Declan Greene's teen tragedy is a topical reminder about the fraught experience of adolescence
You probably know a Claryssa or a Sebastian, the two teenagers at the heart of Declan Greene’s 2010 play Moth. Claryssa (Ruby O’Kelly) is stubborn and angry, an uncomfortable pentagram-on-a-choker adolescent who bristles every time she’s called an ‘emo kid’ (hello, she’s Wiccan?). And Sebastian (Jeremi Campese), with his off-the-rails laughter, too-big school jumper and anime obsession, might be a bit of a teenage wreck, but he seems harmless. After all, when he tries to come up with a jab based on Claryssa’s name, the best he can do is ‘Clearasil’ (it cracks him up).
Claryssa and Sebastian are a classic alliance of misfits: sometimes you only find each other because no one else will look at you. There’s an uneasy awareness to their friendship; they seem to know that it’s partially created out of convenience and a craving for connection. But there’s real affection there too – Claryssa’s fondness for Sebastian is evident even under her awkward rage against the world, and when he makes her laugh it’s like a sudden sunburst on a cloudy day. These two awkward semi-loner misfits end up together on the school oval in the middle of the night, and then everything changes.
Moth is disarming, but cuts to the bone. What begins as a darkly funny teen drama becomes something much more compelling: a painfully relatable tragedy that takes in teenage trauma and mental illness, bullying and abuse, friendship and loss. Claryssa and Sebastian go through something awful that night on the oval and it breaks them apart: she becomes angrier and more isolated; he has a religious vision about the end of the world – and believes the bearer of that vision is a moth he sees in his bedroom. Greene’s story does not have a happy ending.
For the entirety of the play, Claryssa and Sebastian are alone on a stage, recounting for us – in flashback – the worst moments in their lives; to help us follow the swift changes in character, time of day and location, the set (by Tyler Hawkins) is just abstract enough to keep us focused on the storytelling. It’s a suggestion of concrete disrupted by wayward weeds and tufts of grass, keeping us grounded in the place where it all shifted: the oval at night, near the cricket nets.
O’Kelly and Campese clearly have a lot of love for their odd-couple characters; they feel reasonably three-dimensional and it’s easy to empathise with them. In moments of insecurity, Campese seems to shrink to half his size, and when he believes he’s carrying the secrets of the universe his entire countenance changes: gone is his fecklessness, replaced with a concentration and confidence that previously seemed impossible. And O’Kelly brings vital vulnerability to Claryssa; she bites off comebacks and throws them at with profane disgust at anyone who insults her, but at the same time it’s clear that she never really shakes off those remarks.
Greene, who is adept at brandishing humour incisively (in solo works like The Homosexuals, and collaborations as part of queer punk outfit Sisters Grimm) weaves levity through his writing as a matter of course. Director Rachel Chant treats those moments as a steam-valve, leaning into a laugh to help alleviate the heaviness of the play’s darker themes. The two characters assume a number of roles as they reconst the story, and Chant allows her actors to play these in a more exaggerated register, as if each were trying to get a laugh out of their friend. These caricatures are a blessing for us, too, when they cut through the horror of the moment.
The bullying that changes the course of Sebastian and Claryssa’s lives is written with the kind of aimless cruelty that might conjure up your own high school trauma, and it feels like a timely reminder that teenagers need emotional support, robust mental health services, and educational programs that promote not just tolerance, but mutual respect. Moth’s heart beats with deep love for the sensitive and vulnerable kids on the fringes. As you watch it, so will yours.