image1 image2 image3 image4 image5 image6 image7 image8 image9


In-yer-face theatre is the kind of theatre which grabs the audience by the scruff of the neck and shakes it until it gets the message. The sanitized 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'. 'In-your-face' originated in American sports journalism during the mid-1970s as an exclamation of derision or contempt, and gradually seeped into more mainstream slang during the late 1980s and 1990s, meaning 'aggressive, provocative, brash'. It implies being forced to see something close up, having your personal space invaded. It suggests the crossing of normal boundaries. In short, it describes perfectly the kind of theatre that puts audiences in just such a situation.

In-yer-face theatre shocks audiences by the extremism of its language and images; unsettles them by its emotional frankness and disturbs them by its acute questioning of moral norms. It not only sums up the zeitgeist, but criticises it as well. Most in-yer-face plays are not interested in showing events in a detached way and allowing audiences to speculate about them; instead, they are experiential - they want audiences to feel the extreme emotions that are being shown on stage. In-yer-face theatre is experiential theatre.


Although the upsurge of in-yer-face theatre in Britain had many antecedents, especially in the alternative theatre of the 1960s, it only took off as a new and shocking sensibility in the decade of the 1990s. Just as the origins of provocative and confrontational theatre can be found in the theories of Alfred Jarry and Antonin Artaud, at the start of the 20th century, so it was that in the 1990s it gradually became the dominant style of much new writing.


In-yer-face drama has been staged by new writing theatres such as the Royal Court, Bush, Hampstead, Soho Theatre, Finborough, Tricycle, Theatre Royal Stratford East, and even the trendy Almeida, all of which are in London. But experiential theatre is not an exclusively metropolitan phenomenon. The Traverse in Edinburgh was really important - as were Manchester, Birmingham, Bolton, West Yorkshire, and so on. Especially Live theatre in Newcastle. Of course, this is not an exclusively English or Brit affair either. Americans such as Phyllis Nagy, Naomi Wallace and Tracy Letts made a vital contribution to new writing in English - as did Scottish writers such as David Greig and David Harrower.


The big three of in-yer-face theatre are Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. Other hot shots include Simon Block, Jez Butterworth, David Eldridge, Nick Grosso, Tracy Letts, Martin McDonagh, Patrick Marber, Phyllis Nagy, Joe Penhall, Rebecca Prichard, Philip Ridley, Judy Upton, Naomi Wallace and Richard Zajdlic. Of course, some writers wrote one or two in-yer-face plays and then moved on. Like all categories, this one can't hope to completely grasp the ever-changing reality of the explosive new writing scene.


My basic argument is really simple: in-yer-face theatre is contemporary theatre. What was distinctly new about 1990s drama, what could not have been written 20 years earlier, is the type of in-yer-face play which shocked and disturbed audiences, creating a new aesthetic sensibility. In other words, in-yer-face theatre is to the 1990s what absurdism was to the 1950s, or what kitchen-sink drama was to the Macmillan years.


How can you tell if a play is in-yer-face? Well, it really isn't difficult: the language is filthy, there's nudity, people have sex in front of you, violence breaks out, one character humiliates another, taboos are broken, unmentionable subjects are broached, conventional dramatic structures are subverted. Expect tales of abuse; don't worry about the subversion of theatre form; expect personal politics, not ideology. Above all, this brat pack is the voice of youth. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces you to react - either you want to get on stage and stop what's happening or you decide it's the best thing you've ever seen and you long to come back the next night. As indeed you should.

• Flashback: the top ten new writers of the 1990s

• And flash forward: the best of now


Plus: new writing bibliography

Doubleplus: A brief history of in-yer-face

More Sierz...




What's in-yer-face theatre?

First edition
The nasty nineties
New writing A-Z
Hot hits
What's on
Further info