An Innately Optimistic Profession

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Originally written for Exeunt.

At the close of his introduction to the latest book in the Methuen Modern British Playwriting series, Andrew Haydon departs on a distinctly optimistic note. Surveying British theatre at the end of the 2000s, he sees a landscape of possibilities, looking towards a “future where old divisions between ‘New Work’ and ‘New Writing’ had turned into fertile breeding grounds for collaboration” and “where a progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty had begun to replace condescension and refusal”.

Almost halfway through the decade following that with which the book concerns itself, the barrier between ‘New Writing’ and ‘New Work’ – although productively challenged – has not entirely dissolved, while continued funding cuts pose a threat for that “progressive spirit of inquiry and confident uncertainty”. But what comes through strongly, both in the period discussed by the book and the years since, is an increasing spirit of collaboration, as pointed to by Haydon. Faced with the rise of new forms and shifting understandings of the relationship between theatre and its audiences, a number of contemporary British playwrights have adapted their practice accordingly, embracing new and varied ways of working.

Two prime examples, both discussed in Methuen’s volume, are Simon Stephens and David Greig. As Jacqueline Bolton points out in her excellent chapter on Stephens’ work, his prolific output is “distinguished by a willingness and enthusiasm to work collaboratively”. Perhaps his most striking collaboration is that with German director Sebastian Nübling, which Ramin Gray has suggested is unique, but beyond this he has a sustained interest in opening up his writing. Stephens has spoken on many occasions about how his encounters with other theatre cultures and artists – and, indeed, with critics – have invigorated his practice. Talking to me in a recent interview, he described his plays as “the starting point of a conversation between myself and a director, a director and a cast of actors, director and artistic team, artistic director and a director, and then artistic collaboration and an audience”. The play is not the thing; it’s a point of departure.

Bolton’s chapter goes one step further by linking Stephens’ interest in and commitment to collaboration with the recurrent preoccupations of his writing. While many have noted the bleakness and brutality of the worlds Stephens puts on stage (with the help of his collaborators, of course), Bolton sees instead – or, rather, in addition – a compassion for his subjects and a genuine quest for communication and understanding. This chimes with the spirit of collaboration pursued in Stephens’ work; as Bolton puts it, “To work collaboratively is, after all, to affirm the importance and significance of truth, of respect and of generosity”. This can be supported by Stephens’ own assertion that theatre is “an innately optimistic profession”.

Greig’s work has an equally complex relationship with optimism, as The Events knottily demonstrated last year. He has also worked in a number of different ways, with an output that ranges from shows created through devising processes to the libretto for the musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; from plays for children to epic, abstract, internationally focused pieces. In her chapter for the Methuen collection, Nadine Holdsworth describes him as “deeply invested in the possibilities of the collective imagination, pursuing ideas across different media as well as linguistic and stylistic boundaries”. He shares with Stephens an interest in travel as a narrative theme and an openness to different collaborations.

Similarly to Bolton, Holdsworth moves away from a familiar critical narrative about Greig’s work – in this case, his engagement with Scottish national identity – and chooses to focus on the “passionate internationalism” of his plays. Her analysis opens up a consideration of how Greig offers audiences different perspectives on the world, positing brief and delicate moments of communication across seemingly irreconcilable cultures. While this is not her primary concern, her study also reveals Greig’s willingness to experiment with structure and storytelling, clashing together different theatrical styles and techniques, and how through this process the playwright often questions his own authorial status in the creation of his plays.

Some of these ideas, which I have only briefly sketched out above, will be discussed further at two upcoming symposia in Lincoln and Brighton, addressing the work of Greig and Stephens respectively. The University of Lincoln’s David Greig symposium at the end of this month will feature papers examining a wide range of different aspects of Greig’s work, including the role of dissonance, empathy and conflict in his plays, the way in which he deals with questions of place and nationality, his engagement with Scottish identity and the independence debate, and the historical dimension of his work.

At a separate symposium at the University of Sussex in April, meanwhile, scholars will be engaging with Stephens’ plays and in particular his dialogue with Europe. I’m looking forward to making a contribution of my own to this conversation, with a paper exploring how Stephens’ work in Germany has shifted his perspective on British theatremaking processes and the implications this might have for our own theatre culture. As Stephens has suggested, “when we travel abroad we see our home with a clarity that we may never have been offered before”, offering him an intriguingly distanced view of British theatre.

It feels important that events such as these carry on the conversation, provoking the sort of new insights into these playwrights’ work that they both habitually seek. The best we can hope for is, to return to Haydon’s words, “a progressive spirit of inquiry”.

The University of Lincoln’s one day symposium on the work of David Greig is being held on 29th March. Registration is now open here.

 The University of Sussex’s symposium on Simon Stephens’ connection with Europe will take place on 30th April 2014.

Photo:Stephen Cummsikey.

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