Encore Theatre Magazine
:: Tuesday, January 04, 2005 ::
2004: The Year in New Writing
2004 was not a hugely memorable year for new writing, but perhaps it contained hints at a change in the air.
New writing at the National Theatre was overwhelmed by the eventness of Stuff Happens. Nick Hytner – still on quite a roll – gave supportive interviews claiming that only David Hare could have written that play. In fact it’s the sort of play a few dozen playwrights could have written and it would have been interesting to see an angrier, rougher play, one that was not written in the same tensile diplomatese as its characters. That said, it was remarkable to sit in a packed Olivier watching such an indisputably political play and indeed to hear an audience applauding some of its sentiments. It was perhaps the high watermark of verbatim theatre. In Guantanamo and Justifying War, powerful evenings of theatre were produced by this approach. But, as we complained in November, it seems an unfortunate comment on our theatre that we seem to think that the theatre can only become political by becoming rather less than theatrical.
Other than Stuff Happens – a one-off – we’re still waiting for Hytner to make good on his promise of big plays for the big stages. Lenkiewicz and Kwei-Armah’s pieces were small, small, small. I had a great time with The History Boys (pictured below) but I can remember how enjoyable I found it much more than I can remember anything about the play, which suggests a thinly conceived, efficient evening, though pickings were not fat enough this year to make me want to dismiss that.
The most exciting new playwright to emerge this year was surely Lin Coghlan with her play Mercy. No, that’s too arrogant, she emerged a while ago and already has a body of work to her name, but she emerged into Encore’s collective consciousness this year with a thrilling play of mood and moral ambition, exploring what appeared to be the aftermath of chemical attack but in fact provided an in-between space for thinking again about the obligations we have to one another. It was rich with character and image and detail. The London critics were largely dismissive, of course, as they were to most of the really good work this year.
More established playwrights were conspicuously inconspicuous this year. Nothing really new from Mark Ravenhill, David Greig, David Harrower, Martin McDonagh – and still nothing from Rebecca Prichard, Chris Hannan, and we know of marvellous plays by Paul Godfrey, Robert Holman, and several others that remain unperformed. Martin Crimp’s Cruel and Tender, a sort of adaptation of Sophocles’s Trachiniai, was intermittently successful. Encore saw the production very early and it seemed to have little internal shape to it, seeming the stretch the material out, rather than wind it through an evening. It felt rather like Complicite’s The Elephant Vanishes – in that both parties, having produced masterpieces (Attempts on Her Life and Mnemonic, respectively), now seem to be treading water, trying to find where the hell they can go next. Crimp’s text for The False Servant was fine, though the production was pitiful.
Edinburgh threw out nothing spectacular. Encore adored Linda McLean’s Shimmer and detested the production; everything that was evanescent, weightless, shimmering in the play became stolid and mundane in the production. The set appeared to have been put in backwards and the much-ballyhooed water effect just looked like bleak Edinburgh drizzle on the afternoon I attended, but despite this the play – much much more formally daring and innovative in tone than the critics appear to have seen – confirms McLean as a great hope of the theatre. Much the most exciting playwriting event of the festival was Anthony Nielson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia (pictured, right), a beautifully oblique exploration of mental collapse and psychological retreat, winding through an exciting and engaging broken-backed structure and featuring the second talking polar bear Encore saw on a stage in 2004.
In Leeds, Roy Smiles’s Ying-Tong was as good as that curious genre, the stage biopic, gets, though Encore never felt the play became more than that. Steve Waters’s The Unthinkable for Sheffield is slightly disappointing, not encased in as formidable a structure as last year’s World Music, its undeniably important subject matter seemed theatrically undigested. Ed Thomas’s ‘comeback’ play at Clwyd, Stone City Blue, was exhilarating, thrilling to hear that voice again, now with an introspective edge as we explored a mind splintered by four actors. Was it too long? So said some of the critics, but they always do, and Encore would always prefer 15 minutes of meandering Ed Thomas than, well, pretty much anything else. Alan Wilkins’s The Nest at the Traverse was a delightful well-made comedy, given scale and edge by its mountain setting.
In London our major New Writing theatres were patchy. Hampstead continues to be in trouble; its diversion from difficult new writing to star-cast novelty shows may be paying dividends at the box office, I don’t know, but artistically it’s not a good idea. The Court’s policy continues to be rudderless – nothing they produced this year was without serious problems. Conor McPherson’s Shining City was about as good as it got, and that was flawed by its ending; Dumb Show was slick and witty but beneath its Mametisms it seemed emotionally and ethically brittle. Penhall’s writing was too pleased with itself – take a look at the opening lines on the page and you’ll see a play conceived at the computer, over in love with language and lies. Kevin Elyot’s Forty Winks was a beautiful first draft but if we were ever going to believe that this was the spiritual play about love that the play mentions and occasionally gestures towards, it needed robust rethinking. The third scene was unplayable. Blest be the Tie and Notes on Falling Leaves were respectively twee and minor, though the latter showed a welcome move towards more aching personal experience and a tenderness and gentility of vision from Ayub Khan-Din. As usual, all of these plays were elegantly staged, though the Court is showing an alarming predilection for witty but fantastically obstrusive sets. For much of Forty Winks and Dumb Show, the actors were in danger of being pushed into the front row by the design monumentalism.
The Bush never really hit home this year. Dispatches was beautifully constructed but only reminded this viewer how slender the attraction of structural beauty can be. The witty, gripping play never really seemed to become anything more than its story, though that story was well told. Chloe Moss’s How Love is Spelt was more promising, a robustly delicate story about self-reinvention and secrecy. Moss first came to prominence through the Royal Court Young Writer’s season and the heart sank a little to see the Court’s knee-jerk shabby bedsit meticulously recreated at the Bush. But this is a writer to watch. M.A.D. was David Eldridge treading water to some extent, a personal piece, I felt, written with his trademark quiet engagement and feeling.
The best plays at the Court and the Bush had several things in common; neither theatre solely produced the play – in fact both plays were produced by the Actors Touring Company. Even more strangely, both plays were written by the same person. In One Minute and Country Music, Simon Stephens emerged full-throatedly as the most promising playwright of his generation. One Minute is a fragmentary play, somewhat in the style of David Greig’s Cosmonaut, tracing the emotional ripples emanating from the abduction of a child. Despite the spare dialogue and fragmentary narrative, it’s also bold in its conception: an attempt to write a city on stage. Country Music (pictured left)shares with the musical genre of its title an emotional richness and hard-bitten lyricism. The action of the play covers nineteen years and traces a young man nicking a car and running off with his girlfriend, his subsequent imprisonment and then, achingly, his halting first meeting with his daughter. In this scene, surely the most poignant and beautiful of the year, gorgeously played by Lee Ross in one of the performances of the year, we see Jamie Carris in his bedsit awkwardly trying to make his daughter feel at home. The encounter goes wrong, not sensationally so, it just becomes uncomfortable. The daughter has too much stored up, sedimented resentment towards her father, and his years in prison have misshapen his social graces. Despite all that, Lee’s goodness comes through, in some moment of simple, elegant, emotional beauty. Jamie is trying to squeeze the last moments of contact from his daughter:
Jamie Tell me one thing that you want.It stopped me breathing too and everyone else in that tiny theatre. The play is not perfect; the final scene, returning us to just before the first, is redundant and risks sentimental neatness but otherwise this play has a delicacy that cuts against its own apparent urban disaffection (something we've all seen way too much of at the Court). That delicacy is something we've seen elsewhere in different forms (Mercy, Shimmer, etc.) and points us to an indefinable elsewhere and perhaps to a new direction for new writing.
Emma I can’t think.
Jamie Please tell me.
Emma I’d like to fly a plane.
Jamie I think that’s brilliant, that. That stops me breathing.