Where Are the Playwrights in This Hour of Need?
Lister, David, The Independent (London, England)
The Week in Arts
As Gordon Brown licks his wounds, it might be some consolation to him that his miseries and mistakes are unlikely to be portrayed on stage. OK, in the pain of post-election depression that's a fairly small consolation. But to those of us interested in how theatre portrays and analyses contemporary life, it is puzzling that playwrights fail to be inspired by the travails of the Prime Minister.
The assurance that they are not inspired by Gordon Brown comes from one of Britain and the world's leading playwrights, Sir Tom Stoppard. He says: "We've had a new Prime Minister, but political life doesn't feel new; it feels like more of the same. It's not like the Thatcher era, when reaction was in the air like the weather. Playwrights were dashing to their typewriters. This doesn't mean there's nothing to have opinions about. It means that an opinion isn't a play. A play is a more complex reaction. A worthwhile play is a reaction, but there needs to be an action to provoke it in the first place."
Sir Tom is clearly not alone in seeing little playwriting scope in the politics of New Labour compared with the Thatcher years. The Thatcher years gave rise to the often epic-scale political plays of the likes of David Edgar, Howard Brenton and David Hare. But the lack of political playwriting now has caused the head of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, to lament the total lack of right- wing plays, and the head of the Royal Court theatre, Dominic Cooke, when he took over, to call for a move from the long-dated kitchen- sink plays to plays that look at "what it means to be middle class, what it means to have power and what it means to have wealth".
Mr Cooke's reign at the Royal Court is one worth following. He has already made inroads into the Muslim community with a new writing project and has succeeded in finding new playwrights there. And I gather he will be staging in the autumn a play with the US presidential election as a backdrop. But still there is no sign of a British play that looks at our own centre of power.
Only Tom Stoppard can know what he does or does not wish to write a play about. But I am puzzled by his assertion that the Thatcher years could provoke reaction from playwrights and thus worthwhile plays, but the Brown era cannot. It may be too facile to look at political fiascos like the 10p tax rate and say "go write a play". But the dilemma of a political leader balancing pragmatism and political principle surely has scope, as does Brown's own psychological journey to the top, as do political issues from immigration and the national character to the wealth gap and the bonus culture.
Some of Dominic Cooke's pleas have been answered. There are certainly plays looking at middle-class life. Yasmina Reza's new comedy of two warring middle class couples, God of Carnage, is a prime example. …