Sometimes it can feel as if critics are in danger of becoming so concerned with the wider context that they fail to see the work itself, judging the gallery walls rather than the painting in front of them. Two years ago, EV Crowe’s first play, Kin, fell into that trap, for no fault of its own. It was a first play at the Royal Court by a young woman and it featured middle-class children who had been sent away to boarding school. Critics invariably placed it in a recent tradition of Royal Court plays (Polly Stenham’s That Face and Tusk Tusk and Anya Reiss’s Spur of the Moment) also by young women and also featuring middle-class children finding their place in a world where parents are either absent or otherwise engaged. It was also seen through the lens of Dominic Cooke’s original mission statement on taking over the Royal Court in 2007: “to look at what it means to be middle class, what it means to have power, what it means to have wealth”.
Almost all the reviews took the play at face value, underestimating its complexity and its originality. While Stenham and Reiss are writing within a defined and familiar tradition of naturalism, the style of Kin was more heightened and otherworldly. For me, it captured brilliantly what a simultaneously wonderful and terrifying place the world is when you are ten-years-old. It was in this shift of perspective that its strange gothic atmosphere emerged, an atmosphere vividly brought to life Christopher Shutt’s deeply unsettling soundscape and Annette Badland and Kevin McMonagle’s performances that presented the grown-up world to be just as alien and fucked-up as the girls suspected and feared.
Crowe’s new play Hero is currently in previews at the Royal Court, reuniting her with Kin‘s director Jeremy Herrin. It tells the story of Danny and Jamie, primary school teachers who are gay and straight respectively. Danny is brilliant and inspirational while Jamie, a university friend of Danny’s husband Joe, is not well liked at the school they both teach at. The play examines the various repercussions of one of Jamie’s pupils calling Jamie gay and how Jamie chooses to deal with that situation. Unlike Kin, no children feature on stage but, like Crowe’s earlier play, it examines the consequences of the decisions we make about what is best for children as a society.
Hero is closer to our traditional conceptions of naturalism than Crowe’s previous work but this was in no way a response to the reception of Kin. Crowe explains that she wrote the play in Frankfurt, while on an attachment to the Schauspielhaus there and the National Theatre Studio in London. “I was given accommodation in a flat in the city and I just wrote and sometimes I’d go into rehearsals of various productions at the theatre. I’m often frustrated with the rhythms of naturalism and I found some of the work I saw in Germany refreshing for that reason. The play that I wrote there though is probably more naturalistic than others I’ve written, though it still isn’t naturalistic in the sense that British theatre usually understands it. At the time, I was inspired by prose writers, people like Jonathan Franzen and their interrogation of form. I think Freedom had just come out at the time.”
Crowe goes on to explain the inspiration behind the story itself. “There were two seeds that grew into the play and they were two male primary school teachers that I had met at different times in my life. One was straight and had been called gay by one of his pupils. The other was gay and did really inspirational work with his pupils in order to encourage a culture of acceptance and inclusion among them.” From early on in the play, Jamie’s attitude to Danny is one of fascination mixed with jealousy, perhaps even bordering on resentment. At one point, he describes his colleague as “too cool for school”. “I was interested in how difficult it can be to respond to people who are brilliant”, says Crowe, “people who have vision, how difficult it is to make space for them and how their presence affects others”.
Education systems are the sites of instruction for social structures. It’s where we tell children what the world is and what they are able to be in that world. Crowe points out the disconnection between what we claim to believe in as a society, on one level, and what we actually teach children, on another. “It comes down to the question of what we believe is normal and what we teach children normality is. While on an individual level, we may be totally accepting of homosexuality, we still exist in a society that is basically homophobic and this can’t help but affect our attitudes, whether we are gay or straight.” While these ideas may inform Hero’s narrative, it is by no means a play that points things out to its audience. Crowe is too dedicated to finding the truth behind her characters’ stories for that. Nothing in the play is a fixed point and audiences are bound to have varied reactions to Danny, in particular, as a character and the forms his heroism takes.
Form reflects content and Crowe’s intention is that the play’s unconventional use of form will prompt the same questions as the story itself about what “normal” is: “what’s a normal way to tell a story”. She is keen to emphasise though that any experimentation with form is driven by the desire to be truthful to the story itself. “It’s not an intellectual game. That’s not what I’m trying to do. I’d like people to come to the play from a point of view of openness. It’s not naturalism. It’s not linear. It has its own rhythm and its own rules but that doesn’t mean it’s hard to access. You can access it emotionally.”
Asked about her development as a playwright, Crowe says: “I hope that I’ve become more capable of finding the right form to match up with every story I want to tell. I hope that each story can find a way of telling itself. That doesn’t have to be neat and tidy and play by the rules but it does have to be truthful.”
Crowe tells me that this has been a particular intense week in rehearsals. One of the people that the cast met during the research for this production came to see a run-through and was deeply affected afterwards. “He’s a gay primary school teacher and, for him, it was very much a case of seeing his own life and his own world on stage in some sense so it affected him a lot. The strange thing was that we had only met him after I’d written the play. We went to his school and met him and some of his pupils. He was really enthusiastic so we invited him to a run”. Asked if she expects similar reactions from audience members whose experiences aren’t as directly reflected in the world on-stage, she replies: “What I hope is that some people can see their voice reflected on stage who don’t often get to see their voices reflected.”
It doesn’t look like Crowe will have much of a break after Hero. She is working with Carrie Cracknell on Searched, a Rough Cut about internet privacy, which will feature in the Royal Court’s January Rough Cuts festival of works in progress. She is also writing a new play for 13 to 16 year olds at the Unicorn Theatre called Liar, Liar, to be directed by Blanche McIntyre. She says that she didn’t approach her first play for young people (as opposed to about young people) any differently to any other play. “I just tried to write something truthful that I thought people would like, with less swearing.”
Truth is a word that comes up a lot when talking to Crowe. In her work, the duty to truth isn’t always one of literal representation but of honouring an emotional truth. Her plays can be chaotic and characters behave in ways that are unfair and unpredictable. They can be read as deeply political but also entirely rooted in the characters’ emotional lives. Instead of simply showing us the world as it is, they ask what it could be. This is perhaps why she keeps coming back to young people and the education system as subject matters. Children are processes, not fixed points, and if we are brave enough we can be processes too.
EV Crowe’s Hero is at the Royal Court from 23rd November – 22nd December 2012. For tickets visit the Royal Court website.