New writing: overviews
New writing goes political (2003)
• New writing in an age of abundance (2003)
writing in British theatre today (1998)
by Aleks Sierz
The trend which led to this howl of rage was sparked off by Sarah Kane's Blasted at the Royal Court theatre in January 1995, an event which unleashed half a decade of 'in-yer-face theatre'. Blasted was shocking because of its sex and violence - the Guardian listed its 'scenes of masturbation, fellatio, frottage, micturition, defecation - ah, those old familiar faeces - homosexual rape, eye gouging and cannibalism'.
In reply, Kane pointed out that 'a list of contents is not a review' and attacked the critics' failure to understand new drama. Where Kane led, others followed. Play after play stormed into the glare of media attention: Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking, Jez Butterworth's Mojo, Patrick Marber's Closer, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and a dozen other hi-octane trawls through the extremes of human experience. Over the past five years, as I sat through one outrage after another, I realised I was witnessing a revolution in sensibility akin to the one initiated in 1956 with Look Back in Anger.
Like any revolution, it needed a name. 'In-yer-face theatre' is the best way of describing this type of drama, which uses explicit scenes of sex and violence to explore the depths of human emotion. Characterised by a rawness of tone, it is aggressive, confrontational and provocative. Kane called this 'experiential theatre' because it can be so intense it gives audiences the feeling of having lived through the events shown on stage.
Of course, there'd been shocking postwar plays before - from Edward Bond's 1965 Saved with its notorious baby-stoning scene to Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain, whose homosexual rape provoked a prosecution in 1980 - but the sheer intensity and relentless darkness of 1990s theatre seemed unprecedented.
Central to such new drama was the Royal Court, which produces some 15 new plays a year. Under Stephen Daldry, who went on to direct the film Billy Elliot, the Court used the furore over Blasted to launch many other writers. Daldry's mission statement was 'We have to listen to the kids'. And listen he did, putting on a rash of exciting twentysomething dramatists, who attracted audiences of their own generation. Nor was his the only theatre with 'yoof' appeal. Others included fringe venues such as the Bush, and regional playhouses such as Edinburgh's Traverse and the Birmingham Rep.
But in-yer-face plays were not merely the obscure fruit of subsidised theatres. At one point in 1998, Shopping and Fucking, Closer and Ben Elton's Popcorn enjoyed commercial success in Shaftesbury Avenue. As veteran playwright Sir David Hare said, 'After all those years of being fashionably beaten, theatre is suddenly healthy again.' And playwright David Edgar reckons that new work's box office success rose to 57 per cent by 1997, 'outperforming adaptations, classics and even Shakespeare'.
Theatre's young Turks not only talked to audiences of their own age, they also influenced older playwrights. Would Hare have begun The Judas Kiss, his 1998 play about Oscar Wilde, with an act of onstage cunnilingus, if younger writers had not used similar images? Isn't there more than just a trace of Blasted in Harold Pinter's 1996 Ashes to Ashes?
Nor was guerrilla art confined to theatre. Watching plays such as Philip Ridley's Ghost from a Perfect Place, in which an old gangster is tortured by teenage girls stubbing cigars in his face, or Anthony Neilson's Penetrator, which features pornography as well as a vicious knife fight, I was reminded of the wider culture of shock: the Royal Academy's 1997 Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists, Benetton adverts, the fashion industry's 'heroin chic', television's The Word and The Jerry Springer Show.
Harry Gibson, whose stage version of the iconic Trainspotting was a massive success, sees in-yer-face theatre as a symptom of a modern malaise. He says, 'The excess of the wild folk becomes a spectacle for the tame folk', a form of cultural tourism by which the privileged classes visit hellish ghettos in the safety of the theatre.
But why did this new sensibility emerge in the 1990s? The short answer is that political change inspired artistic freedom. The end of the Cold War freed young imaginations. In the 1990s, traditional categories of left and right in politics broke down, allowing writers to tackle issues free from the dead hand of ideology. Dominic Dromgoole, Bush theatre supremo until 1996, says, 'In the 1980s, most theatres wanted well-meaning, well-reasoned, victim-based plays. But in the 1990s, theatres gave young writers freedom - no ideologies, no rules, no taste.' As theatre shook off the style police, young writers embraced 'a new Jacobeanism'.
In some senses, the young Turks were Thatcher's Children. Thatcherism had a paradoxical effect, says Ian Rickson, Daldry's successor at the Court: 'The writers who grew up under Thatcher were simultaneously disempowered and empowered. On the one hand, state power was strengthened at the expense of the individual; on the other, the only way of achieving anything was to do it yourself.'
Youth seized the chances offered by this DIY culture. In the 1990s, they turned weakness into strength. At a time of cuts in subsidy, there was an explosion of creativity. Despite lack of funding, many writers practised their craft because, as Edward Bond observes, 'they had something urgent to say'.
For Graham Whybrow, the Court's literary manager, exciting new writing 'will often have an oppositional spirit' which tends to 'surprise, provoke and shock'. But while in-yer-face theatre affronted the values of Middle England, it was never pro-working class. For most writers, both consumer society and its traditional leftist critics were equally suspect. If commodity capitalism was still Satanic, the proletariat was no longer God.
In place of state-of-the nation epics of previous decades, 1990s writers chose to stage a more private dissent. Blasted is about rape and civil war in Europe, but doesn't mention Bosnia; Shopping and Fucking criticises consumer society by showing individuals selling telephone sex and drugs. Daldry says that new plays were invariably 'explorations of private values rather than society's morals'. Intimate pain took the place of public preaching.
If state-of-the-nation plays fell out of favour, most young writers still painted a vivid picture of contemporary life. Britain was seen as a bleak place where families were dysfunctional, individuals rootless and relationships problematic, a land of loners drifting from bedsits to shabby flats. Here, rent boys, girl gangs or petty-thieves were hard to avoid.
No one suggests that most British people were drug addicts or abuse victims: social surveys showed that most young people wanted a job and a stable family. But many young writers used extreme characters to criticise social values. As dramatist John Mortimer put it, they reflected the 'strident, anarchic, aimless world of England today, not in anger, or even bitterness, but with humour and a kind of love'. Their apolitical attitude also suggested that the liberal imagination was in crisis.
More important were issue politics. For example, Joe Penhall explored mental health in Some Voices, Anthony Neilson tackled censorship in The Censor, and almost everyone showed men behaving badly. As Ian Rickson says: 'One of the most important issues of the late-20th century has been the crisis in masculinity in the workplace and the family - that's why there's been a lot of boys' plays.' While feminist writing wilted, loud-mouthed laddish plays, exemplified by Jez Butterworth's Mojo, became a distinct trend.
Fashionable as it was, in-yer-face drama didn't escape criticism. Veteran critic Milton Shulman denounced Shopping and Fucking as 'a psychotic babble written by someone with an anal fetish'. He also pointed out that 'some critics reinforced their reputations as liberal observers by supporting any form of explicit sexual activity on the stage as a dramatic advance'.
Director Matthew Warchus called plays about drugs and violence 'reactionary and really uninteresting', while, in May 1998, the Spectator's Harry Eyres regretted how 'sensation and nihilism stalk the stages', strutting their stuff in imitation of director Quentin Tarantino and artist Jeff Koons. 'Sensationalism is predicated on insensitivity. The idea is that dulled audience response must be jerked into life by whatever violent means are necessary.' But, he argued, 'sensation merely entrenches the insensitivity it is supposed to challenge.'
While it is perfectly true that in-yer-face writing quickly lost its sensational newness, its ability to disturb remains. What is shocking about a Mark Ravenhill play is not its scenes of anal sex, but the callousness of its characters. Overtly shocking images are less important than the devastated emotions they represent.
A more biting criticism of such plays is that they lack heart. It is paradoxical that an era which flattered itself as being 'the caring decade' produced a drama that often lacked compassion. But while Mojo and Closer are vulnerable to this criticism, writers such as Kane combined aggression with compassion. Ravenhill, whose work mixes idealism with cool detachment, argues that 'heart is the eye of the beholder' - different audiences respond in different ways.
Today, however, the heady days of in-yer-face outrage are over. On 20 February 1999, Sarah Kane committed suicide, an act which seemed to close an era. Equally significant was the failure of Irvine Welsh's vicious You'll Have Had Your Hole and, by contrast, the success of Conor McPherson's redemptive The Weir. But if the days of shock-fests are gone, the impact of the in-yer-face avant-garde can be felt everywhere. They kicked down the door of complacency, letting through a whole range of talent, exemplified by Ayub Khan Din's East Is East.
So if the new wave has broken, it has also done its job. In-yer-face drama not only made theatre hip, it had also made it a profitable export. Between 1995 and 1999, there were more than 400 productions worldwide of plays premiered at the Court. In Germany, Kane is more often staged than Schiller. The lasting influence of the new drama lies both in restoring British theatre's morale, and in expanding its ambitions and its range. Today, new writing is not always in-yer-face, but it is healthier and more diverse than ever.
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Outrage' in The Daily Telegraph on 17 February 2001
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New writing: overview (2001) part ii by Aleks Sierz
Imagine you're a young writer fed up with the banalities of pop culture and burning with something new to say. You've got a talent for dialogue, and your mates crease up when you read them your skits. Attracted by the idea that theatre is uncensored, and by the desire to see your name in lights, you write your first play. What next?
You've heard of the Royal Court in London, which staged the debuts of John Osborne (Look Back in Anger) in 1956 and Sarah Kane (Blasted) in 1995. You could send your play there. Graham Whybrow, its literary manager, says, 'We get 3,000 scripts a year - the door is always open for anybody. We are always looking for new talent.'
Although, he says that 'the conditions in Britain are more favourable than in any other country in Europe for first-time writers', it's rare that your first shot hits the jackpot. When it does, the results can be spectacular. Martin McDonagh's Beauty Queen of Leenane, first put on in 1996, has since been translated into 28 languages and produced in 39 countries.
If the Court feels a writer has a powerful individual voice, this can make up for any deficiencies in structure. The most vivid example is Ayub Khan-Din's East Is East, which arrived as a yellowing screenplay, was developed as a stage play, and then, following its success, turned back into a film.
David Harrower, whose Presence is currently at the Court, says he 'handed in' his first play, Knives in Hens, to the Traverse in Edinburgh six years ago, 'and they liked it so much they bought it'. But other Scottish writers, such as David Greig, point out that it's unusual for a first play to be put on. 'My "debut" play, Europe, at the Traverse, was in fact my seventh,' says Greig. 'My first play was staged by myself, on a budget of £200, at the Hen and Chickens pub in Bristol for three nights.' Writers commonly start off in tiny pub theatres or at the Edinburgh Fringe.
Joe Penhall, whose award-laden Blue/Orange transfers to the West End from the National Theatre, first got involved with the Court's Young People's Theatre, then wrote Wild Turkey, a one-act short for the 1993 London New Play Festival, which is run by Phil Setren on a shoestring. Penhall's first full-length play, Some Voices, was written after actor Brian Croucher encouraged him to develop his talent.
Since then, Some Voices has been made into a film, and Penhall's plays have come thick and fast. But things have changed. In the past, says Greig, 'one tended to write the play first, then send it to theatres. Now, you start working with the theatre when you've perhaps only produced fragments. Ten years ago, you had to write something that demanded to be put on. Now the system coaxes it out of you.'
Paul Sirett, literary manager of the Soho Theatre, is proud that the building is also a writer's centre. 'At the Soho, a young writer is guaranteed to have their play read, and they have much more chance of getting involved than at any other theatre. Each year, we work with at least 200 writers.' His advice is simple: 'You need to research, find out who's producing what kind of plays.' The Soho's attachment programme is an example of how aspiring writers often have theatrical day jobs. It includes Alan Bleasdale's son, Gary, who's been an actor since 16; Shan Khan, another actor and Verity Bargate award winner; Jennifer Farmer, a theatre administrator; Ashmeed Sohoye, who's written a TV comedy series; and Debbie Tucker Green, a stage manager.
At the Traverse, literary director John Tiffany gets about 500 scripts a year. 'Although we tend to focus on Scottish playwrights,' he says, 'we work as a research laboratory.' For example, the theatre is keen on Scottish playwrights adapting foreign plays. Harrower - who has already staged an adaptation of Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of An Author - plans to work on a new play by Norway's Jon Fosse, who translated Knives in Hens into Norwegian.
Certainly, new writing has created a buzz. 'There's a real hunger for new plays in Scotland,' says Harrower. The Traverse now puts on more Scottish plays than ever before. 'There is more confidence about programming new writers,' Whybrow agrees. 'With the new money coming into drama soon there will be no excuses. In the 1980s, theatres used to bleat about the lack of funding. Now, we can focus on quality.'
New writing is now sexy. Its upsurge in the 1990s can be seen in Arts Council statistics, which record that new writing made up 20% of staged work in subsidised theatres in 1994-96, more than Shakespeare and the classics. Since then, there's been a slight dip to about 16-17%, probably due to lack of money in regional theatres. But Jonathan Meth of Writernet, an organisation which supports writers, warns that such figures don't tell the whole story. They miss out activities such as small-scale touring, work in found spaces and local festivals. 'Lots of young writers work in education, hospitals and regeneration projects,' he says, 'but these don't appear in the statistics.'
The recent Arts Council boost of £25 million to drama has given regional theatres a shot in the arm. Dominic Dromgoole, once artistic director of the Bush theatre and now head of the Oxford Stage Company, says, 'This could be a bright time for new writing because it means that young writers could start life outside London, away from the glare of publicity.' Overexposure at the top is risky. Sarah Kane was just 23 when Blasted was savagely mauled by the London critics. You can see why many writers stage their first plays in obscure venues. Yet even that is changing. Dromgoole says that 'in the mid-1990s there was a more vibrant garage-band feel where anyone could get their play on. At the moment, we have an overconcentration on the centre - the Court, Soho and the Bush - and there is no ferment of energy on the margins.'
Mark Babych, artistic director of the Bolton Octagon, sees funding as a key problem. 'Lack of money decimated regional theatre for a while,' he says. 'We are not as big as the Court, but we are interested in new work.' He's looking for plays that speak to his local audience, but stresses that he is seeking plays which are not only rooted in local situations but which resonate with a wider significance. Also important for young writers are self-help groups, such as Northwest Playwrights, which works with the Bolton Octagon, Stagecoach in Birmingham and Pier Playwrights in Brighton. These offer writers workshops, visiting speakers, information and support.
Despite the success of British playwrights in the past 10 years, many of the best new plays - such as Conor McPherson's award-laden The Weir - still come from Ireland or America. One reason for this may be, in Sirett's words, that 'the Americans are not frightened of teaching writing at university - we're 60 years behind America'. Perhaps it's a question of perception. 'In London, Irish plays are often seen as transcendental, while Scottish plays on similar themes are seen as parochial,' says Harrower.
Adrienne Scullion, a Glasgow academic, agrees that there is a regional divide in new work. Scottish writers are 'vital in debating and describing our new social and cultural responsibilities', and have a 'very different agenda to the fashion-victim, nihilistic "shopping and fucking" introspection of London.' Naturally, metropolitan writers reject this view.
Either way, British new writing for theatre is in a livelier, more diverse state than ever. But although it got to this position during a decade of unprecedented cuts in subsidy, will it be able to retain its freshness and energy during an era of improved funding and increased centralisation?
© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Rewrite the Script' in The Times on 25 April 2001
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New writing: overview (2002) by Aleks Sierz
During the 1990s, there was a revolution in New Writing for British theatre. (Stop me if you've heard this before!) Although, at the end of the previous decade, it had been fashionable to proclaim the 'death of new plays', by the mid-1990s theatre had become a central part of the much-hyped revival of cultural confidence known as 'Cool Britannia' - indeed, theatre was 'listed along with pop, fashion, fine art and food as the fifth leg of the new Swinging London'. (1) By 2001, the hype had fed through to the funding bodies, and New Writing programmes found themselves in receipt of large sums to develop new talent, with special Arts Council subsidies bolstering the core funding of theatres which specialise in developing young writers.
The materialist aspect of the recent history of British theatre is revealing: at the end of the 1980s, Arts Council statistics show that new plays formed less than 10% of the repertoire. By 1994-96, New Writing made up 20% of staged work in subsidised theatres. What this means is that more new plays were put on than productions of Shakespeare and the classics. Since then, there's been a slight dip to about 16-17%, probably due to lack of money in regional theatres. Even more important has been the box office success of New Writing. In the late 'eighties, it regularly attracted audiences of less than 50%; by 1994, this figure was 53%, and by 1997 it was 57%, which meant that new plays were now outperforming adaptations, postwar revivals, translations, classics and even Shakespeare. By 2001, it was clear that 'theatre-going, still the most popular cultural activity, just ahead of visiting museums and galleries, hit a high of 24% [of the adult population in Britain] in 1994-95 [when the new wave of young writers arrived], but declined to 22% four years later.' Interestingly enough, these changes happened at a time when subsidies were frozen or enjoying only slight increases. (2)
But as well as material changes, there was also a vital psychological change during this time. As a simple barometer of opinion, here are two quotations from Michael Billington, theatre critic of the Guardian newspaper. In 1991, he wrote: 'New drama no longer occupies the central position it has in British theatre over the past thirty-five years.' Five years later, in 1996, he'd changed his mind completely. 'I cannot recall a time when there were so many exciting dramatists in the twentysomething age-group: what is more, they are speaking to audiences of their own generation.' (3)
In other words, starting in about 1991 and 1992, there was a massive revival of New Writing in British theatre. A quick list of 20 new writers illustrates the variety and creativity of this era: Jez Butterworth, David Eldridge, David Greig, Nick Grosso, Zinnie Harris, David Harrower, Sarah Kane, Ayub Khan-Din, Martin McDonagh, Conor McPherson, Patrick Marber, Phyllis Nagy, Anthony Neilson, Joe Penhall, Rebecca Prichard, Mark Ravenhill, Philip Ridley, Shelagh Stephenson, Judy Upton and Naomi Wallace. It would be equally easy to come up with another 30 names, (4) and a total of a hundred new writers would not be too difficult. By any standards, these are impressive figures. One final statistic may be of interest. A single theatre, the Soho Theatre in London, works with 200 writers every year - these kind of numbers give some indication of the size of the renaissance in New Writing.
But it was not just a case of numerical expansion. In terms of controversy, and media exposure, a writer such as the late Sarah Kane had a similar effect on British culture as John Osborne had in an earlier era. Her debut play, Blasted, had the same kind of impact as Look Back in Anger, although of course in social conditions where theatre is much less central to British culture. It might be worth pointing out that Blasted is a much more daring and experimental play, especially as regards its form, than Osborne's debut.
An explosion of creativity
How do we make sense of this general renaissance in British New Writing? What does this explosion of creativity mean? The first step in understanding the phenomenon is to name it. And, to do so, there's a choice of either imposing a label from above, or of selecting a label from those which were being used in reviews and newspaper articles, on the television and in public discussions, by the people - mainly critics, commentators and spectators - who were firsthand participants in the events. I prefer to select a label - it is more democratic - rather than to impose one. And, after looking at the various possibilities, the choice boils down to four:
2) New Brutalism;
3) Theatre of Urban Ennui;
4) In-Yer-Face Theatre.
These were the labels that were in the air in Britain during the mid-1990s. But the choice of the name you use is a political choice. For example, if you choose Neo-Jacobeanism, you are implicitly arguing that what matters most in contemporary theatre is its links with tradition, and indeed in the work of Sarah Kane, for instance, there are many references to Shakespeare. If, on the other hand, you choose to call this phenomenon New Brutalism, you are emphasising one aspect of contemporary theatre: its brutality and violence. Since the work of a writer such as Sarah Kane is as much about tenderness and love, this label conveys entirely the wrong impression. Also, a further drawback is that it implicitly compares theatre with architecture - the National Theatre in London is a new brutalist building - and I don't think this comparison is at all fruitful or stimulating. Likewise, Theatre of Urban Ennui misses the point - the youths shown on stage in the 1990s were not bored, they are trying to get on with their lives. So, in rejecting these three labels, I would argue in favour of the name In-Yer-Face Theatre for the following reasons:
1) It emphasises the sense of rupture with the past, stressing what was new about the dramatic voices which were heard for the first time in the 'nineties. After all, the concept of New Writing implies novelty rather than tradition.
2) It also suggests what is particular about the experience of going to the theatre and watching extreme plays - the feeling that your personal space is threatened. In other words, it powerfully suggests the relationship between play and audience.
3) Finally, the name is absolutely full of resonance of the zeitgeist of the 'nineties. It was often used about other cultural forms and thus it links theatre to the wider culture of that decade.
Basically, my argument is that although New Writing developed in the past ten years in a variety of ways, it was led by a small avant-garde group of in-yer-face writers. (5) Although cultural critics have announced the death of the avant-garde on more than one occasion in the past 50 years, in theatre its re-emergence took a classical form: innovation, scandal and then retrenchment.
What is in-yer-face theatre?
The phrase 'in-your-face' is defined by the New Oxford English Dictionary (1998) as something 'blatantly aggressive or provocative, impossible to ignore or avoid'. The Collins English Dictionary (1998) adds the adjective 'confrontational'. The phrase originated in American sports journalism during the mid-'seventies, when it was an exclamation of derision or contempt, and gradually seeped into more mainstream slang during the 'eighties and 'nineties as an adjective meaning 'aggressive, provocative, brash'. It implies that you are forced to see something close up, and gives a sense of that violation of intimacy that some forms of extreme drama produce in the audience. It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries. In short, it describes perfectly the kind of theatre that puts audiences in just such a situation.
More specifically, in-yer-face theatre has certain clear characteristics:
1) It is a type of drama that uses explicit scenes of sex and violence to explore the extremes of human emotion. It is characterised by stage images that depict acts such as anal rape, child abuse, drug injection, cannibalism and vomiting. It also has a rawness of tone, a sense of life being lived on the edge.
2) It usually involves the breaking of taboos, insistently using the most vulgar language, sometimes blasphemy, sometimes pornography, and shows deeply private acts in public. These have the power to shock, and constitute an anthropology of transgression and the testing of the boundaries of acceptability.
3) Its basic aesthetic is that of experiential theatre. At its cruel best, it can be so intense that audiences feel - emotionally if not literally - that they have lived through the events shown on stage. This is partly due to the fact that young writers often had their work put on in small studio theatres, where this intensity was easier to achieve. It is also due to the desire of writers to make a deeper impact than that of traditional drama, which Sarah Kane called 'purely speculative theatre'. Instead of debating issues, in-yer-face theatre imposes its point of view on the audience.
In-yer-face theatre is experiential theatre, and it works because it exploits two of the special characteristics of the medium: first, because it's a live experience, anything can happen. The paradox is that while the audience is watching in perfect safety, it feels as if it is in danger. Second, theatre in Britain is technically uncensored so everything is allowed. You can stage things that would be impossible to show on television or in the cinema - this gives writers the chance to explore the darkest sides of the human psyche without compromise.
Storm and stress
It's worth emphasising that it in-yer-face theatre is a question of sensibility rather than of showing any specific acts. It's crucial that while such plays might contain shocking scenes, the really disturbing thing about them is the bleakness, nihilism or despair of the emotions of their characters. In-yer-face theatre is about emotions, not about shock tactics.
It is also worth pointing out the maturity of craft of many of the new writers of the 1990s. This can be summed up by the phrase 'the avoidance of closure'. In rebellion against the classic well-made play, and against more recent literary traditions, most 'nineties writers preferred to write work which doesn't finish with a climax in the 'right' place, doesn't have a clear message and doesn't obey the dictates of naturalism. Time and again, young writers told me that they are interested in exploring the possibilities of theatrical form, whether it is the refusal of Mark Ravenhill to give easy answers to the urgent questions he poses, or the deliberate avoidance of climax in the work or David Eldridge or Nick Grosso, or the ceaseless experiments of David Greig or Sarah Kane, the conclusion is the same: these writers both use naturalism and aim to go beyond its confines.
To summarise: what the best young writers of the past ten years did was to transform the language of theatre, making it more direct, raw and explicit. They not only introduced a new dramatic vocabulary, they also pushed theatre into being more experiential, more aggressively aimed at making audiences feel and respond. What characterised the cutting-edge theatre of the 'nineties was its intensity, its deliberate relentlessness and its ruthless commitment to extremes. Qualities such uncompromising, dangerous and confrontational became universally praiseworthy.
Also, it is worth pointing out that in the fierceness of its attack on free-market economics, in-yer-face theatre was a reaction against the attitudes symbolised by Margaret Thatcher's dictum that 'There is no such thing as society'; with its images of violent men and rude girls, it stemmed from two decades of growing feminist sensibility; in its ready acceptance of street slang and exuberant bad language, it reflected the importance of 'yoof' culture; in its obsession with laddish behaviour, it mirrored the crisis of masculinity; and in turning its back on the state-of-the-nation and issue play, it suggested a crisis of the liberal imagination.
The metaphors typical of 1990s drama - summed up by stage images of abuse, anal rape and addiction - could be criticised for being literal images of horror, but their power to shock came from the fact that their authors saw the world in a more complex light than their more ideological predecessors. The best plays of the decade were most provocative when they represented terrible acts as psychological states, usually characterised by complicity and collusion. Instead of a simple division between perpetrators and victims, 'nineties theatre saw human beings as capable of being both. Although in-yer-face drama has a relentless energy, its motives were not to titillate but to spread the knowledge of what humans are capable of. It aimed to wake up audiences and imprint on them indelible images of human suffering, often in order to immunise them to those events in real life. As Sarah Kane once said, 'It is important to commit to memory events which have never happened - so that they never happen. I'd rather risk overdose in the theatre than in life.' (6) In view of her suicide, it is a telling and deeply ironic statement.
The bigger picture
But what is the wider significance of in-yer-face theatre?
1) In-yer-face theatre saved British theatre. Perhaps my most contentious argument is this one: if it had not been for a small avant-garde of young writers in the 1990s, I can imagine that New Writing in Britain would have gone into terminal decline. Theatre would have stagnated in a swamp of dull revivals of the classics and of Shakespeare; of adaptations of novels for the stage; of director's theatre and physical theatre - usually pale and cheap imitations of what Continental theatre is so good at. If it had not been for a small group of daring artistic directors and an equally small group of in-yer-face antagonists, the great British tradition of New Writing - which puts the writer at the centre of the theatrical process - would have collapsed into a moribund state.
2) In-yer-face theatre is the drama of new laddism. By this I mean that each historical era usually throws up a characteristic theme which sums up the essence of the zeitgeist. For the new wave sparked off by Look Back in Anger in 1956, the theme was a celebration and criticism of the Welfare State; by the time the generation of 1968 arrived, the theme changed into one of left-wing revolution and an urgent examination of its failure; by the 'eighties, it is the turn of feminism and the discovery of marginal voices, such as gay and black drama. (7) Ten years on, young writers were looking for an equally urgent preoccupation, an equally symbolic theme. They found it in the crisis of masculinity. In the 1990s, for complex social reasons, it became impossible to avoid the idea that traditional ideas about maleness were in trouble. Writers obsessively and probably unconsciously returned time and time again to stories which are not about the family, but about boys. And, in opposition to the feminist plays of the 1980s, artistic directors chose plays that had a laddish nature: all-men casts became common and the theme of violent and homo-erotic male relationships unavoidable. Examples are numerous, but Jez Butterworth's Mojo is a classic case. It is worth noting that Sarah Kane's Blasted is about, among other things, a crisis in masculinity.
3) In-yer-face theatre is a new sensibility. In-yer-face theatre is really not a movement: you can't buy a membership card - it's a aesthetic style. Some writers write lots of in-yer-face plays; some use elements of this sensibility; others just write one in-yer-face play and then move on. But is it new? In some senses, no: think of Edward Bond's Saved, Steven Berkoff's East or Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain. But, in the past, such plays were an exception, now they have become the norm. What is also new is the relentless quality of much 1990s writing, its overwhelming sense of a dark netherscape, the sheer insistence of its use of four-letter words. What's also new is the style in which they were written. As opposed to the literary feel of much previous drama, with great long wordy speeches, the dialogues of most 'nineties plays are much shorter, more telegraphic, more direct, more filmic even - and much, much faster. A good example is Sarah Kane's Blasted - all the emotion of the play is packed into short and spare exchanges. In the 1990s, British New Writing threw off the dead hand of literature, and created a new theatrical language.
4) In-yer-face theatre is drama's answer to the fall of the Berlin Wall. One of the hardest questions is: why did this kind of drama arrive when it did? This is a very complex subject, but - to simplify - what happened was that changes in the wider world of politics and society (end of the Cold War, decline in left-wing militancy, the petering out of doctrinaire feminism) all tended to free up theatrical imaginations. I'm not completely happy with the idea of Thatcher's Children, but there is an element of truth in the idea that a whole generation grew up in a context where there seemed to be no change possible - to which the only response, if you are critical of social conditions, is to do-it-yourself, to create something out of nothing. In a sense, in-yer-face theatre is do-it-yourself theatre. By the 'nineties, a handful of key people - such as artistic directors Stephen Daldry (Royal Court), Dominic Dromgoole (the Bush) and Ian Brown (the Traverse) - realised that the only way to get things done was to use the resources they already had. So they gave young writers permission to journey to hell and report on what they found there - without ideological preconceptions. Dominic Dromgoole once told me: 'In the 1980s, most theatres wanted well-meaning, well-reasoned, victim-based plays. (What Anthony Minghella once called "mumble plays".) But in the 1990s, theatres gave young writers freedom - no ideologies, no rules, no taste.' As theatre shook off the style police, young writers embraced the opportunities offered to explore a new aesthetic. In this way, theatre became part of a general, autonomous do-it-yourself movement, in which artists no longer wait for state subsidy but create their work independently of subventions.
5) In-yer-face theatre is 1990s guerrilla art. Watching plays such as Philip Ridley's Ghost from a Perfect Place, in which an old gangster is tortured by teenage girls stubbing cigars in his face, or Anthony Neilson's Penetrator, which features pornography as well as a vicious knife fight, I was reminded of the wider culture of shock: the Royal Academy's 1997 Sensation exhibition of Young British Artists, Benetton adverts, the films of Quentin Tarantino and John Woo, the fashion industry's 'heroin chic', television's The Word and The Jerry Springer Show. There are important differences between these cultural forms, however. In-yer-face theatre differs from phenomena such as Brit art in that, apart from a few exceptions, it sets its face against postmodernism. Rather, it is modernist and avant-garde. It prefers old-fashioned ideas about political commitment and cultural provocation to new and trendy notions of irony, self-reflexivity and cynicism.
6) In-yer-face theatre is political theatre. In the past ten years, the death of political theatre has been prematurely announced on many occasions. Although it is true that the big state-of-the-nation play is almost extinct, the work of new writers is surely political even if their chosen form is plays about private passions. They explore personal pain rather than public politics, but it's worth stressing that most of them are passionately interested in staging critiques of modern social conditions, focusing on the problem of violence, the horror of abuse, the questioning of traditional notions of masculinity, the myth of post-feminism and the futility and injustice of consumerism. It a sense, these writers are firmly in the great tradition of romantic, sentimental and utopian rebels.
Towards a critique of in-yer-face theatre
A few questions, which could serve as the beginnings of a thorough critique of in-yer-face theatre, are also worth asking:
1) Is in-yer-face theatre just a case of cultural tourism? Harry Gibson, whose stage version of the Irvine Welsh's iconic Trainspotting was a massive success, sees in-yer-face theatre as a symptom of a modern malaise. He says, 'The excess of the wild folk becomes a spectacle for the tame folk', a form of cultural tourism by which the privileged classes visit hellish ghettos in the safety of the theatre. (8)
2) Is in-yer-face theatre a fashionable style, a new mannerism? I remember playwright David Edgar once saying that: 'The bad side of the current boom in new work is the element of fashion - this leads some people to think that last year the in-thing was smack, and this year its sodomy. This can lead to dangerous complacency.' (9)
3) Are the shock tactics of in-yer-face theatre counterproductive? In 1998, in an article in the Spectator magazine, Harry Eyres regretted how 'sensation and nihilism stalk the stages', strutting their stuff in imitation of director Quentin Tarantino and artist Jeff Koons. 'Sensationalism is predicated on insensitivity. The idea is that dulled audience response must be jerked into life by whatever violent means are necessary.' But, he argued, 'sensation merely entrenches the insensitivity it is supposed to challenge.' (10)
4) Do in-yer-face plays lack heart? It is paradoxical that an era which flattered itself as being 'the caring decade' - as opposed to the 'greed is good' 'eighties - produced a drama that often lacked compassion. If you look closely at Jez Butterworth's Mojo, Patrick Marber's Closer or Martin McDonagh's Leenane Trilogy, surely these plays are vulnerable to this criticism.
5) Are in-yer-face plays any good? Peter Ansorge, an early critic of the recent new wave, argues that its plays not constitute a new golden age because they are not as good as the first new wave of 1956. Although it is easy to dismiss this point of view as hopelessly nostalgic, it does raise the question of how you judge plays which deliberately defy the naturalistic aesthetic which is traditionally the means of rating new plays. Certainly, many 1990s playwrights explicitly question naturalism and their work is often experimental in form - but are their plays of any lasting value? (11)
6) Are in-yer-face plays too introverted? Adrienne Scullion argues that while many Scottish playwrights tackle the big issues, and are 'vital in debating and describing our new social and cultural responsibilities', they have a 'very different agenda to the fashion-victim, nihilistic "shopping and fucking" introspection of London.' Certainly, there is evidence of a distinct regional divide, which mirrors political and cultural divisions, in British theatre. (12)
7) Is the new drama reactionary? Political plays, as writer David Greig once pointed out, must contain a suggestion that change is possible. In a sense, they have to inspire audiences. In 1998, Michael Billington argued that even 'the most visceral, popular plays of today imply that there is little hope of change: in Patrick Marber's Closer the characters end up acknowledging their inviolable solitude, in Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and Fucking the "money is civilisation" ethos murkily prevails, in Phyllis Nagy's Never Land the hero is quite clearly the victim of fate.' In Britain, Billington concluded, 'We are living in an aggressively post-ideological age' and theatre offers only glimmers of hope. (13) It would be ironic indeed if new writers, however radical their subjective feelings, are only able to create a drama which runs around in circles.
Has the new wave of the 1990s broken? The signs suggest that it certainly has: the death of Sarah Kane in February 1999; the huge West End success of Conor McPherson's rather gentle and redemptive play, The Weir; the failure of Irvine Welsh's shock-fest, You'll Have Had Your Hole were all signs that the phenomenon that attracted so much public attention in the mid-1990s was rapidly losing its energy. But one of the reasons for this slump is that in-yer-face theatre had done its job - it kicked down the door of complacency in the theatre, and, because it was an avant-garde, where it led, others have inevitably followed. In-yer-face writers gave theatre the oxygen of publicity, and helped inspire the diverse New Writing culture that has emerged since.
Not all the effects of the recent new wave have been happy. In September 2001, when director Nicholas Hytner was appointed to succeed Trevor Nunn as head of the National Theatre, he stressed his interest in developing New Writing. But he also acknowledged the paradox that, while in the past ten years the National Studio had helped develop many new plays, these were mainly such small-scale affairs that even the National's smallest space, the 300-seat Cottesloe theatre, was too big for them, and they have been staged in 100-seat studio theatres such as the Royal Court Upstairs, the Bush and the Soho theatres. The challenge for Hytner, exemplified in his production of Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House (Lyttelton, 2001), is to find new writers bold enough to tackle the National's two main stages. (14)
If British New Writing is now sexy, the crucial question for the future is: can it remain creative? More polemically, although New Writing got to a position of astonishing creativity during a decade of unprecedented freezes in subsidy, will it be able to retain its freshness and energy during an era of improved funding? And, with the fringe no longer the locus of excitement, can new writers flourish in a theatre economy which is increasingly centralised around the main New Writing houses, such as the Royal Court, Traverse, Bush and Soho theatres? Much depends on the next five years.
Notes and References
1. Edgar, David, 'Provocative Acts: British Playwriting in the Post-war Era and Beyond', in Edgar, David (ed.), State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Faber, 1999, p 28.
2. Edgar, David, 'The Canon, the Contemporary and the New', in Reitz, Bernhard and Stahl, Heiko (eds) What Revels Are in Hand? Contemporary Drama in English 8, Trier: Wissenschafter Verlag Trier, 2001, p 31. See also Arts Council of England: 'Annual "Cork" analysis', London: Arts Council of England, 2000, and Maev Kennedy, 'Arts audiences dwindle despite "extra" cash', Guardian, 25 July 2001, p 8.
3. Billington, Michael, One Night Stands: A Critic's View of Modern British Theatre, London: Nick Hern, 1993, p 360, and 'Fabulous Five', Guardian, 13 March 1996.
4. For example, Henry Adam, Samuel Adamson, Parv Bancil, Biyi Bandele, Simon Bent, Helen Blakeman, Simon Block, Simon Burke, Mike Cullen, Kate Dean, Hilary Fannin, David Farr, William Gaminara, Stephen Greenhorn, Karen Hope, Alex Jones, Charlotte Jones, Nicola McCartney, Linda McLean, Gary Mitchell, Abi Morgan, Tamsin Oglesby, Michael Punter, Diane Samuels, Ed Thomas, Paul Tucker, Che Walker, Irvine Welsh, Sarah Woods and Michael Wynne. Most of these writers made their debuts in the 1990s, and the list does not include Irish and American writers who put on their first plays in the United Kingdom.
5. See Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber, 2001.
6. Quoted in Stephenson, Heidi, and Langridge, Natasha, Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Methuen, 1997, p 133.
7. See Edgar, David, 'Provocative Acts: British Playwriting in the Post-war Era and Beyond', in Edgar, David (ed.), State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Faber, 1999.
8. Gibson, Harry, 'Rant', letter to author, 9 April 1999.
9. Personal interview with the author, March 1997; see also Sierz, Aleks, 'The Write Stuff', Independent, 9 April 1997.
10. Eyres, Harry, 'Sensation Stalks the Stage', Spectator, 9 May 1998.
11. See Ansorge, Peter, From Liverpool to Los Angeles: On Writing for Theatre, Film and Television, London: Faber, 1997.
12. Scullion, Adrienne, 'Contemporary Scottish Women Playwrights', in Aston, Elaine and Reinelt, Janelle (eds) The Cambridge Companion to Modern British Women Playwrights, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000, pp 114-115.
13. Billington, Michael, 'The Other Marx Brother', Guardian, 10 February 1998.
14. Nicholas Hytner, personal interview with the author, 1 October 2001.
Ansorge, Peter, From Liverpool to Los Angeles: On Writing for Theatre, Film and Television, London: Faber, 1997.
Billington, Michael, One Night Stands: A Critic's View of Modern British Theatre, London: Nick Hern, 1993.
Bradwell, Mike (ed.) The Bush Theatre Book, London: Methuen, 1997.
Deeney, John (ed.), Writing Live: An Investigation of the Relationship Between Writing and Live Art, London: New Playwrights Trust, 1998.
Dromgoole, Dominic, The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting, London: Methuen, 2000.
Edgar, David, (ed.), State of Play: Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Faber, 1999.
Gottlieb, Vera, and Chambers, Colin (eds), Theatre in a Cool Climate, London: Amber Lane Press, 1999.
Nightingale, Benedict, The Future of Theatre, London: Phoenix, 1998.
Rebellato, Dan, 'Sarah Kane: an appreciation', New Theatre Quarterly 60, November 1999: pp 280-281.
Reitz, Bernhard and Stahl, Heiko (eds) What Revels Are in Hand? Contemporary Drama in English 8, Trier: Wissenschafter Verlag Trier, 2001.
Shellard, Dominic, British Theatre Since the War, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999.
Sierz, Aleks, '"About Now" in Birmingham', New Theatre Quarterly 51, August 1997: pp 289-290.
Sierz, Aleks, 'Cool Britannia? "In-yer-face" writing in the British theatre today', New Theatre Quarterly 56, November 1998: pp 324-333.
Sierz, Aleks, 'In-yer-face Theatre' website, www.inyerface-theatre.com, created 5 October 2000.
Sierz, Aleks, 'Sources for the study of contemporary theatre', Studies in Theatre and Performance, vol 20, no 3, December 2000, pp 196-204.
Sierz, Aleks, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, London: Faber, 2001.
Stephenson, Heidi, and Natasha Langridge, Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwriting, London: Methuen, 1997.
Wandor, Michelene, Post-war British Drama: Looking Back in Gender, London: Routledge, 2001.
© An earlier
version of this article appeared as 'Still In-Yer-Face? Towards a Critique
and a Summation', New
Theatre Quarterly 69, February 2002: pp 17-24
Verity Bargate Award (2002) by Aleks Sierz
Has British new writing for the theatre gone off the boil? This year, the Soho Theatre's biennial Verity Bargate theatre award for the best play by a first-time writer was not awarded - because the judges thought that none of the plays submitted were good enough to win.
As one of the judges involved, I arrived at our meeting on 29 October ready to argue passionately for my favourite plays of the shortlisted six, which had been selected from about 400 entries. After about four hours of intense discussion, two rounds of voting and a fair deal of soul-searching, I went away convinced that withholding the award was the right decision.
But what does this say about new writing in Britain today? Firstly, the good news: the number of entries is proof that hundreds of people are ready to have a go at writing a play. If you remember that more than 150 new writers have made their debuts since, say, 1995, this is a sign of drama's abundant health.
Such a pool of would-be playwrights is unique in Europe and should be celebrated - after all, it's where any future Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill or David Greig will come from. But how come quantity hasn't translated into quality?
One reason may be the nature of the prize itself. The Verity Bargate is awarded not to a promising writer but to a finished play - and it's surprisingly rare that a new writer can pen a really cracking play at their first attempt.
Another reason may be the professionalisation of many young writers. No longer is the typical playwright a naive garret-dwelling scribbler out of touch with the realities of theatre-making. Instead, many young writers have MAs, agents and ambition.
A couple of them told me that they were wary of entering competitions that would tie their play down to a short run in one theatre (Soho retains an option to put on the Verity Bargate winner) - they were aiming for a co-production with another venue, a national tour, a big splash at Edinburgh.
The poor quality of some new plays may also be due to many young writers submitting drafts in the expectation that these will be workshopped and developed by a new writing venue. They hope that readers will recognise their potential - and then help them with plotting and characterisation.
More seriously, many playwrights seem stuck in the aesthetics of social realism, thinking that all you need to do is to record the dialogues of 'me and my mates'. At worst, the result is rambling, linear plays that sum up the bleakness of disaffected youth, but without going beyond it.
Other writers play around with theatrical form for no good reason, making relatively straightforward plays too clever for their own good. It's just as well to remember that a good story well told is a better guide to success than imitations of Caryl Churchill.
Although articles that complain about the crisis in new writing are often premature, the worst enemy of creativity is complacency. This year, the best plays in Edinburgh were by Scottish writers - and the American invasion of the West End brought a breath of fresh air in terms of ambition and range.
Does this suggest a crisis in British new writing? Certainly, the heady excitement of the mid-1990s has cooled and the much-publicised in-yer-face sensibility has been overtaken by other kinds of theatrical voice, which range from the magic realism to surreal comedy.
If you consider that the most successful Royal Court plays of the past year have been by veterans such as Caryl Churchill or Peter Gill, it may be that the crisis is in young writing rather than new plays.
So any advice to a young playwright should encourage them not only to develop their own distinctive voice, but also to quit the ghettos of social realism, to listen to people who aren't in their gang, and to tackle issues beyond those of their everyday domestic situation.
The best of the Verity Bargate shortlist - Sean Buckley, Amy Evans and Joy Wilkinson - did just that, and were each given a £500 bursary in recognition not only of their promise but also of their ambition. We'll certainly be hearing more from these three.
As for the dozens of others out there, the message is simple: you have plenty of time to work on a submission for next Verity Bargate in 2004. So get writing – the future is yours if you want it.
earlier version of this article appeared as 'Broader Horizons' in The
Stage newspaper on 21 November 2002
New Writing in British theatre today by Aleks Sierz
The Soho Theatre and Writers' Centre, a shiny neon-clad building in London's Dean Street, is one of handful of theatres which specialise in promoting new plays. Its laudable mission is to "discover talented writers at an early stage of their career", but, as its annual festival of new writing gets under way, it's worth asking that taboo question: are British playwrights any good?
The good news is that there are more new plays being written, and more funds flowing to stage them, than ever before. And I mean ever. As well as the London powerhouses - Royal Court, Bush, Hampstead and Soho - theatres such as the Traverse in Edinburgh, the Birmingham Rep and Live Theatre in Newcastle introduce audiences to new work. At the National, artistic director Nicholas Hytner has dedicated one of his three auditoriums to new plays. Other theatres, such as the Almeida in north London, which pioneered classics, now also chase the new.
So how come it's so hard to name a thrillingly fresh theatrical talent? After all, almost a decade ago, an exciting new wave of young writers - led by Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill - became household names on account of their in-yer-face dramas, plays with provocative titles such as Shopping and Fucking. They attracted outraged column inches and pulled new audiences. Shows such as Trainspotting and Patrick Marber's Closer proved that new plays could even set the West End on fire.
Today, the scene has lost that energy. Last year, the Soho Theatre's biennial Verity Bargate award for the best play by a first-time writer was not presented - because the judges (myself included) thought that none of the plays were good enough. In 2001, the prestigious Evening Standard awards panel thought exactly the same and the best new play category remained unfilled.
Of course, you can still see cracking new work. Last year, Caryl Churchill's A Number scooped a handful of awards, as did Nicholas Wright's Vincent in Brixton. More recently, Terry Johnson's Hitchcock Blonde wowed the West End. But, great as they were, these dramas have been penned by established writers, greyhairs even. Where are the young Turks?
Okay, some young Brits have made a splash. Think of Gregory Burke's Gagarin Way, Charlotte Jones's Humble Boy or Martin McDonagh's The Lieutenant of Inishmore. But although these have set pulses racing, exciting new writers still seem to be a closely guarded secret. Why?
One problem is that, in a competitive cultural marketplace, new writers have been pushed aside by stage-struck celebs such as Madonna or Gillian Anderson. Another problem is aesthetics. Most new English plays are linear social-realist accounts of "me and my mates", often set on "sarf" London council estates. They have small casts, small ambitions and small subjects.
By comparison, American, Irish or Scottish writers deal in ambitious big plays about issues that really matter. Which would you rather watch? Nor are writers helped by the relentless search for novelty. British theatre is littered with scribblers who arrived with a bang - and were then dropped when they couldn't keep up. Too few new plays, however good, are ever revived. This means that new work rarely moves beyond a coterie audience.
Nor can creativity be turned on like a tap. The reason that Kane and Ravenhill made such an impact was that their raw style - theatre's equivalent to punk rock - heralded the arrival of a new sensibility. You simply can't expect that to happen every year.
Today, instead of headline grabbers, there's more going on, but it's mainly low key. Still, if this year's Soho Writers' Festival - which runs from 27 October to 15 November - can inspire youngsters to take more risks, write more boldly and imaginatively, it will be making one small step towards reviving new writing in Britain. And, believe me, it could do with it.
earlier version of this article appeared as 'The Shock of the New' in
The Times on
25 October 2003
New writing as political theatre by Aleks Sierz
Let's face it, political theatre has an image problem. The moniker seems to ooze worthiness, duty and the smug complacency that characterises any gathering where the converted are being preached to. For example, look at docudrama - theatre's answer to reality tv. The Tricycle Theatre, in north London, has a great track record of staging tribunal plays - in 1999, The Colour of Justice, which dramatised the inquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence, was not only a stage hit but was also seen by some 11 million people on tv. Now the same team - journalist Richard Norton-Taylor and director Nicolas Kent - have staged Justifying War: Scenes from the Hutton Inquiry. Once again, the Westministerati can chortle at seeing the likes of Alastair Campbell and Geoff Hoon crouching under fire from James Dingemans QC. But although it's good to see theatre respond so quickly to events, this can be self-defeating: the inquiry is still vivid in the public mind, and Hutton hasn't even delivered his verdict yet. You can't help feeling that the show appeals more to our civic duty than to our sense of fun - it's not the kind of play that will ever be revived.
Justifying War isn't the only sign that docudrama is making a comeback. The Permanent Way, David Hare's account of the appalling mess that followed the privatisation of the railways, has just begun its nationwide tour [13 November] in an Out of Joint production. Based on first-hand accounts by people at every level of the disaster, this promises to be a "provocative and challenging evening", although not necessarily a pleasurable one. I mean, can the real-life words of railway managers and workers ever match the thrill of seeing the passionate tussle between Michael Gambon as the entrepreneur and Lia Williams as the teacher in Hare's 1995 drama Skylight? Or seeing Judi Dench, all acid barbs and raw feelings, in his Amy's View?
There's a similar problem with veteran Michael Frayn's Democracy, currently at the National and hotly tipped as the best new play of the year. It deals with the symbiotic relationship between Willy Brandt, chancellor of West Germany in 1969-74, and his personal assistant, Gunter Guillaume, an East German spy whose eventual unmasking led to Brandt's fall. But even if there's something satisfyingly familiar in the idea of a popular leader floundering in his second term of office after the removal of a trusted servant, this is an evening of cerebral pleasure rather than gut enjoyment. The stage is packed with men in suits, plus their briefcases and files. Although wives and one-night-stands are central to the story, they don't make it onstage. Pure bureaucrat testosterone can result in an emotionally deficient drama.
But if docudrama is a rather dry way of staging politics, the good news is that more playwrights are getting their teeth into contemporary ideas. For the second year running, the Edinburgh Festival fringe has engaged with the wider world beyond flatshare dramas and council estate swear-fests. Often hyped as theatre's response to 9/11, this trend is still being held back by the dead hand of naturalism. Only when young writers mix imaginative populism with radical ideas does political theatre get a shot in the arm. After all, there's nothing quite as subversive as mixing the joy of good ideas with a sense of fun.
The trend-setters here are two Scottish writers, Gregory Burke and Henry Adam. Burke's The Straits (now at the Hampstead Theatre) is set in Gibraltar during the 1982 Falklands War, where the kids of British servicemen scrap with local "spics" and proudly declare that "War's what we do, innit. What we do best". Their bellicose assertion of national identity against an imaginary enemy feels chillingly apt in the light of the war on Iraq. Similarly, Adam's The People Next Door, a sizzling farce about druggy dropout Nigel whose estranged brother Karim is suspected of being a Muslim terrorist, blends wild hilarity with serious ideas about our paranoid fear of terrorism. Both writers sharply question Britain's readiness to take on internal and external enemies.
Plays such as these mark a welcome break from the Trainspotting tradition of the 1990s, when many playwrights simply described the plight of the dispossessed without analysing the reasons for their dispossession. The whole idea of political theatre must be that life is about much more than what happens to "me and my mates". It has to have ideas. But, as Tariq Ali's rather feeble satire, The Illustrious Corpse, showed earlier this year - if you’re going to deal with ideas, it's not enough to tell people what they already know. Reality moves so fast you always have to be at least two steps ahead.
Since audiences nowadays would probably run a mile rather than sit through the worthy "state of the nation" plays that mercifully went out of fashion soon after the fall of the Berlin Wall, how do you write big plays about big subjects? One common cop-out is to say that all plays are political. This rip-off of the old feminist slogan that the personal is political is, however, totally self-defeating. If all plays, no matter how domestic, are political, then no plays are political. A better way of defining a political play might be to insist that it should offer some hope of change. By this definition, verbatim docudramas - with their imagination-free content - fail. They merely reflect reality, when the point, surely, is to change it.
For example, look at two superb dramas by black writers which wowed audiences this year: Kwame Kwei-Armah's Elmina's Kitchen (National) and Roy Williams's Fallout (Royal Court). Both tackled the subject of violence and the black community with wit and insight, but the depressing thing is that neither suggested any way of changing this reality. However powerful, both plays were more a cry of anger and despair than a call for change.
A similar malaise afflicts the National's hit show, Jerry Springer: the Opera, which has just transferred amid much jubilation to the West End. Okay, it's great to see a new musical that mixes filthy talk about chicks with dicks and a fat poledancer with music that alludes to the baroque era. And, phew, this mix of high and low culture certainly felt transgressive at the National - as if Nicholas Hytner, the new artistic director, had unzipped his flies and peed all over the traditions of a stuffy institution. But, in terms of its politics, this one-joke evening only affirms, rather than challenges, our obsession with American trash culture.
Until recently, political drama was a sure way of emptying theatres. Today, as the rash of verbatim docudramas suggests, there is a hunger for ideas. But the best examples of political theatre are those which mix intellectual sparks with strong stories and imaginary characters who have a real emotional life. Oddly enough, two examples of this are just opening in the West End - and both are revivals of old plays. How ironic that in our yoof-obsessed culture, the old sometimes feels more contemporary than the new. David Hare's The Secret Rapture (1988) and Stephen Poliakoff's Sweet Panic (1996) are masterclasses in showing not only how ideas influence behaviour, but also how humans cope with personal tragedy. Both plays put women centre stage, and both strongly argue that responsibility for change is where it should be: in our own hands.
earlier version of this article appeared as 'The
World Stage' in New Statesman
magazine on 24 November 2003
ALSO: • New writing in an age of abundance (2003)
Plus: new writing bibliography