In 2014 we celebrated our 40th birthday and to mark the occasion we released a book packed full of images, insights and interesting articles. Over the coming months we’ll be sharing some of our favourite features from the book and what better way to kick us off, than with Matt Trueman on the history of new writing in British theatre.
New writing is at the heart of British theatre. Every so called theatrical revolution this country has seen has centred on new plays, from the Angry Young Men in the 1950’s to the In-Yer-Face generation of the 1990’s. Back in 2009. when theatre critics were last trumpeting a golden age, it was motored by dazzling and ambitious new plays, including Jez Butterworth’s JERUSALEM and Lucy Prebble’s ENRON. Even 2014, a sudden flutter of springtime excitement was down to British playwrights firing on all cylinders: Simon Stephens with BIRDLAND, Mike Bartlett with KING CHARLES III, James Graham with PRIVACY.
As an art form, theatre is uniquely placed. It’s a communal art that exists — can only exist- in a public space and it’s an ephemeral art that can only exist in the present moment. Bearing all that in mind, it’s hardly surprising that,more so than visual art or film, theatre should set out to address the world that we all share, the here and now.
The stage is where we see the state of the nation – increasingly, even, the state of the world – reflected and retracted. Sometimes that means that classic plays, most notably Shakespeare’s, are used very deliberately to rub up against the moment in which they are staged. Mostly, though, it means a healthy culture of new plays that do exactly that- and it’s this that we term new writing.
The theatre critic Aleks Sierz has defined new writing [or ‘new writing proper’ as he sometimes calls it] as a genre in its own right. To qualify as new writing, a play must somehow address the present moment – even if only obliquely, perhaps through metaphor or analogy. Not all new plays do that: think of THE HISTORY BOYS or ONE MAN, TWO GUV’NORS, for example. But a great many do and, even if there’s a circularity at play in Sierz’s conviction that we can understand the present through new writing that seeks to understand the present, there is some truth in it.
Britain is unique in the import it bestows upon its playwrights. Think about the sorts of plays you see reviewed in the front end of newspapers, the news sections: big name actors in big name classics, yes, where casting can be a news story in its own right. but also big new plays with something newsworthy to say. Britain’s playwrights are allowed to be public intellectuals and political commentators.
That doesn’t happen so much in America, for all the strength of its playwriting culture. Musicals make the news pages there, other big Broadway shows too, but rarely new plays and almost never present-tense political work. The same goes for European countries, where directors rule the roost, smashing classic lays into contemporary sensibilities and resonance, not playwrights. Britain still places the playwright centre stage. Directors talk about- quote unouote— serving the text, usually through fidelity to it.
What’s more, British theatres insistence on novelty, be that in new writing or new work, is only increasing. The figures bear that out. In the 1980’s and 1990’s new work made up between 15 and 20 per cent of British theatre programming. In the last decade, that figure had swelled to 42 per cent. Nor was that work confined to small studio theatres in the same way. The majority took place in 200-seat plus venues.
By 2003, new writing in Britain was achieving an average of 63.6% at box office – up from 62% per cent only five years earlier or 57% in 1997. In the late eighties, new plays regularly played to half empty theatre and the Royal Court was responsible for about 10% of new writing across the entire country.
Today, the picture is vastly different, almost unrecognisable. Britain has built an established nationwide network for new writing. There are theatres dedicated entirely to new writing all over the country — the Traverse in Edinburgh, Live Theatre in Newcastle— and many more that ensure that it remains central to programming. London’s new writing scene, from the Royal Court to the Bush to Theatre503 with many in between, is thriving. And even organisations like Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company have got new writing policies with a view to developing new work.
All of which is an ideal context tor Paines Plough – the national theatre of new writing, remember — to do what it’s done best for 40 years: develop and stage the best new plays across the nation.