Interview: Aleks Sierz
Author, In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today
If you asked someone who does theatre - pundit or player - to give you a name they connect with theatre, they'll probably name someone from three categories: actor, director or writer. And their answer - judged by category alone - would say something about them, about how they approach theatre, and how they place themselves in the interaction between audience and stage.
I'll come clean here. I'd go with writers every time. This is because, although I know the limitations of theatrical space and I am under no illusion about theatre changing the world, I am also convinced that changes in theatre have been almost exclusively the province of writers. This is a result of a natural equation: writers think and actors act. It is a crucial, powerful combination and one that demands the writer's ideas take centre stage.
Between the writer's intention and the audience's reaction something should kick inside, instinctively in the gut, intellectually in the head. Good theatre should produce powerful lucid criticism from every quarter:
Martin Esslin opened his 1961 study of the theatre of the absurd with the reaction of a San Quentin prison audience to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot. Aleks Sierz opens his 2000 study of what he has termed 'In-Yer-Face Theatre' with the Pleasance audience's reaction to Peter Rose's Snatch in 1998. Sierz describes it as 'one of those moments when you feel that a new sensibility has become the norm in British theatre'. This new sensibility arose out of, and was articulated through, what Sierz has described as In-Yer-Face (IYF) Theatre.
Sierz defines this phenomenon of 1990s British avant-garde theatre as 'the ruling sensibility of the 90s as far as theatre was concerned'. It was new, fresh and kicked the complacent arse of a silted-up theatrical sensibility:
'You pick up any play text from the 90s and it's different from what was written 10 or 20 years before. It's a sensibility. In a sense all the discussions that we could possibly have about using bad language, about nudity, about shock itself, are actually beside the point. These plays were shocking because the sensibility was new, not necessarily because what was shown on stage was particularly taboo smashing, particularly worrying, or particularly difficult to stomach. It was because of that newness. A part of that newness was rawness; part of it was that these young people seemed to mean business.'
In Sierz's opinion, what was essential to this kick up the 90s was not the shock-value of four-letter words, or the exhibitionist thrill of thespians getting their kit off. What was essential was the writer, a particular and enduring strength of British theatre.
'But shock isn't the most important thing. The reason I developed the idea of IYF theatre was partly to bring back the writer to the centre of the theatre process. In other words, the really good thing about British theatre is not its actors, directors or mime artists - it's the writers. It's one thing that the Brits are really good at, writing for theatre. I heard a statistic the other day that between 600 and 700 people in Britain earn a living through writing for stage, TV, radio and film. That's a lot. No other European country has anything near that number of people who earn a living in that way. At no other point in history, not even Elizabethan or Jacobean times, would you have had so many writers who earned a living from writing. It's a unique thing. I really hate lots of things about Britain, but I rejoice in the fact that we have so many writers. And, what's more, it's writers that have saved British theatre whenever it has faced a crisis.'
The idea of thousands of writers working out ideas in the wee small hours, striving to illuminate, to provoke, to say with talent the way it is or to clash with genius opposing ideas, is enough to warm the very cockles of my heart. But I have lingering doubts. There is something in the shock value, the trawling through the very worst aspects of humanity, the dredging up of the literal and psychological grit-and-shit of life that is the legacy of 1990s IYF theatre and is now part of the lexicon of alternative or fringe theatre. There is something in all of this that I find as indulgent and futile as a toddler spitting out his birthday cake.
Is this right? Were the 1990s IYF writers brats who wanted to bite, while we quietly enjoyed - indeed needed - their gnashing of jaws for a while? Or was there a sustained re-birth in theatre writing in the 1990s through the risks that IYF writers were prepared to take, and the talent and energy they brought to the skuzzy end of theatre?
Sierz is convinced of the special synergy of that last relationship, between talented writer and intimate venue, 'I passionately believe that for the most intense theatre you need a small venue, a small audience - maybe a hundred maximum - and very close proximity to the action, a kind of a hot venue'.
He cites the particular case of Mark Ravenhill and Shopping and Fucking: 'Most people graduate from unsubsidised fringe very rapidly if they've got talent. Mark Ravenhill is a really good example. One of his first shows was on at the Finborough, a very small fringe theatre that became more important than its size would lead you to expect because of people like Mark putting on their first shows there. The story goes like this.
Mark does a ten minute piece called Fist. He invites Max Stafford-Clark, the legendary director from the Royal Court, who's now head of Out of Joint Theatre Company, to come and see it. Max is immensely impressed, asks 'Have you got a full length play?', Mark says 'yes'. He hasn't, but he goes away and writes Shopping and Fucking. That's produced at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, a tiny venue of 60 seats; if you like, the bourgeois fringe, where people like me go to see it. And then it is put on downstairs at the Royal Court's main stage. Then it goes to the West End. Mark writes a few more shows, and he is now at the National Theatre as an associate under Nick Hytner's new regime. So he's just travelled all the way up.'
Talent shows and talent matters. Sierz is very good and very right in pinpointing the talent pyramid through which playwrights progress from the chicken sheds of fringe, to a position of real influence on the national stage. You only get there if you're good. What you do when you're there, that's another matter. What is paramount throughout is a respect for the audience, a need for the audience to 'get it', to be pulled into the action that the writer has instigated on stage.
'IYF theatre is about the relationship between stage and audience; it's not about using bad language or showing atrocity. It's about that relationship being communicated at a very heightened emotional level. It's a bit like punk rock. A lot of young writers I have spoken to say that they want theatre to be as exciting as a gig. That was their project.'
Once again, my teeth start to clench a little and I am torn between agreement and alarm. Yes, to the relationship between stage and audience. Yes, to that relationship being communicated. This inevitably involves a stilling of the mind, a giving in to the action on stage. It is a theatre that has ideas, but is not clever-clever in the articulation of those ideas. IYF theatre had an experiential edge to it that took you by the throat.
'Sarah Kane distinguished between two kinds of theatre, which you could illustrate through body language. There is speculative theatre, where you can lean back, and think, Mmm, that's an interesting idea, let's talk about that later. Then there is the kind of theatre where you are crouched forward, following, and almost unable to breath, something that's happening in front of you. She called it experiential; I think it's a good label.'
But I detect a danger here. The notion of theatre as experience, teamed with 'heightened emotional level' and 'punk rock', signal that brattish me, me, me, element that I fear in any 20th century art, not just theatre. If we put the writer centre stage, what are we doing? Privileging the precious experience of the individual, the through-the-glass-darkly soul that is different and tortured and celebrated for nothing else? Or are we putting the writer centre stage because of their ability to clear a space in which something happens that is from them, but not about them, not even theirs - we watch when a good writer dominates this space because they say something on the stage that most people can't, because they are the best and most challenging writers of their generation? I hope it is the latter.
Sarah Kane is the best argument about why I am right to hope that we celebrate writers as writers and not as individuals. She was a brilliant, poetic writer blighted by a serious illness in life and by people who cannot distinguish between the writer and the individual in death. Sierz's commitment to the writer is eloquent and enlightening when he talks about Sarah Kane's work (he was in correspondence with her at the time of her death), and about its posthumous reception. At the centre of this is the writer, and the task and discipline of writing.
'There is this sense that because she killed herself she really meant what she wrote and that is equally unhelpful. It's also a bad example to young writers, because it does imply that if you feel something desperately all you have to do is write from the gut and you will be a hero, a saint, a visionary. That is a total delusion.
The weird thing about Sarah Kane's work is that it feels incredibly personal and it feels that it has been torn from the gut. But in reality, if you talk to anyone who knew her, it was the product of continual and extensive re-writing. It was the product of sitting on your ass all fucking night and smoking and re-writing the same thing until you've got it right. There is nothing spontaneous about Kane's work. It's the product of a great research into past theatre writing and also a really conscious writing for the future. If you look at Blasted - I've seen early drafts of it - you can see that as she re-drafted she took out the references that would have made the piece too time or place specific: for example, she took out a lot of specific reference to Bosnia. She had a sense of a piece of work that could transcend time and place.
Sarah Kane was a critical and rational writer. She also had a very short career. In a sense, she killed herself when she was still a young writer, who'd been working for less than ten years, and famous for only five of them. Her achievement, the fact that each play is radically different in form and yet very similar in sensibility, is so impressive and the rawness and energy of her writing is so powerful that we forget that she's not perfect. If you take her seriously as a writer, you soon find things that are less than perfect.
In Blasted, for example, in the writing there is a contradiction between the social realism of lines like 'Sarky little tart this morning, aren't we?' and the more Beckettian bits, like Ian's offhand 'You have kids, they grow up, they hate you and you die'. That feels like a defect in tone. Similarly, in 4.48 Psychosis, there are some passages which make me cringe because they are so juvenile and so full of self-regarding teenage angst - so pretentious. And that's bad writing. I think it does Kane no favour to overpraise her - if you really love her work, you have to assess it critically.'
The call to the intelligent critic is what distinguishes theatre that is writer-centred from other theatre. As the thought-provoking criticism of Beckett's Waiting for Godot in the San Quentin News stands alone in its eloquence and insight, with no need to say 'But a prisoner wrote this...', so Kane's work should provoke and inspire without the need to say 'But a mad person wrote this...' The best writing has the ability to take us outside of ourselves, and make great critics of us all.