The second period I referenced at the WYP debate was when ‘new writing’ as we know it today really came of age – which to my mind was during Stephen Daldry’s tenure at the Royal Court Theatre from 1992-1998, and the extraordinary explosion of thrilling new plays which were produced there – and beyond – as a result. (And yes, I am aware there was 1956 and all that. But the strain of the ‘new writing’ brand that we mean when we use the term today I would argue has its strongest roots in the 1990s, and in particular the ‘in-yer-face’ movement – of which more in a moment.)
I was a student during that time and it was terrifically exciting to witness, even from afar, and had a huge impact on my decision to set my sights on playwriting as a career. However, it is also my contention that we are still somewhat suffering from what I think of as the ‘hangover’ from that period; the idea of what a piece of new writing is, or ought to be.
On the WYP panel, I facetiously summed this up as being predominantly young, white, male, urban and twentysomething. In the WYP bar after the panel debate someone added one more element to this list: an act of extreme violence towards the end of the play.
We can all laugh with familiarity at these descriptions. However, I think we are conflating two things here: ‘new writing’ with ‘in-yer-face theatre’ – the term coined by critic Aleks Sierz to describe a strand within 1990s new writing, of plays with (usually) explicit sexual or violent content, coupled with some sort of urgent political or social message.
This merging of terms and definitions I think offers some insight into what Alex Chisholm and others feel has been the down-side of new writing as a genre. I can’t help thinking that, in our collective memory, we have elevated one distinct strand of playwriting within a decade’s output, which has come to disproportionately influence the paradigm of what we now think ‘new writing’ should be.
To get to the bottom of this, I went back to a little-known page on the Royal Court’s website which helpfully lists all the shows that were produced there under Stephen Daldry’s tenure. It was a real eye-opener.
There were the usual writers who we associate with this period: Sarah Kane, Joe Penhall, Jez Butterworth, Anthony Neilson, Martin McDonagh, the traditionally ‘in-yer-face’ crowd, in the Sierz parlance.
But there are other writers who we now associate with somewhat different aesthetics: Conor McPherson, Nick Grosso, Ché Walker, Rebecca Prichard, David Storey, Ayub Khan-Din, Sam Shephard, Jonathan Harvey, Jim Cartwright, Sue Townsend, Terry Johnson and Kevin Elyot.
What also struck me was the amount of playwrights there who are listed as getting down and dirty with the performance-makers, by directing their own plays: Athol Fugard, Phyllis Nagy, Anthony Neilson, Neil Bartlett, Gregory Motton, Graeme Miller, Anna Deavere Smith and Harold Pinter.
But there are also a large amount of companies listed, of all shapes and sizes, companies we would probably now think of as ‘devising’ or creating ‘new work’: People Show, Desperate Optimists, Candoco Dance, The Brittonioni Brothers, DV8, Man Act and some I’ve never heard of before or since (Pants Performance Ass, anyone?) The distinction between these companies and the Court’s regular playwrights just didn’t seem to exist.
As if that wasn’t enough there are a whole host of readings of new plays listed, from Australia to America to Austria; the beginnings of the Court’s critically-lauded International department, the work of which would result in a startling series of productions of new Russian plays a few years later (notably Vassily Sigarev and the Presnyakov brothers).
Have a look at the full list for yourself; it’s a fascinating snapshot of a theatre firing on all cylinders. It’s astonishing that all these influences would be mixed up together in one season, indeed in one fairly small building.