Tuesday 22 March 2011

Rewriting the Nation – Aleks Sierz (Methuen)

[Order here - there's a way of doing this link so I make money, isn't there? Never mind]

[Preamble-as-footnote*, alternative opening**]

Like In-yer-Face Theatre before it, we might guess that Rewriting the Nation is set to become perhaps the book about British Theatre in the first decade of the 2000s (the decade that never found a name, the “noughties”; the “oh, something...s”).

It is for this reason much more than any other that I suspect it will be vigorously contested and pilloried, possibly, ultimately, in every quarter. We can see from Chris Goode's blog that this process has already begun. And, yes, there is much to object to, but there are also reasons to like the thing.

Sierz is perfectly clear and up-front about what he's doing with this book. It's a survey of “New Writing” [his/their/its-own capitals]. He also candidly admits that it's a personal survey. “Theatre is all about location, location, location” he observes, continuing: “Because I happen to live in London, this book happens to tell stories from a Metropolitan persepective.” [no, that doesn't follow at all, but...] “Obviously I am well aware that the view from other audience members and indeed other cities... is different.” (p.11)

On one hand, this is slightly disingenuous. Not only is Sierz a “metropolitan” Londoner, he's also a theatre critic and -academic, and one who sees a lot more outside London than the average London theatregoer. Beyond this, there are references to watching filmed performances in the National Video Archive of Performance Recordings at the V&A Theatre and Performance Collections. And, being as this is a book about New Writing, there are also references to published playtexts and collections. There are page numbers quoted. He could, in short, have cast his net a lot wider, should he have wished to. On the other hand, we might at least admire the fact that for the most part, this partiality – and the open admission of it – make for an engaging, personal vision of the past ten years.

But is “being up-front” about the limits of the book's scope enough? Of course, on first glance this is a stupid objection. It is not possible to write a book about everything that happened in British theatre, even in London theatre, in the past decade without making more omissions than inclusions. Even so, it feels that at best, many of the depressing conclusions the book draws might have been mitigated if a wider variety of work had been included.

In short, Sierz describes a ghetto, an artistic cul-de-sac, and then concludes by lamenting that it isn't more varied.

This is not to say that the ghetto described is Sierz's invention. The “New Writing Industry” he describes in “Chapter 1 – Context” is not a work of imagination. It is a blunt, at times pessimistic and uninterrogated version of pretty much the first answer anyone familiar with the theatre industry would give if asked to describe what constituted New Writing in London/the UK (see above for disclaimers). However, his taking this as a working model and offering his own reasons for discounting certain plays and/or practices even from the compass of what might be considered to be a new play is deeply frustrating. For example, Sierz's dismisses all history plays thus: “History plays can also act, in the words of director Ramin Grey, 'as a corrective to our own myopic and self-regarding times'. True, but more often they are costume dramas with little relevance to today.” (p.64). Similarly, in a passage of pure semantic nonsense the History Boys is described as “simply not contemporary”, despite being newly written for 2004.

As such, the only pieces of theatre which make the cut for consideration are either those which fit a pretty narrow set of definitions or, in some exceptional cases, the work of the canonical and emergent-canonical plawrights – Caryl Churchill, David Hare, David Edgar, Martin Crimp, Simon Stephens, David Eldridge, David Greig, debbie tucker green, Dennis Kelly, Roy Williams, Richard Bean, Mike Bartlett and maybe Jez Butterworth (a list which, like that Tory cabinet has more Davids than women). Although it's worth noting that many plays by the above aren't necessarily mentioned (fair enough in the case of David Greig, who seemed to write about a million plays a year, and with such varied subjects they couldn't hope to be accommodated by such a narrow book, mildly annoying when it means David Hare's boulevard work doesn't come in for a bit of stick).

But, like In-Yer-Face... before it, the game here is bending all the work to the theory, rather than maybe seeing what the work itself might be up to.

The theory in this case is much more general and far less persuasive. Rather than taking the work of five key writers and associating their work via a certain level of violence and (mostly coercive) sex demonstrably evident at least in their first works, and then magicking up a movement from the association; here Sierz takes the umbrella “state-of-the-nation” and holds it up over what could be taken by the unwary reader for the entire theatrical output of a whole decade, and not just a narrow ghetto thereof. Moreover, he uses sections of this umbrella as the various thematic compartments into which he slots those plays which have made the grade for consideration in the first place. All the while, continually underlining the problems even he has with his approach.

In his conclusion, Sierz argues: “If you can blame playwrights for failing to write these kinds of plays. You also have to hold theatres to account for neither commissioning them, nor taking steps to widen their rather narrow repertoire of plays.” (p.237) Which might be a fair assessment to make at the end of a book which had actually considered the total output of any given theatre, including the foreign plays, the revivals, the new writing which isn't New Writing, the devised work and everything else. But this isn't that book, at which point the whole problem with the way the thesis he's been using is exposed.

Instead, one comes away from the middle of the book – the part where, with no small amount of attention, he relates the plots and/or themes of many, many of the decade's most notable, and some far less notable plays of the New Writing genre – rather depressed.

Because the theatrical output of the country (or London in most cases) that he describes seems hopelessly and hideously dictated to by a largely right-wing press. It is a picture of an artform chasing buzzwords, tag-lines and neologisms. It is a theatre which has forgotten, by this analysis, to refuse the premises of the question. It is a theatre which appears to have picked up its anxieties about race, for example, from worrying about the Daily Mail.

It is worth noting that Sierz frequently, approvingly quotes from Amelia Howe Kritzer's disastrous Political Theatre in Post-Thatcher Britain: New Writing 1995-2005, a book which is in every conceivable way far worse, more reactionary and backward-looking than Rewriting the Nation could ever be. Kritzer's thesis: “there is no question that postmodern theory and its theatrical offshoots have played a part in delegitimizing socially activist theatre and inhibiting recent development of issue based drama.”

But Sierz also provides plenty of his own conundrums: “Most playwrights wrote against traditional and stereotypical images of Englishness,” (p.227) he claims, shortly before suggesting: “If every decade throws up a new type of fictional hero... who would fit the bill in 2000s new writing? The most obvious is the underclass yob... this foul-mouthed lowlife, with or without the trademark hood, appeared in play after play.” (p. 231) What is “The Hoodie” if not perhaps *the* defining cultural stereotype of the decade (even if “subversively” framed as “hero” - a problematic enough concept in itself)? If writers were creating characters that could be pressed into service as members of such an easy exercise in stereotyping, how were they “writing against” stereotypes? Or, more pertinently I suspect, if they weren't, why then bunch their characters together as if they had been created as stereotypes?

On a different tack a few pages later, he complains: “Difficult foreign work was rare. Scared of the effect that new, or radically different, plays might have on audience attendance, most theatres played safe.” (p.237) Which might be fair enough, except a page later he goes on to say: “Cooke spent most of his first year reviving the Court's tradition of staging international work. Unintentionally, perhaps, this focus on foreign writers, followed by several American plays [an interesting distinction in itself], suggested that British playwrights had little to offer.” (p.238). One is tempted to add that while leading critics continue to choose the subject of their books as the narrowly figured State-of-the-Nation drama, theatres might continue to be persuaded that this is what critical opinion is clamouring for.

The style of binary oppositions ranged against one another in an unwinnable critical oppositions continues throughout, along with an enraging stylistic tic which sees Sierz start his mini-chapters with a (non-)statement of the bleedin' obvious and conclude them with a nugget of impenetrable gnomic wisdom.

For example:

“Other plays also used intriguing metaphors.” (p.174)
“But if couples-in-crisis plays suggest a nation in constant disagreement, they also picture the British as a passionate lot.” (p.176)

“The 2000s saw the rise of the teen angst play”(p.189)
“If Britain really was, according to New Labour, a young country, its young were almost a country unto themselves.”(p.192)

“Although the War on Terror dominated the way playwrights viewed the state of the world, there was plenty of room for other subjects.”(p. 94)
“Yet, if playwrights have had mixed success at representing the world's woes, how have they fared closer to home?”(p.99)

“The acutest crises were represented by the unsuitable couple play”(p.176)
“Here, as in so many other plays, breaking taboos seemed to be a national characteristic. And both the cause and result of unsuitable coupling was solitude, which evoked a sense of a nation of loners.”(p. 182)

I could go on.

Which is a shame. Because, for all the above, there's a lot to admire and like about the book. I do wonder if it's the book's own surprisingly hectoring, combative tone that causes one to react to it with initial hostility. It's not a gentle guide by any means, but when Sierz gets into something he's actually great. Insightful, provocative, throwing up unexpected comparisons between seemingly disparate plays. The point where he speculates about the reach and influence of David Greig's San Diego (p. 9) is just lovely – I won't quote, go into a bookshop and read it. If only there could have been more moments like this.

Similarly, when he gets to a playwright whose work he is actually, properly enthused by, the content just lights up. Rewriting the Nation has made me desperate to get my hands on the collected works of David Greig, to reassess my initial scepticism of debbie tucker green and – most remarkably – I'm even very keen to read David Edgar's Testing the Echo.

In part, this reminds me of the observation that the best work on stage can often bring the best writing out of critics. Which brings me, circularly back to the wish-list version of the book. In considering a form in isolation – replete with its triumphs and not-so-triumphs – it feels like Rewriting the Nation, ultimately reduces even the very form it sets out to chronicle. If there had been a consideration of the real raging plurality of British theatre (and “performance”, and “Live Art” - a distinction scarely even recognised on the mainland), not only might British theatre have looked a whole lot less stunted, insular and cramped, but New Writing itself might have seemed much more like the generous partner to revivals of classic texts, “alternative” work, musicals, international work, boulevard comedies, “proper” versions of Shakespeare and post-modernist stagings of Greek tragedies that it really is.

The tragedy of Rewriting the Nation is that by so limiting the scope of its inquiry it becomes unable to celebrate the future it hopes for which might very well have already begun to arrive.

*Let me say a few things before getting started. First off, I like Aleks Sierz. I like the idea of Aleks Sierz too. I like his energy. In starting and running TheatreVoice along with Dominic Cavendish, he's probably done as much for the cause of theatre online (and not just “British Theatre”) as anyone in the past decade. His book In-Yer-Face Theatre had an unarguable effect on the way that period is remembered. And he followed it up, lest we forget, with the first (very accessible, totally readable) study of the plays of Martin Crimp – one of my favourite living playwrigthts. I also quite admire his punky spirit. I don't think I'm misrepresenting him too much if I paraphrase a thing he once said to me (perhaps not entirely seriously, but meaning-it) that one “shouldn't worry too much about the actual writing, its the getting it out there that matters.” And there's his willingness to have a bit of a fight. “I do 'ave a go, missus,” we might imagine him saying. None of which, nor the "thank you" in the acknowledgements, however, mitigate my opinion of Rewriting the Nation, which, I regret to say, is mixed to say the least...

** alternative opening: As Jeremy Paxman suggests in his introduction to his book The English: “Být Angličanem bývalo kdysi jednoduché. Stačilo mluvit anglicky jako Angličan, chovat se jako Angličan a pít vědra čaje - jako Angličan.” (sorry, only have the Czech version to hand)

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