Monday 27 January 2014

“Properly” revisited

[or: “is Simon Stephens representative?”]

Back in March 2011, when I was living in Berlin, I wrote a short series of pieces entitled About, Properly, Professional and Political.

Looking back only three years on, I find several things about them interesting. Firstly, the extent to which – even though I was living in Berlin in what, at the time, felt like a kind of cultural exile – I was still having arguments with England. Secondly, how much – even though in my chapter on Theatre in the 2000s I kind of put all these arguments to bed and claim a kind of Triumph of the Theatremaker in 2009 – this still existed as a mainstream culture to be argued with vociferously two years later. And, thirdly, and most hopefully, the extent to which I no longer really feel these issues as problems.

It is salutary and heartening, cf. last week’s “reviews round-up” for example, that there is now such a thriving selection of writers-about-theatre online, that I can read a selection of takes on the latest Royal Court, or Shed, Yard, or CPT show without even having to trouble what was “the print media” for an opinion. Sure, I still read Lyn for an additional perspective, and hell, I always read Trueman wherever he pops up; I’ll still read Time Out and even occasionally the Indie. But those “mainstream” voices I used to worry about now seem very easily ignored.

As such, my essay “Properly” feels far and away the most dated of the four. Now, instead of reading reviews of Shakespeare where I ground my teeth in irritation at the complacency and wrong-headedness of the reviews, I now get to read intelligent and incredibly funny take-downs of Henry V or lovely detailed praise of the new King Lear.

This is all preface to introducing the thing that started me thinking all this again. Over the weekend, the USA/Canadian section of writing-about-theatre-online have been involved in another iteration of that fight about “doing plays properly”. It starts with Howard Sherman’s piece “Who thinks it’s ok to ‘improve’ a playwright’s work?” (don’t bother reading it unless you want to be really annoyed: basically some theater company in the US had streamlined Brian Friel’s Philadelphia, Here I Come! Friel said no. They unchanged everything and got back on with it). Sherman’s piece apparently makes a load of the usual dim arguments against anyone ever changing anything ever. It draws first this rebuttal from Alexander Offord, and then another reply from Holger Syme.

I don’t want to engage at all closely with the initial argument because I’d like to hope that here we’re done with at least the intellectual wrangling over it now. Basically, sure, playwrights can object to anything they like for as long as they’re in copyright. The more enlightened ones don’t and, by coincidence, the more enlightened ones are the most popular and the most performed, while writers of stringently naturalistic plays, which they insist be performed exactly the same way every time they’re produced (despite the nonsense of this insistence), tend to have short shelf lives, generate little interest and are rarely if ever revived.

Holger’s piece is interesting, though, for its view on Britain. On the truism that the playwright holds a position of much greater authority in English-speaking theatre cultures than elsewhere he notes: ‘That this is not necessarily a good thing even from the playwright’s perspective has been suggested recently by Simon Stephens’ reflections on his collaborations with the German director Sebastian Nübling. In the prefatory materials to Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, he describes the rehearsal process as one in which the director, the dramaturg, the designer, and the actors “responded” to what he had written — their job was not to “realise” his vision, but to develop their own in reaction to his text.’ (He also writes interestingly on the subject of Beckett’s Not I later on.)

Holger asked me if I thought that this perspective of Simon’s was now the dominant one in Britain. And I had to have a bit of a think. The below is essentially an off-the-top of my head answer on Facebook. I’m posting it here mostly to see what other people think, and to generate a bit of discussion, both in writing online, and hopefully between literary departments and directors.

How representative is Simon? Well, Simon is an interesting case: I think at the moment he must be Britain’s most successful playwright by some considerable margin. Last year he had four plays being staged professionally in the UK and none of them were new (which is incredibly rare for a start). I think he also must have have at least another five or so showing in Germany (I definitely saw two, and missed another couple, and that’s just the ones I know about). Tomorrow a new play by Simon Stephens opens in Manchester and a month later another new one opens in Hamburg. Then a further new one opens at the Royal Court in April, then in September a new version of the Cherry Orchard opens at the Young Vic. There’s no other writer getting even half this much work on (and few, I imagine, with the capacity to knock out plays at this speed)*. There’s another one going to New York some time about which I know no details.

So, in this, he is not representative. But, I do think he is a bit of a hero to most writers younger than him. I think the fact that he taught the Royal Court Young Writers’ Programme also helps. That he is directly responsible for nurturing Mike Bartlett, Lucy Prebble, Duncan Macmillan, DC Moore, and that lot... Well, it makes him not so much representative, I think, as influential.

Beyond that, there’s the fact that once he’d seen Sebastian’s production of Herons (in 2005) he started getting commissions from Sebastian as well as from British theatres. The first of which was Pornography; the text of which was unlike anything he’d previously written (and, actually, anything he’s written since) in that it was what we might call an “open text”. That is to say, a play that a director can’t just “stand up” – a text through which there is no “path of least resistance” (in this it is like Crave, Attempts on her Life, 4.48 Psychosis, Fewer Emergencies, and precious little else by British authors).

Now, because Simon is Simon, he can do this. And it’ll still get produced. I think in this Simon represents a lot of writers’ desires (and a lot of younger directors’ dream-writers). However, until very recently, apart from Martin Crimp he’s probably the only writer who’s been allowed this latitude. There are other writers (Tim Crouch, David Greig, Anthony Neilson and Mark Ravenhill all spring to mind), who are closer-to-the-productions-of-their-own-work who also make stuff like this. But my impression is, until Vicky Featherstone took over at the Royal Court last summer there wasn't really an artistic director who was really comfortable with accepting scripts like this (ok, not entirely true, Ramin Gray at ATC is a powerhouse of this sort of world, albeit with a really limited capacity to make many productions each year). So those writers tended to either produce/direct their own more experimental work, or often would end-up working rather closely with the director (possibly a director of their choosing). This is obviously positive in terms of “collaboration”, but interestingly does little to dislodge the idea of the writer occupying a privileged position of authority.

And, Featherstone’s own productions are pretty (*British*) conventional really. They nod toward “experiment” (as we Brits have it), but there’s absolutely, emphatically no dramaturgical content. No sense of the director as an artist trying to *tell something* *through* *her production* rather than her just standing up the play (albeit in a more interesting way). No reason why she should, of course, she’s British, we’re in Britain, we have a theatre culture and traditions of our own. But, I think Featherstone would at least consider staging a play written by a writer who left stuff up to the director. (Dennis Kelly, who has also been produced quite a bit in Germany, is a good example. Tim Crouch (forthcoming) is another.)

Where all this optimism falls down a bit is that if a writer wrote something conventional (but let’s say good, for the sake of argument) then I suspect it would be produced in a way that “respected their intentions”. Basically, writers still have to write a note at the the start of their play saying: “Dear director, please *do something* with this play...” In your native Germany, Holger, I guess that in an unwritten part of the contract. In Britain I think you have to make it explicit, or someone will just put it in a living room. (Unless you've just got dashes instead of character names and only dense slabs of poetry and theory and no story, in which case, unless you’re already incredibly famous, you won’t ever see it staged.) A neat illustration of this might be the difference between the British première of Lungs and the Katie Mitchell production for the Schaubühne. Nothing wrong with the first version. It’s *theatrical* and everything. But compared to the Mitchell (and Lamford, and...) production, which adds a bit of thinking to the staging, the first production looks flat and stillborn by comparison.

So, yes. I think the UK has moved forward both in terms of coverage, and in terms of preparedness to experiment, and yet, I think thee are still some huge underlying assumptions which have yet to be fully shifted.

And, in having written this piece, I now want to write a second piece looking at how we do stage new plays, trying to establish maybe some ways for talking about what our “default” “style” is (if there is a default), looking at the ways we do position our writers, and perhaps looking at the dramaturgy of design.


*[Edit: Mea culpa]

A writer picked me up on: “There’s no other writer getting even half this much work on (and few, I imagine, with the capacity to knock out plays at this speed).” I'm happy to set the record straight -- paraphrasing from original message (so it's in two voices):

I’ve mentioned this a few times, and so it’s probably worth addressing. It’s just not accurate to say that Simon has a greater capacity to write at pace than other writers. There are plenty of other writers who write as quickly (not that this is a barometer of anything in itself, but given I mention it) but their work isn’t all theatre based/as high profile/produced. Simon, like David Greig, another writer who gets a lot on, writes almost entirely for theatre (rather than TV or film). But you could easily point to the work rate of someone like Jack Thorne or Dennis Kelly or Abi Morgan both in terms of output/quality.

For instance, in the last year, John Donnelly had two full length plays open (The Pass and a show at the Unicorn), as well as a half hour piece of telly for channel four, and he’s been writing another 3 hours worth of telly (2 co-written hours of telly, one of his own). This isn’t even that much by most people’s standards. DC Moore has a shitload going on. Jack Thorne seriously has a phenomenal amount out there. Joel Horwood also had a comparable number of new plays (and a revival of shorts) out last year. Or Chris Thorpe, who also spent a large amount of time also touring and performing in Oh Fuck..., ...Lonely, #TORYCORE and Everything I Heard About The World.

This is the only element of the perception of Simon that rankles with me enough to challenge: that he works harder or faster or produces more stuff. Absolutely he has a tonne of theatre stuff on compared to the rest of us. But his work rate is “normal high”. As in the high rate of work that most working writers produce; but no more.  Arguing about quality is one thing, but there’s something of the protestant work ethic in me that gets a little pissed off about the implication that the rest of us can’t do as much. Or as quickly.

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