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-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 . Aleks Sierz: Good evening. I hope you don’t mind if I read from a prepared text — I’m strictly textbased, 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 mid1990s, 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
Ridley is interesting in that he came to theatre not from a drama school or a new writing programme. but he was also inspiring a new generation of writers. This style of theatre was an avantgarde. if any of these five examples hadn’t happened. was one of the most influential pieces of contemporary theatre. 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”. and the following are my top five mighty moments: Mighty Moment One) Let’s start not with London but. Unknown to him. ‘Child’s Play 3’. called Anne. including theatre culture. in-yer-face theatre did represent its cutting edge. the important point is that it is people that make history. my last example is not a Mighty Moment. that people “make their own history but not in circumstances of their own choosing”. one of the lynchpin moments of the 1990s was the script meeting that decided to stage Sarah Kane’s Blasted. I need hardly remind you. there would have been no fuss about Blasted and perhaps no Shopping and Fucking. thus creating Attempts on Her Life. My final point about the new writing scene in the 1990s is that although it was not confined to inyer-face theatre. if we indulge for a moment in a kind of counterfactual fantasy. In any account of culture. but from an art school. So the phenomenon of in-yer-face theatre was the result of the deliberate actions of a handful of artistic directors. or women. or had happened differently. Indeed. and make them all about a woman. Mighty Moment Two) When Dominic Dromgoole at the Bush programmed Philip Ridley’s The Pitchfork Disney in 1991. that without this accidental killing. this created a media storm which. The result. for a change. Surely. he was simply doing what all artistic directors do: making a choice about what he thought would be worth staging. this meeting might have chosen to pass on Blasted. Trainspotting. he was also opening the long road that led to Anthony Neilson. he was also unleashing forces which he didn’t perfectly understand. this is arguably a key event. he was consciously blowing away the cobwebs of what the late Anthony Minghella once called “mumble plays”. to Mark Ravenhill (who was influenced by the work of Canadian Brad Fraser) and to that 1990s youth anthem. Institutional histories of new writing usually start with the Royal Court — perhaps. and it was exported to theatres all over Europe. 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-yearold boys. So it’s possible to conclude. Cool Britannia and Brit Pop. When Ian Brown at the Traverse started to look for provocative plays from Canada and America in the late 1980s. 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 . of the 1990s. more accurately. as Karl Marx pointed out. 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. 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. he was not only “getting down with the kids”. and the history of the rest of the decade might have been so very different. with Edinburgh. When in 1994 the judge in the boys’ trial explained the murder by speculating that they had been exposed to a violent video. as well as writers. Culturally. is the cultural context for the media uproar over Blasted. It’s relatively easy to come up with five mighty moments in the history of the 1990s where this kind of agency was vital. Although promoting new writing was a deliberate policy.it’s true. theatre in the 1990s would probably have been unrecognisable. I would argue. Finally. Such is historical agency. Mighty Moment Four) When. a history of the 1990s should begin by looking at St Martin’s College of Art and Goldsmiths College. there’s clearly a nexus between the YBAs. he was taking what for him was a leap in the dark. St Martin’s. Martin Crimp decided that he could fulfill his latest Royal Court commission by stitching together a pile of disjointed and incomplete dialogues. and when he decided to stage a large number of first-time dramatists. at about the same time.
a Zinnie Harris. That’s where the edge was. Soho and Hampstead. As Harriet Devine. both these theatres renewed their historic commitment to developing new work. The result is that the British new writing scene in the new millennium is radically different from what it had been in. writes: “Today almost every theatre in Britain. No. or a couple of years earlier. you can watch plays that are examples of New Writing. there is an absolute deluge of the new.these were not the plays that colonized. with the successful implementation of the Boyden Report. there’s a glut of theatres and programmes that specialise in new writing. but are completely different in form and content. ever since I read about an 18th-century travel guide which had a separate chapter on Snakes in Iceland and which read. from playwrights to artistic directors. say. Whereas before we had had despair and mutterings of crisis. David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Dennis Kelly’s Osama the Hero are both about the War on Terror but offer quite different perspectives. wants to be of the moment. in the case of the Traverse. at least a decade ago. the question arises. it’s almost impossible to see any connections between them: Sarah Kane’s 4. David Greig or David Harrower. if you were a youngish director determined to make your mark in Hamburg.” So. to name only a handful of female writers. in her celebration of fifty years of the Royal Court. Debbie Tucker Green’s Stoning Mary. If you look at some of the most successful plays of the new decade. David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky and Alan Bennett’s The History Boys are both about education. Moreover. A similar Variety can be found in the anatomies of workingclass 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. As. offers openings to new playwrights”. you can meet new writers. Stuttgart or Berlin. a David Greig. from tiny plays with audiences of a handful to massive main stage extravaganzas with a thousand spectators. Moreover. New Writing is everywhere. everywhere. To the casual observer. but I’ve always wanted the use this kind of phrase.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. “There are no snakes in Iceland. the National (Nicholas Hytner) and Royal Shakespeare Company (Michael Boyd). Everywhere. Charlotte Jones’s Humble Boy. especially by young people. new writing had become de rigeur for many theatres in all parts of the UK. Although this particular new wave crested in about 1999. Instead of an avantgarde that shares the same sensibility and the same handful of theatrical techniques. via Liverpool’s LLT and companies like Paines Plough. theatres outside London also joined in this chorus of confidence. to give just one example. you wouldn’t chose to direct Shelagh Stephenson’s Memory of Water or Amanda Whittington’s Be My Baby. Tanika Gupta’s Gladiator Games and Catherine Johnson’s Mamma Mia!. what you have is a kaleidoscopic Variety of new work. By the midNoughties. Similarly. closely followed by something by Patrick Marber. 1990. in its entirety. it often feels like Britain is positively drowning in new writing. Today. from the National Theatre to many tiny fringe venues. one provocative blogger wrote. There’s even a New Writing scene. Everyone. new writing moved to the top of the theatre agenda. everywhere there are New Writing festivals. we still live in its backflow. in the Noughties. while the world inhabited by Roy Williams’s characters could scarcely be confused with . in 2007. each of the main new writing theatres — the Royal Court and Bush — received a lottery-funded makeover or. a spanking new building. In fact. now in this decade there was optimism and trumpetings of confidence. 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. 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. “From the Royal Court in London to the Traverse in Edinburgh. The repercussions of the success of this avant-garde of in-yer-face new writers is clear. Could you imagine a single trend that would comfortably include Caryl Churchill’s A Number. the regional state theatres of Germany in the late 1990s. with the arrival of new artistic directors at the flagship venues.”). you would chose Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking or Sarah Kane’s Cleansed.
and from the Liverpool Everyman’s multi-authored Unprotected to the Tricycle Theatre’s tribunal plays. after all. that come from the heritage of Empire. the story is an absence of story. Many plays reflected the decade’s obsessions.that peopled by the imaginations of a Philip Ridley or a Anthony Neilson. the plays that have caused the most controversy have usually been those on the subject of segregated communities. British playwrights have clocked up thousands of air-miles by. 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). everything is bouncing off the walls. quite good at observing the world. to use a scientific metaphor. at one show or another. The Behzti case is an obvious example. the Noughties were the Quantum decade. Kwame Kwei-Armah and Bola Agbaje. nor did it need one. The most obvious trend is the revival of political drama. As well as writing plays. and one thing happening after another. There have been plays about violence. The other obvious trend is global roaming. British theatre resembled a nuclear reactor: inside. Last year. Instead of a new sensibility coming into its own. about the War on Terror. verbatim was British theatre’s response to reality TV. In this decade. the global anxieties of terror have been brought home to. such as Dennis Kelly’s Osama the Hero or Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender. In The Power of Yes. On the domestic front. racial tensions and poverty. there have been plays about Britain. So there have been plays set in most parts of the world. the most controversial . David Hare does not dramatise the global economic meltdown but merely the process of finding out about it. 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. has been verbatim theatre. verbatim was the flavour of the decade. this decade has also been marked by the return of the traditional family play. plays about celebrity and too many plays to mention about asylum. In the Noughties. this thumbnail list simply doesn’t do justice to the immense well of creativity in this area. common sense flies out the window. 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). and those with rural accents have found plenty of work. From scabrous satires to plays saturated by the anxieties of living in a culture of fear. Once again. and many issue plays dealing with the social problems originally caused by the policies of Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s. There were also good plays about our Special Relationship with the US. its main shortcoming is that what you see is what you get — and often what you see is all there is. and about national identity. Although there have been a fair number of paedophile plays. But most outstandingly. especially. paradox rules okay. But if plays about devolved communities have been well represented. aesthetically. and these include — in the personal sphere — the growth and growth of the teen angst play. in the Middle East and Africa. But although it’s clear that the Noughties did not have the equivalent of an in-yer-face brigade. especially religious communities. especially in the aftermath of 9/11 and the spread of the War on Terror. British playwrights are. Actors wanting to play the role of petty criminals have gravitated to new writing. prominent issues include class. The main beneficiary. a Newtonian decade. the unsuitable relationships play and the couples-in-crisis play. of the characters — got to do with the straight and reliable naturalism of a Richard Cameron? If the 1990s were. there are some tendencies that have attracted comment. Some hardy perennial themes persist. a whole Variety of voices. metaphorically speaking. if unsurprisingly. what you had was a flowering of various sensibilities. 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. most theatre audiences. From David Hare’s The Permanent Way to Alecky Blythe’s Come Out Eli. with everything happening at the same time and all over the place. Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti and Shan Khan. with every cause having an effect. maybe. with dozens of plays set on council estates up and down the country. roaming the globe. What have the convoluted narratives of a Martin Crimp — where the action happens inside the heads of the author or.
the ethics of choosing schools or. There was an absence of engagement with moral values. newspaper owners. Similarly. Honour killing and mercy killing were mentioned. such as Tanika Gupta. are all gradually weakening. a community with a distinctive sense of self was punishing someone whose work questioned that sense of self. was of no interest to British playwrights. and which include the historic divisions between commercial and subsidized. British theatre looked not at the protagonists of turbo-charged capitalism but at its victims. is Caryl Churchill’s Seven Jewish Children. but where was the major play that examined either? Although frequently invited. Ephebiphobia (that’s fear of young people) went unchallenged. and mainstream and fringe. despite global roaming. He’s simply a writer. When a Scottish writer no longer writes about Scotland. few examined our ideas about Europe. divisions such as these. conflict was often successfully articulated.play that has been seen by thousands is Richard Bean’s England People Very Nice. The monarchy remained virtually undiscussed. No one refers to Mark Ravenhill as a gay playwright. plays that haven’t been written. The new buzzword is crossover. Although there are still books being published about women’s writing. 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. estate agents or credit-card managers riding the long boom. Who can name this decade’s Jimmy Porter? Most preferred the traditional response of humour to the risks of outspoken dissent. the world of Noughties British drama was a curiously shrunken place. One final tendency worth noting is a welcome relaxation of the boundaries that in the recent past still dominated our thinking about drama. spin and correctness. On the other hand. Finally. but everyone has read. in which there are no Asian characters. One again. say. It might also be useful to mention some absent friends. in the satires of Alistair Beaton or the dramas of David Hare. gay theatre. precious few. not to mention Australia. there was an assumption that we all share liberal ideals. firm believers in market principles. and Black and Asian theatre. the fabled right-wing play failed to arrive. A so-called black writer. simply a play like any other play. But there were no major New Labour stage characters: no memorable politicians. New Labour politicians came on stage. perhaps it would be interesting to focus for a moment on an underlying aesthetic tension . with only one or two exceptions. can write a play. Although one of the most representative figures in British drama of the past decade is the underclass chav. which she wrote in response to the Israeli attack on Gaza. 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. Although the Thatcherite man or woman is well documented. ways of thinking about theatre. Sugar Mummies. global warming. usually in the guise of inheritors of Thatcherism. If there were plenty of plays about the War on Terror why were there no plays about the rise of China? South American. or a queer one. The Baby Gap was not explored. Roy Williams. Who spoke up for ordinary middle-class couples doing ordinary middle-class things? Old people were rarely of interest to young playwrights. instead. So celebrating the Variety of creativity in current new writing also presents us with a direct challenge to established and historic categories. investment bankers. as in the repeated clashes between ethical individuals and compromised pragmatists in. So. what paragons were in evidence on the British stage? Well. David Eldridge’s Under the Blue Sky or in Joe Penhall’s Landscape with Weapon. Few plays featured Conservative politicians. Nor was the widening gulf between generations. Before we get too complacent about how contemporary new writing is. And the most controversial play that almost no one saw. was there such a fictional being as the New Labour person? Occasionally. 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. whose second half implicitly asks whether radical Islamists can ever be assimilated into British society. in which most of the characters are white. the feral hoodie or the petty crim. A so-called Asian writer. Still. 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. which usually go unarticulated. can now write a play. Sing Your Heart Out for the Lads.
on the one hand. or excitement. the record of facts. So although too many British plays are literal representations of reality. By contrast. that provides some of the most compelling examples of the truly contemporary. small in space and small in theatrical ambition. shows the nation to itself. 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. History. I’d just like to quote from director Peter Brook’s The Empty Space. But what of metaphysical theatre? Well. there are also plenty of examples of highly imaginative and highly provocative new work. he wrote: “in theory few men [sic] are as free as a playwright. Its stories are linear and based firmly on a recognisable social context. who says that his art is about “all that is superfluous to survival: love and dreams and imagination”. Ludd. Before winding up. So I’d argue that it is this tradition of metaphysical theatre. complex and humourless. father-and-son stuff. Literalist theatre is a theatre style that Scottish playwright David Greig evocatively and provocatively calls “English realism”. which is usually characterised as abstract. In this classic 1968 book. teenage angst or underclass violence. To quote director Dominic Dromgoole (head of Shakespeare’s Globe): “When Shakespeare wrote his great historical plays. This new writing genre. pageants. wild coincidences. spent most of past decade writing what he calls absurd dramas. At the end of Edward Gant’s Amazing Feats of Loneliness!. He can bring the whole world on to his stage. . Whether they are about “me and my mates”. Dennis Kelly and Debbie Tucker Green to name just six. writers whose imaginations are similarly unclamped include people such as Caryl Churchill. was a release for the great heap of images inside him — not a clamp on his imagination. and the metaphysical.” In 2010. funny. yes. we’re all familiar with that kind of writing too. he chucked everything in: nonsense about witchcraft. “the real world is brought into the theatre and plonked on stage like a familiar old sofa”. philosophical introspection. Despite the deluge of the new. ghosts. It voices debates and deals in issues. with its weight of metaphor. he even stages a debate between one character. On the literal side. fantasy is grounded by the twin ballast of naturalism and social realism. In fact. Boundaries remain unbreached. English realism is earthy. perhaps the best antidote to the insular curse of timidity that comes from literalism in British theatre is the irrepressible. simple and. on the other. concludes Greig. Soapy dramas for couch potatoes. It is distrustful of metaphor and suspicious of fancy foreign stuff. visionary imagination and willingness to experiment with theatre form.” Today. who wants social realism — “real life as it is lived” — and Gant. or experiment. for a while there’s been a real tension in contemporary British theatre between the literal. Its dialogues are convincing and down-to-earth. which has thrived in subsidised theatres for the past 50 years. Mark Ravenhill and Philip Ridley.within the whole new writing project. Martin Crimp. battle scenes. mythic contours. Just think of one William Shakespeare. and not very interesting theatrically. they normally squat on territory that is already known — there’s little sense of exploration. But in fact he is strangely timid. it is not a little ironic that Anthony Neilson. the bad boy of 1990s experiential drama. With English realism. Thank you. It is lite on metaphor and heavy on social commentary. most new plays in Britain are still small in just about every respect: small in cast.
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