Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Book Review- Exhilarating Survey of Decade of New Writing

Theatre Critic Book

Aleks Sierz , Published by Methuen Drama , April 6, 2011
Theatre Critic Book by Aleks Sierz Recently the ever indefatigable David Edgar reported that he had made enquiry of the Arts Council of England as to the number of new plays produced. A first axiom of quality management is “make the important measurable, not the measurable important”. No count or record is made, replied ACE.

The best writers on the arts and humanities are good on description; the less good rely on assertion. Providing a quantitative context is less common. Among his strengths as a critic Alex Sierz is good on the numbers In this follow-up to his “In-Yer-Face Theatre” (Methuen 2001) he gives the number of productions of new plays in the century’s first decade as three thousand. New plays in the noughties were double those produced in the nineties. Three hundred playwrights had a debut production during the decade.

So, from the start the ambition of this book sets out to do the impossible. No one person can ever know quite what made up new theatre as a whole. A run-through of the index shows that three hundred and fifty-three plays are cited. Even so every reader is likely to have her own cavil as to what gets in or out. In Scotland Zinnie Harris gets three mentions while the intriguing D C Jackson- eleven productions to date- gets none. In Wales Catherine Tregenna’s “Art and Guff” is in. Jonathan Lichtenstein’s “Memory”, which made it to New York, is out.

Nonetheless the two books together, five hundred pages of text, fifty pages of bibliography, as much again of notes and references are about the best we have, or probably ever likely to have. From the opening he confesses it is a metrocentric perspective, that the view from elsewhere, “whether Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, to name but five- is different. ” London is famously a villagey city. Here the admirable Tricycle Theatre, which was host to “Deep Cut”, is described as not in the “centre of town.” I made the trip on a January night and it could not be more than a couple of miles or so distant from Hyde Park. Geography is all in the mind.

But then Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland come in for a commendation that is as uncommon as it is surprising. “But while the three nations seemed to be moving, England often felt as if it was immobile, stuck in a rut of old ideas.”

As a critic the author has several virtues. At the level of pure description the writing has a sharp conciseness. “Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco” is “a striking picture, all acid-glow colours and purple-shadow effects, of dead end life.” Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Statement of Regret” is described, quite rightly, as “packed full of ideas, and buzzes with appealing characters and provocative theories”.

The personality is evident. He enthuses over Martin Crimp. Sarah Kane is “the most outstanding playwright of the previous decade.” The word “thrilling” shows a critic whose stance goes beyond that of cool appraisal. One recipient is Gregory Burke. David Edgar’s “Testing the Echo” and Roy Williams “Days of Significance” are described in the same way. It is a word I like.

Sierz seems to have been everywhere and spoken to everyone. What is a theatre looking for amidst the weekly flood of new scripts? RSC literary manager Jeanie O’Hare is here on the attributes of a good theatre writer: “instinctive rawness, linguistic invention and concern with ideas”. The view of the director? Jenny Topper, in a comment on debbie tucker green, lists her essential elements. “She is concerned with ideas, she is concerned with form, and she has the courage to stay true to her intuition and let her own linguistic invention come through.”

Writers get their say. The power of drama, says David Greig, is “resisting the management of the imagination by global capitalism.” The adjective “under-rated”- Winsome Pinnock and others- is an indicator of Sierz’s personal engagement. But in trying to throw his lasso around the vast protean entity that goes under the title of new writing he is sometimes dependent on others. For “Stone City Blue” in Mold he cites David Rabey at length. For “The Drowned World” he has to rely on director Vicky Featherstone.

He never loses sight of the fact of performance. “Theatre is all about location, location, location.” It is an event that happens, that leaves its imprint on the memory of those who were there, both artists and audience. For them it may be forever a cherished, perpetual present. A play is never only its text.

So David Hare's “Stuff Happens” may be three hours of valuable forensic examination that attracted huge publicity. (No wonder the Bin Sauds and Assads of our this world are stupefied by our culture. Not only are Cabinet Ministers put on display for scrutiny, by actors, but the public purse gets to pay for it.) “Stuff Happens”, he says, reads very well but “visually, it has a claim to being one of the decade's dullest, if also one of the worthiest, theatre experiences.”

Similarly, Charlotte Jones in “Humble Boy” may have made her character Felix a father-haunted, wounded soul. For all the metaphors of bees and hives and astrophysics what matters theatrically, and hilariously, are the ashes that are mistaken for pepper and freely poured on the gazpacho at the al fresco lunch. Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” flies. But it is not because anyone knows, or much cares, what is mark-to-market accounting. It was those fearsome raptors in the cellar that made it.

“In-Yer-Face Theatre” was structured to include chapters on the most prominent nineties playwrights. “Rewriting the Nation” attempts to corral its seething subject matter into five thematic groupings. No collection of human artefacts ever fitted a tidy taxonomy. A Linnaean-style speciation may well define the natural world but human beings are just too creative.

There is also an underlying question as to how much theatre is mirror to the world. A play like Ayub Khan-Din’s fascinating hybrid “Rafta Rafta”, already revived, is not mentioned; perhaps because it overturns all genre expectation. “In most asylum plays”, he writes “Britain is not a friendly place: it is an unwelcoming fortress nation.” That is true, but if it weren't true, no-one would touch it as subject for theatre. Theatre is more or less about human fissure. Happiness can feature but only after a struggle. That was why “Beautiful Thing” was adored.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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