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Boyhood, Language, Torment: Southbank Performance Of Max Porter’s New Novel, ‘Shy’

“The night is huge. And it hurts.”

Image Credit: Arnaud Mbaki

Four days before its official April 6th release, alongside Ruth Wilson, Toby Jones, and David Blade, Max Porter performed at the Southbank Centre's Queen Elizabeth Hall an intense, electrifying stage adaption of his new novel, ‘Shy’. Set in 1995, the novel dives deep into the mind of a troubled teenage boy named Shy as he escapes from “Last Chance”—a home for “very disturbed young men.”

The four performers, as well as an incredible sign-language interpreter, all stood on podiums beneath bright, dramatic spotlights. Accompanied by intense, ambiance music, they dove immediately into a fast-paced, impassioned rhythm—speaking to each other, over each other, with each other. Only seconds into the performance and it was clear that Porter’s writing—a style littered with sound, rhyme, and character—is at its best when performed out loud. All his novels are quick-witted, curious things, lying somewhere in- between poetry and prose, but ‘Shy’ in particular, with its focus on voices, music, and language, seemed born for the stage.

As Shy escaped “Last Chance”, walked further and further into a field and rummaged through his past, the text brilliantly revealed and unraveled Shy’s internal world as a collection of voices: his own, those of the boys he lives with, his mother’s, step-father’s, therapist’s. On stage, Shy himself would often appear, illuminated by a red spotlight, face never seen, providing brief breaks from the performers’ readings.

Though incredible, it wasn’t an easy watch: amidst the difficult themes, the intensity of the reading only amplified as the piece dove deeper and deeper into Shy’s torment. By the end, Toby Jones had taken centre- stage and was violently chanting a nightmare of Shy’s, the other actors shouting along with him. Just like Porter went on to say in his post-performance on-stage conversation with Ruth Wilson: ‘Why should I have to simply please or be delightful or be pretty? We have to make books that are difficult and challenging.’

The conversation between Ruth and Max was particularly fascinating. They began by discussing the dramaturgical nature of Porter’s novels. ‘My books are listening machines’ he said, stressing his interest in the collage-nature of his novels—the juxtapositions of energies, themes, eras, characters—and what kind of reading experience such overlapping can create. “It’s a monologue of multiple voices but it’s one character on stage. He is someone that we are conventionally taught to think hasn’t got very much to say. I want to reveal that he’s actually got an enormous and hugely interesting universe of feeling within him.”

As Ruth and Max explored with eloquence and humour the numerous themes of the novel—from its musicality to its historical references, from its challenges to its imagery—Porter made clear that has never had interest in controlling the meaning of his work: “one of the ways in which you can encourage that is to perform it with other art-forms, so I will always share the space if I can.”

In the same way the novel interweaves multiple voices, Porter described his inspiration for the book as having sourced from many aspects of his life: “Shy is my grandmother, my long dead Dad, he’s children I knew were unhappy, children I haven’t yet met, he’s my sons. (...) He’s in looking at the modulations in language when describing people that are unhappy —how a turn of phrase used to describe an unhappy teenager can condemn them to a life of hurt.”

So many questions lie within the novel—and even Porter didn’t have the answer to all of them: What do you do with a “problem” like Shy? In what ways can places like “Last Chance” be sophisticated, generous, radical places of change? In what ways do we use and repurpose therapeutic language? How does one portray the teenage experience, especially one so violently caught up in its own doom?

Having read the entirety of ‘Shy’, I can only vouch for its incredible depth and quality—and the Southbank performance only mirrored that. Max Porter bends words to his will, and hearing his writing performed on- stage only amplified its complexity and power. Porter takes no account of what should be done, what would be prettier or more ‘eloquent’. He writes the mind as it is: chaotic, self-involved, and devastating.


Edited by Holly Cornall, Literature Editor


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