Rewriting the Nation, British Theatre Today by Alex Sierz – Review

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On my recent holiday, one of the books (I’ve not got a Kindle or iPad, old school I know) I took was the above. Alex Sierz book In Yer Face Theatre, is the definitive book looking at British theatre in the nineties. I was hoping his latest book would fill a similar need to look back and comment on the “noughties “, which has been a varied and interesting decade for British theatre.

He starts out with an informative introduction, and a chapter on the context of modern British theatre, which is very helpful. Then he leads us into his personal definitions of “New Writing”. It’s his book and so it’s really helpful that he so clearly sets out his understandings and definitions. Personally I’m not sure I’d agree with what I feel is his narrow definition of new writing. For example he decides that plays writing about history are not “new writing”. I also totally disagree with his views on Alan Bennett’s The History Boys, there WERE (and perhaps still are!) schools like that. My own grammar school being a point in case. I had a lecture with Alex Sierz at a college study weekend a while ago and remember chatting to him there regarding new writing, I’ll certainly have some more to discuss with him the next time.

Even if you don’t agree with his definition of new writing, I commend him for stating it clearly and can understand his reasons. It also helps to keep the book focused rather than getting too unwieldly.

Part two covers various themes in British theatre over the last 10 years; Globalisation, Market Forces, Class divides, Relationships, Sexuality and an illuminating chapter on plays that look at our world from alternative realities. This part is superb, with references to an amazing gamut of plays, Alex Sierz draws out themes, observations and comments and gives a brilliant “birds eye view” of what British Theatre has been doing and saying over the last ten years.

My only gripe is his incessant praise and sycophantic comments on Martin Crimp, Mark Ravenhill and Philip Ridley. On reading yet another sentence about how brilliant they are, I wanted to scream “Ok, I get it, you like them!”. However I really don’t think he offers any grounding as to why they are so “good”. admittedly I’m biased as I don’t think their work is very good (although I agree with Alex Sierz on Caryl Churchill – my own views on her work changing in the last 12 months, and Sarah Kane). Unfortunately I feel a book like this will only continue to propagate the idea that this trinity of Crimp/Ravenhill/Ridley are the greatest British playwrights. It’s Alex Sierz book and he’s entitled to his views obviously, but I felt too often the book read as a tract promoting them to the expense of other British playwrights.

I really loved the conclusion where he again skillfully gives us an overview of what British theatre has been saying and I was struck how he also points out what it HAS NOT been saying. I found this very refreshing, as he points out, there may well have been right-wing playwrights who’ve written plays, but as the ethos of the major producing theatres is liberal/left-wing, perhaps the British theatre world is self censoring itself? I too agree that it seems odd that certain themes or views on them appear to be absent from British theatre during the last 10 years, I find it hard to think of the 20,000 or so new scripts the theatres that literary departments receive each year, none(or very few) have dealt with, the house-price boom, the ethics of choosing schools, global warming (although 2011 seems to have changed that with Greenland at the NT and The Heretic at Royal Court). As Alex Sierz says;

“Who spoke up for ordinary middle-class couples doing ordinary middle-class things?” 

 He goes on to add;  “The irony is that, in the final analysis, those theatres that were so proud of being cutting edge were often offering something very like escapism: gritty plays about poor people on council estates could be as unchallenging as a feelgood musical.” 

He’s not afraid to praise all that has been good in the last ten years, but likewise to point an informed finger at where there have been shortcomings or blind spots.

If you are a student of theatre or a practitioner, I’d say this is essential reading, likewise if you have an interest in theatre, this will certainly throw light on current trends in British theatre. As a reference work it’ll be invaluable and it also brought a large number of plays to my attention that I’ve noted down and will be working my way through their scripts to see what I think of them. I’ll certainly re-read this, he writes in a very accessible style with some laugh out loud descriptions. Whilst I don’t agree with everything, I love the fact that Alex Sierz gets me thinking “why do I disagree/agree/feel this way”. The other key point is Alex Sierz has seen these plays, he’s been involved in British theatre over the last ten years. It is invaluable book and well worth reading and pondering over.

I was fortunate to read this book in gorgeous sunshine on the banks of The Rhone, if only all the books I read could be completed in this way!

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One thought on “Rewriting the Nation, British Theatre Today by Alex Sierz – Review

  1. Pingback: Love, Love, Love by Mike Bartlett – Royal Court Theatre – Review | Theatre Thoughts Blog

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