The New New Writers
Published in The Stage, 18.12.2014
If anything’s got me excited this year, it’s the emergence of a new generation of young playwrights, writing with genuine theatrical flair and real political fervour.
They arrive at exactly the right moment. For a while, new writing has been in danger of veering into a new orthodoxy: the Well Made Play 2.0. It had become, frankly, all too easy for audiences. Playwrights would thread a vocabulary through their play and we, the audience, had to identify the ideas contained therein, mostly just by listening out for the repeated words. Hear a phrase three times and – bingo – that’s a theme. Have yourself a post-show gin and tonic.
This is playwrighting as encryption: ideas smuggled into drama. Call it good dramaturgy if you want, but it’s not a particularly challenging thing to watch. It’s a game, a puzzle well-set, and in ‘getting it’ we get to congratulate ourselves for our intelligence. As I wrote in July: “Theatre shouldn’t be a wordsearch or a codebreaker.”
Which is why its so welcome to see a new generation of playwrights reacting against that. Their plays cannot be broken down into their constituent symbols. They exist as puzzling, provocative wholes – theatrical gestures and cultural interventions – that we, the audience, have to sit with and take on board.
Three, in particular, stand out: Alistair McDowall, Rory Mullarkey and Alice Birch. All of them are well under 30.
McDowall’s Pomona – a graphic novel of a play that twists itself inside out – has drawn a new audience to the Orange Tree, while confounding the regulars. Mullarkey’s freewheeling fantasia The Wolf From the Door imagined an upper class uprising, while Birch mustered all the linguistic relish and rigour of Caryl Churchill in her ardent feminist piece Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.
These plays did not spring, fully-formed, from nowhere. All three writers have been honing their craft for a few years. Their early work – Brilliant Adventures, Cannibals, Little on the Inside – was already confident and distinctive. It is increasingly cultivated and courageous.
What’s so cheering is that these are young writers who have very deliberately decided to make theatre their medium. They want to play with its possibilities, to splash about in the structural freedom it allows, away from the mainstream sensibilities of screenwriting. “In theatre, I can do whatever I want,” McDowall told me back in April. “No one is going to say, ‘Don’t put a time machine in your play.’”
What you realise is that these writers were at university alongside the formal explosion of the previous decade. In those formative few years, when your tastes are forged, they’d have been watching Shunt and Punchdrunk and Kneehigh at the National Theatre. Forced Entertainment were on the undergrad syllabus. Frantic Assembly were par for the course. All chucked in alongside your Churchills and Crimps, your Pinters, Becketts and Kanes. They have graduated, of course, into the middle of a recession. The result is new writing with a wild imagination and real political punch. Roll on 2015.