Shy and hard-hitting playwrights left the theater to survive

Countering the gloom: Prima Facie was a West End triumph with Jodie Comer playing a lawyer in psychological freefall – Empire Street Productions/Helen Murray

It was a year of great drama: political unrest, financial upheaval, energy crisis, runaway fears about the climate, end of reign and war in Europe. Overshadowed by world events, how has British theater responded? No, it must be said, with the greatest distinction. Its slowness has been particularly disconcerting when it comes to Ukraine. There were exceptions – the small but committed Finborough Theater in west London, staged by Ukrainian writers – but, given the scale of the nightmare, it feels like British theater has given a collective shrug of helpless concern.

Donmar’s Henry V opened in March, days after a Russian invasion that had been anticipated for months. Kit Harington lent Shakespeare’s hero tenacity of mind and body, but the emphasis was on local nationalism – a decent effort, but barely fit for the moment; Richard III of the RSC also failed to seize the opportunity of a rampant dictatorship. In general, Shakespeare in 2022 was more in ebb than in flux.

A few blushes were spared with the premiere of Patriots, by Peter Morgan of The Crown. The play gave a clever summary of Putin’s rise to power and his rallying of the oligarchs, with Boris Berezovksy, his unfortunate kingmaker (played by Tom Hollander), center stage. But you can’t help but wonder what the state of play will be like when Almeida’s production moves to the West End next May. As a talking point, it was as if the cavalry had finally arrived – only to deal with a tank onslaught.

The pandemic has of course been a blow. Work in progress had to be done and new ideas take time to materialize. Yet it’s hard to believe that a sector that has fought so hard to justify its survival has been so behind in its response to high-stakes events.

The Royal Court illustrated this failure, whether in Alistair McDowall’s breathtaking play The Glow, about a woman with supernatural powers, or in the disappointing meta-theatrical “thriller” That Is Not Who I Am, written under a pseudonym by Lucy Kirkwood. Its most thrilling offering was Ryan Calais Cameron’s glorious tale of troubled black masculinity today, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy.

Peter Morgan's Patriots Strike the Almeida with Tom Hollander as Putin's Regrettable Kingmaker Boris Berezovsky - Marc Brenner

Peter Morgan’s Patriots Strike the Almeida with Tom Hollander as Putin’s Regrettable Kingmaker Boris Berezovsky – Marc Brenner

Tellingly, this was brought in from a fringe London theatre, the New Diorama. The venue’s inspirational artistic director, David Byrne, has boldly halted productions this year, instead investing resources in new ideas. “It’s like the aristocracy returning to their stately homes after World War I, expecting everything to be the same,” he told me. “But the world has changed. We have to excite the public again. You often go to see work and you know exactly what he is going to say.

Predictability could prove as much of an existential threat to theater as the pandemic. Yes, there is talent coming forward, but there is also a growing weariness of rooms that feel like platforms for ideological positions, rather than testing labs for competing viewpoints.

In Bagdaddy, her Royal Court debut, playwright Jasmine Naziha Jones delivered, in character, a diatribe about pre-war sanctions against Iraq. It was didactic, not dramatic. And however laudably audacious Charlie Josephine’s Moi, Jeanne, which imagined Joan of Arc as non-binary before the letter to the Globe, the screenplay had the resounding tone of a pious Twitter thread (“Trans people are sacred”, “The man tricked the woman into hating trans…”).

If the theater leaves out nuance, the cash-strapped younger generation will stay away. If you don’t guard against what the late great director Peter Brook called “death theatre,” won’t that kill the whole art form?

Didactic, Not Dramatic: Jasmine Naziha Jones' Early Royal Court Debut With Bagdaddy - Helen Murray

Didactic, Not Dramatic: Jasmine Naziha Jones’ Early Royal Court Debut With Bagdaddy – Helen Murray

In Truth’s a Dog Must to Kennel, his King Lear spinoff show at the Edinburgh Festival, Tim Crouch turned the prospect of the theater’s demise into a powerful provocation:

It’s a morgue. It’s like a dark corner of arcane anthropology now. No one speaks that language anymore… We are like soldiers in the jungle and the war is over and we weren’t told – and we lost. The soul of this place transmigrated years ago into this flat screen in the middle of our living rooms… “It will come back stronger after the…” No it won’t. This is not the case.

To counter this gloom? Well, the West End triumph of Jodie Comer’s solo tour de force in Prima Facie as a lawyer in psychological freefall has been matched by the unprecedented success of her NT Live screenings.

And it’s impossible to say that British playwriting is truly breathing its last breath, when we see such beautifully modulated plays as David Eldridge’s Middle, a heartfelt comedy of middle-aged marital breakdown, at the National, or the lively and fees from Tyrell Williams. Red Pitch, about a trio of south London footballers, full of hope and brotherhood, as gentrified bulldozers encroach on their dreams. It was at the Bush Theater in west London, now the favored venue for new writing, but there was equal finesse in Hampstead with the wonderful Folk of Nell Leyshon, on Cecil Sharp’s collection of songs, and Blackout Songs, Joe White’s scathing double on addiction.

Idea game: Alex Jennings (right) starred as Devon curate David Highland in The Southbury Child at Chichester - Manuel Harlan

Idea game: Alex Jennings (right) starred as Devon curate David Highland in The Southbury Child at Chichester – Manuel Harlan

In Sheffield, Chris Bush boldly scripted three simultaneous plays – Rock, Paper, Scissors – set over a single day in a dying scissor factory in Sheffield, painting a picture of the post-industrial city. In Bristol, outgoing Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris created Stephen Brown’s Dr Semmelweis, starring Mark Rylance as the 19th-century Hungarian doctor who pioneered handwashing but was thwarted by the establishment (and his own ego). Also in Bristol, Giles Terera did something erudite and inventive with a dismal chapter on the British slave trade in The Meaning of Zong.

Even so, we need plays – and I do mean plays – that can sit on the biggest stages. It feels like a sign of the times that Operation Mincemeat, in a mad but brilliant stroke of wartime Allied deception, is coming to the West End as a musical, just as the theater is filled with glitzy tunes. It’s ingenious, but you shouldn’t have to sing it all and dance it all to draw a crowd.

In June I grabbed Stephen Beresford’s The Southbury Child, in Chichester, as a precious specimen of what seemed to be a dying breed: a game of ideas, rich in character. The superlative Alex Jennings was the anguished model of self-confidence experienced as a Devon vicar who refuses to give in to delicate waking sentiment and lets garish balloons festoon a child’s funeral.

“I ask for nothing less than an experience worthy of God. And if it doesn’t matter…then nothing matters,” he cried. His censored community piled on him, like a real social media crowd. Deep down inside, I realize that I loved him so much because he was making an argument for keeping our faith in old-fashioned theater.

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