Theatre Critic and Journalist

Candidely Speaking – Mark Ravenhill

Candidely Speaking – Mark Ravenhill

Published in The Stage, 22.08.2013

No playwright is as poorly served by journalistic shorthand as Mark Ravenhill. Almost two decades on, the 47-year-old is still largely defined by his barnstorming, game-changing debut Shopping and Fucking, a major progenitor of the so-called In-Yer-Face movement. History has concretised him as the definitive nineties shock-jock.

It’s a label that discredits his verve and variety. Ravenhill’s plays have stretched from social critiques to big Brechtian historicals, from panto to horror to queer theatre. He’s a resolutely inventive formalist with a playful postmodernist streak; a writer always on the lookout for unexpected collaborations: Bette Bourne, Marc Almond, Frantic Assembly.

Far from being stuck in the nineties, Ravenhill ranks among the most present-tense of playwrights. Having defined that era’s detached, consumerist generation in Shopping and Fucking – and he’s curiously keen to see a significant revival in the UK (“What do you do with it now?”) – Ravenhill has always sought to reflect the world as he finds it. Sometimes that’s meant taking direct aim, as in his Iraq War play-cycle Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat; sometimes, sidling up to it through metaphor, as with 2009’s Over There, about identical twins raised either side of the Iron Curtain.

So when it comes to writing a response to Candide as the RSC’s Writer-In-Residence (and who saw that coming?), trust Ravenhill to run the current through Voltaire. “Most people haven’t read it,” he says of a book he lapped up aged 20. “It’s on their to-do list.”

Written as a rebuttal to the German rationalist Gottfried Liebniz, who maintained this as ‘the best of all possible worlds,’ the book was triggered by a catastrophic Lisbon earthquake that killed up to 100,000. Voltaire created the ever-hapless Candide to question Liebniz’s unswerving optimism. “It’s strange; unless you’re into hardcore philosophy, the actual subject of its satire has been forgotten about,” says Ravenhill – his breathy voice as surprising as ever, coming from this burly skinhead.

As such, he’s sought out a target of his own. “I think the gap between our everyday optimism and our deep-seated pessimism is particularly acute right now,” he continues. “On a day-to-day basis, were pretty perky. I guess a lot of that is a Californian influence. If you ask someone how they are, they tend to go ‘Great. Fantastic.’ Whereas my parents’ generation would have said, ‘Oh, getting by. Mustn’t grumble.’

“Yet actually, I think our sense of fear and worry about the ecology and the economy is massive. The problems are so profound – particularly the planet – that I think we feel powerless. There are these global problems that seem beyond a little protest here or a change of legislation there. We don’t know what to do.”

Structurally, he’s been influenced – and this is rather unexpected – by Charlie Kaufman, Cloud Atlas and Italo Calvino: “It’s sort of become five plays within one,” he says, cryptically, “Stories within stories within stories.”

Ravenhill’s version twins a latterday Candide – all cheery positivity – with a young woman who, on her 18th birthday, killed her entire family. She’s an eco-fascist, seeking to trim population numbers now before the inevitable war, famine and suffering of an overcrowded world kicks in. “There’s a philosophy – almost an optimism – to her actions. I remember someone saying – and something like this will always be a provocation – that all plays are essentially moral because there are no plays that actually advocate killing anybody. Is it possible to write that play?”

Deep down Ravenhill isn’t a shock-jock. He’s a provocateur; an agitator. While he denies the idea of a nineties movement – “it’s a shame to read a whole tranch of plays through one prism: a Conor McPherson or Sarah Kane play couldn’t be more different to a Patrick Marber or a Martin McDonagh” – he insists that that generation were bucking against “the sense that everybody had reached a liberal consensus. You knew what playwrights thought about a subject and you didn’t really need to go and see the plays.” Today’s young writers, he notes, often come up through development schemes: “There’s much more of a consensus about what makes a play.”

To this day, Ravenhill sets out to surprise – and not least, himself. “I’m doing this for a lifetime – and I knew from the start I wanted to do this until I dropped – so it’s good to keep changing the parameters. It keeps on re-energising you.”

Hence his two-year stint as the RSC’s writer-in-residence, his diversions into directing and, most of all his regular returns to the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s back this year with Tell Me The Truth About Love, a short concert built out of and extrapolating from Benjamin Britten and WH Auden’s cabaret songs. The Fringe is, he says, “a really good place to do new stuff. It doesn’t feel quite right to do the same thing you do year-round. You change the rules a bit, make it different.” It’s down to us journalists to keep up.

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