Any play that advertises itself as 'theatre for young people' should be approached with caution. The theatre world is no different from the publishing world: too often the 'young adult' label is used to excuse the shonkiest sort of condescending trash.
A good play for young people needs to be a good play. Full stop. That's the secret of Yellow Moon's enduring popularity.
In 2006, Scottish playwright David Greig was commissioned to write a play for secondary school students, one with action, adventure, romance and comedy, which teenagers could relate to, but which was also unashamedly theatrical. Why not demand the moon as well? Yellow or otherwise.
But because David Greig is a playwright who knows his business, and because he brings a youthful sortjoie de vivre to everything he writes, that's what they got.
It's about a pair of angsty teenage runaways, Leila and Lee, fed up with the everyday 'meh' of life in Scottish suburbia. He's a moody, wannabe bad boy with a sometimes alcoholic mother; she's a celebrity-obsessed, self-harming Muslim. Soon they're on a Bonny and Clyde-inspired romp, as Greig's bright, impressionistic narration hurls them through a series of hair-raising Highland adventures.
Directed by company associate director Leticia Cáceres, the MTC are staging a new production of Yellow Moon, the first show in their 2014 education program.
The play was originally written to be performed on the fly. The four actors would arrive in the classroom, push tables aside and simply begin to tell the story. Since then, the play has found success in more conventional theatres, but, like most plays that rely on a lot of narration, it benefits from a sense of spontaneity.
"This production will still have that organic, natural energy, I think," says Naomi Rukavina, who plays Leila. "We're using the theatre space in a different way, a way where you get that sense of a whole world created with words alone. "
Not only is Yellow Moon performed in the round, but the stage area itself extends through and around the audience, giving each audience member a unique angle on the action.
"It's the way we use the space," explains Rukavina, "some people in front, some behind. So you might miss something if the actor is facing a different direction at that moment, but then you invent it, imagine what they did."
Traditionally, of course, the rule is that everyone in the audience should be able to see everything at all times. But David Greig is more interested in capturing the rough and roiling energy of a great yarn, well told, than conforming to the rule. When so much ostensibly traditional theatre looks like television, Greig asks his actors to evoke a more primitive storytelling ideal.
"You can do heaps more with your brain than you can with a set," says Rukavina, rising to the challenge. "I can't put a loch on stage, or a lake, or any large body of water, unfortunately, but I can imagine it."
Greig paints this world of lochs and young love with a wonderfully rampant, earthy poetry, but a poetry that has a modern inflection.
"I love his language. He doesn't play it safe, he doesn't tone anything down," says Rukavina of Greig's famously colourful language. "They're really swearing."
Rukavina has been something of a quiet achiever on Melbourne stages. Her compact, unfussy yet compassionate turn as Neoptolemus in the Hayloft Project's adaptation of Philoctetes and her dashing though subtle and slightly cool Romeo in an all-female Romeo and Juliet, both in 2012, announced her as an intelligent, self-controlled actor, preferring calm intensity to histrionic flourish. She is a terrific choice for the introverted, but quietly volcanic Leila, breathless before her first, red-raw encounter with love.
"I remember that time, about boys, as a teenager, just starting to have relationships with the opposite sex," says Rukavina. "It was so charged. And I remember it just like it is in this play."
And perhaps this is the real secret to the success of Yellow Moon and it's consistent popularity around the world. It's about teenagers in love, and it has a swaggering, green musicality, but it's also remarkably tender, full of shadowy insinuations and dark yearnings of every kind, including the terrifying knowledge, which haunts everyone in love, young or old, that desire is a flame which consumes as it illuminates and ravishes:
Let’s sit close together and hold our hands out to the fire and let’s think to ourselves we never want this moment to end because now, at last, we’re in a story.
"It doesn't stop," says Rukavina. "Feeling these things, learning new lessons in love. Sometimes it feels like you're forever seventeen."