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Mark Ravenhill

Profile of Mark Ravenhill

Interview with Mark Ravenhill 2001

Profile of Mark Ravenhill by Aleks Sierz

Those of a nervous disposition might quail at meeting Mark Ravenhill, shaven-headed author of Shopping and Fucking, the 1996 shock-fest which brought explicit shafting to Shaftesbury Avenue. But despite the immense success of his much-asterisked debut, which has been produced all over the world and is now seen as typical of the new British drama, Ravenhill is quietly spoken, rather modest, and constantly alert to the humour that questions about his work might provoke.

Now 34 years old, with five plays under his belt and more on the way, is the angry young man in danger of maturing? 'I hope so,' he grins. 'I think I'm getting better as a writer, able to give my work a more emotional centre. But it's hard for gay men to mark the stages of their maturity because the usual way of growing up involves marriage and children. So for me the path of maturing is not so well mapped.'

Over the past two years, Ravenhill has developed Mother Clap's Molly House - a rollicking 'play with songs' about gay meeting places in 18th-century London - with students at LAMDA. 'I needed a cast of 12, and wanted to write some songs, so working with the 2nd year students was really good,' he says. Earlier this year, the students mounted a production of the work in progress. With its cross-dressing, mock marriages and men giving birth to baby dolls, the play mixes social history and sheer fun.

For Radio 3, Ravenhill responded to The Wire - the new writer-friendly initiative that doesn't force authors to submit endless treatments of work, but simply commissions them to write a play - with Feed Me. 'It's about how people are able to reinvent themselves in the city,' he says. Funnily enough, Radio 3 producers were surprised that his play had so little swearing in it, so in one rewrite, he 'just slipped in a few "fucks"'.

More of a workshopper than a garret writer, Ravenhill is open to the input of actors in the play-making process. Max Stafford-Clark, who directed Shopping and Fucking and Some Explicit Polaroids for Out of Joint, says: 'He enjoys writing with the actors around - so his scripts tend to be a bit messy when you first read them.' But although the characters are rounded out through workshopping, 'they are still the offspring of his fertile imagination'.

Other writers, perhaps jealous of Ravenhill's high profile, might see him as a mere sensationalist. Dan Rebellato, a Royal Holloway drama studies lecturer who is writing an introduction to the forthcoming Methuen edition of Ravenhill's plays, says: 'The reason why some playwrights dislike him is that he was incredibly successful with his first play. When a debut runs for six months in the West End, people begin to ask: "Is it really that good?"'

'Sure,' laughs Ravenhill. 'I'm always jealous of people who are successful.' He quotes Gore Vidal: 'Whenever a friend succeeds, a little something in me dies'. 'Every time another playwright gets good reviews I think: "Fuck, it should have been me."' Such frankness and lack of pretension are immediately engaging. 'I'm acutely aware of the failings of my own plays,' he admits.

Generally, he's found older playwrights, such as David Edgar and Caryl Churchill, 'immensely supportive' of his work. While the media, especially abroad, would like him to be more of an enfant terrible, he gets on with most other writers. The only people who annoy him are the 'live art crowd'. He says, 'They despise anything that deals with text; they see it as old-fashioned and irrelevant - they're quite sectarian.'

Ravenhill's career has been a heady mix of media savviness and pure luck. After working as a teacher and freelance director in the early 1990s, Ravenhill wrote Fist, a sexy 10-minute dialogue for I'll Show You Mine, a season of shorts at London's Finborough pub theatre. Invited to see it, Stafford-Clark was sufficiently impressed to ask him for a full-length play.

'I hadn't written one, but I pretended I had,' says Ravenhill. 'So then I had to do it - and that's how Shopping and Fucking came about.' The all-important title came from a conversation with a colleague, Sheila Goff, who, having met a former friend by chance, responded to the inevitable question 'What are you doing now?' with the throwaway line: 'Oh, I'm just writing a Shopping and Fucking novel.'

After the media fuss about the play's title, Ravenhill's luck held out when it opened at the Royal Court. 'I thought that the play, like Sarah Kane's Blasted, would get mauled,' he says. But Kane's play seems to have 'softened up the critics' and 'they were more prepared to take Shopping and Fucking on board'. Only the Sunday Telegraph's John Gross made a sustained case against its 'complacent self-pity' and 'glib pessimism'.

Nor was there any outrage about its gay content. Two years before, the London Evening Standard's Milton Shulman had denounced the 'plague of pink plays' on the London stage, but no critic called Ravenhill's debut a 'gay play'. 'A couple of years earlier,' he says, 'it would have been seen as a gay play because it put gay sex on stage.'

Does he see himself as a gay playwright? 'Not at all,' he says, thankful that he started writing a time when audiences 'no longer expected a coming-out speech or an AIDS-related plot'. Nor is he happy with the label 'gay man', which he argues has been appropriated by consumer culture. What about queer? 'Well, the notion of queer is much more about being a radically different person, a sexual outlaw, but it risks just being radical chic.' The more ironic 'post-gay' makes him grin.

No stranger to controversy, Ravenhill was attacked when, after being commissioned to work on the third series of the BBC 2 soap, This Life, the project was dropped because, according to media speculation, he had killed off the main characters. All nonsense. Then in March 1998, David Blunkett criticised Shopping and Fucking as a waste of public money. Had he read it? Apparently not. On another occasion, Ravenhill was chided for refusing an invite to Buckingham Palace.

Skilled at playing the media, Ravenhill's Rule Number One is: 'Don't be boring.' In a recent Guardian article, he complained of not being able to keep up with an overload of art and culture. With his tongue firmly in his cheek, he proposed 'a year-long moratorium' on reviews, listings and media tittle-tattle. As Stafford-Clark points out, 'Some are born to populism, some achieve populism, and some have populism thrust upon them. I place Mark firmly in the first category.'

But, despite his success, one family problem still remains: Ravenhill can't let his parents see his plays. 'They are permanently barred. It's just not their kind of thing.' At the same time, Ravenhill talks affectionately about his parents, who like the theatre, but prefer less cutting-edge fare. Underneath the writer's hard exterior beats a soft heart.

Ravenhill's plays, with their acute social observation, sympathy with the underdog and touches of sentimentality, have an unmistakable voice, ironic, amused, slightly detached. But aren't they all a bit heartless? 'Heart,' he says with typical irony, 'is in eye of the beholder - some people find my plays cold, others find them really compassionate.'

Ravenhill's playful charm and willingness to listen always disarm criticism. At the same time, his fondness for irony and mild camp means you can't take everything he says literally. In the end, you're left with the impression of wit and warmth - the only time he gets visibly irritated is when people misreport him in the press.

Funloving as he is, he's also a hardworking writer, whose best work will surely stand the test of time. As playwright David Greig points out, 'Far from being a postmodern sensationalist, he is, in fact, an old labour moralist. To my mind a very good thing.'

Mark Ravenhill: a summary

1966 : Born in Haywards Heath, West Sussex.

1984-87 : Studies Drama and English at Bristol University.

1987 : Works as administrative assistant at Soho Poly, then as a freelance teacher and director.

1995: Stages Fist as part of the I'll Show You Mine season at the Finborough theatre, London.

1996: Shopping and Fucking, produced by Out of Joint, opens at the Royal Court. It is subsequently revived, tours nationwide, and transfers to the West End.

1997 : Faust Is Dead, put on by Actors Touring Company, opens.

1998 : Organises Sleeping Around, a collaborative writing project, while Literary Director of Paines Plough.

1998 : Handbag, put on by Actors Touring Company, opens.

1999 : Some Explicit Polaroids, produced by Out of Joint, opens.

2000 : Mother Clap's Molly House developed with LAMDA students. Feed Me broadcast by BBC Radio 3.

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Planned Offensive' in The Stage newspaper on 4 January 2001

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Interview with Mark Ravenhill by Aleks Sierz

The curtain rises on a discrete club where gay men gather in private, to dress up in women's clothing, sing songs and enjoy some lusty sex. Is this a gay sauna in 1970s San Francisco? Or a 1980s New York nightclub? Neither - it's a London "molly house" and the date is 1726.

It's also the setting for Mark Ravenhill's latest, Mother Clap's Molly House, a play with songs which previews at the National from 22 August. With a two-strand plot, set in the early 18th century and today, its central question, says Ravenhill, is "Where do you go when you reach a point when anything is possible?"

The play originates in 35-year-old Ravenhill's discovery of a "hidden history" of molly houses, a kind of same-sex club which "wasn't a brothel, you didn't pay for sex, but you did pay for the beer, and it was a good place for men to gather". In the 1720s, he says, "There were about 40 of them in London, which was quite small then, so there was a molly house every few blocks. People must have been perfectly well aware of them."

But while we tend to think of the past as "repressed in a Victorian way", what fascinates Ravenhill is its tolerance. "There was a period," he says, "roughly from 1700 to 1730 when there was quite a developed gay subculture that seems to have been tolerated, if not officially accepted."

The existence of a gay subculture also gave Ravenhill the idea of using songs. "In one of the court records which mentioned molly houses, somebody says that they raided one and found that the men were wearing dresses, dancing and singing while a fiddler played: 'Come let us fuck finely.' And I thought, that's a song I want to hear. 'Come let us fuck finely' sounds like a good song."

Songs apart, what unites Ravenhill's shock-fests - Shopping and Fucking (1996), Faust Is Dead (1997), Handbag (1998) and Some Explicit Polaroids (1999) - with Mother Clap is that "there's always a moment when my characters realise that they have to look after each other. And connect with each other." In some way, they "all reject the family and at the same time are looking for an alternative family."

But although his plays ask questions about consumerism, and suggest that there's more to life than shopping (or fucking), Ravenhill doesn't claim to have all the the answers. "I don't know how to get over the contradiction between monogamy and freedom - and my characters don't either."

Both the 21st-century gay characters and their 18th-century counterparts "have created a world in which anything is possible, but some of them still hanker after one-to-one relationships, want somebody to be their sole partner - are they reactionary or are they putting some kind of profound human value on a deep relationship?"

Although Ravenhill sees the 1720s as tolerant, he doesn't exaggerate the liberalism of the era. "After all, sodomy was a hanging offence, even if the number of people who were executed in that period was incredibly low. In some years, less than 10 were actually hanged", far, far fewer than were executed for stealing or murder.

One of the fascinating things about molly houses is that the records show that they were frequented by working-class men. "Their jobs were making shoes, selling oranges and carrying milk churns through the streets, and then in the evening they went off to the molly house."

Mainly, they were "married men, and what's liberating about them is that they didn't identify themselves as gay with a capital G. Although they created this molly house culture, with its own meeting places, rituals and codes, they didn't pigeon-hole themselves as gay. They were just men who for that day or night or week or year were having sex with other men."

In the modern strand of the big-cast play (which has 21 characters) Ravenhill questions cliches about today's gay lifestyle. "One of the most uncomfortable questions that the play raises comes from the fact that at the moment it's fashionable to be gay. The gay lifestyle seems enviable, but is this ultimately because gay men are the best consumers? They don't have the expenses of family and, in many ways, they have a lifestyle that suits consumer capitalism."

For this reason, Ravenhill rejects the label "gay", being more attracted to the notion of "queer", in the sense of "being a sexual outlaw, a bit more subversive, although even this risks just being radical chic." At his most ironic, he laughs about other labels such as "post-gay". So he doesn't see himself as a "gay playwright"? "Not at all," he says, thankful that he started writing in the mid-1990s, when audiences "no longer expected a coming-out speech or an AIDS-related plot".

But despite being riotously funny at times, Mother Clap's Molly House is also a serious attempt to challenge gay stereotypes. "In the past 10 years," he says, "there's been an awful lot of anal sex on stage. Since Anthony Neilson's presciently titled Penetrator in 1993, men have been lying back and taking it."

Yet the pattern has been one of "violence and humiliation, rape rather than consensual sex - it's enough to give sodomy a bad name". It an decade obsessed with the crisis of masculinity, "anal rape was an excellent metaphor for what men felt was happening to them". If you were a bloke, you were fucked.

But, as Ravenhill's play shows, "in fact, anal sex is much like any other sex - nearly always consensual, often a bit messy, a bit embarrassing, a bit funny, a bit moving, sometimes boring but usually amazingly enjoyable".

So as well as rescuing a forgotten moment in the history of sex, which ended when middle-class moralists ran a successful campaign of repression against molly houses in the late 1720s, Ravenhill's play also argues that gay sex should be shown as it is: "Let's see men on the British stage having anal sex much as they do in life - frequently and for fun."

Mark Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House previewed at the National Theatre from 22 August

© An earlier version of this article appeared as 'Mollygamous' in What's On on 29 August 2001

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