Hands off

Too many new plays are safe and forgettable. Who’s to blame?
February 22, 2012

Classics and revivals are all very well, but if you run a theatre company, the way to grab attention is to work with new playwrights.

In the past decade British theatre has seen a new writing boom. It began in 2003, when Arts Council funding leapt by 72 per cent, an increase described by Guardian critic Lyn Gardner as “the largest annual increase in subsidy ever received by an art form.” The result was more new plays than ever before. In Rewriting the Nation, Aleks Sierz reports that about 3,000 new plays were produced in the 2000s, more than twice the number staged during the 1990s. Funding peaked in 2010 when annual subsidy for theatre reached £105m, compared to £58m in 2001. Yet despite recent cuts, the cult of the new continues apace.

But are these plays any good? Apart from Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem and Lucy Prebble’s Enron, it’s hard to think of much new writing from the last decade that has had as deep an impact as the “in-yer-face” movement of the 1990s. Whether it was the urban dystopia of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, Mark Ravenhill’s sexually explicit Shopping and Fucking, or the violent 20th-century obsessions of Martin Crimp’s Attempts On Her Life, these were plays that captured the zeitgeist and the public imagination. In 1996 the Times critic Benedict Nightingale declared British theatre was witnessing the kind of energy created by John Osborne’s landmark play Look Back in Anger in 1956.

Like many forms of art, theatre is remembered in terms of eras—good and bad. One of the central features of new writing over the past decade has been the rise of the “well-made play,” often penned by people who learn their craft in playwriting classes and who are subsequently nurtured by literary departments attached to theatres. There have been more and more plays where character development, plot resolution and all the other stuff that goes into a “well-made play,” are in place—often resulting in work that is technically proficient, but unmemorable. If exceptions include That Face by Polly Stenham and the work of Richard Bean, the norm could be found in the disappointing output from Soho and Hampstead, both dedicated new writing theatres that benefit from Arts Council funding.

And here lies the rub. Far from helping young writers, the institutionalised “new writing” culture that is supposed to nurture young talent may actually be preventing great work from reaching the stage.

Even the tiniest new writing theatre has a literary department, usually headed by a literary manager who decides which scripts to “develop.” The process can involve script readings and workshops, often without ever performing the play. One award-winning playwright who would rather not be named says “theatres almost never let a play go on ‘raw’ as first written because otherwise what would be the use of all the literary managers and development programmes and copious note sessions?”

So what would the world of theatre look like without interventions from literary departments? “It would be much messier. And I think a bit more mess would be a healthy thing,” says David Eldridge, whose new play In Basildon is playing at London’s Royal Court until the end of March. Eldridge counsels against looking at the past through rose-tinted glasses, however: “A lot of crap was put on in the 1970s.”

Still, he agrees London’s Soho Theatre—before its current artistic director Steve Marmion came on board—was an example of how development can go wrong. At Soho “development became an end in itself… and I think that idea is absurd,” he says.

Collaboration, where writers, directors and actors work to enhance a written piece is of course, a key part of play-making. And more often than not, sensitive editing improves plays. But while some writers benefit, others are so protected by development that the finished play is primarily the result of a process rather than an author’s vision. “Does that matter?” asks playwright Simon Stephens who was writers’ tutor at the Royal Court from 2000 to 2005. “It’s what ends up on stage that counts.

This is true. But how work is represented also matters. Audiences don’t always get what it says on the tin. Off the record, one artistic director says he knows of a writer who has had success, but “usually ends up with a literary manager re-rewriting the script because she can’t do it herself.”

Neil McPherson, artistic director of west London’s influential Finborough Theatre, is so sceptical about the role of literary managers that he’s getting rid of the post. In the current new writing system “a play has to be helped, or developed. It can’t ever just be,” he says. Literary managers too often bring “an English degree approach” to theatre, choosing plays which are a good read but which, on the stage, are “deadly” boring. Madani Younis, who has just taken over the Bush Theatre, has a similar view. There exists a “mono-cultural view, about what a good play is,” he says. “Sometimes development, at its worst, feels like missionary work—that it’s trying to tame the way in which writers write.”

It’s a judgement that may result in more plays written according to McPherson’s guide to theatre: “New writing should be guts, heart, a little bit of genitals and a tiny bit of head,” he says.