New writing in British theatre today

16th February 2010



Lecture entitled Blasted and After: New Writing in British Theatre Today, about in-yer-face theatre in 1990s and its aftermath, given by Aleks Sierz (Visiting Research Fellow, Rose Bruford College) at a meeting of the Society for Theatre Research, at the Art Workers Guild, London. Expletives not deleted.

It is worth noting that British theatre in the Noughties had little to say about some of the topics that people actually argue about.


New writing special: Lecture entitled Blasted and After: New Writing in British Theatre Today, about in-yer-face theatre in 1990s and its aftermath, given by Aleks Sierz (Visiting Research Fellow, Rose Bruford College) at a meeting of the Society for Theatre Research, at the Art Workers Guild, London. Expletives not deleted.

Recorded: 16 February 2010

Transcribed by the V&A © This transcript is copyright of the Trustees of the Victoria and Albert Museum. If you wish to refer to this in publication its reference is NEW WRITING SPECIAL and you must quote the url in your address bar.

Aleks Sierz: Good evening. I hope you don’t mind if I read from a prepared text — I’m strictly text-based, darlings. I wish that I could say that I will be brief, but given the allocated timeslot, and my regrettable tendency to say the same thing several times in succession, that is highly unlikely. Usually, I begin talks like this with a short parody of a Sarah Kane play. You know the sort of thing: short, sharp shocks with plenty of swearing, explicit sex and violence, and a thoroughly sentimental account of the subject of love. But since I’ve performed this parody, which was written by the Irish playwright Chris Lee, all over Europe, I’ve been experiencing performance fatigue (it’s probably my age), and have decided to opt for a different text this evening.

It’s still a parody but this time it’s from a book by Christopher Douglas and Nigel Planer (no less) called I An Actor (written under the pseudonym of Nicholas Craig), which is a work of fiction, a satire on British theatre today. Here, the author says he has been called everything from the “Blowtorch of the Barbican” to the “Uncrowned Vesuvius of the English Classical Stage”, and mentions one role in which he found himself “wading through a sea of syringes and crème fraiche” in a play called Fist F***ing which was staged — and you really get no prizes for guessing this — at the Royal Court in 1994. “I still have a burning need,” says Nicholas Craig, his tongue practically bursting out of his cheek, “to perform, to communicate and to immerse myself in all the roiling, squalid splendour of life — quite literally in the case of the notorious kitchenette scene from Fist F***ing”.

Now I really don’t think that this a particular hilarious piece of comic writing but I do think that when a theatrical style becomes an object of parody it’s a sure sign that its achieved a cultural status well beyond that of its original outing. And this is clearly what has happened to the kind of theatre which has become known as in-yer-face theatre, which burst into cultural prominence in the mid-1990s, and which, for a time, seemed to monopolise most discussions about new writing in those heady years. I don’t intend to go through the same material today, but because some aspects of this phenomenon have been consistently misunderstood I’d just like to make some simple points about the new writing scene in Britain in the 1990s:

First, in-yer-face theatre was never a movement and I’ve never said that it was. You can’t sign a manifesto, buy a membership card or join a march in favour of in-yer-face theatre and, as I never tire of explaining to the people who email me about it, in-yer-face theatre is not an actual theatre building, nor is it a theatre company. Sorry, but I don’t actually audition young actors, so stop sending me your photos.

Instead, in-yer-face theatre is both a sensibility and a series of theatrical techniques. As a sensibility, it involved an acuteness of feeling and a keen intellectual perception of the spirit of the age. As a series of theatrical techniques, it is an example of experiential theatre, and its techniques include a stage language that emphasizes rawness, intensity and strong words, stage images that show acute pain or comfortless vulnerability, characterization that prefers complicit victims to innocent ones, and a 90-minute running time that dispenses with the interval. That these techniques of experiential theatre thrived in the hothouse environment of studio theatres can surely be no surprise.

Second point, history doesn’t happen by accident alone, and nor did in-yer-face theatre. Although it’s true, as Karl Marx pointed out, that people “make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing”, the important point is that it is people that make history. So the phenomenon of in-yer-face theatre was the result of the deliberate actions of a handful of artistic directors, as well as writers. It’s relatively easy to come up with five mighty moments in the history of the 1990s where this kind of agency was vital, and the following are my top five mighty moments:

Mighty Moment One) Let’s start not with London but, for a change, with Edinburgh. When Ian Brown at the Traverse started to look for provocative plays from Canada and America in the late 1980s, he was simply doing what all artistic directors do: making a choice about what he thought would be worth staging. Unknown to him, he was also opening the long road that led to Anthony Neilson, to Mark Ravenhill (who was influenced by the work of Canadian Brad Fraser) and to that 1990s youth anthem, Trainspotting.

Mighty Moment Two) When Dominic Dromgoole at the Bush programmed Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney in 1991, he was consciously blowing away the cobwebs of what the late Anthony Minghella once called “mumble plays”, but he was also inspiring a new generation of writers. Ridley is interesting in that he came to theatre not from a drama school or a new writing programme, but from an art school, St Martin’s. Institutional histories of new writing usually start with the Royal Court — perhaps, more accurately, a history of the 1990s should begin by looking at St Martin’s College of Art and Goldsmiths College. Culturally, there’s clearly a nexus between the YBAs, Cool Britannia and Brit Pop. The Pulp song ‘Common People’ mentions St Martin’s and the iconic 1996 single ‘Wannabe’ by the Spice Girls mentions that famous phrase “in-yer-face”.

Mighty Moment Three) When Stephen Daldry (didn’t he do well?) at the Royal Court changed his programming policy from gay physical theatre to text-based drama, and when he decided to stage a large number of first-time dramatists, he was not only “getting down with the kids”, he was also unleashing forces which he didn’t perfectly understand. Surely, one of the lynchpin moments of the 1990s was the script meeting that decided to stage Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Although promoting new writing was a deliberate policy, this meeting might have chosen to pass on Blasted, and the history of the rest of the decade might have been so very different.

Mighty Moment Four) When, at about the same time, Martin Crimp decided that he could fulfill his latest Royal Court commission by stitching together a pile of disjointed and incomplete dialogues, and make them all about a woman, or women, called Anne, thus creating Attempts on Her Life, he was taking what for him was a leap in the dark. The result, I need hardly remind you, was one of the most influential pieces of contemporary theatre.

Finally, my last example is not a Mighty Moment, not a piece of deliberate theatre policy or a creative act but an accidental tragedy: the murder of toddler Jamie Bulger in 1993 by two 10-year-old boys. In any account of culture, including theatre culture, of the 1990s, this is arguably a key event. When in 1994 the judge in the boys’ trial explained the murder by speculating that they had been exposed to a violent video, ‘Child’s Play 3’, this created a media storm which, I would argue, is the cultural context for the media uproar over Blasted. But the Bulger murder also had at least one direct influence on theatre: Mark Ravenhill has written eloquently about how this murder affected his own sensibility and imagination. So it’s possible to conclude, if we indulge for a moment in a kind of counterfactual fantasy, that without this accidental killing, there would have been no fuss about Blasted and perhaps no Shopping and Fucking.

Indeed, if any of these five examples hadn’t happened, or had happened differently, theatre in the 1990s would probably have been unrecognisable. Such is historical agency.

My final point about the new writing scene in the 1990s is that although it was not confined to in-yer-face theatre, in-yer-face theatre did represent its cutting edge. This style of theatre was an avant-garde, and it was exported to theatres all over Europe. This is not true for all products of British theatre in the 1990s: plays such as Diane Samuels Kindertransport and Jonathan Harvey’s Beautiful Thing may well have been translated — and Beautiful Thing was made into a film in 1996 — but these were not the plays that colonized, to give just one example, the regional state theatres of Germany in the late 1990s. No, if you were a youngish director determined to make your mark in Hamburg, Stuttgart or Berlin, you wouldn’t chose to direct Shelagh Stephenson’s Memory of Water or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby; you would chose Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking or Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, closely followed by something by Patrick Marber, David Greig or David Harrower. That’s where the edge was.

The repercussions of the success of this avant-garde of in-yer-face new writers is clear. Although this particular new wave crested in about 1999, at least a decade ago, we still live in its backflow. The result is that the British new writing scene in the new millennium is radically different from what it had been in, say, 1990, or a couple of years earlier.

Whereas before we had had despair and mutterings of crisis, now in this decade there was optimism and trumpetings of confidence. As, in the Noughties, each of the main new writing theatres — the Royal Court and Bush — received a lottery-funded makeover or, in the case of the Traverse, Soho and Hampstead, a spanking new building, new writing moved to the top of the theatre agenda. Moreover, with the arrival of new artistic directors at the flagship venues, the National (Nicholas Hytner) and Royal Shakespeare Company (Michael Boyd), both these theatres renewed their historic commitment to developing new work. Moreover, with the successful implementation of the Boyden Report, theatres outside London also joined in this chorus of confidence. By the mid-Noughties, new writing had become de rigeur for many theatres in all parts of the UK.

Today, New Writing is everywhere. Everywhere, you can watch plays that are examples of New Writing; everywhere, you can meet new writers; everywhere there are New Writing festivals. There’s even a New Writing scene. In fact, there is an absolute deluge of the new. Everyone, from playwrights to artistic directors, wants to be of the moment. As Harriet Devine, in her celebration of fifty years of the Royal Court, writes: “Today almost every theatre in Britain, from the National Theatre to many tiny fringe venues, offers openings to new playwrights”. Similarly, in 2007, one provocative blogger wrote, “From the Royal Court in London to the Traverse in Edinburgh, via Liverpool’s LLT and companies like Paines Plough, it often feels like Britain is positively drowning in new writing. To the casual observer, there’s a glut of theatres and programmes that specialise in new writing, especially by young people.”

So, the question arises, what are the main trends in new writing over the past ten years?

The first new trend is that there are no new trends (sorry, but I’ve always wanted the use this kind of phrase, ever since I read about an 18th-century travel guide which had a separate chapter on Snakes in Iceland and which read, in its entirety, “There are no snakes in Iceland.”). Instead of an avant-garde that shares the same sensibility and the same handful of theatrical techniques, what you have is a kaleidoscopic Variety of new work, from tiny plays with audiences of a handful to massive main stage extravaganzas with a thousand spectators. If you look at some of the most successful plays of the new decade, it’s almost impossible to see any connections between them: Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis shares with Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange the theme of mental disturbance but the form of the two plays could not be more different; David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys are both about education, but are completely different in form and content; David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Dennis Kelly’s Osama the Hero are both about the War on Terror but offer quite different perspectives. Could you imagine a single trend that would comfortably include Caryl Churchill’s A Number, Debbie Tucker Green’s Stoning Mary, Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy, Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games and Catherine Johnson’s Mamma Mia!, to name only a handful of female writers. A similar Variety can be found in the anatomies of working-class life delivered by a Simon Stephens or a Leo Butler, and contrasted with the imaginative plays that have streamed from the pens of an Abi Morgan, a Zinnie Harris, a David Greig, a Terry Johnson or a Kevin Elyot. The society inhabited by the trendy artists of Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water) has nothing in common with Kwame Kwei-Armah’s trilogy exploring the black British experience, while the world inhabited by Roy Williams’s characters could scarcely be confused with that peopled by the imaginations of a Philip Ridley or a Anthony Neilson. What have the convoluted narratives of a Martin Crimp — where the action happens inside the heads of the author or, maybe, of the characters — got to do with the straight and reliable naturalism of a Richard Cameron?

If the 1990s were, to use a scientific metaphor, a Newtonian decade, with every cause having an effect, and one thing happening after another, the Noughties were the Quantum decade, with everything happening at the same time and all over the place. British theatre resembled a nuclear reactor: inside, everything is bouncing off the walls; common sense flies out the window; paradox rules okay. In the Noughties, the story is an absence of story. Instead of a new sensibility coming into its own, what you had was a flowering of various sensibilities, a whole Variety of voices. But although it’s clear that the Noughties did not have the equivalent of an in-yer-face brigade, nor did it need one, there are some tendencies that have attracted comment.

Some new themes have emerged (when I said just now that there were no new themes I’m afraid that wasn’t telling the truth). Many plays reflected the decade’s obsessions. British playwrights are, after all, quite good at observing the world. The most obvious trend is the revival of political drama, especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the spread of the War on Terror. From scabrous satires to plays saturated by the anxieties of living in a culture of fear, the global anxieties of terror have been brought home to, at one show or another, most theatre audiences. The main beneficiary, aesthetically, has been verbatim theatre. From David Hare’s The Permanent Way to Alecky Blythe’s Come Out Eli, and from the Liverpool Everyman’s multi-authored Unprotected to the Tricycle Theatre’s tribunal plays, verbatim was the flavour of the decade. Even a play such as Gregory Burke’s Black Watch dramatises not so much the experience of the soldiers as the experience of the writer going to met and interview these soldiers. In The Power of Yes, David Hare does not dramatise the global economic meltdown but merely the process of finding out about it. In this decade, verbatim was British theatre’s response to reality TV; its main shortcoming is that what you see is what you get — and often what you see is all there is.

The other obvious trend is global roaming. As well as writing plays, such as Dennis Kelly’s Osama the Hero or Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, about the War on Terror, British playwrights have clocked up thousands of air-miles by, metaphorically speaking, roaming the globe. So there have been plays set in most parts of the world, especially, if unsurprisingly, in the Middle East and Africa. There were also good plays about our Special Relationship with the US. But most outstandingly, there have been plays about Britain, and about national identity, that come from the heritage of Empire. Clearly a lot of the energy in British new writing in the past decade has come from black or Asian playwrights such as Roy Williams and Tanika Gupta, Kwame Kwei-Armah and Bola Agbaje, Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and Shan Khan. Once again, this thumbnail list simply doesn’t do justice to the immense well of creativity in this area.

On the domestic front, prominent issues include class, with dozens of plays set on council estates up and down the country, and many issue plays dealing with the social problems originally caused by the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. There have been plays about violence, plays about celebrity and too many plays to mention about asylum, racial tensions and poverty. Actors wanting to play the role of petty criminals have gravitated to new writing, and those with rural accents have found plenty of work. Although there have been a fair number of paedophile plays, this decade has also been marked by the return of the traditional family play. Some hardy perennial themes persist, and these include — in the personal sphere — the growth and growth of the teen angst play, the unsuitable relationships play and the couples-in-crisis play, as well as such beautiful hybrids as the teen angst play embedded within a couples-in-crisis play (I could go on but I’m sure you get the picture).

But if plays about devolved communities have been well represented, the plays that have caused the most controversy have usually been those on the subject of segregated communities, especially religious communities. The Behzti case is an obvious example. Last year, the most controversial play that has been seen by thousands is Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice, whose second half implicitly asks whether radical Islamists can ever be assimilated into British society. And the most controversial play that almost no one saw, but everyone has read, is Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children, which she wrote in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. Similarly, the worst thing to happen to a British playwright in this decade must be Gary Mitchell being driven from his home in north Belfast by rogue loyalist paramilitaries in December 2005. One again, a community with a distinctive sense of self was punishing someone whose work questioned that sense of self.

One final tendency worth noting is a welcome relaxation of the boundaries that in the recent past still dominated our thinking about drama. Although there are still books being published about women’s writing, gay theatre, and Black and Asian theatre, divisions such as these, and which include the historic divisions between commercial and subsidized, and mainstream and fringe, are all gradually weakening. The new buzzword is crossover. A so-called Asian writer, such as Tanika Gupta, can now write a play, Sugar Mummies, in which there are no Asian characters. A so-called black writer, Roy Williams, can write a play, Sing Your Heart Out for the Lads, in which most of the characters are white. So celebrating the Variety of creativity in current new writing also presents us with a direct challenge to established and historic categories, ways of thinking about theatre. When a Scottish writer no longer writes about Scotland, how and why should we talk about them as a Scottish playwright? One of the great advances in audience receptiveness over the past twenty years is the acceptance of the gay play not as a gay play but just as a piece of drama, simply a play like any other play. No one refers to Mark Ravenhill as a gay playwright, or a queer one. He’s simply a writer.

Although one of the most representative figures in British drama of the past decade is the underclass chav, the feral hoodie or the petty crim, what paragons were in evidence on the British stage? Well, precious few. Although the Thatcherite man or woman is well documented, was there such a fictional being as the New Labour person? Occasionally, in the satires of Alistair Beaton or the dramas of David Hare, New Labour politicians came on stage, usually in the guise of inheritors of Thatcherism, firm believers in market principles, spin and correctness. But there were no major New Labour stage characters: no memorable politicians, investment bankers, newspaper owners, estate agents or credit-card managers riding the long boom; British theatre looked not at the protagonists of turbo-charged capitalism but at its victims. Still, it is also true that there were precious few major oppositional characters who were able to reinvent the old radical spirit of anger and criticism. Who can name this decade’s Jimmy Porter? Most preferred the traditional response of humour to the risks of outspoken dissent. On the other hand, conflict was often successfully articulated, as in the repeated clashes between ethical individuals and compromised pragmatists in, say, David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky or in Joe Penhall’s Landscape with Weapon.

It might also be useful to mention some absent friends, plays that haven’t been written. Before we get too complacent about how contemporary new writing is, it is worth noting that theatre in the Noughties had little to say about some of the topics that people actually argue about: there were no major plays about the house-price boom, the ethics of choosing schools or, with only one or two exceptions, global warming. Who spoke up for ordinary middle-class couples doing ordinary middle-class things? Old people were rarely of interest to young playwrights. Nor was the widening gulf between generations. The Baby Gap was not explored. Ephebiphobia (that’s fear of young people) went unchallenged. The monarchy remained virtually undiscussed. Few plays featured Conservative politicians; few examined our ideas about Europe. Honour killing and mercy killing were mentioned, but where was the major play that examined either? Although frequently invited, the fabled right-wing play failed to arrive. There was an absence of engagement with moral values; instead, there was an assumption that we all share liberal ideals, which usually go unarticulated. If there were plenty of plays about the War on Terror why were there no plays about the rise of China? South American, not to mention Australia, was of no interest to British playwrights. So, despite global roaming, the world of Noughties British drama was a curiously shrunken place.

Finally, perhaps it would be interesting to focus for a moment on an underlying aesthetic tension within the whole new writing project. Despite the deluge of the new, for a while there’s been a real tension in contemporary British theatre between the literal, on the one hand, and the metaphysical, on the other. On the literal side, most new plays in Britain are still small in just about every respect: small in cast, small in space and small in theatrical ambition. Soapy dramas for couch potatoes. Whether they are about “me and my mates”, teenage angst or underclass violence, they normally squat on territory that is already known — there’s little sense of exploration, or experiment, or excitement. Boundaries remain unbreached; fantasy is grounded by the twin ballast of naturalism and social realism. Literalist theatre is a theatre style that Scottish playwright David Greig evocatively and provocatively calls “English realism”. This new writing genre, which has thrived in subsidised theatres for the past 50 years, shows the nation to itself. It voices debates and deals in issues. Its stories are linear and based firmly on a recognisable social context. Its dialogues are convincing and down-to-earth. It is distrustful of metaphor and suspicious of fancy foreign stuff, which is usually characterised as abstract, complex and humourless. By contrast, English realism is earthy, simple and, yes, funny. It is lite on metaphor and heavy on social commentary. With English realism, concludes Greig, “the real world is brought into the theatre and plonked on stage like a familiar old sofa”.

But what of metaphysical theatre? Well, we’re all familiar with that kind of writing too. Just think of one William Shakespeare. To quote director Dominic Dromgoole (head of Shakespeare’s Globe): “When Shakespeare wrote his great historical plays, he chucked everything in: nonsense about witchcraft, battle scenes, father-and-son stuff, pageants, ghosts, wild coincidences, philosophical introspection. History, the record of facts, was a release for the great heap of images inside him — not a clamp on his imagination.” Today, writers whose imaginations are similarly unclamped include people such as Caryl Churchill, Martin Crimp, Mark Ravenhill and Philip Ridley, Dennis Kelly and Debbie Tucker Green to name just six. So I’d argue that it is this tradition of metaphysical theatre, with its weight of metaphor, mythic contours, visionary imagination and willingness to experiment with theatre form, that provides some of the most compelling examples of the truly contemporary.

In fact, it is not a little ironic that Anthony Neilson, the bad boy of 1990s experiential drama, spent most of past decade writing what he calls absurd dramas. At the end of Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness!, he even stages a debate between one character, Ludd, who wants social realism — “real life as it is lived” — and Gant, who says that his art is about “all that is superfluous to survival: love and dreams and imagination”.

So although too many British plays are literal representations of reality, and not very interesting theatrically, there are also plenty of examples of highly imaginative and highly provocative new work. Before winding up, I’d just like to quote from director Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. In this classic 1968 book, he wrote: “in theory few men [sic] are as free as a playwright. He can bring the whole world on to his stage. But in fact he is strangely timid.” In 2010, perhaps the best antidote to the insular curse of timidity that comes from literalism in British theatre is the irrepressible, untamed quality of the imagination — and perhaps the best mission for a theatre of the future is no less than the project to create a new idea of the human.

Thank you.