Theatre in Wales

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Rewriting the Nation (part 2)

Theatre Critic Book

Aleks Sierz , Methuen Drama , April-08-11
Theatre Critic Book by Aleks Sierz Sierz structures his book thematically. The first grouping by theme is titled “Global Roaming”. The chapter lists every headline hazard from Ebola onward. But is it true that “the idea of extreme risk grew into a new bogeyman”? Most of us are still going to experience what Scott McPherson dramatised in “Marvin’s Room.” That is, a doctor is going to clear his throat, and say “it” has come back positive. That has been the stuff of memorable memoir, with John Diamond and Justine Picardie in the lead, but rarely made it to the recent stage.

But without a doubt writers did a good job in getting foreign policy distemper up and out on stage. It was not just Gregory Burke and Roy Williams- although to be the denounced by the Daily Mail as writing something with “the bitter taste of treason” in it must be a sign that theatre is doing something right.

Sierz goes through “Justifying War”, “Called to Account”, “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, “Talking to Terrorists,” “Baghdad Wedding”. Mike Bartlett’s “Artefacts” gets a lengthy write-up, although another critic wrote of it “the Iraqis are humourless, preachy and quite unrecognisable. It’s the sort of play that ought to issue its departing audience with little whips, so they can go home and flagellate themselves before bedtime.”

From this line of plays last word should go to Wasim, the Syrian scholar-administrator in David Greig’s “Damascus” “You know nothing about the world I live in…You know nothing of its complexities and conflicts.” If artists are supposed to be our source of symbolic prescience “Damascus” hits home with true accuracy.

If writers flay cross-cultural idiocy and document racial, marital and class bile Sierz ends with what got left out. “No major fictional New Labourites” – not true, a Lord Levy clone was the main character in David Hare’s “Gethsemane”- “no memorable politicians, investment bankers, newspaper owners, estate agents or credit-card managers.” I might add a few more. In an age of technological and genetic triumph is there a molecular biologist, a chemist, a software engineer, a chip designer to be seen? Like Charlotte Jones, Joe Penhall in “Landscape with Weapon” did get to feature a rare scientist.

The top twenty thousand job-holders who hold sway over the other twenty million of us have got off lightly. Skewered as they were, the Skilling-Lay-Fastow trio at “Enron” may have been movers in planting wind farms across the Cambrians but they were hardly relevant to Britain as were the inner circles of HBOS and RBS.

But then Sierz writes about the money. It is the same pay for the playwright whether the play is a piece of close-to-the-heart autobiography or one in need of considerable research. “Jerusalem” is as fizzing a script as there is, but an anarchist campsite is easier to capture than what goes on within a hermetic tower of steel and glass. Getting under the skin there requires time, insight and guile. It is noticeable that theatre’s only call centre play is set in Chennai rather than Cardiff or East Kilbride.

From the opening Sierz admits to the struggle with classification. He cites an academic worried that “the idea of English drama is that it has been consumed by the notion of British drama.” When a notion starts consuming an idea writers are in trouble. But “Englishness needs redefining” indicates a need for classification above simply describing aesthetic perception.

“Rewriting the Nation” “ has brought some of the blogerati out in high dudgeon. If small in number they are large in protest and have certainly seen a lot of plays. Some of the book's critics reject the premise that collectively new writing speaks for a fragmenting of Britain. “I'm not even sure there is such a thing as "nation" anymore” opines one. Try telling, say, a Tibetan, a Uighur or a Kurd that the concept of nation is defunct.

Others pillory the language. “In a passage of pure semantic nonsense “the History Boys” is described as “simply not contemporary”, despite being newly written for 2004” writes one. Far from semantic nonsense Sierz is dead accurate. His book is called a “tragedy.” “Tragedy” now follows “iconic” and “passionate” as one more word ripe for gutting and devaluation.

The detail in “Rewriting the Nation” is prodigious. A reader may regret exclusions but it flows over with information. Here are the self-help new writing organisations New Writing North, Script, Menagerie, New Writing South, Pier Playwrights. Dirty Protest should write in and get a listing alongside the Apathists, Minimalists, Dry Write and Antelopes.

As for the sheer quantity of theatre, in 2009 alone there were three verbatim plays about the Stockwell Tube shooting. On four occasions I have seen a Terry Johnson script send actors on stage naked, for not a lot of reason. I did not know that in “Piano/ Forte” he features dildo-sporting aerial artists.

Nor does the book gloss over the rough side. Looking for a smooth career progression? Even Mark Ravenhill says, forget it. Theatres over-commission. Scene-by-scene breakdowns are asked for. The requirement for television-style pitches is creeping in. The whole framework is metropolitan, unplanned, mercurial, free of nepotism. It is all very British, in its way even ironically mirroring the market liberalism that separates Britain from mainland Europe. But then visit Vienna or Munich in the summer and July onwards every theatre is locked. The whole lot of them have gone on holiday.

The sheer profusion that Sierz describes, its scale, its irreverence, its probing fearlessness left me cheered and not a little awed. A culture that can bubble with so much disordered exuberance must have a lot to be said for it.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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