Class act: Beth Steel. Credit: Helen Murray

Playwright Beth Steel: “I knew I could do it”

Steel, a rare working-class voice in theatre, has written the summer’s must-see play
May 12, 2022

After leaving school at the age of 16 in Warsop, Nottinghamshire, Beth Steel moved to London where she modelled and worked as a waitress. One evening she went to watch Roger Allam and Jodhi May in Peter Stein’s 2006 production of Blackbird, David Harrower’s two-hander about a paedophile confronted by his victim. “I know how this sounds, but I just knew I could do it,” Steel tells me. “I loved the architecture of it, the construction of it.” She wrote a short play and submitted it to the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme and was accepted. Since then, she has emerged as one of Britain’s most ambitious political playwrights.

The House of Shades, which opens at London’s Almeida theatre on 7th May until 18th June, maps the impact of post-industrial decline on a working-class family through the formal structure of a Greek tragedy. Steel never studied Greek tragedy, but a lightbulb went off when she encountered Aeschylus’ Oresteia in the acclaimed 2015 adaptation by Robert Icke at the Almeida. “I packed a suitcase with 31 Greek plays, took a trip to Athens, and read them all in the shadow of the Acropolis.”

The House of Shades stars Anne-Marie Duff as Constance, a monstrous mother in the tradition of Clytemnestra and Medea. The structure recalls Aeschylus, but Steel’s psychological achievement feels closer to the proto-realist Euripides: even as she repulses us, Constance’s character cohesively unfolds with every revelation. While most established playwrights work to commission, Steel sent the completed script unsolicited to the Almeida, where artistic director Rupert Goold jumped on it.

Steel’s roots are in the working-class left: her father was a Nottingham coal miner and for her landmark 2014 play, Wonderland, she followed him round the pit for a week. In The House of Shades, Constance’s husband is a mining shop steward. As the action moves from 1965 to 2019, the weaknesses of traditional organised labour are exposed and different family members are tempted by communism, Thatcherism, liberal feminism and Faragism. Her script has a healthy refusal to take sides. But what Steel wants to explain to Londoners is why her hometown voted overwhelming for Brexit. Part of the answer lies in the resentment towards Sports Direct, whose national warehouse dominates employment in the neighbouring town of Shirebrook. If The House of Shades ever becomes didactic, it is in the closing scenes where this employment shift—and the levels of Polish immigration brought to Steel’s fictional town—closely mirror reality.

This is a big play: state-of-the-nation chronicle, autopsy of the British left and Greek tragedy via Eugene O’Neill and Sam Shepard. In performance it may struggle under its own weight. But if there’s a director capable of bringing clarity to the project it is Blanche McIntyre, who combines an academic training in classical drama with a record of nuanced, performance-led productions. (Michael Billington recently tipped McIntyre as a possible artistic director of the RSC, following the retirement of Greg Doran.)

The presence of Anne-Marie Duff also makes the play a must-see. Steel enthuses about working with Duff: “I’ve never really watched someone in a rehearsal room with that level of technique. It’s the way she tries a scene out one way, another way, a third way—and each time it’s complete and convincing.” Duff stayed with the project despite repeated reschedules forced by the pandemic. National Theatre director Rufus Norris recently lamented that “most actors who would sell a theatre are now attached to some kind of contract with Netflix or Amazon.” Steel sympathises: “the reality is that someone like Anne-Marie gets offers every day to make a programme for a streaming platform and earn so much more than we can give her, so the fact that she’s committed this much time to us has real value.”

The House of Shades comes at a time when class and Englishness are back on the theatrical agenda. Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem returned to the UK in April for the first time since its 2011 run; Dominic Cooke’s revival of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green has proven a surprising success for the National, with its tale of an English Edwardian idealist (played by Nicola Walker) determined to educate Welsh miners.

But will any of this make a difference to British theatre’s class problem? Steel doubts that working-class playwrights can thrive while West End ticket prices enforce audience exclusivity. “We talk a lot about diversity in theatre, and I know that there is a breadth to that word and its meanings. But to be a playwright, you have to be able to watch plays. And that means being able to afford them—without making that possible, I’m not sure how much we can talk about diversity at all.”