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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Wednesday, November 29, 2006 ::

Surprise Surfuckingprise

Yes, the Evening Standard new play award went to Tom Stoppard's Rock 'n' Roll. It's a terrible mess of a play - hell, it's not even a good Stoppard play; and why did Motortown and The Cut not even get nominated? Of course everyone - yes yes yes - is entitled to their own opinion. Maybe the panel just didn't like it. But there are patterns here.

Slightly less incredibly, Nina Raine won best newcomer for Rabbit, which was okay, part of a miniature contemporary genre of plays by women trying to revive and rework the bourgeois drawing room comedy (think Moira Buffini's Dinner, Charlotte Jones's The Lightning Play). Raine's play is nicely waspish and the repulsiveness of the characters is balanced by the force of the revelations.

But Stoppard, for fuck's sake? There is a real problem with our critics. Encore senses a change in the air, the feeble literalism of much of what has passed for political theatre in the last few years seems to be in retreat. Playwrights are using metaphor and aesthetic disruption not as evasion of contemporary realities but as a recognition that the nature of contemporary reality needs new forms, new experiences, new structures and plays. But the critics, almost uniformly, beg to differ. They prefer clarity of content, inconspicuity of form. And their vengeance against plays that break their rules. We've alredy mentioned the reviews of The Cut; the same happened to pool (no water); look at the response to Waves ('the production is a sterile piece of theatre about theatre' - Billington), Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? ('This is far too fancy to succeed as a political play' - Clapp), and there are many more examples. If it engages in dialogue with theatre rather than just in dialogue with the world, they hate it. Plays with no artistic merit but which clearly delineate some important themes - like (sorry but) Ryan Craig's awful The Glass Room - they are endlessly tolerant ('confirms that big issues make for fascinating plays' Billington on The Glass Room, which got 3 stars to the sublime Waves's 2).

The one glorious exception is Love and Money (pictured), which has had almost miraculously positive reviews. But let's be clear, those reviews come at a cost. Perhaps misled by the programme notes which stress our debt society, some of the critics seem only happy to praise the play if they think it is a sociological snapshot of contemporary Britain, rather than the metaphorical, metaphysical play about belief, power and obligations to one another that the rest of us could see. The same happened with Churchill's Drunk Enough to Say I Love You? (pictured); whether they liked it or not, the critics have tended to write about the play as if it were a simple statement of opposition to US Imperialism. Well, maybe it is partly that but to say so involves blanking out the complexities of the form of that play, the disjunctions on the language, the delicacy of the relationship depicted, and the visual and spatial organisation of the production, and simply summarise what they feel is the content. This position damages these delicate plays in the rush to find a review-friendly 'theme' that can be captured in a paragraph. Such a position does not understand the play; it pays no attention to what is actually happening in front of them. And that, one might think, is key to the role of the critic.

The battle lines are drawn. On one side we have the literalists like Billington and Hare, proponents of the creeping hegemony of verbatim theatre, the people who like their plays to be foursquare and clear, who want similes but not metaphors, who like neatly defined topics, and plays that are 'about' things (preferably important social problems). And on the other side we have the metaphysicals: the artists, the modernists, the experimentalists, the lovers of language and ethics and metaphor and image, the examiners of the roots of politics and love and power and the way we live together.

There's a major skirmish on the horizon: in the Spring, the National is reviving Martin Crimp's Attempts on Her Life, directed by Katie Mitchell. This play is a rallying flag for the artists; it's not literal, it's wholly ambiguous, it unusually shares creative responsibility between writer, director, designer and actor. It's one of the great turning points in British playwriting, one of those moments when playwrights woke up, saw not just how they could write but how they had to write - because yes yes, the world was different, and Crimp had seen that, and he saw that our pens and keyboards have to move differently.

What is that difference? What is the reason? Encore is not sure. It's something about the need to write plays that are not just about the world they see around them, that see beyond the way things are, that implicitly therefore do not share what Duncan in Love and Money celebrates as 'the absolute conviction that all this is right'. That represent the world in an alienated and formally distorted form that allow us to recognise but also to see as if for the first time, to see the world in its strangeness, not in its utter recognisability. Plays that do not engage in the tautologies of realism, that offer up a gap into which pours love and danger and difficulty and ambiguity and morality and metaphor and something other and beyond money and beyond politics and beyond all this all this all this.

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thanks for a tasty piece, theatre worker.

sadly, this sorry state of affairs has existed forever. it's more of the same and then some. our theatre has lost, abandoned or marginalized so many fine playwrights who refuse to play political games (holman, stock, nagy, hannan, just to name a few)that i for one find it difficult to locate a proper sense of outrage vis a vis recent proceedings.

the critics have only ever really embraced the most obvious and easily categorized examples of a great playwright's work (and i include crimp's "attemps on her life" in this group... but that's another discussion entirely), and when they do embrace the subtlety of a "far away" it's only because directors like stephen daldry can do no wrong in their books.

the standard awards are like every other award, indicative of nothing truly meaningful, and we shouldn't waste our time gracing them with our comments.
There does seem to be a striving towards new forms that better reflect our times and Attempts on Her Life is the signpost for this. I just saw a French production that took an entirely literal approach to the play and it was a fairly painful experience. Looking forward to Katie Mitchell's production though. Waves took a while to get going but, once you got into it, it was an incredible experience. Let's throw down our gauntlets. To Billington and Hare and fucking Stoppard, I say "Bring it on"!
Go and see Seduction of Almighty God at the Riverside studio - Barker has been creating startlingly dense, metaphorical, metaphysical drama since the late seventies and the critics hate him for it. But on the continent he's adored.

In fact, I would go as far back as to blame it on Shaw and Granville-Barker. While we had them on the continent they had Brecht, Artaud, Jarry et al.

That's why they get Fassbinder, Heiner Muller, Sarah Kane (in all her glory) and Barker. And we get stale literalism with a few punchy one liners for the critics to note down (history boys, rock n' roll...)
It is easy to slag off everything about British theatre culture and much of it is admittedly frustrated, but just take a trip to the Avignon Festival to see the dross that regularly gets churned out the continent. The decent stuff tends to European interpretations of British plays. European theatre culture is severely limited by the way in which they have consistently killed off the playwright in favour of the director/auteur. Neither Sarah Kane, nor Howard Barker nor Robert Holman could have come out of any other theatre culture other than Britain with all its flaws.
But Granville Barker wrote plays that were startlingly dense, metaphorical and metaphysical! At least as much so as Artaud and Jarry, but placed within a recognisable society with characters that an audience might empathise with. A century on, his four great plays still show us valid and exciting possibilites.
I've been thinking about this since posting on my own blog earlier and I do agree with an awful lot of this post but it worries me a bit Encore that you see things in terms of "a skirmish" or "battle lines" being drawn.

I think its useful to group artists, critics or writers together as way of exploring a thesis but does it really do the theatre any good to perceive the culture as battleground to be fought over as way of going forward?

Of course there ought to be more room for the work that you champion with love and passion but in truth the playwriting culture is more varied and complex.

Also shouldn't we be aiming for the rich Dromgoolian landscape of individual voices, which come in all shapes, sizes and forms - with room for everyone at the party?

That's what I want to be part of. A theatre that's big enough for everyone - Stoppard, Crimp, Hare, Churchill, Gill, Stephens, Craig, Buffini, Kelly, Jones, Nagy, Hannan, Barker, Edgar, Ravenhill.

The debate's fantastic and the way "to fight" - but does Encore really want to "win" and to marginalise a different sort of playwriting?

BTW Simon Hench, I realised a while after you commented on "Market Boy" in Encore's "Reader Meets Author" post that you're a character from a Simon Gray play. I wonder who you really are...
David Eldridge is absolutely on the money here - its the diversity of British theatre that can make it such fun to follow sometimes. The need to take sides and rally round things is tempting, but usually seems to end up with the praise of one perceived movement at the expense of another perceived movement in a rather wearisome way that usually ends up misrepresenting both. We should try to experience every play as an individual work to be judged on its own merits before we start on the enjoyable game of working out where it fits in the ever-unfolding text of the development of the theatre.

As for who Simon Hench really is... Well, I'm no mysterious masked pimpernel of the stage! My real identity is one of a struggling drama postgraduate and unperformed playwright.
David and 'Simon' - agreed: all plays should be considered on their own merits. The language of the skirmish and the battlefield really derives from the sense that the critics are, by and large, supportive of one very particular view of theatre. If anyone is guilty of not responding to plays on their own terms it's surely them?

For the record, there are literalist plays that Encore has enjoyed. The Permanent Way, for example. And we don't think plays have to be flashily experimental in their form to excite us - hence our championing of Simon Stephens who works in a quiet and undersung British realist tradition.

But these two great groups - literalists vs. metaphysicals - (incomplete though the picture is) are created by the critical fetish for the former and its equal disdain for the latter. Maybe a theatre dominated by Churchill, Crimp, Katie Mitchell, Dennis Kelly, and so on, would have us crying out for some directness of contact with the world. Maybe.
Dear Theatre Worker
There's no "maybe" about it.
As someone suggests above, the current French scene proves it.
The varied landscape of British playwriting is certainly something we should celebrate. It is also healthy that we debate the merits of various playwrights. In Germany, Kane is canonised in the same way that Hare is here by a large section of the theatrical establishment. One of the major problems is that critics go to review the wrong plays. It's lucky for example that Lyn Gardner reviewed Motortown for the Guardian, because Billington would have misunderstood it, just as he misunderstood Incomplete and Random Acts of Kindness, Mercury Fur, Far Away, Blasted, etc.
Yes, with hindsight maybe that was a little scarf-flickingly dramatic of me.

Any tradition in which all theatre is the same is obviously going to be painfully dull.
Because theatre is so resource-dependent (money, stages, etc.), it's a bit of an illusion to say that a theatre culture can "have it all" -- simply not possible, and here in the States, a writer is pressed to produce her plays herself if they don't suit the majority literalist ideology of the institutional theatres. (I'm not familiar enough with the London scene to say whether the situation is better or worse, or if the London and New York cultures are so different as to make comparison odious, or more odious than it has to be.) The possibilities narrow, and theatre is an expensive game, the pool of resources shrinks daily.

It's not really a matter of canonisation, or of one kind of theatre driving out another. But as I've written already, literalist theatre is more ideologically driven (Hare, for example, is not shy about his politics) than metaphysical theatre (Barker, for example, is wary about revealing his, and one senses that it's far more complex than a simple left v. right distinction would indicate).

But if literalist theatre is favored by critics and audiences it sets the bar higher for the entry of new metaphysical theatre artists. Which is fine; theatre is not a toy. But there is ideology driving this issue, and it's an ideology as cash-, politics-, and celebrity-driven as any other.

I tend to get a little more rancid about the issue at my blog.
Just joining in belatedly to this debate. Is it really true that the 'Literalists' get better press? I feel like I've read a million reviews describing work as boringly naturalistic or too much like TV soaps or words too that effect. Whereas more 'innovative' work seems to often be applauded just for being different (mainly in terms of form rather than content). I'm with Paul Miller on this one, I think 'tenderness' is the real heart of theatre, whether you address it literally or,er, metathingily. What was the word?
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