If, like me, you’ve been fortunate enough to spend three expensive years paying for the privilege of studying THE ARTS, that self-indulgent whimsy that the Conservatives demand to justify its worth economically, you’ll know teachers like Leonard. After graduating, you realise he was probably full of shit, but while you’re in his thrall, you hang off his every word, genuinely making a note of snippets like ‘Kafka’s decaying body’ and only later realise you aren’t really sure what that actually meant.
Except Leonard, the nasty, washed up writer who leads the creative writing seminar that gives Theresa Rebeck’s comedy its name, isn’t really full of shit. He walks around the room, disdainfully dropping the pages of his students’ writing around him as he reads, before delivering short, sharp, blistering critiques – which frequently get side-tracked into rambling, egotistical monologues about smoking crack in Somalia. He’s horrible, sexist, sleeps with his female students, and relishes the power he wields over these bright eyed young writers. But he’s also acutely aware of the pain of being an artist in a capitalist society, and tells them, ‘it’s not the writing that’s the problem. It’s everything else.’
And this is what Rebeck demonstrates, with a deftness of touch that at first may seem like little more than light, sitcom-ish fluff. In the play’s opening scene, Douglas, a student with a famous uncle and a literary agent, proudly declares that he’s aiming for ‘On The Road chaos’, and a discussion about Jack Kerouac suddenly becomes about Jack KerouacTM. Influences are no longer a guiding presence appearing organically, but a shrewd marketing tool to fit with the latest trends in publishing. Memoirs are in too apparently –and I heard someone called Lena Dunham just released one – and one student is only able to capture Leonard’s attention by passing off her story about a Cuban transgender gangster as written not by her at all, but by the real deal. Authenticity is co-opted by ‘authenticity’ – but who cares, if you can buy it and sell it?
Because Seminar isn’t really about writing – it’s about money. How much can you actually make now? And how much do you have to pay for your voice to be heard? Student Kate provides her inherited, plush apartment for the use of the class every week, so it’s immediately clear we’re in the territory of the wealthy. The price Leonard charges for ‘teaching writing to hyper-privileged droning children’ is $5000. And that’s not the only currency he deals in – both female students sleep with him, knowing that their tits can hold his attention for marginally longer than their typing. He frequently makes it clear that he feels writing is the domain of men, telling his students viciously to ‘be a man’ and assuming that all narrators are male.
This production is as polished as they get, with the set letting us into Kate’s immaculate apartment, and the comic timing ruthlessly effective throughout. The roles may not particularly stretch this experienced cast, but all are superb, with Roger Allam’s Leonard full of mischief, malice, and darkness, and Charity Wakefield’s Kate gradually allowing punch and passion to give way to pragmatism. The polish is so seamlessly efficient it’s almost in danger of disguising that Rebeck’s play is full of fascinating questions about how we can keep being creative in a world of incessant commodification.
The play ends with a note of hope, but one still stubbornly problematised by the matter of private wealth and privilege. After raging at his class about his failed career and conceding that now he is ‘a servant’, Leonard offers his editing and mentoring services to Martin, his most promising student. There’s a suggestion that art needs to be collaborative to thrive, and that older, more experienced generations can nourish new talent. The only catch is, Martin had to be able to pay $5000 to get noticed. Not sure Jack Kerouac could have afforded that. Not least Jane Austen.