Beginnings and Endings

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Originally written for Exeunt.

Let’s start with a beginning.

Sitting in the stalls of the newly plastic-swathed Lyric Hammersmith this September, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt such palpable anticipation in the moments before a show. As suggested by the words “Secret Theatre”, most of us in the audience did not know quite what to expect. The curtain was eventually raised to reveal the performers in a line at the back of the stage, dressed in plain white shorts and vests. Accompanied by a sinister, clinical voiceover, these figures rushed forward to drink from bowls of water, scrambling over one another in a desperate, animalistic struggle. What followed might not have been the best show of the year, but it is hard to think of a more memorable opening.

As I attempt to craft some sort of assessment of the year in theatre, the Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre project feels like an apt emblem for the change that is slowly pressing in on multiple sides. This time last year, writing another of these deeply subjective round-ups, I reflected that 2012 felt like a year of “small tectonic shifts”. While those shifts might not have precipitated a violent eruption of change across the landscape of British theatre, the last 12 months have nonetheless seen ripples of movement – just more gradually than perhaps anticipated.

Unlike the noisy, thrilling arrival of Three Kingdoms last year, the changes of 2013 have been subtle and structural, hinting more at future promise than present fulfilment. Chief among these changes is the exciting wave of new artistic directors who have either taken up post or been announced: Vicky Featherstone at the Royal Court, Rupert Goold at the Almeida, Rufus Norris at the National Theatre, Lorne Campbell at Northern Stage, Sam Hodges at the Nuffield. Whether these appointments will really offer the shake-up they hint at is still to be seen – though the early signs of Featherstone’s tenure are encouraging – but the collective urge for new ways of working is clear.

The impetus towards change is also characteristic of one vein of work that has particularly stayed with me this year. The phrase “political theatre” always feels like a misnomer – isn’t all theatre political in some way? – but a clutch of angry, thoughtful and passionate productions in 2013 have dealt specifically with ideas of political change and protest. How to Occupy an Oil Rig playfully explored the demonstration (in every sense), while Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father offered a decidedly personal perspective on protest – almost reducing me to tears in the process. And another kind of activism is at the heart of Bryony Kimmings’ bold and brilliant Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel project, which twice bowled me over with both its raw emotion and the galvanising ambition of its aims.

Elsewhere, the potential for future change was more lightly hinted at. At this year’s Edinburgh Fringe, Dan Hutton and I noted the theme of hope that threaded its way through several of the productions we saw, complicatedly paired with both critique and irony. Contrived as this narrative perhaps is, it is one that has retrospectively haunted many of this year’s shows, inflecting my way of watching and thinking about theatre. From its very explicit presence in what happens to the hope at the end of the evening to its troublesome ghost in The Events, the question of hope has been a key feature of much of the most interesting work I’ve seen over the past 12 months.

Chris Goode's The Forest and The Field ©Richard Davenport

Closely linked to hope is the idea of community, which is often vaunted as being at the heart of theatre as an art form. We share the same space in the theatre, after all, so we must be a community of sorts, right? This was tested in various ways by much of the best theatre of 2013, be it the stunning yet gentle intellectual interrogation of Chris Goode and Company’sThe Forest and the Field or the joyously communal celebration of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – which arguably nailed the whole thing by staging itself in a pub and throwing in some song and dance for good measure.

Similarly to Prudencia Hart, music was a key ingredient of the fleeting community forged night after night in Edinburgh by The Bloody Great Border Ballad Project; food took the same role in Only Wolves and Lions, reminding me of the simple community we build when we cook and eat together. It’s not insignificant that that last example was part of Forest Fringe, a gorgeous instance of transitory artistic community in the midst of this summer’s Edinburgh Fringe. This community also offered up countless other small scale theatrical highlights of the year, among them Ira Brand’s delicate contemplation on ageing, a consideration of our addiction to virtual communities in I Wish I Was Lonely, and Deborah Pearson’s haunting The Future Show.

One show that managed to be both small and epic was Grounded, the absolute standout production of the Fringe for me. The remarkable Lucy Ellinson once again looms large over my theatregoing memories of the year after her compelling delivery of George Brant’s tightly written, blistering monologue, all the while imprisoned within the striking grey cube of Oliver Townsend’s design (as an aside, cubes seemed to be big this year – see Chimerica). Ellinson also dazzled, though very differently, in #TORYCORE, a deafening, devastating scream of rage against the destructive policies of the coalition government.

And it was not only the politicians of today who found themselves criticised in theatres this year. Following the death of Margaret Thatcher, a number of pieces have already directly or obliquely approached her legacy. Theatre503’s quickfire offering of short plays produced a decidedly mixed bag, although Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho’s glorious drag queen rendering of the Iron Lady has deservedly lingered in my memory. The difficulty of discussing Thatcher’s legacy was addressed in all its complexity by Mars.tarrab’s brilliantly titled The Lady’s Not for Walking Like an Egyptian, while perhaps the most striking visual representation of Thatcher came courtesy of Squally Showers, a show that touched on her and her politics only indirectly. Yet somehow, in the image of a performer in a Thatcher mask holding aloft an inflatable globe while surrounded by the detritus of a wild party, Little Bulb wordlessly directed a powerful judgement at the world left to Thatcher’s children.

Little Bulb's Squally Showers

Squally Showers also provided plentiful helpings of sheer joy, a theatrical quality not to be underestimated. Alongside the charming eccentricity of Little Bulb’s latest show, the Edinburgh Fringe also offered the utterly bonkers but irresistibly endearing Beating McEnroe,which will forever leave me with the glorious memory of Jamie Wood pretending to be a tennis ball. An equally joyous moment to imprint itself on my mind this year emerged from Peter McMaster’s Wuthering Heights, in which I screamed with laughter at the four male performers’ move by move recreation of the dance in the Kate Bush music video, while the final scene of rain-drenched anarchy in the RSC’s As You Like It topped off a production that was a delight from start to finish. And no assessment of theatrical joy in 2013 would be complete without pausing to remember Zawe Ashton’s frankly inspired rendition of ‘Where Are We Now?’ in Narrative, a show that achieved the rare feat of being both absolutely hilarious and intellectually meaty.

While it may not fit neatly within the thematic threads I’m attempting to loosely weave through my overview of the year, any consideration of 2013 has to include a mention for Headlong. The company has had a ridiculously successful 12 months, encompassing the slick, stylish storytelling of Chimerica, a bold and theatrically astute new interpretation of The Seagull and – best of all in my opinion – the complete headfuck of Duncan Macmillan and Robert Icke’s stunningly intelligent adaptation of 1984. I’ve missed out on American Psycho,but from the outside it appears to offer a striking end to a fairly extraordinary year for Headlong.

As averse as I am to naming any one production “best”, when looking back over the year I find my mind dragged time and time again back to Mission Drift. For many this hardly counts as a “new” production, having first been seen at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2011, but this summer’s run at the National Theatre’s temporary Shed space was my first opportunity to see The TEAM’s dizzying trip through 400 years of American capitalism. Fast-paced, sexy and beautiful to look at, Mission Drift can also justifiably be described as epic, an adjective that I rarely find myself applying to theatre. Its scope, energy and excitement has become my personal benchmark against which to measure the year’s theatre, and very little in the subsequent months has equalled it.

As I opened this narrative with a beginning, I might as well close with an ending. Looking ahead to 2014, February will see the dismantling of The Shed, whose garish red silhouette on the South Bank has come to stand for vitality and experimentation at the heart of an institution often associated with tradition – as the narrative it spun to celebrate its 50th anniversary did little to challenge. One can only hope that The Shed’s spirit of innovation, together with that of Secret Theatre and Vicky Featherston’s Open Court festival this summer, finds a way to continue into the next 12 months.

I also contributed to a collective look back at 2013’s theatre with the rest of Exeunt’s writers.

Embrace the Shame: Open Court Collaboration

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In a bright rehearsal room in Pimlico, to the faint strains of an opera being rehearsed next door, six actors are pretending to be cats. With feline grace they paw investigatively at a series of cardboard boxes of varying sizes, as one by one they attempt to climb inside. On the other side of the room, notebooks diligently in hand, six writers.

This is just one of the more eccentric exercises on the third day of Anthony Neilson’s two-week workshop programme, part of the Royal Court’s Open Court festival. Under the banner of Collaboration, the aim is to facilitate an environment where playwrights and actors can try ideas out together in the same room, establishing a direct and productive dialogue without the mediation of a director. The structure is built on Neilson’s own way of working, which involves an immediate process of testing his writing in partnership with a group of actors and other creatives; the group perform in and around the text during the day and Neilson goes away to write in the evenings.

Vivienne Franzmann – who only two days ago was anxiously declaring her attachment to rules – has an idea sparked by the simple narrative of purpose seen in YouTube videos of Maru the cat (if you’re not familiar with Maru, Google him – you’re in for a treat). Hoping to develop this into the start of a play, she is able to immediately get actors dancing around the idea. Hence the boxes and the crawling around on all fours.

While the cats are one of the more striking examples, there are lots of other, smaller ways in which this process pushes the writers out of their comfort zones. On the first day, as those gathered in the room fight with jangling nerves, Neilson tells everyone that here “you’re allowed to be shit”. The first constraint to be removed is the need to be good. Instead, this is a space of experimentation and exploration, a space to try out ideas and immediately chuck them on the rubbish heap if necessary – often salvaging them later in the process in another form.

I’m reminded of a comment made by The TEAM’s director Rachel Chavkin in Paulette Douglas’ film about the making of Mission Drift. She talks of the “blood of the dead babies” that seeps up through the stage; all those ideas that were tried out and culled, only to come back to life much further down the line and make their way into the final show. While this two-week sprint is a micro version of the painstaking four-year process behind Mission Drift, the same pattern begins to develop. Seemingly disposable results of early improvisation become the unlikely seeds for future work.

On the first day, the emphasis is very much on establishing familiarity and trust – two essential elements for this way of working, and ones that need to be put in place at ten times the speed of any other rehearsal process. While Anthony has chosen a collection of actors he has worked with before, they are mostly unknown quantities to the playwrights taking part. So on day one there are six writers (Vivienne Franzmann, DC Moore, Janice Okoh, E.V. Crowe, Joel Horwood and Robin French) and six actors (Imogen Doel, Noma Dumezweni, Nathaniel Martello-White, Jonjo O’Neill, Richard Pyros and Sophie Russell) who need to get to know each other. And fast.

Neilson’s solution, after a morning of introductions and talking at length about the project, is to pair up writers and actors at random. Each writer picks an actor’s name out of a hat and proceeds to interview them at a table in front of the rest of the room. Actors are allowed to lie, but they have to respond to anything the writer throws at them, while the writer has the freedom to go as personal or as interrogative as they like. To redirect the emerging narratives and to showcase the actors’ abilities, writers can also throw in accompanying emotions or actions – sad, anxious, drunk, dance.

There are unexpected and often hilarious moments. Imogen Doel spins a giggling story about an unrepentant hit and run; Jonjo O’Neill shares his idea of truth through interpretive dance. But it is also extraordinarily intense. The writers take their role as interviewer increasingly seriously, unafraid to delve deep into personal territory, while the lines of truth and fiction in the actors’ responses are repeatedly blurred. Perched at the edge of the room, the absorbed but uncertain observer, I begin to feel a bit like a voyeuristic cheat. Everyone else has to expose themselves in some way, while I just get to watch.

The phrase that soon jokingly attaches itself to the process is “embrace the shame”. Neilson talks of a shame barrier that has to be broken through in order to progress; actors must be unafraid to make fools of themselves in the improvisations, while writers have to unlearn the self-censorship that comes hand in hand with painstaking rewrites. Everything in this room is raw and immediate. After the interviews, which eat up a surprising amount of the afternoon, the writers are suddenly asked to write something in 15 minutes, which will then be read by the actors. The panic is palpable.

While seemingly just workshop exercises – and Neilson admits that he is no workshop leader, explaining that this process is just as revealing and unfamiliar for him as for anyone else – these early bursts of forced creativity prove integral to the plays that eventually emerge. The end point of this short rehearsal period is a half-hour play from each writer, with the six pieces shown over three nights, though Neilson emphasises that this is about process rather than product. The aim is simultaneously to push the writers into new territory, give them a taste of Neilson’s way of working, and argue for wider use of this process.

And it is a process for which Neilson is a persuasive advocate. At first glance this writing method would seem to shift focus away from the writer, creating a collaborative making process more akin to that of devising companies, but Neilson’s understanding of his way of working is deeply rooted in a belief in the centrality of the playwright. There is collaboration, yes, but the playwright always retains authorship – an idea that, through its tendency to elide the collaborative nature of theatremaking, tends to make me feel a little queasy. By removing the director from the process, Neilson explains, the playwright has a direct connection with actors and designers, forging a tighter unity between the vision of the work and its individual parts. While highly valuing the contributions of the actors, Neilson makes it clear that this process is for the writers – the authors.

This notion of authorship becomes a question mark on the very first day, as I make the perhaps foolish decision to openly reveal my concerns about the concept to a room full of writers. But it feels like a productive question mark to leave hanging over the process; after all, a certain amount of self-reflexivity is only appropriate to a project aimed at making writers reconsider the way in which they work. And there’s no doubt that there is a certain ethical question that dogs this methodology, one that is raised again rather more bluntly by playwright Lucy Prebble in the final post-show Q&A. If others in the room have contributed material, at what point should they be offered a slice of ownership? If a play created in this way went on to be hugely successful, what would the financial model be for distributing the royalties?

It’s a dilemma that the process does not seek to solve, but it remains hovering somewhere in the background throughout. At first there is some uncertainty as to how this all works. Do the writers draw directly from improvisations? How much of the work is really theirs and how much comes from the room? At one point Janice Okoh in particular expresses concern about this, to which Doel (who has worked repeatedly with Neilson) responds: “if you choose it, it’s yours”. A ‘finders, keepers’ philosophy of writing. But then isn’t this how most writing works anyway? Inspiration often comes from somewhere external, and the list of influences on a play throughout its life might run to several pages long. A large part of the writer’s role comes down to selection, structuring and dramaturgy.

Over the course of the two-week process, it becomes clear that this way of working rarely involves large chunks of text lifted verbatim from improvisations. For a start, the rawness of the improvised material rarely lends itself to the page. The fragments that get borrowed by the writers are more often images, the germs of ideas, snatches of emotion. Conversations about children during the day one interviews thrust roots into a number of the pieces in various different ways; E.V. Crowe ends up using the workshop itself as a setting for her distinctly meta offering; Joel Horwood says that as much of his inspiration comes from tea break conversations as from the improvisations.

What the use of improvisation does reveal, however, is how close the roles of writer and actor actually are. As Neilson repeatedly insists, actors are essentially writing when they improvise. They are involved in a similar act of creation, only theirs is rough and immediate rather than meticulously constructed over time. The extraordinary ability of the actors in the room becomes more and more evident over the two weeks, as they reveal an instinctive sense for the direction of a piece as they move within it. They can push at a text and occasionally explode it, in the process revealing new facets. It’s a skill that sits close to writing, but works within a completely different time frame and demands a very different way of thinking. Actors feel their way through the action, moment by moment; writers sit structuring it at one remove.

As important as the use of improvisations as a source of material – perhaps even more important – is the knowledge of their actors that the writers are able to gain through this process. Perhaps one of the key features of the project is that none of the plays it produces could have emerged outside of this room. O’Neill’s ukulele playing skills and Sophie Russell’s tap-dancing both get written into the comedy acts in DC Moore’s play Open Mic, for example, while the presence of sound designer Nick Powell contributes a vital element to a number of the pieces, freeing the playwrights to write in songs or sections that rely on sound rather than words.

Robin French hits on a brilliant analogy for the process in one of the post-show Q&As, describing it as Masterchef vs Ready Steady Cook. Like the finalists on Masterchef agonising over which meal to cook, these writers might usually sit at their desks for months or even years carefully crafting a play. This process, however, has been much more akin to Ready Steady Cook. The writers have a defined set of ingredients and a ticking time limit, producing results that might not be perfect but can be entirely unexpected. Working in her usual way, would Franzmann have written an experimental exploration of the internet? Would Crowe have chosen a fragmented investigation of the very act of writing itself?

More so than content, the form of the writing is particularly affected by this way of working, which was another of Neilson’s aims going into the project. At the Open Court press briefing, he discussed his concern that theatre is not keeping up with the world or the nature of our modern consciousness and suggested that perhaps this process could begin to nudge playwriting towards a form more suited to contemporary life – which it perhaps begins to do. It feels as though there is a tipping point in rehearsals, when Horwood comes in on day three with a spliced narrative that experiments with form and asks the actors to give it a playful series of readings, testing out different stylistic approaches. Suddenly the mood of the room shifts and anything seems up for grabs. Play as script morphs into play as playfulness, and form becomes more and more fluid.

No matter how fragmented, though, there is a structure to how the various different pieces are put together. As he guides the rehearsals, stepping in or backing away according to the temperature of the room, Neilson voices two constant questions: “what is the internal logic of the play?” and “what truth are you trying to tell here?” He contests the inherited wisdom that naturalism is the most logical way of conveying a narrative, countering this with the often surreal subjectivity of lived experience, but he insists that each stage world – however far it departs from reality – must be governed by some logic of its own, some truth of its own. This philosophy chimes with my own feeling that naturalism is not suited for telling every story and that each play should find its own form of expression. Why should naturalism be the default setting for British theatre? Why should collaboration between actors and writers be restricted to devised work and kept fenced off from more ‘traditional’ playwrights? These are the kinds of questions that Neilson’s process insistently asks, gently eroding the accepted structures of how theatre works in this country.

Being “embedded” in this process (to borrow a phrase from Andrew Haydon that seems to have stuck) brings questions of its own. Am I a passive bystander, a witness and documenter, or am I as much a part of the evolving work as anyone else in the room? If I do contribute to the exchange of ideas, how do I reconcile that with my role as observer? The first question is not a question for long, as by my second visit to rehearsals it becomes almost impossible to keep my thoughts to myself. The openness of the room fosters collective thought, teasing out contributions almost involuntarily. I’m careful not to impose myself too strongly on the process, but when I have an opinion I’ll share it. Early on in the process, divisions quickly become fluid and everyone’s thoughts are welcome, as the writers feel their way around the emerging pieces of work.

There’s a definite shift, however, once we move into the upstairs theatre at the Royal Court halfway through the second week. Suddenly, sitting in the multi-coloured bank of chairs while the actors move around the stage, I feel like an audience member, quietly placed back on my usual side of the divide. This reflects the difficulties that the plays face when moved to this space, as some of the moments that felt fiercely alive in the rehearsal room suddenly fall flat. Faced with such a tight timescale, it becomes much more about simply getting the plays to a point at which they can be shown rather than playing with new ideas, and I judge that any thoughts I have at this point, beyond the purely practical, would probably be more destructive than helpful.

Negotiating my role within this process as I dip in and out also requires a consideration of ownership on my part. Especially during those first intoxicating days, it’s easy to become attached to certain ideas and seize on them with excitement. When those ideas fall by the wayside or get taken in a different direction, there is an impulse to fight for them – one that I resist, but it’s sometimes tough. Which raises questions about embedded criticism and the level of involvement that it implies. Is it best for the critic to remain silent and simply observe?

And there’s another question around the level of criticism involved in embedded criticism. This emerges almost immediately, as there is some initial discomfort around my presence in the room and an implicit worry that I will be critiquing what goes on. I’m quick to stress that I’m not there as a critic as such – at least not in the same way as I would be on a press night – but I suppose there is a certain act of criticism always taking place. Like the choices of a photographer or a documentary filmmaker, there is an implied and half-conscious form of criticism in what I choose to focus my lens on. Naturally, certain things capture my interest more than others.

Connected to this focusing of attention, there is also the problem of being an occasional rather than a constant presence. Thanks to conflicts of scheduling, I end up seeing more work from some playwrights than others and (to my great frustration) I miss one of the final showings. I try to spend as much time in the room as possible, but really I only see selected snapshots of the process. Am I then qualified to comment on something when I’ve only seen a part of it? After all, I would never review a show that I had missed more than half of.

My solution, following the writers, is to embrace subjectivity. At some point I make the decision not to write about the final pieces produced by the playwrights, because it seems wrong to see them as final. I would probably contest the idea that any piece of theatre is truly finished, but in this instance more than usual it feels disingenuous to write about the work in a way that fixes it. The Collaboration project was always about process rather than product, a set of priorities that it seems only right to honour and reflect. What I can share, reflect on and question is only my experience of that process – a process which, from my point of view, seemed quietly transformational for the writers involved, suggesting exciting possibilities for more open ways of working.

But mine is only one window on the rehearsal room – and a limited one at that. As I consider my lack of objectivity, I’m reminded again of Neilson’s constant guiding question, directed at increasingly exhausted yet exhilarated writers as they reached for what their work might be trying to say. What is the truth? And so I suppose, in a sense, this is my truth.

Open Court, Royal Court Theatre

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Originally written for Exeunt.

In each week of the Open Court festival, the downstairs space at the Royal Court is dominated by a huge wooden crate. As the house lights go down on the latest weekly rep offering, Chloe Lamford’s design is a closed box, a sealed-off world within a world. But almost as soon as the action begins, this box tips open, its sides dramatically tumbling down. It’s hard to imagine any better visual metaphor for what is happening at the Royal Court under new artistic director Vicky Featherstone.

Lamford and her design team must also take the credit for much of the transformation elsewhere at the Court, where Featherstone’s giddy promises of playfulness are translated into bright splashes of colour. The bar, once gloomily sophisticated, is now a riot of yellows, blues and greens. One whole wall is given over to an image of a bright green hedge, while paper lanterns glow overhead and the childish mischief of the summer festival finds its expression in a big blackboard covered with multi-coloured magnetic letters. Burgers and chips are the order of the day.

The atmosphere being cultivated in the early weeks of Featherstone’s tenure, in which she has boldly handed the keys to the writers, is one of both opening up and discovery. No longer is the drama confined to the two auditoriums, as yellow and red tags offer up brilliant ‘found plays’ for curious passersby (which can also be discovered online, if you have a few hours to kill). Lost in Theatre, meanwhile, offers a truly new perspective on the Court, inviting audiences into its unexplored nooks and crannies. I have yet to find the time to get lost myself, but the bright circles on the floor enticingly beckon me every time I’m there, calling visitors into the unseen depths of the theatre.

In the work itself, the aesthetic is rough, raw and exciting – and, as a result, slapdash. With the need for polish stripped away, there is the room for both thrilling discovery and messy execution. What I’ve seen of the weekly rep shows is a decidedly mixed bag, unleashing a frighteningly skilled ensemble on a pair of underwhelming plays. Lasha Bugadze’s The President Has Come to See Youcertainly kicks off proceedings in the right spirit, with Featherstone’s production and the excellent cast lending a shambolic energy to this bonkers Georgian satire. It would probably help to be acquainted with the Georgian politics being skewered, but in this festival context the freshness and excitement of it all is just about enough to carry it – even if the references do fall a little flat.

The second rep show, Lucas Hnath’s Death Tax, fares less well. Hnath’s string of dense scenes asks big, uncomfortable questions about an ageing population, but the play as a whole feels uneven and full to the point of bursting. Everyone talks too much. There are important issues being chewed over here, such the consequences of life-extending medicine, the privileges money can buy and the selfishness of what motivates us – “no one does something for nothing”, we are repeatedly reminded – but this could almost be several different plays. The cast, however, do their best to inject some life into the lengthy scenes, and it remains extraordinary what everyone involved has managed to pull together in just a week.

One of the most exciting elements of Open Court is also mixed, but it makes up for its patchy variety with glorious unpredictability. Surprise Theatre is just what it says it is: it offers its viewers a genuine surprise. In an information-saturated age when we are used to going into the theatre armed with endless details, it’s novel and disarming to be confronted with the unknown in this way. The configuration of the Theatre Upstairs (once again, credit to Lamford) also plays with this novelty, continuing the colour that is splattered throughout the building and concealing each night’s surprise behind mocking red velvet curtains.

The first offering, Cakes and Finance, is a bold and exciting gesture, immediately asking questions about what a theatre building is and what it should be. In a verbatim piece of sorts, Mark Ravenhill reads from interviews with a number of playwrights about their ideal theatre – from plush red seats to a building without walls. While none of the subsequent surprises I’ve seen have quite met the brilliance of this opener, there are some genuinely startling moments; Lauren O’Neill’s delivery of the final, punishing monologue in Sarah Daniels’Masterpieces administers a bruising blow to the gut, while scenes of piercing poignancy and fierceness emerge from The Ship’s Name, put together by a collection of writers of Somali and Eritrean descent. As a viewer, there is also something particularly engaging about feeling one’s way through a piece without any props (the supporting kind, though the theatrical kind are also in short supply), demanding an active act of spectatorship.

Just in case the festival as a whole was not already engaging sufficiently with what the Royal Court as a theatre might mean and might be able to say, the weekly Big Idea pushes playwrights into addressing the important questions – sex, age, death. Alongside these timeless themes, a more obviously timely subject is found in PIIGS, the acronym referring to five of the countries hit hardest by the eurozone crisis: Portugal, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Spain. Pairing writers from each of these countries with their British counterparts, the five nights of theatre engage with the realities of everyday life for those living on the front line of austerity.

The offering from Ireland, penned by Deirdre Kinahan and Kieran Hurley, feels terrifyingly close to home – and not just in the geographical sense. While Ireland is suffering more than the UK, the plight and the conversations feel familiar, if heightened. Around two compassionate, funny but ultimately stark pieces by Kinahan and Hurley, about an attempted protest at an Irish school facing cuts and the erecting of fake shop fronts in Northern Ireland during the G8 respectively, the pair have made the powerful choice to incorporate a selection of verbatim interviews. Their interviewees range from a financial journalist who quotes debt figures to make the eyeballs bulge, to a woman reduced to selling everything and uprooting her family’s life to Canada. The numbers baffle, but the stories move.

Coming full circle to that gesture of opening up, it is also important to acknowledge how much of this work is being made available beyond the four walls of the Royal Court. Each of the Surprise Theatre shows is being broadcast live online on Mondays and Tuesdays and left on the website to view on demand, while the Royal Court Soap Opera collides theatre and television in a series of nightly episodes that can be streamed online – not to mention the treasure trove that is the Found Plays website. While such initiatives always carry the potential danger of eroding the live moment, Featherstone’s intention seems to have less to do with the theatrical event than with the building hosting it, a building that appears increasingly open. Perhaps because of her time operating a building without walls with the National Theatre of Scotland, under Featherstone the walls of the Court suddenly seem a lot less containing.

Photo: Helen Murray.

Secrets and Surprises

Originally written for Exeunt.

As our huddled group of partygoers shudder upwards in an industrial lift, headed towards the Lyric Hammersmith’s secrecy-veiled launch, a woman behind me compares the experience to seeing a show by Shunt or Punchdrunk. There’s that same sense of an event, of the unexpected. Walking across Lyric Square, we’ve been directed around the side of the building, to its concealed, warehouse-like innards. While waiting in this space, we have an opportunity to see the building – and our relationship with it – from a different angle. The very walls seem to shift.

Artistic director Sean Holmes’ plans for the Lyric over the next few months, announced on Monday night, are about transforming the theatre from within as much as from without. At the same time as the building itself is completely renovated in a huge capital project, a group of theatremakers are occupying its heart. The auditorium, which will remain untouched for the duration of the building work, is to become the flexible home of Secret Theatre, which is exactly what its name suggests. In a bold and teasing move, the Lyric is not releasing any details of the plays it will be producing over the next year; instead, audiences will come to be surprised.

But this is not simply about returning a sense of the unexpected to the theatrical event in a society saturated with information. Mirroring the work that is taking place around them, the Secret Theatre company are engaged in challenging and changing structures. Resisting the rapid turnaround of an industry used to dishing up end products and swiftly moving on, the company of ten actors and ten creatives will be working together in the space throughout the year, collaboratively making and performing and sharing. As Holmes put it in his speech, “the company we have assembled is an attempt to create a new structure that might lead to a new type of work”.

There are a number of ways in which Secret Theatre is shifting the structures of how the Lyric – and many other institutions like it – make theatre. The ensemble of actors is evenly split between men and women and includes black and disabled performers. This immediately erodes the structure of literalism, which has become something of a straitjacket for much British theatre. The set-up is also designed to create a different conversation in the rehearsal room, allowing those involved more time to create work in true collaboration and for a specific space. One niggle is that everyone involved is still assigned a rigidly defined title – writer, director, actor – but one suspects that in rehearsal these roles will be much more fluid.

Surrounded by the vivid red of the Secret Theatre launch party, I’m reminded of the similar injection of colour that has just been administered to the Royal Court by new artistic director Vicky Featherstone. Even the bar is bursting with yellows, reds, blues and greens. The Court is another established building whose existing structures are being challenged, in this case thanks to a sharp burst of fresh air that Featherstone is blasting through the theatre over the summer. Open Court, while guided by different principles and very much organised around playwrights, cultivates a similar atmosphere of experimentation and surprise. The sense is that anything could happen.

As Andrew Haydon notes, it’s clear that, even without the kind of construction work taking place at the Lyric, Featherstone has given careful thought to the building she’s inherited. As well as the changes to the bar, which now feels like a place you might actually want to hang out in without worrying you aren’t wearing the right shoes, the season itself kicked off with a telling reflection on the theatre building. In the first “Surprise Theatre” offering, Cakes and Finance, Mark Ravenhill read from the transcripts of a series of playwrights talking about their ideal theatre, musing on everything from the idea of 24-hour theatre to the suggestion that cats should be incorporated into more performances (surely one of Chris Goode’s contributions).

Alongside the obvious similarities between Open Court’s surprise shows and the secrecy around the Lyric’s new season, there are other shared experiments. Like Secret Theatre, the main house plays during Open Court are operating using a rep system (which is as much a return to the past as a new innovation), with an ensemble of actors rehearsing next week’s show by day while performing this week’s show at night. In some ways this offers the complete opposite of the Lyric’s project, driving at energy and a quick turnover of plays rather than extended rehearsal periods, but it equally fosters that sense of the collective at the same time as bringing a vital roughness back to the stage. Also, while the gesture of Open Court honours the mythology of the Royal Court’s status as “the writers’ theatre” – a mythology that Featherstone’s launch announcement was drenched in – this has been done in such a way that it explodes in the same movement in which it preserves. Clever.

And it’s not just these two venues. While exciting developments have been pushing at the outside for years, it feels increasingly as though some change is beginning to seed itself on the inside. I think of the scarlet structure of the National Theatre Shed, shouting its presence on the South Bank – again, a dash of colour – and of the ongoing developments at Battersea Arts Centre, as it too undergoes building work that will open it and its brilliant work out even further to the surrounding community. It’s not everything, and there’s a definite danger of getting carried away and falling back into complacency, but it is a start. Perhaps most importantly, there’s a rare and much-needed whiff of optimism in the air.

To encapsulate some of that optimism, it feels right to conclude with Holmes’ galvanising words from Monday night. Speaking about the vision for Secret Theatre, he expressed his hope “that even if you hate it, you can’t ignore it. That even if you love it, it scares you. That you will believe it’s an honest attempt to change. To delight. To question.”