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Plays

13

Mike Bartlett
Acts: 5. Scenes: 49. Roles: Male (14), Female (13), Neutral (4).

At the beginning of Bartlett’s political and profound epic play, twelve completely different people across London wake up from an identical, terrifying dream – monsters and explosions, thousands of voices. At the same moment, a young man named John returns home after years away to find economic gloom, ineffective protest, and a Prime Minister about to declare war. But John has a vision for the future and a way to make it happen.

Coincidences, omens and visions collide with political reality in this ambitious and dextrous play, which depicts a London both familiar and strange, a London staring into the void.

13 explores the meaning of personal responsibility, the hold that the past has over the future and the nature of belief itself.

The play was first performed in 2011 at the National Theatre, London.

The Absence of War

David Hare
Acts: 2. Scenes: 23. Roles: Male (9), Female (4), Neutral (0).

The Absence of War offers a meditation on the classic problems of leadership, and is the third part of a critically acclaimed trilogy of plays (Racing Demon, Murmuring Judges) about British institutions.

Its unsparing portrait of a Labour Party torn between past principles and future prosperity, and of a deeply sympathetic leader doomed to failure, made the play hugely controversial and prophetic when it was first presented at the National Theatre, London, in 1993.

Absolutely! (Perhaps)

Luigi Pirandello
Acts: 3. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (7), Female (7), Neutral (0).

Absolutely! (Perhaps) is a sparkling comedy on the elusive nature of reality, in which truth is negotiable and identity is performed. It is an adaptation of Luigi Pirandello’s first play Così è (Se Vi Pare), and opened at the Wyndham’s Theatre in 2003.

In a small Italian town lives Signor Ponza, his wife and his apparent mother-in-law Signora Frola, who he will not allow to visit. With the neighbours gossiping over his cruelty, Signor Ponza claims that Signora Frola is mad and refusing to accept that her daughter is dead, and that he now lives with his second wife. Signora Frola counters the accusation, claiming that Ponza has unwittingly re-married his first wife. Impossibly, the Signora Ponza in question claims to be both daughter and second wife, plunging the play into a tangle of fractious theatricality.

Accounts

Michael Wilcox
Acts: 0. Scenes: 6. Roles: Male (4), Female (1), Neutral (0).

A rural counterpart to the urban Rents, according to author Michael Wilcox, Accounts touches on the same themes of homosexuality, money, and survival that the former play introduces. As teenage brothers Andy and Donald Mawson cope with the death of their father, learning how to run a farm with their widowed mother, Mary, the play primarily concerns the family’s processes of discovery – both in being independent land owners for the first time, and in terms of the brothers’ development during adolescence.

A bildungsroman, of sorts, Accounts details the daily routine of the family within their first year on the farm, and specifically demonstrates how Andy and Donald must mature quickly to take responsibility for its financial performance. With this mental maturity comes bodily maturity, as well; the audience becomes privy to Andy and Donald’s awakening sexuality, and in the case of Donald, emerging homosexuality. As a result, Accounts is a ‘coming out’ experience in the Scottish countryside, in the same way that Rents was in Edinburgh, for the play’s characters, the audience, and Wilcox, himself.

Accounts premiered at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre Club in May of 1981, with performances at the Fringe Festival following shortly after. The play made its way over to the US in 1983, and was shown in New York City’s Hudson Guild Theater.

The Accused

Jeffrey Archer
Acts: 3. Scenes: 5. Roles: Male (14), Female (2), Neutral (0).

Jeffrey Archer's play The Accused was written with a nod to the similarities of the performative environments that are the Courts of Justice and the theatre stage: here, the audience listen to the cases made by both sides of a murder trial, ask themselves if Dr Sherwood murdered his wife, if Jennifer Mitchell was his mistress, and which, if any, of his alibis should be believed.

At the end of the trial, the audience are then asked to deliver their verdict; do they think the doctor is guilty or not guilty. After their verdict is given, the play continues, with one of two endings, depending on how they have voted. Only then is the truth fully revealed.

The Accused premiered at the Theatre Royal, Windsor, in September 2000.

Actor's Lament

Steven Berkoff
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (2), Female (1), Neutral (0).

'A one-act play is like a confession'. So writes Steven Berkoff in the preface to the collection of his One-Act Plays. In his introduction to the collection, Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama writes:'It is the one-act play, however, that most profoundly and immediately amplifies Berkoff’s extraordinary literary and theatrical voice. . . In discussion, [Berkoff's] eyes quite literally light up at the mere mention of the one-act construct. With relish, he outlines the bare-knuckled immediacy of its form and fatal but inevitable blow. Perhaps the very real pleasure in reading these nineteen one-act plays by Berkoff should not be about comparing them to his other plays at all, but imagining them newly and in performance. Berkoff’s theatre continues to refuse smallness of theme and narrative, and defies those who wish to collapse the place of theatre into reality-inspired ‘true’. A reading of these pieces will require the need for a performance alertness, ‘real’ at its very threshold.'

In Actor's Lament we meet John, an actor who although 'clever, cynical and witty' is nonetheless bitter as he moulders unappreciated in his career, and his age ticks along from forty to fifty.

Adam and Eve

Steven Berkoff
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (1), Female (2), Neutral (0).

'A one-act play is like a confession'. So writes Steven Berkoff in the preface to the collection of his One-Act Plays. In his introduction to the collection, Geoffrey Colman, Head of Acting at Central School of Speech and Drama writes: 'It is the one-act play, however, that most profoundly and immediately amplifies Berkoff’s extraordinary literary and theatrical voice. . . In discussion, [Berkoff's] eyes quite literally light up at the mere mention of the one-act construct. With relish, he outlines the bare-knuckled immediacy of its form and fatal but inevitable blow. Perhaps the very real pleasure in reading these nineteen one-act plays by Berkoff should not be about comparing them to his other plays at all, but imagining them newly and in performance. Berkoff’s theatre continues to refuse smallness of theme and narrative, and defies those who wish to collapse the place of theatre into reality-inspired ‘true’. A reading of these pieces will require the need for a performance alertness, ‘real’ at its very threshold.'

Of his cycle of Biblical plays, Berkoff writes: 'There is something so vital and dynamic about our wonderful biblical stories, myths or parables that they lend themselves so easily to a modern interpretation. Of course their passion speaks directly to all of us and few of us are immune from the same problems and obsessions.'

Adam and Eve tells of Eden's first parents in a comically exaggerated London slang.

Advice for the Young at Heart

Roy Williams
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (3), Female (1), Neutral (0).

It’s 2011 and 1958 and London is rioting. Candice is ordered by her gang-leading boyfriend to lure Clint into a honeytrap. Haunted by her grandfather’s mistakes, she stands at a crossroads. Will she do as she’s told, or will she learn to be true to herself before history repeats itself?

A modern tale for riotous times, commissioned and developed by Theatre Centre, Advice for the Young at Heart examines 2011’s unrest against the background of the 1958 race riots, exploring themes of race, family and misguided loyalty. A new play for young people aged 14+.

Advice for the Young at Heart was first performed at Redbridge Drama Centre, London, on 12 September 2013.

After Darwin

Timberlake Wertenbaker
Acts: 2. Scenes: 19. Roles: Male (5), Female (1), Neutral (0).

Millie, a director, discusses with her actors, Ian and Tom, how to interpret two famous historical figures from the nineteenth century. It's 1831. The naturalist Charles Darwin is invited to travel with Robert Fitzroy into uncharted waters off the coast of South America aboard 'The Beagle'. Their five year journey is fraught with philosophical and personal tensions. Fitzroy, a staunch Christian, has faith in the unquestionable authority of the Bible; Darwin begins to explore a more radical vision, his theory of natural selection. A meditation on history and human relationships, After Darwin links past and present through these five characters, and raises timeless questions about faith, friendship and how we interpret the past.

After Darwin was first performed in July 1998, at Hampstead Theatre, London.

Afterplay

Brian Friel
Acts: 0. Scenes: 0. Roles: Male (1), Female (1), Neutral (0).

1920s Moscow, a small run-down café. Uncle Vanya's niece, Sonya Serebriakova, now in her forties, is the only customer. Until the arrival of Andrey Prozorov, the put-upon brother from Three Sisters.

Afterplay revisits the lives of two characters from Anton Chekhov's plays. It was first produced, with The Bear (also after Chekhov), at the Gate Theatre, Dublin, in March 2002.

Contemporary British theatre

British theatre culture is characterised by innovative new writing, naturalistic acting and responsiveness to political change. During the past three decades, upheavals in society have been mirrored by the theatre. The long reign of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which started in May 1979 and ended in November 1990, broke the economic, social and political consensus of postwar Britain, introducing the ideology of monetarism, the practice of privatisation and the rule of the market. In the 1980s, the money distributed by the Arts Council to theatres was repeatedly cut. In 1994, the National Lottery was created by John Major’s Conservative government, and this paid for ambitious theatre building projects. The arrival of Tony Blair and New Labour in 1997 continued these trends, but it was not until the 2000s that, following the Boyden Report, an extra £25 million was pumped into the beleaguered theatre system nationwide. One result was a boom in new writing in the first decade of the new millennium.

The profoundest effect of Thatcherism was commercialisation: during the 1980s and 1990s, theatres became businesses as well as arts organizations. These years also saw the amazing triumph of the commercial West End. Composer and theatre-owner Andrew Lloyd Webber made theatre history in 1991 with six shows running at the same time in London’s Theatreland. In July 1993 his Sunset Boulevard opened with £4 million in advance bookings, and in January 1996 Cats (1981) — with its instantly recognisable yellow-eye logo — became the longest running musical in history. In 1994, he repeated his achievements of 1982 and 1988 by having three musicals running in London and three in New York at the same time. Two years later, Madonna starred in the film version of his Evita. In the 1997 New Year’s honours list, as a farewell gift from the departing Conservatives, he was made a life peer, a high point of a career that made him one of the richest men in Britain. Likewise, Cameron Mackintosh, the other major musical producer, enjoyed continued success with Claude-Michel Schonberg and Alain Boubil’s Les Miserables (1985), which had been developed by the RSC and is currently the longest-running musical, closely followed by Lloyd Webber’s Phantom of the Opera (1986), both making billions in box office worldwide. The decade ended with Schonberg and Boubil’s Miss Saigon (1989) and the arrival of jukebox musicals, led by Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story (1989). Since then, other West End long-runners include Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers (1983), Disney’s The Lion King (1997) and Abba’s Mamma Mia! (1999). Agatha Christie’s museum-piece The Mousetrap (1952) was joined by Stephen Mallatratt’s The Woman in Black (1987) and more recently by Patrick Barlow’s The 39 Steps (2005). By 2012, the Society of London Theatre announced that annual West End ticket sales had topped £500 million.

The broad trends of British theatre in the 1980s included not only the emergence of blockbusting musicals, but also the arrival of epic theatre. A good example is David Edgar’s eight-and-a half-hour adaptation of The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby for the state-subsidised RSC in 1980. Another is Tony Harrison’s three-part version of The Mysteries (1985) for the National Theatre. Traditionally, a mixture of naturalism and socially progressive realism was, to a greater or lesser extent, the main aesthetic of British theatre. Playwrights sought both to mirror society, and to change it. Controversial new plays by the 1968 generation of radicals were headed by Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain (1980), which was the subject of a private prosecution for obscenity by Mary Whitehouse. Other notable plays were Brenton and David Hare’s satirical Pravda (1985), Jim Cartwright’s debut Road (1986), Alan Ayckbourn’s A Small Family Business (1987) and Hare’s The Secret Rapture (1988). Each engaged with the social impact of Thatcherism.

Two other trends were visible: the rise in women playwrights and of black and Asian theatre. Older women such as Caryl Churchill, Pam Gems and Timberlake Wertenbaker were joined by new arrivals such as Sarah Daniels, April de Angelis, Charlotte Keatley, Sharman Macdonald and Andrea Dunbar. Churchill’s Top Girls (1982) and Keatley’s My Mother Said I Never Should (1987) are now modern classics. Characteristically, these plays represent women’s lives through an innovative approach to structure. Churchill’s Serious Money (1987) and Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good (1988) explore the contemporary by engaging with history. Dunbar was a genuinely working-class writer, and her play Rita, Sue and Bob Too (1982) was also filmed. Daniels’s Masterpieces (1983) is a feminist tract.

Black and Asian companies such as Tara Arts, Tamasha and Talawa, plus playwrights Hanif Kureishi (Outskirts), Mustapha Matura (Playboy of the West Indies) and Winsome Pinnock (Leave Taking), made their presence felt during the 1980s. Another trend involved the creation of small-scale companies, whose highly recognisable aesthetic styles proved widely influential. These were headed by Théâtre de Complicité, which later became Complicite, and whose long line of physical-theatre productions culminated in Mnemonic (1999). Likewise, Shared Experience pioneered outstanding adaptations of classic novels, often scripted by Helen Edmundson, while Cheek by Jowl concentrated on vividly acted revivals of the classics. But, across the decade, the embattled feeling due to cuts in state subsidy had a demoralising effect. By the end of the 1980s, there was talk of a crisis in new writing.

In the 1990s, new writing revived, but political plays gave way to personal ones. Starting with younger playwrights such as Philip Ridley (The Pitchfork Disney) and Anthony Neilson (Penetrator), a new sensibility, called in-yer-face theatre, developed. While the moment of in-yer-face theatre — raw, uncompromising drama that smashed taboos and provoked audiences — was short-lived, spanning the four years between the arrival of Sarah Kane’s notoriously shocking debut Blasted at the Royal Court in January 1995 and her suicide in February 1999, it changed the face of new writing.

The sudden emergence of a large number of new voices — Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh, Patrick Marber, Joe Penhall, David Eldridge, Moira Buffini, Phyllis Nagy, Judy Upton, Rebecca Prichard and Nick Grosso — suggested a renaissance and some critics spoke enthusiastically of a golden age. Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking (1996) publicised the new sensibility, while Butterworth’s Mojo (1995), McDonagh’s Leenane Trilogy (1997) and Marber’s Closer (1997) were commercially successful.

From Scotland came David Greig and David Harrower (Knives in Hens); from Ireland arrived Conor McPherson, whose The Weir (1997) was a massive West End success. Elsewhere, Roy Williams and Tanika Gupta moved across the theatrical spectrum from writing plays about their Caribbean and Bengali heritage to penning dramas about contemporary Britain. Ayub Khan Din’s East Is East (1997) was a big hit. In terms of the avant-garde, Martin Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life (1997) was the most experimental and daring play of the decade. It could never be as commercial as Jonathan Harvey’s feelgood Beautiful Thing (1993), Kevin Elyot’s comic My Night with Reg (1994) and Shelagh Stephenson’s resonant The Memory of Water (1996). Bucking the widespread trend against political drama, the Tricycle Theatre produced The Colour of Justice (1999), a tribunal theatre piece based on the Stephen Lawrence enquiry.

In the 1990s, many new writers were interested in the overarching subject of masculinity in crisis, but older playwrights had other concerns: having penned a farce classic — Noises Off (1982) — in the 1980s, Michael Frayn wrote a dazzling science play, Copenhagen (1998), while Stoppard’s Arcadia (1993) and The Invention of Love (1997) explored Englishness, as did Alan Bennett’s The Madness of George III (1991) and The Wind in the Willows (1991). David Hare’s Trilogy (1993), Skylight (1995) and Amy’s View (1997) confirmed his status as the National’s in-house political dramatist, while David Edgar’s Pentecost (1994) examined global politics after the Fall of the Berlin Wall. By contrast, Terry Johnson’s Hysteria (1993) and Dead Funny (1994) mixed farce with gender insights. Howard Barker and Edward Bond continued to write their uniquely challenging work.

In the 2000s, as state funding for theatre rose, new writing multiplied in its practitioners and diversified in its subjects — and young writers rediscovered overtly political concerns. In the aftermath of 9/11, the fashion for verbatim theatre was widespread: David Hare’s Stuff Happens (2004) mixed fact and fiction, while My Name Is Rachel Corrie and Talking to Terrorists are but two of many examples. Other political plays were headed by Alistair Beaton’s Feelgood (2001), which satirised Blair’s obsession with spin. Likewise, typical 2000s’ themes were the War on Terror, the Iraq War and the culture of fear, the social problems of poverty and violence, the effects of migration from the EU and beyond, and the disaffection of segregated communities. Joe Penhall’s ethical debate drama Blue/Orange (2000) and Charlotte Jones’s family drama Humble Boy (2001) were often revived.

As far as new arrivals are concerned, Simon Stephens (On the Shore of the Wide World) and Richard Bean were two of the most prolific and powerful new voices to emerge in this decade. Bean’s England People Very Nice (2009) was very provocative and his Goldoni adaptation, One Man, Two Guvnors (2011) was a huge international success, as was Jez Butterworth’s battered pastoral Jerusalem (2009). Similarly, in Scotland, Gregory Burke joined David Greig, David Harrower and Liz Lochhead as a chronicler of the new millennium. His Black Watch (2006) and Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia (2004) were hits for the newly established National Theatre of Scotland. Meanwhile, the most controversial play of the decade, Gurprett Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti (2004), was staged in Birmingham, and concerned religion and abuse.

While new black playwrights such as Kwame Kwei-Armah (Elmina’s Kitchen) and debbie tucker green (Stoning Mary) were staged at the National and Royal Court, The Big Life, a musical about the Windrush generation, moved from the Theatre Royal Stratford East into the West End in 2005. Roy Williams’s Sing Yer Heart Out for the Lads (2002) and Tanika Gupta’s Sugar Mummies (2006) were notable successes. The increase in dystopic visions of the future testifies to the imagination of playwrights: examples include Caryl Churchill’s Far Away (2000), her A Number (2002) and Philip Ridley’s Mercury Fur (2005). Lucy Prebble’s Enron (2009) summed up the economic crisis; Alan Bennett’s The History Boys (2004) and Lee Hall’s The Pitman Painters (2007) explored the past.

A new crop of talents, such as Dennis Kelly, Laura Wade, Mike Bartlett, Tim Crouch, Steve Waters, Bola Agbaje, Chloe Moss, Polly Stenham, Penelope Skinner and James Graham, together ensured that the 2000s were a remarkable decade for new writing. Many were also commercially successful: Peter Gill’s The York Realist (2002), Polly Stenham’s That Face (2007), Laura Wade’s Posh (2010), April De Angelis’s Jumpy (2011) and Nick Payne’s Constellations (2012) all transferred to the West End. As did National Theatre shows such as Nick Stafford’s adaptation of War Horse (2007), with its puppetry, and One Man, Two Guvnors, with its slapstick. Finally, new forms of non-text-based theatre, such as the work of the Shunt and Punchdrunk companies, as well as experiments in site-specific, immersive theatre and one-on-one theatre, made a big impact. By 2012, the effects of Coalition government cuts in funding for the theatre had not as yet been felt.

Aleks Sierz