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Thirty Years of New Writing: Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights

Theatre Writer Book

Edited Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer and Aleks Sierz , Methuen , April-10-12
Theatre Writer Book by Edited Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer and Aleks Sierz “The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights” discusses the work of twenty-five dramatists. The age range covers a generation from Kevin Elyot, born 1951, to David Eldridge, born 1973. The format for each writer is an introduction, a discussion of the plays, one hundred and thirty-three in total, and a summary essay. The writing is, for the most part, clear and comprehensive. The indexes of references to background books and articles are unequalled. For those venues, like Sheffield’s Crucible, which specialise in revivals it is an invaluable resource for re-evaluation.

The work is the thing but a few of the twenty-five contributors slip in snippets of illuminating biography. Philip Ridley has a childhood experience similar to many writers. Illness, in his case asthma, dictates long periods of isolation. Roy Williams leaves school at sixteen and manages to make it to the Cockpit Youth Theatre after work in McDonalds, Safeway and various warehouses. Gregory Burke is dishwasher, hospital porter, factory employee before sending “Gagarin Way” to the Traverse.

By contrast, Anthony Neilson’s father is a director and actor and directs his own son’s “The Censor” in 2002. Mark Ravenhill goes straight from Bristol University to administration at Soho Theatre. Like plain “Tony” who would be revealed as “Anthony Charles Lynton” on election night, Jez Butterworth starts as Jeremy Penfold Butterworth of St Albans. His contemporaries at Cambridge include a future Times editor.

Words from the authors themselves are few but acute. “More than acceptance, everybody in my plays wants understanding…”says Joe Penhall “…one of the key components to characterisation is paradox.” David Eldridge’s early life is divided between a prep school and weekends on a shoe stall in Romford market. “This weird double life...largely informs the person I am and the plays I write.” Mark Ravenhill: “I’ve always written against moral relativism…to stage something that makes an audience say “That is wrong”- that is definitely something I’ve delighted in doing.”

The plays span the years 1981 to 2010. Theatre’s array of themes and subjects impress; AIDS in Africa (debbie tucker green) prison (Simon Stephens), gated “communities” (April de Angelis). It is not just public policy that comes under scrutiny (Iraq, Care in the Community) but dramatists catch deeper intellectual currents. The characters in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Statement of Regret” clash over DuGruy’s notion of Post-Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. Shelagh Stephenson’s “the Memory of Water” uses the Benveniste-Sheldrake notion of morphic resonance for its central metaphor. Beneath its visual and verbal bravura Terry Johnson’s subject in “Hysteria” is Jeffrey Masson’s assault on the core of the Freudian belief system.

A reviewer of a performance has it easy compared with the critic trying to construct an essay after the event. There is colour, sound, movement to write about. One challenge is theatre’s sheer lability. “Days of Significance” changes hugely over its two versions. “Playhouse Creatures”, says Rebecca D’Monte, comes in at least three different versions.

Critics have a drive to classify. As culture is not susceptible to nature’s speciation this often runs into difficulty. Thus, “Terry Johnson is a difficult man to classify”, Jim Cartwright “ “difficult to place”, Penhall “a difficult dramatist to classify.” At the extreme, comparisons with Beckett are invoked too over-freely and on occasion stretched to the fanciful.

The writing regularly hits its subject spot on. Dan Rebellato sees in “Pitchfork Disney” “a ferociously funny and unsettling vision of a 1990’s culture shot through with uncertainty, absence and loss.” Christina Wald rightly sees that “Elyot’s dramatic oeuvre is “not chiefly the depiction of gay life, but a melancholic obsession with the past.” Aleks Sierz calls Jez Butterworth “the master of the tall tale and the narrative monologue. His obsession is male experience and the narrative monologue.”

David Pattie ends his essay on Gregory Burke with a summary of three national narratives that apply to Scotland. They apply equally, and as pertinently, to Wales. Peter Paul Schnierer’s summary of Jonathan Harvey feels right; he closes with a tribute “to have kept faith with that commitment for two decades, with no sign of a let-up, is no mean achievement.”

Theatre’s audience, and output, is dwarfed by television and film. Yet it has a habit of jumping outside its boundaries, and quite rightly. When the Daily Mail shouts “treason” at the RSC, the company must be doing something good. Eckart Voigts-Virchow reports how a platform discussion of “England People Very Nice” was invaded by critics accusing the writer of racism.

Debate legitimises theatre and the work here provides material rich for debate. Janelle Reinelt passes over some of the interesting aspects of David Greig’s “Damascus”. But then not many in the audience have been, like the play’s lead character Paul, a sales rep in Syria. But theatre’s capacity to raise argument is a testament to its richness.

Ken Urban in six paragraphs distills the critical discussion that Sarah Kane has left in her wake. Michelene Wandor’s early view gets short shrift-“dismissive and inaccurate.” Dominic Dromgoole’s mix of essay and memoir in 2000 still reads very well. But then it is a personal preference that a practising director may be closer to theatre than a disciple of Lacan. But it is the debate that matters.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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