It is difficult to judge the longevity of new playwrights; in hindsight, we can easily say how great William Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett were. Even those who would not consider themselves theatre-lovers will have heard of such big names, even if only because they were forced to study them at school. From our experience in the Tribe Theatre team, people our age struggle to name contemporary British playwrights who emerged in the ’90s or in the twenty-first century; playwrights who will perhaps one day have a reputation akin to that of Wilde, for all we know.
In attempt to raise awareness of and interest in the contemporary theatre scene, the team has compiled a selection of six playwrights who have emerged or written mainly since 2000. These are only a tiny proportion of the number of new playwrights out there, but they make a good taster of what to look out for.
Gregory Burke. Gregory Burke had only been at Stirling University for two years before he was kicked out for attacking a fellow student; he had been studying economics and politics. Ten years on his first play Gagarin Way was taking the Edinburgh Fringe by storm. Burke hadn’t even been to the theatre when he first penned Gagarin Way. Thanks to the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, taking the debut writer on he was launched into the limelight. But it wasn’t until Black Watch debuted at the Fringe in 2006 that Burke’s career reached unprecedented heights. A gritty yet poignant portrayal of the Iraq War based on interviews with former soldiers, Black Watch raked in awards from The List, The South Bank Show, The Herald and The Scotsman along with four CATS and four Oliviers. His most recent play, Hoors, is a black comedy on a smaller scale. It centres on the fiancée of a man who died on his stag weekend through sheer overindulgence, as she and friends pay their respects to the deceased, Andy. Burke’s starkly realistic plays, with their redeeming humour, are set to mark him out as an astute and amusing chronicler of a time of international recession and half-understood wars.
Anya Reiss. Anya Reiss is flavour of the month after her award winning Spur of the Moment took audiences by storm last summer at The Royal Court. The now 19-year-old was the youngest playwright to have ever staged a play in London; having written the script at just 17, the innovative Royal Court achieved their goal of supporting emerging young talent. Reiss’s debut was a delicate look at the relationship between a 12-year-old girl and the 21-year-old lodger of her parents, with the audience being manipulated into feeling sympathy for the older boy. The entire production was wonderful, with a great set, transforming the upper level of The Royal Court into a two storey house. All of the young actors involved brought vibrancy to their skilful portrayals of the characters and 20-year-old Aisling Loftus, who made her professional stage debut as the girlfriend of the lodger told The Tribe, ‘Anya was a wonderful person to work with, and her flexible approach to the script ensured we were all travelling in the same direction.’ Reiss wrote a monologue for the Danny Boyle directed Dramatic Need at The Old Vic Theatre, and is currently writing for television.
Jez Butterworth. Watching the creative endeavours of a Somerset pig farmer, who credits dog walking with his best writing is not an obvious choice for wonderful theatre. Jez Butterworth, however, writes about British life quite distinct from the picture of his own twee idyll. Butterworth’s recent and astonishingly successful play Jerusalem, which opened at The Royal Court in July 2010, was expletive, sexually charged and exciting. The play married the grotty realities of explosive social and personal struggles with romantic and mythical Arthurian legend. Set on St George’s Day the play captures something astoundingly modern and British. Butterworth’s writing, though sporadic, has seen great critical reception. His darkly comic style and irrepressibly energetic writing make his insights highly entertaining. His first theatre success (and third play) Mojo opened at The Royal Court in 1995 and was hailed as the greatest debut there in the last 50 years. Since then, The Winterling and The Night Heron were both debuted at The Royal Court, but without the enthusiasm for his work that has been rightly reinstated. Butterworth is something of a man of the moment in theatre, and as he says, ‘Anyone who says theatre’s rubbish doesn’t know what the fuck they’re talking about.’
Polly Stenham. When Dominic Cooke took over artistic direction at The Royal Court Theatre in 2007 he promised to not only continue the Young Writers Programme – set up in 1998 by then artistic director Ian Rickson – but to move it forward. With this promise came the idea of staging any strong new play which came out of the Young Writers Programme, and this promise was first fulfilled with 20-year-old Polly Stenham’s That Face which opened that year. It centred on a manipulating mother in a crumbling middle class family struggling to cope with a world in which the adults were not the guardians they were supposed to be. That Face was a massive critical success and transferred to the West End and has since been performed internationally. Following this formula, Stenham’s next play Tusk Tusk again centred on a dysfunctional family in which the children were forced to take control, and premiered at The Royal Court. Tusk Tusk saw some incredibly strong performances from a Georgia Groome on top form and a mesmerising Bel Powley. Stenham’s two plays to date definitely denote her as a playwright to keep an eye on.
Mark Haddon. A couple of years ago, the acclaimed author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time and A Spot of Bother turned his hand to playwriting: in April 2010, the Donmar Warehouse, London, debuted Mark Haddon’s first play, Polar Bears. It is still his only play to date, and like his novels, deals with mental health issues, in this case bipolar disorder. The play tells the story of husband and wife, John and Kay, and John’s gradually failing attempts to live patiently with Kay’s psychological condition. It is an emotionally intense play, to say the least; there is little, if anything, to smile about during it, and critics across the board did hail it as too depressing. As an artistic work, it is well-crafted and challenging to the audience (or reader), and certainly does not lack significant intelligence in its composition. Haddon had wanted to write a play for a long time, and although he described the process as ‘bloody hard’ in his blog, he claims he ‘couldn’t be more pleased’ with the result. Despite the lack of enthusiasm from the critics, I would recommend keeping an eye on Haddon; perhaps with more practice his plays could live up to his novels.
Dennis Kelly. Dennis Kelly writes for both film and television and most recently wrote the book for the RSC’s production of Matilda the Musical. Despite Kelly’s style not being typically child friendly, his script for Matilda was nothing short of wonderful, and in 2007 he successfully wrote a play for The National Theatre’s Connections Festival for young people across the country – DeoxyriboNucleic Acid (DNA). There seems to be no end to both his talent and his range. In television he is well-known for his work on BBC3 sitcom Pulling. In theatre, one of his most recent outputs was alongside Anya Reiss in The Old Vic’s Dramatic Need. His first play Brendan’s Visit arrived in 1997 and since then he has gone on to write Debris (2003), Osama the Hero (2005), After the End (2005, with an international tour in 2006), Love and Money (2006), Taking Care of Baby (2007), and Orphans, which appeared in 2009 and transferred from the Birmingham Rep to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Dennis Kelly’s work has been produced in over 20 countries, and with Orphans surpassing even the strongest of his earlier work, he looks set to continue dominate our stages.
Image credit: Ben Sutherland on Flickr Creative Commons