Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Cheap Essays: *Sigh*

There have been a lot of people talking about how women writers aren’t breaking through in theatre. Which they aren’t.

For lots of systemic, cultural, institutional reasons, women are being underrepresented and underrespected in theatre writing, as in so many fields of work and it’s horrible. And it's an issue that really needs examining and finding solutions to.

But when I was thinking about this problem, it made me wonder whether there were any new writers breaking through at all.

So, I had a pretty wide sweep around London theatres – those who accept submissions and suggest they are supportive of new writers – for examples of work this season (the next few months) that you can go see which is by a new playwright. I want to be specific about this, I was looking for someone new.

As in, someone who has not had a production before, someone normal– not an actor who got their play in the door via an email to the literary manager saying “hello, remember me from the National? I dun wrote a play.” (nothing against actors, I’m sure their plays are great and crafted and rigorous, but it’s different and they are within the industry) – I was looking for someone you might imagine wrote a play unrepresented by an agent and sent it, unsolicited, to a theatre without any hope in hell and managed to get a production from it – something that has always been unlikely but that did happen in the past. Basically, cf Robert Holman.

And I was really pleasantly surprised, actually.

Nah, like fuck I was, it’s dire.

I basically found none, really. Nobody. There are actors and there are people who won prizes, which is a route, a brilliant one, but one that really negates the idea of having theatres with open submissions at all.

Apart from, well, then, I found, well, this:

My Mum’s A Twat is Anoushka’s first professional play.” At The Royal Court.

My heart leapt.

Someone called Anoushka wrote a play, sent it in and now it’s on! And it sounds funny from the title and that’s a swearword and fucking good for them. Thank fucking fuck for that. Phew.

Until you do a very very quick google of that writer, who I am sure is really nice and talented and whose play I am sure is very brilliant, but who also happens to work at the Court as head of press.


I don’t really know where to go with this. It’s true, of course, that theatres are underfunded. It’s true, of course, that new writing might as well, of course, very often, just happily die an unmourned death, of course.

However, it’s also patently true that theatres, even those claiming interest in new writing, do not end up producing work they get sent by those without previous standing. One can only look at the situation and imagine that theatres are just receiving, reading, and passing on every play they get sent through open submissions. They do not care about the work in front of them, they care about where it comes from. Quite plainly. Because, there aren’t any new writers being produced.

This might be because there are too many writers writing plays to get read (in which case, wherefore open submissions anyway), it might be because only represented writers are writing good plays (think about that for a sec and you’ll see a bulletproof argument smashed to pieces), or it might be because theatres – particularly the bigger ones – can’t be arsed or can’t afford the “risk”, or some mixture of those two things, to programme new writers. I favour the latter explanation. Of course I do.

And, obviously, you can see why: it’s hard enough supporting developed writers, something they also must do – I want to see Chris Thorpe’s new Royal Court play loads and loads – and none of them can scrape a living, anyway. I get that.

But having concerns about the gender of the playwrights getting supported by the industry ignores the structural fact that, right now, the doors are shut to all newcomers, and that seems perhaps an even more pressing and difficult trend to face up to.
_____ P.S. I really don't mean to be rude about Anoushka or cast aspersions – I genuinely am looking forward to that play. I just care about this stuff and it hurts to be disappointed and proven right so roundly. P.P.S. I'm also aware I *will* have missed a writer over here that's just been programmed and I've completely fucked it by ignoring. I feel my argument still holds water and I would invite you to remember I have a life and am not a journalist and write these in my free time – I know, weird, isn't it. So, if you've got a correction, just be nice and not a sneery cunt about it. Thnx.

Friday, 1 September 2017


This feels like precisely the sort of play that doesn’t reward an immediate review. Because it’s really complicated and everything to be disliked about it is on the surface. I’ll describe that first.

Luke is a tech billionaire (something future-y about rockets and AI and solar power – he’s Elon Musk and Mark Zuckerberg combined, basically) who hears a message from God and goes to where “there’s violence”, following a trail around America on a listening tour of stories of gun crime, campus sexual assault, and capitalism. That simple. He speaks, he listens, he has odd responses, he hears from God some more – some people like him, some people don’t. He is frustrated by his own process and his inability to have impact in the meaningful, seismic ways a Messiah might view as success. It’s a succession of two-handers. The set it sparse and rehearsal room-y. The play doesn’t move very fast in any direction. We aren’t clear what people want and why they are being so honest with this man.

That’s the superficial level.

And, at this level, I can see why people didn’t like it. Ben Whishaw’s Luke is never undercut – the play adores him and views him as a sincerely good man. It doesn’t sneer at him – the play doesn’t really sneer at all, even at religion – and it seriously goes about itemizing all the examples of violence and thinking about their causes and effects and the ludicrousness of the exercise. It fails at the level of plot. Of course it does. There are mishandlings of sexual politics and character arcs and he keeps having visions of God for Christ’s sake and the ending is a big bundle of nothing.

But. Well. Here’s a description:

A character called Anna (played wondrously by Emma D’Arcy – the whole cast are terrific and ne’er has the world ensemble felt more true, which is credit to Rickson’s direction in a play where one actor is so central to nearly every scene – right, sorry about that ugly parenthesis, you’ll feel the jolt back into the main sentence in a sec) is in a polyamorous relationship (there we are).

Anna is happy but frustrated that the relationship hasn’t found deeper codes of intimacy. Anna has also written a short story for a class about this. Anna’s teacher wants to talk about how to be sex positive, Anna wants to talk about their short story. The teacher suggests “radical intimacy”, Anna can barely move through the world any more. This story – which really has nothing to do with violence, the subject the play is about – takes up a lot of plot. We spend all our time at the campus talking about it or around it. In a world of missiles and nuclear submarines, Shinn moves here and has quiet conversations about theory and praxis.

And I think this choice – one of many examples – speaks to seriousness. This play is serious. It has serious intentions and beliefs and is serious about talking at stuff, not around it. It is as deep as it is broad and when it comes up against a hurdle, it doesn’t vault over it to get back to the plot, it carefully plonks itself down and talks about all the difficult stuff. So, you could easily lose faith. There are conversations where nothing is happening and people are telling you long stories about dreams they had and watches stop then start again and the play doesn’t have the good British sense to laugh at itself and have done with it. And as difficult things resonate against each other and the strange dreaminess of the whole thing smashes up against the real-worldness of it, it really reminded me of Obsession, that awful Jude Law vehicle. But where that play couldn’t care less about its substance, this play was consistently rewarding my attention and my faith.

I came out not liking it all that much. And I woke up the next day still thinking it through and not liking it, but finding so much to chew on and unfold. This play rewards its audience for their faith in its depth, its integrity, its (I’m going full American) sensuality.

It’s such an admirably strange failure.  
Against is at the Almeida Theatre until the end of the month. They didn't get back to me about comps, so you can Google them yourself.