British theatre: bruising and beloved

Chris Mead

John Osborne, 1959 (Damn You England: Collected Prose, Faber and Faber, 1994)

John Osborne, 1959 (Damn You England: Collected Prose, Faber and Faber, 1994)

A legend has been deliberately circulated that a revolution has begun to take place. As yet there has been little fighting in the streets, a great deal of whispering behind closed doors, with odd, isolated, blustering outbreaks; but the machinery of government goes on much the same as ever…You still want to be a revolutionary? You’ve plenty of time. The party has scarcely started.

New Brutalism. The Brit-Pack. The Blood and Sperm Generation. Cool Britannia. In-Yer-Face Theatre.

Whatever the moniker, do these names signify the triumph of marketing over substance? Are these nasty newish British plays just full of puerile shock tactics or do they mark a genuine shift in the form and content of theatre?

Aleks Sierz, a London-based writer and reviewer (and RealTime correspondent), suggests the latter and has produced a timely volume, In-Yer-Face Theatre, on the nature and depth of this shift. He details quite exactly the forms and chances taken in this gut-wrenching, heart-stopping and mind-numbing theatre work. His inelegant neologistic title hints at the oblique angles some new British drama has taken. In-Yer-Face theatre, Sierz explains, is anything new on stage that swears, vomits or fucks up; anything that is scatological, funny, violent, shocking, provocative; something that breaks taboos, explodes prejudice or betrays your trust. More than this, he explains, “this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react; either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen and want all their friends to see it too.”

And this is what gives this particular volume a fascinating currency—that this new writing did attract a significant audience. Indeed it was, and is, often commercial (many of the plays examined here started in small or medium sized theatres and ended up on the West End, and even Broadway). Commerce and art rarely mix well but these plays often sold out, without their authors ever ‘selling out’. And in this respect the Royal Court led the way. As it did back in 1956 with John Osbourne’s Look Back in Anger.

Such an artistic policy did attract much criticism (though it was also good for business). Some commentators have suggested that many of these plays were opportunistically conceived, modish and written to formula—add genital mutilation, heroin, dance music and amusingly lewd and drunken slacker angst, a nifty title and stir. Others argued that this fuss was simply much ado about the young; the transfiguration of the new, the naughty and the young purely because it was, and they were, new, naughty and young—an inversely sentimental charmed circle of youth. Another form of flak was one I encountered here in Australia. On expressing public support for this work I was attacked by the dramaturg of an established theatre company on the grounds that if I liked that new British stuff I must be shallowly obsessed with sex and violence. I retorted that most good theatre is usually about sex, violence, death or game-playing, at least to some degree—thus inadvertently suggesting a new strain of critique, that everything old is new again. Finally, and unsurprisingly, conservative critics damned as amoral this seeming concentration on sexy violence and violent sex. Who could forget the Daily Telegraph’s Jack Tinker on Sarah Kane’s Blasted: “this disgusting feast of filth.” Whatever the motivation, ethics or quality of the new British drama that Sierz studies, however—and I will get to this soon—these works genuinely pulled a new audience into theatres.

Whether you like them or not, the works of Patrick Marber, Sarah Kane, Conor Macpherson, Jez Butterworth, Judy Upton, Martin Crimp, Antony Neilson, Martin McDonagh, Rebecca Prichard, Joe Penhall, Mark Ravenhill, Rebecca Gilman, Che Walker, Nic Grosso—and many others examined by Sierz, most of whom came up through the Court—have reinvigorated an industry that was asking itself less than 10 years ago: ‘Why is our audience so fucking middle aged?’ This was Stephen Daldry’s mission statement when he took over the Royal Court in 1993. It was against all orthodoxies that the Royal Court put on a season of first plays by new writers on their mainstage; indeed Graham Whybrow, its Literary Manager, mentioned to me in an interview in 1998 that all his colleagues “stroked their beards” and said such a venture would certainly fail. This brave and astute programming worked, however, and continues to do so. By this I mean, and Sierz’s book supports this, that writers kept writing and people kept coming. It did shock. It did hit the tabloids. It did mean there were renewed calls for censorship. It also had people talking about theatre again, and a larger audience than there had been. Sure that’s a woolly unqualified statement, but this book is testament to the interest and excitement this new work generated. Nor were these new plays simply cool or hip (though they were that too), but hard-nosed social comment and thorough, visceral explorations of humanity and the inhumane. This new kind of theatre, what Sierz refers to as “experiential”, has also been enormously influential. The breakthrough, and salutary lesson, then for other more staid theatre companies was (and remains) that new theatre writing was commercially possible, even desirable. In the past 10 years new work has indeed been where the money is. This lends legitimacy to the notion that something important was going on, a new blend of innovation and moneymaking.

Gone were the pompous state of the nation plays, the Brechtian bulldozer, the arch Ibsenite punch and concentration on established writers. In swept a king tide of female and male playwrights of mixed races, complex political affiliations and even more confusing sexual obsessions. Specificity of class, race and gendered experience was the key to these howls of pain or laughter. On close study they remain powerful, genuine and finely crafted. The work of Kane, for instance, here studied in some detail, is fascinating for its continual experimentation, explosive humour and horrifying honesty. Similarly the work of Prichard or Penhall is undeniable in its fierce intelligence and sinuous, extreme naturalism.

This is work that marks an important change in culture, politics and theatre—reminding us also that these are inseparable. Theatre can and must tell stories for us to reflect on who we are and where we live so we can reinvent the world, laugh at its possibilities, our foibles, mutability, idealism or alienation. And in this case the more contemporary the story’s resonance, the better. On stage anything is possible and in that respect Sierz’ book makes great reading. It is thrilling to read about a society and an industry/profession that supports unknown writers because of their clarity of vision and determination to think through and beyond literal limitations, cultural reservations and societal constructs.

In his analysis of this work Sierz makes much of the passepartout “experiential” (this theatre was new and dangerous because it was not simply naturalistic, emotionally extreme or terrifying; it is totally involving like it is happening to you too, thus experiential) but he can afford to be more specific and more academic than that. It tends to collapse idea and form into a hagiographic mess, and though I know what he means, it feels both too upbeat and too generalised. What needs to be understood about this new writing is that not only is it exciting, but that it has been painstakingly, professionally and expensively developed, programmed and produced. The Royal Court produces 19 new plays in full production a year. Not all that work is going to be earth-shattering, but some of it will probably be quite good. And along with the Royal Court, the theatres that survive solely by producing only new work are many and varied (and these are only the ones I can remember off the top of my head): The Traverse, Paines Plough, Out of Joint, Soho Theatre Company, Royal National Studio, The Gate, the Bush, Hampstead Theatre, the Glasgow Cits and the studio theatre at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

It should also be noted that the rather grand claim of the title (“British Drama Today”) is not borne out in the book. It is not about all British drama today. It focuses exclusively on a small number of young playwrights. Their innovations in form and content are important but are totally text based. Also, by concentrating mainly on the shock value attached to these plays’ depictions of sex and violence, it misrepresents the breadth and scope of the new writing that was produced at this time, and the reasons for its sudden accessibility. In addition to this, Sierz enlivens and emboldens the concept of the playwright. This might irritate some—like a performer and writer I spoke to recently who dismissed the notion of the playwright as bourgeois, 19th century and moribund. This book is primarily descriptive too, referring often to fashion, and to things that are cool and hip. As a result its analysis feels a little slippery but the book is essentially a marvellous resource and an important signpost. As is Sierz’s great website. If you don’t like this particular flavour of new British writing, this book probably won’t change your mind about it; but it will certainly open up your eyes to the seriousness of the work, its pretensions, enthusiasm, irony and vaulting ambition.

In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today by Aleks Sierz was published by Faber and Faber in March 2001. www.inyerface-theatre.com

RealTime issue #46 Dec-Jan 2001 pg. 37

© Chris Mead; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2001