To See You Nice
Last week, David Edgar wrote political theatre a clean bill of health in The Observer, focussing all his energies on new writing. In it, Edgar plucks a handful of overtly political theatre-writers and places them on a pedestal, including Lucy Kirkwood, Adam Brace, Bola Agbaje and Jack Thorne. Between them, these writers cover a bundle of enormous issues: from street crime/culture to religion and discrimination, from the war on terror to political spin wrapped up neatly with a healthy dollop of immigration, sex trafficking and financial crisis.
Edgar’s right, of course. All of the writers he cites are carrying banners and all are rightly celebrated for that. However, for all that it may prove useful as a classifying tool, none of the writers cited can really be defined by their youth.
In their collective work, it is the powers-that-be that come under attack. Sure, their writing makes demands – it shouts, “This is unacceptable. Do something about it. Sort it out.” – but the issues being covered are not the preserve of the young. For the most part they could, one feels, be covered by someone of any age without loss, because those in power are knockable by anyone that is not in power. The opposition party takes that as its sole purpose and has, indeed, raised many of these very concerns in one form or another at one time or another.
I don’t mean to denigrate any of these writers. My experience of their work – and I ought to point out that it is far from encyclopaedic – has generally been positive. That there is a great diversity of topics being covered stands in stark contrast to the early years of this century, when a singular agenda (the war on terror) seemed firmly entrenched across the board. However, I suspect that a new wave of political theatre is beginning and its crosshairs are focused precisely on the middle-aged. The Generation Game is starting and Edgar has missed its approach.
“The turn is coming. I can sense it. I feel it getting nearer,” quivers Ibsen’s Master Builder, fearful for all that he has carefully constructed over a lifetime: livelihood, respect, reputation, power and prowess. “One of these days, youth is going to come here beating on the door…”
All of a sudden, Ibsen’s paranoid professional seems particularly pertinent. The rapping on doors has begun; the master builders are precariously perched. That most elusive of theatrical creatures, the angry young (wo)man, is stirring once again and plays are beginning to throw open issues felt and experienced rather than issues perceived and adopted. Political theatre is getting personal.
These thoughts are sparked by two things. The first was reading Aleks Sierz’s admirably digestible In-Yer-Face Theatre, which charts a course through a definite, concrete movement within theatre, specifically within new writing, over the course of the nineties. Sierz examines the oft-derided shock tactics employed by writers such as Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson and Philip Ridley, repeatedly suggesting that they demonstrate a desire to shake things up. “Shock,” he writes, “is an essential part of a confrontational sensibility.” Having been too young to experience all this firsthand – and also finding myself now strangely immune to what was considered shocking at the time – I became quite interested by this concept of a movement, the like of which can’t really be found in the last ten years. (Perhaps the use of verbatim techniques is the closest we can find, but that seems not to burn with the same sense of passion. It investigates and interrogates, but it is somehow to composed to become a soapbox rant.)
The second was a trip to The Bush to see The Whisky Taster by James Graham, which I had read six months ago and enjoyed enormously, both as text and production. The play follows Barney, an twenty-something advertising exec with synaesthesia, and his colleague Nicola in the attempt to re-brand vodka. It’s a text with many layers, by turns covering the deadened monochromes of modern life to the oddities of the office environment. However, I think the play’s primary thrust has bypassed the majority of critics. Michael Coveney writes it off, saying: “The satirical, not very original, point being that you can convince people of anything if you sell it hard enough.” Michael Billington describes it as “part advertising industry satire, part thwarted romantic comedy and part celebration of Scotch.” In truth, The Whisky Taster is those things, but at its heart is something more, something furious. Through it, Graham stands up and points the finger at an older generation and says “You did this. This is all your fault. You have fucked it up. You have sincerely, severely fucked it up.”
To dismiss it as a banal ad-industry satire, is to ignore the key speech at its centre: a livid, self-accusatory gloat delivered by Barney’s boss, Malcolm, a self-made man in his mid-forties. (What follows is from a pre-rehearsal draft and differs from the text as performed and published. In fact, re-reading it now, it seems tame by comparison. I remember a particularly catchy line about Generation X and Generation Y, Generation Y-the-fuck.)
Malcolm: You hate me because of all the things I’ve had that you will never have; underwhelming, as you might find me. Lacking in any discernible superhuman gift, as I may be. Well I’m sorry about that. I’m sorry I was born into a time that allowed me to succeed and you’ve been born into one that is going to fuck you over.
Barney: Malcolm, you have no idea what I’m feeling or what fucks me off but I don’t care enough to want to / change your opinion.
Malcolm: No, no, no, see that’s the problem, you do care. The task I set you, the question I asked you which you have singularly failed to answer, which is why I fear this vodka pitch is Going To Fail, is ‘Why Do You Drink?’ Your lot. Them. They drink, so that they can forget, that they work all week to earn money, to get to the weekend, to buy drink that helps them to forget that they spend all week working, to earn money, so that they can drink.
Barney: Well. I happen to think that is massively unfair. And even if it were true, I don’t blame them –
Malcolm: No, I don’t blame them, fuck it, if I were your lot, I’d fucking drink. Can’t get a house, awh sorry, we’ve got them all, and shit, sorry, we’ve spent all that inherited wealth that’s been passing down the generations on second homes and cars and holidays. But that’s ok, you’ve been very patient, waiting your turn, but now – oh no! – there’s no money left, we spent it, and there’s less jobs, crikey, so tighten your belts. I would say go away, travel, escape, but you can’t really because we did that too much and now the planet needs saving. But the tragic thing is, the real crime, Barney, whatever you hate me for or blame me for, the biggest fucking crime of all is that none of you are angry enough to do anything about it. If this had happen to us, my God, we’d have set the place on fire. We were, we were changing everything, questioning everything, but you lot, God! You just shrug. And follow us. Do what we did. Go to uni still, even though when we went, it meant something. And you rent. From us. And you pay your taxes, for our pensions and our retirement, none of which you will get to enjoy. That’s why you drink. You’re a stopgap. An interval. And the worse thing is you don’t even care. But you, Barney, I see it, you do care. And you / hate me for it.
When Simon Merrells delivered it, I felt a strong urge to hit him. My teeth were gritted in support of Samuel Barnett’s Barney, whose response, though heartfelt, simply can’t match its precedent for penetration. Malcolm’s speech hurt. It stang and it stunned because, more than anything else, it rang resoundingly true –as an accusation of both this generation and of that one (and probably also of me, more personally).
The irony, of course, is that Graham himself is doing something about it. His text is driven by its anger. He is shouting back and, the more I think about it, he’s not alone. More and more playwrights are speaking up and answering back, holding their elders to account.
Polly Stenham’s family plays, That Face and Tusk Tusk, lay blame firmly with the parents without completely absolving the children. They are forceful temper tantrums that ricochet off Larkin’s familiar mantra about mum and dad. That Face, in particular, acknowledges certain benefits bestowed on us twenty-somethings by the baby-boomers – education, lifestyle, etc – but it remains fiercely (and rightly) discontent.
Likewise look at Cock, Mike Bartlett’s four-hander that played at the Royal Court last year. There’s the same sense of a generation at odds with itself, unsure of itself, caught in the headlights without a clue about which way to turn. The weakest, most absurd character onstage is the F, M’s baby-boom father. He’s an obscure, unhealthy presence; one that probably shouldn’t be theatre, backing his son all the way into his late twenties. He mollycoddles, refusing to let go, to let grow and somehow you sense that it might all be his fault (and, by association, that of his peers).
Perhaps it’s also perceptible in Lucy Prebble’s Enron, with its palpable sense of scorn that manifests itself as ridicule rather than righteousness. Her take on the financial crisis, for all that I think it smacks of a certain naive straightforwardness, is far more passionate and heartfelt than David Hare’s quizzical expression of investigation, The Power of Yes.
And we’ll see it again over the next year. I’ve read two plays through work recently that cover similar territory, Nick Gill’s Mirror Teeth and Bartlett’s forthcoming Earthquakes in London. Mirror Teeth, which strongly resembles Steve Martin’s WASP, paints a contemptuous portrait of middle class family life. All psychologically warped kids and beaming parents, swelling with pride as they plough determinedly on with what they deem to be everyone best interests. Earthquakes in London, which is heading towards the National under Rupert Goold’s directorship, also takes aim at a generation of ailing power, primarily, but by no means only, tackling environmental issues.
It’s also interesting to spot the generation caught in the middle, which is held up with such vicious disdain in Michael Wynne’s The Priory, another Royal Court effort of last year. Wynn portrays the early-mid thirties bracket, the not-quite-millenials, as pill-popping, wine-slugging wasters, utterly in thrall to their new-fangled gadgets. At best, Wynn’s wasters refuse to take responsibility. At worst, they are ill-equipped to do so. Or, perhaps it’s worth pointing to the fright of Ghosts – first at the Arcola, then the Bolton Octagon, now in the West End – which might have much to do with the transferral of sins from father to son, with the latter certainly coming off worse.
I’m not saying that the above examples are more or less political than those listed by Edgar, nor that their work is any better or worse. What I am saying is that these plays are less overtly, less directly political than their issue-led counterparts, in that they attack not politicians, but a whole way of life. The demands made are not that action be taken, that a singular issue be addressed, but rather that the entire system be overhauled.
(Interestingly, while writing this, I came across this book review in the Financial Times that covers similar territory. The book, which I haven’t read but fully intend to, is The Pinch: How the Baby Boomers Took Their Children’s Future – And Why They Should Give It Back by David Willetts.)
These young writers are finding a voice that is resolutely their own. The anger with which they write is not appropriated or borrowed, nor is it taken as one that ought to be felt; it is theirs to own and elucidate. They are speaking for themselves and, for what it’s worth, I think it could beckon in the most important ‘movement’ since the nineties. “Youth brings retribution. It is in the vanguard of change…Marching under a new banner.” That’s Ibsen’s Master Builder again, quaking on his scaffold. So come on, roll out the conveyor belts and the pottery wheels and let’s be having you. The Generation Game is starting. So all together now, “It’s nice to fucking see you…”