Modern Theatre: The Explosion of New Writing
In 1956 John Osborne's 'Look Back in Anger' at the Royal Court Theatre heralded a new era in British theatre.
This 'love across the class divide' story set against the dingy backdrop of a bed-sit caused a huge outcry. The protagonist angry young man, Jimmy Porter, raging against the modern world from a run-down flat in a Midlands town, voiced the frustrations of post war youth, whose dreams of a better life had not been realised.
Osborne succeeded in capturing the mood of the times. Jimmy Porter represented a generation who had benefited from a free education only to have their expectations of a better life crushed by a still largely class-driven society.
Osborne succeeded in creating a landmark in 20th-century theatre which heralded an explosion in new writing. Other writers of this generation included Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, Arnold Wesker, Joe Orton and later Tom Stoppard, Trevor Griffiths and Caryl Churchill.
In the 1960s and 1970s new writing flourished in young companies such as Joint Stock and Portable Theatre which produced the work of young political writers John McGrath, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, David Hare and Howard Brenton. Other writers such as Alan Ayckbourn (based at Scarborough's Theatre in the Round) emerged from the regional repertory theatres.
Look Back in Anger, 1956
In 1956 the Royal Court Theatre became the home of George Devine's English Stage Company. Its third play was a new work by an unknown author: 'Look Back In Anger' by John Osborne. The production starred Mary Ure, Alan Bates, Helena Hughes and Kenneth Haigh as the central character, Jimmy Porter.
Reviews were mixed, but critics recognised the power of the writing. When the BBC broadcast an extract, the play achieved national fame. The 'angry young man', Jimmy Porter, raging against the modern world from a run-down flat in a Midlands town, voiced the frustrations of educated post war youth, whose dreams of a better life had not been realised.
During the 1950s other theatre companies were producing gritty studies of everyday life, but Osborne succeeded in capturing the mood of the times and creating a play which now seems a landmark in 20th century theatre.
Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, 1967
Tom Stoppard's play 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead' takes two minor characters from one of the most performed plays in British theatre, Hamlet, and puts them centre stage. The two of them, bit players in the action of Hamlet, have time on their hands. They hang about at the edges of the drama, occasionally caught up in the action, and forced to play out the destiny written for them.
Stoppard, born Tomas Straussler, of Czech origins, was not quite 30 when 'Rosencrantz' was produced by the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic in 1967, following the success of a student production at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
This photograph from that production has Edward Petherbridge (left) and John Stride as the hapless pair caught up in the workings of fate.
Stoppard's prolific, subsequent output, including Jumpers, Travesties and Arcadia, established his international reputation as a writer of 'serious comedy'. The plays tackle philosophical and scientific ideas, but do so with verbal wit, visual humour and considerable linguistic complexity.
Entertaining Mr Sloane, 1964
Joe Orton's play was considered shocking when it first appeared at the New Arts Theatre Club, London in 1964. Often interpreted as a modern version of the Oedipus myth, its combination of murder, mother love, homosexuality and its bawdy language shocked even the liberal audiences of the 1960s.
This picture shows Sloane (Dudley Sutton) attacking Kath (Madge Ryan) when the tension caused by the conflicting demands on him become too much. After the death of Kemp (Peter Vaughan), Ed and Kath compromise and agree to share Sloane, each living with him for six months of the year.
The main actors in this production all went on to major television and film careers, Dudley Sutton as Tinker in 'Lovejoy', Peter Vaughan as Felix Hutchinson in 'Our Friends in the North', and Madge Ryan in 'London Belongs to Me'.
The stage set shows the remains of a house devastated by war and strewn with rubble. The main members of the cast were Kellie Bright as Mary Magdelene, Adam Godley as Paul, Paul Higgins as James, Lloyd Owen as Peter and Colin Tierney as Barnabas.
The Birthday Party, 2005
Sinead Matthews as Lulu, Henry Goldman as Goldberg, Paul Ritter as Stanley, Dame Eileen Aitkens as Meg, and Finbar Lynch as McCann (left to right).
Drunk Enough to Say I Love You, 2006
Burt Kwouk in Plenty, 1999
Originally performed at the National Theatre in 1978, David Hare's Plenty was revived by the Almeida Theatre Company at the Albery Theatre in 1999.
Pictured here is Burt Kwouk, one of Britain's best-known Chinese actors. Born in Manchester in 1930, but spending some of his childhood in Shanghai, he is most affectionately remembered for his portrayal of Cato, Inspector Clouseau's intrusive butler in the Pink Panther films. He has also played serious roles, in BBC TV's 'Tenko' and in his first film 'The Inn of the Sixth Happiness'. His first theatre role was in 'The Pleasure of His Company' at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket. Here in Jonathan Kent's production of Hare's play, Kwouk is playing Aung, an oriental diplomat.
Cate Blanchett in Plenty, 1999
Originally performed at the National Theatre in 1978, David Hare's Plenty was revived by the Almeida Theatre Company at the Albery Theatre in 1999.
The central character is Susan Traherne, played by Cate Blanchett, whose life-shaping experiences start at the time when she worked for the Special Operations Executive during the War. Dropped behind enemy lines, she lives at a pitch that cannot be sustained within the disappointing post-war culture and politics of the 1950s. The play shows a disillusioned and angry woman over 20 years of her life. It was inspired, Hare said, by the statistic that 75% of women involved in such operations divorced during peacetime.
The play is not just about loss of youthful hope and a descent into madness, however, it is also about the powerfully dissenting character of Susan who is both vulnerable and antagonistic. Hare is considered - as this play confirms - one of the best modern writers of female roles.
Poster advertising The Norman Conquests
The play comprises three comedies, taking place at the same time, over the course of a weekend. Each one is set in a different part of the house: 'Table Manners' is set in the dining room, 'Living Together' is in the living room and 'Round and Round the Garden' is in the garden. After being performed in Scarborough, 'The Norman Conquests' had a season in London with a cast that included Tom Courtenay as Norman, Penelope Keith as Sarah, Felicity Kendal as Annie, Michael Gambon as Tom, Bridget Turner as Ruth and Mark Kingston as Reg.
Stuff Happens, 2004
A play about the events leading up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003 starring Alex Jennings as George W Bush, Adjoa Andoh as Condoleezza Rice, Dermot Crowley as Donald Rumsfeld and Desmond Barrit as Dick Cheney.
Playing with Fire, 2005
A political drama starring Emma Field as Alex Clifton and Oliver Ford Davies as Frank Wilkins.
Blue Heart, 1997
Blue Heart was written by the prolific feminist and socialist playwright Caryl Churchill. Churchill's work examines perceptions and prejudice in class, gender and race. In order to do so, she experiments with theatrical form and style. For example in Cloud Nine, a play about the relationship between colonialism and the oppression of women, women play the husbands, men play the wives and a white actor plays the black manservant. This cross-casting helps highlight the artificiality of the social codes being portrayed.
Blue Heart was actually made up of two short plays, Heart's Desire and Blue Kettle. In Heart's Desire a couple wait excitedly for their daughter to arrive back from Australia. The scene keeps stopping and replaying itself with slight variations leading to increasingly surreal outcomes, such as the arrival of a group of terrorists, a busload of children or an ostrich instead of a daughter.
The Royal Court Theatre
In 1956 the English Stage Company reopened at the Royal Court Theatre under the artistic direction of George Devine. He believed that the writer was the fundamental creative force within theatre and was committed to creating a venue where new writing could be promoted. In the first season he produced Arthur Miller's 'The Crucible' and included new international plays by Bertolt Brecht, Eugene Ionesco, Samuel Beckett, Jean Paul Sartre and Marguerite Duras. Many of these works had previously been limited to small scale productions at club theatres.
In 1956 'Look Back in Anger' heralded a new wave of writing for theatre. The Royal Court gained a reputation for controversy and for putting on plays that defied the Lord Chamberlain's censorship. The 1965 production of Edward Bond's 'Saved' was one of the last such production to be censored by the Lord Chamberlain and became infamous for the scene in which a baby is stoned in its pram.
In the 1980s Max Stafford Clark took over as director and was responsible for a wave of political new writing, much of it a backlash to the Thatcher years. Caryl Churchills' 'Serious Money' was a satirical attack on the financial corruption and dealings within the City.
Howard Brenton's 'A Short Sharp Shock' was an attack on Thatcherism. Other writing of that period included Trevor Griffiths' 'Oil for England' and 'Road' by Jim Cartwright. The Court also supported the work of new Black and Asian Playwrights like Michael Abbensetts, Mustapha Matura, Hanif Kureishi and later Jacqueline Rudet.
Many Royal Court young writers have later won success in the West End. Such transfers to come from the Royal Court include Conor McPherson's 'The Weir', Kevin Elyot's 'My Night with Reg' and Ariel Dorfman's 'Death and the Maiden'.
Whilst the Court did not set out to create a movement of angry young writers, the phrase 'In Yer Face Theatre' has been applied to many of the young writers who were produced by the Royal Court in the 1990s. Such writers include Mark Ravenhill, Rebecca Prichard, Judy Upton, Meredith Oakes, Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson, Jez Butterworth, Martin McDonagh, Ayub Khan-Din, Tamantha Hammerschlag, Jess Walters and Simon Stephens.
The Crucible, 1956
Arthur Miller's play about a 17th-century witch hunt in America was first performed in New York in 1953. This is a 1956 production by the English Stage Company at the Royal Court Theatre. The play is set among the Puritan settlers of Salem, Massachusetts, where dancing is frowned upon and adultery is a serious offence. John Proctor and his wife, Elizabeth, are caught up in an uncontrollably fast-moving witch hunt, where teenage girls accuse members of their community of witchcraft - and are believed. Among them is Proctor's one-time adulterous lover, Abigail, who, still passionate about Proctor, points the finger at Elizabeth. The play was written during the McCarthyite 'witch hunts', which were taking place at the time. The US government took Hollywood artists suspected of communism to court. As in Salem, friends had to give evidence about friends who, if found guilty, were blacklisted. Some never recovered their careers again.
The Weir, 1998
The Weir was first staged at the Royal Court Theatre upstairs in 1998, but was such a success that it was soon given a run in the West End.
The play is set in a dingy pub in Sligo in the west of Ireland. Brendan Coyle played the barman, (also called Brendan) and Jim Norton is the gentle Jack. The arrival of a young woman from Dublin who has just bought a house in the area, provides an opportunity for the usual selection of regulars, all men, to try and show off. In true Irish fashion this is done through telling stories - ghost stories in this case. However the tales that the men come up with are all topped by the haunting story of the woman herself and her tragedy changes the atmosphere of the evening.
Moon on a Rainbow Shawl poster, 1958
Written by Trinidadian playwright Errol John, Moon on a Rainbow Shawl opened in England at the Royal Court Theatre in 1958 after a provincial tour. It brought to life the many stories of one family, the Adams, from Trinidad. It was a realistic piece of drama that featured real life dilemmas such as the story of Ephraim, a bus conductor who, instead of marrying his pregnant girlfriend, plans to run away to start a new life in the UK. The play was successful both in the UK and in America where it was revived in the 1970s. The play won first prize in The Observer's 1957 playwriting competition. One of the judges, Kenneth Tynan, described it as a 'hot-climate tragicomedy about backyard life in Trinidad'.
The Rocky Horror Show, 1973
The Rocky Horror Picture Show began as a six-week workshop project in June 1973 in the Royal Court's tiny 60-seat Theatre Upstairs. Richard O'Brien wrote the book, music and lyrics, as an homage to horror films. The show is an outrageous assemblage of science fiction movies, Marvel comics and rock 'n' roll. Two middle American small-town kids are confronted by the sexual complications of the decadent 1970s, represented in the person of the mad 'doctor' Frank N Furter, a 'sweet transvestite' from the planet Transexual in the galaxy of Transylvania.
Tim Curry played the role at the Royal Court and went on to huge success in the transfer and in the film.
It rapidly outgrew the Royal Court and transferred first to a converted cinema and then to the 500-seat King's Road Theatre where it sold out nightly.
With the 1975 film version and numerous provincial productions, the show has taken on cult status. People dress up in the style of the characters, and there are set audience responses. You can even find an 'audience participation script' online.
Playboy of the West Indies, 2005
Cast: Kobna Holdbrook-Smith (Ken), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Peggy), Joy Richardson (Mama Benin), Remi Wilson (Alice), Tracey Saunders (Ivy), Malcolm Frederick (Mikey), Larrington Walker (Jim), Shango Baku (Phil), Ben Bennet (Stanley), Danny John-Jules (Mac).
Cleansed by Sarah Kane, 1998
'In an institution designed to rid society of its undesirables, a group of inmates try to save themselves through love.' This was the young playwright Sarah Kane's précis of her third play Cleansed produced in 1998 at the Royal Court.
The nightmarish institution that Kane imagined, violently and systematically tortured its inmates and scenes included the (fatal) injection of heroin into an eyeball, violent amputation, male rape and suicide. Unsurprisingly, critics were shocked and outraged by what they saw (as they had been with the violence of Kane's first play 'Blasted'). Some, however, also recognised that the play's power did not stem purely from its shock value. Kane's works are visually ambitious, and their message is positive to an extent. Although love leads to acts of violence in the play, it also produces the only moments of tenderness and escape.
The Royal Court Theatre production of 'Cleansed' also avoided the graphic brutality of 'Blasted' with a more stylised production.