, talk properly, behave like sweet children, grow up…
When the adults do pop up, they behave pretty badly. In its later stages, in one of the most brilliant plot shifts I’ve read in years, the story becomes about the role of the media in defining and shaping meaning, and about art, its meaning, its value and the value of meaning. Overnight the young people go from being demonised to being deified – they are, very briefly, famous, made so by adults, including their parents. They are celebrities in the community that has judged them and found them guilty of a heinous crime. Equally quickly, the moment is past. And the teenagers’ final, shocking act remains a secret, to be kept forever from the adult world.
In adapting the novel for theatre, I’ve had fun with the “adults” in the story and I’m looking forward to seeing how the teenage cast realise this part of the play. I’ve also taken some liberties with the book. Things that work in novels – structurally and dramatically – don’t always work in plays and vice versa, and it felt important to find a way of remaking this story for the here and now, without taking away from its distinctive tone and sense of otherness – which I think comes in part from its style and in part from it being a book set in a fictitious place in Denmark, and being in translation.
I’m very interested in Nothing as a live, communal experience with an audience that will be at least 50 per cent adults – including the parents, carers and others who are the significant adults in the lives of the young people performing in the play. How is this a story about community? How do the young people on stage speak to us, the audience? What do they ask of us adults, and are we able or willing to give it? How are we complicit in the action?
The script has been developed along with many of the young people who are making Nothing, and with other members of the 140-strong Royal Exchange Young Company who are not directly involved in this project. Before we decided to go ahead and make it as theatre, we asked many of them to read the novel – we wanted to be sure they could “own” this material, that they liked the story, thought it true, relevant, worth exploring. Without exception, they did.
We’ve already had some fantastic conversations with them – often funny, often disturbing, frequently moving and always incredibly open and thoughtful. And in these weeks of rehearsal with director Bryony Shanahan and young company director Matt Hassall, they are talking more – about how they make meaning in their lives, what matters to them and what doesn’t, what belief and hope and faith mean to them, what they could or couldn’t sacrifice in order to persuade someone that life is not meaningless. It’s a great, challenging, meaningful conversation – and I’m so glad we’re having it now.
Nothing is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester 14-17 April. Photo: Anneka Morley