Irvine Welsh and In-Yer-Face Theatre: From the Rise of Trainspotting to the Fall of You'll Have Had Your Hole

By Boles, William C. | The Review of Contemporary Fiction, Spring 2014 | Go to article overview

Irvine Welsh and In-Yer-Face Theatre: From the Rise of Trainspotting to the Fall of You'll Have Had Your Hole


Boles, William C., The Review of Contemporary Fiction


"Welsh says that writing a play is a lot easier than writing a novel. After enduring this one, I felt like borrowing one of his characters' trademark aphorisms. **** off, you @@@@."

(Benedict Nightingale, on You'll Have Had Your Hole)

"We have to listen to the kids," oft spoken by Stephen Daldry, the artistic director for the Royal Court Theatre during much of the 1990s, became one of the dominant philosophies for a sweeping theatrical movement in Britain known as In-Yer-Face theatre (Sierz, "Outrage"). Daldry's theatre produced new work by young playwrights such as Joe Penhall, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane, Judy Upton, Nick Grosso, Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh. This same dedication to hip, new writers also existed at the Bush, the Soho, the Tricycle and the National Theatre. These "kids" altered the direction of the British stage through a redefinition of what could and should be theatrical. Like John Osborne and the Angry Young Men, these authors redirected the theatre's gaze onto previously unseen characters and situations. Mark Ravenhill, author of Shopping and Fucking, a notorious piece in the new canon of plays, captured the tenor of these works when he said: "You only have to wait for a bus in Camden for ten minutes to come across the people I'm writing about ... What surprises me is Londoners who claim to have no knowledge of this kind of life" ("Curtains Up"). While Osborne's Jimmy Porter focused on the previously unexplored world of the lower middle class, these young writers explored, in part, a disenfranchised youth culture. In depicting this culture the playwrights used explicit violence and sexuality, which earned the theatrical movement the moniker of In-Yer-Face. Aleks Sierz, who coined the term, described it as

    a theatre of sensation: it jolts both actors and spectators out of
   conventional responses, touching nerves and provoking alarm.
   Often such drama employs shock tactics, or is shocking because
   it is new in tone or structure, or because it is bolder or more
   experimental than what audiences are used to. Questioning moral
   norms, it affronts the ruling ideas of what can or should be shown
   onstage; it also taps into more primitive feelings, smashing taboos,
   mentioning the forbidden, creating discomfort. (In-Yer-Face 4) 

Sarah Kane, author of Blasted, perhaps the best known and most infamous work of all the In-Yer-Face plays, stated that no rules should exist for theatre: "If you are saying you can't represent something, you are saying you can't talk about it, you are denying its existence, and that's an extraordinarily ignorant thing to do" (Bayley 25). Their extreme material, in turn, changed the composition of the theatre audience as youths now saw their own stories and concerns being theatrically explored. Daldry's comment about "listening to the kids" not only pertained to the young writers but also these new twentysomething theatregoers. Artistic directors desperately wanted to court this group, as they did not in the 1990s and still do not in the 2010s, typically attend the theatre, and their presence in the stalls only reinforced the economic, social, critical and aesthetic value of the In-Yer-Face writers. As audience taste has always played a factor in the direction of the theatre, in the mid-1990s the "kids" were steering the subject matter of plays that were being produced.

Trainspotting: The Play

It is no surprise then that Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting, one of the most successful and groundbreaking novels of the 1990s, became an In-Yer-Face hit when it was adapted for the stage. After all, the novel, published in 1993, just as the theatrical movement was in its genesis, featured the same focus, energy and counter culture cachet that was beginning to emerge on British stages. A Times book reviewer echoed the theatrical world of Ravenhill's plays in describing the tone of Trainspotting: "It gives voice to the silent, swaying figure at the back of the late-night bus, the one nobody wants to sit next to. …

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