Acting Up: Contemporary Theatre Has Never Felt So Alive, Thanks to a Glut of New Writing. but Two Developments Threaten This Renaissance

By Edgar, David | New Statesman (1996), September 12, 2011 | Go to article overview

Acting Up: Contemporary Theatre Has Never Felt So Alive, Thanks to a Glut of New Writing. but Two Developments Threaten This Renaissance


Edgar, David, New Statesman (1996)


This is what's happening. A new Conservative prime minister is taking on the public sector. There are violent protests by students, as well as mounting industrial and social unrest. Against this background, a new generation of playwrights attacks class privilege and capitalist greed. Experimental theatre-makers incorporate film, dance and circus techniques into shows presented at odd hours in non-theatre spaces. The classics are being reinvigorated by discoveries made on the burgeoning fringe.

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I speak, of course, of the early 1970s, when a new generation of young, radical playwrights -inspired by the late-i96os student revolt, and enabled by the abolition of theatre censorship -was writing plays to be performed in pubs, basements, attics and out of the backs of white vans. One such troupe was the General Will, for which I wrote a series of cartoon plays about what felt like an proletarian insurrection against the 1970-74 Edward Heath government. We also participated in the countercultural Bradford Festivals of 1970 and 1971, which featured a Howard Brenton play about Scott of the Antarctic performed in the city's ice rink, a pagan child-naming ceremony in the Wool Exchange and a full-scale mock-up of an American presidential election - with live elephant - in the streets of the city. Elsewhere, Peter Brook was presenting A Midsummer Night's Dream in a white box set filled with actors spinning plates, stilt-walking and flying on trapezes.

So, if the theatre I entered in the 1970s bears an eerie similarity to British theatre now, what's different? Well, in the interim, the National Theatre moved into its new building and a network of other London institutions - among them the Donmar, Almeida, Areola and Globe became part of a new theatrical settlement. Provincial theatre was also transformed by directors from fringe companies, which presented increasingly distinct programmes of work, discovering neglected historical canons from Europe and beyond.

But the biggest change was and is in the range and quantity of new writing. Two years ago, I contributed to a report that collated box-office information from 65 of Arts Council England's 89 regularly funded theatres, and found that, between 2003 and 2008, the volume of new work presented had more than doubled, from roughly 20 per cent to 42 per cent of the repertoire. In his definitive study of today's British theatre (Rewriting the Nation), Aleks Sierz estimates that there were 3,000 new plays produced in Britain during the 2000s, double the number in the previous decade.

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The growth of new writing has been largely at the expense of classic work. It has involved an increase in new writing for children and a considerable growth in plays by black and Asian playwrights. But the sheer variety of work makes it hard to identify a general theme. It was easy to label the kitchen-sink dramatists of the 1950s, the state-of-England playwrights of the 1970s, the women dramatists who emerged in the 1980s and the in-yer-face school of the mid-1990s. The plays of the Noughties range in setting from Kabul to California, their subjects from the NHS and education through to celebrity culture and Islam. As Sierz puts it, late-20th-century British new writing was essentially Newtonian, proceeding in linear fashion on the principles of cause and effect. In the 2000s, it went quantum.

That said, the war on terror is to the British theatre of this century what the crisis of masculinity was to the theatre of the 1990s and feminism to the 1980s. Initially, the theatrical response to 9/11 was plays not just based on, but consisting of, interviews, documents or transcripts of trials. More recently, playwrights have felt able to present their take on the post-9/11 world. In dozens of plays, that has entailed a critique of liberal interventionism. The National Theatre alone has presented four plays that deal with the baleful results of trying to impose "western values" on African countries. …

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