Theatre in Wales

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The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights (part 2)

Theatre Writer Book

Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer & Aleks Sierz , Methuen , April 11, 2012
Theatre Writer Book by Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer & Aleks Sierz Some of the contributors do inhabit something of a Platonic world. The work is what has been performed. There are no lost commissions, no literary managers, no chop and change of artistic policies, no rancour, no caprice. If a writer drifts to television work it must be for artistic reasons. The fact that the money is seven times greater does not apply. Sometimes in the arts the poor creator simply drops out of fashion. The supply of work is a thousand times greater than the companies to stage it or the galleries to exhibit it.

In this critical world, the fact that a play may require doubling is grounded in aesthetics. “Far from being a way of restricting the actors”, seeing the same face again makes the audience grow in Brechtian distancing. Maybe so: but it doesn’t half cut a company’s wage bill, shorten the audition process, tighten up rehearsals. Money pervades the making of theatre but not its commentary.

Actors and directors get but a rare mention. A magisterial production by Peter Stein is the exception. If an actor appears naked it is to enhance the play’s theme of voyeurism. The audience too becomes complicit. It is a rare play that makes it to the West End. I was there in Shaftesbury Avenue. The actor was blonde, fresh from a Bond film, and the audience was definitely not made up of Royal Court or Bush regulars.

Over five hundred and twenty pages the odd inelegant word or phrasing is bound to slip in. Richard Bean apparently suffers the disadvantage of coming from “less than glamorous” Hull. This sounds like the writer saying “I ain’t been there and I sure ain’t going.” Spurn Head is possessed of a quite distinctive lonely beauty. Beverley and Bishop Burton are Gloucestershire without the Ferraris. Coming from Hull does not make Bean “an odd man out among successful British playwrights.” As a performed playwright John Gcdber comes second only to Ayckbourn. But then, like Frank Vickery, no-one is ever going to write about John Godber.

Metaphors from marketing have become endemic. When confronted by a BBC investigation into dodgy dealings in higher education, a Welsh Vice-Chancellor’s first response in interview is “Wales needs strong brands.” It is disheartening to read that an uncompromising writer “has moved ahead developing her own brand.” One contributor prefers the verb “privilege” over “choose.” “Substantiate a writer’s standing” grates. “With growing temporal distance” sounds like a translation.

A Methuen Guide is for the general reader. The enthusiast for theatre might well be spared “perspectival lacuna”, “stichomythic verbal duels”, “teleological narratives” or “synecdoches of the mediatised city”. That is Martin Crimp. The essay on Crimp has phrases that convey no meaning to this reader- “carefully crafted receptional blanks”, frescoes of the skull”, “ “satirical categorisation…seems self-reflexively broken”. The author likes his “self-reflexive” as it also turns up in the next sentence. One grim sentence manages to pile up fourteen Latinate words of three or more syllables.

Some readers may think neologisms like [dis]ease and [auto]biographical come with a fine Derridean swagger to them. Others may consider them anti-literate. Commentary is servant to the art. The Arts deserve better in their commentators.

Scotland is represented by four playwrights, Wales and Ireland none. Ed Thomas was knocking on the door to be playwright number twenty-six. Wales-based critics are represented. Stephen Lacey of the University of Glamorgan writes succinctly and insightfully on Terry Johnson. David Ian Rabey and Steve Blandford are both cited in the essay on Jez Butterworth. Rabey also writes that “the Wonderful World of Dissocia” “lays out a confrontational, insistent and socially contradictory physicality.”

I savoured this book over two weeks, a couple of dramatists a day. It does not have the sweep of Aleks Sierz's two books on new writing. It does not have the pith and particularity of Dominic Dromgoole’s “the Full Room”. But it is full of good writing and good writing breathes enthusiasm. It made me wish I had seen a Sarah Daniels play. It reminded me why theatre grips. Philip Ridley has a nice metaphor “I like putting people on a ghost train, but I guide them safely through the other end.” Cardiff’s Waking Exploits should get their copy soon. They will find riches a-plenty to assist the selection for their 2013 tour.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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