Too many new plays are safe and forgettable. Who’s to blame?by John Nathan / February 22, 2012 / Leave a comment
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…