James Graham is one of our leading political playwrights – witness his superb evocation of 1970s parliamentary deadlock (This House) and Dominic Cummings-fixated TV drama about the referendum (Brexit: The Uncivil War). You might think the past year’s upheavals would have been grist to his mill but he makes a startling confession. “I’ve found it incredibly hard in terms of creative output. I don’t want to moan – I’m not on the NHS frontline. But I don’t think it’s conducive to creativity.”
Since the first lockdown in March, Graham hasn’t in fact been idle, producing two Covid-specific plays, Viral and Bubble. However, with the vaccine roll-out moving apace, and the ‘road-map’ back to normal life imminent, it’s worth asking what the nation’s playwrights are going to write about in the face of the pandemic. Will Covid take virulent hold as a topic? Graham is not so sure.
“If we arrogantly think of ourselves as having to tap into the soul of the nation, I can’t really do that from the filter bubble of my social media, and the quiet of my home. I want to be out there – in pubs, on streets, in theatres – taking the temperature. I don’t think we yet know what this pandemic means politically, socially, poetically or philosophically. I have no purchase on it yet. Hopefully, we will look back and go “Oh my god, that was a real moment in our history”. But we don’t have to rush, we’ll live with it for a generation.”
Roy Williams – an indirect beneficiary of the upheavals in the industry because his monologue Death of England: Delroy – completed in a matter of months and then fast-tracked to the National’s Olivier stage – has developed a rule of thumb.
“I say to young writers: don’t worry. The world of the story is going to be Covid or post-Covid, accept that and park it. Ask yourself: what’s the story about, and what characters will tell the story? Then through various drafts you can allow the world to drip-feed in. The themes I dealt with in my play – being young, black and dealing with stereotypes – won’t go away because of the pandemic.”
Of course, there is also the issue of what theatregoers actually want to see. A play relating to the pandemic will surely resonate with us all, but aren’t the majority of the public simply yearning for some sort of escapism? Richard Bean has proved adept at boosting morale in the past. After all, he wrote One Man, Two Guvnors (a mega-hit online at the start of the National’s lockdown YouTube streams). Bean, in fact, has unfinished business. Jack Absolute Flies Again, his 1940s spin on Sheridan’s The Rivals, was supposed to run at the National last April, and was stalled mid-rehearsals. He has rejected the idea that a big comedy could return with social distancing.
He tells me: “So Rufus Norris has said: ‘Well, you’ll probably be the first play up that isn’t socially distanced.’ That’s the fantasy now – that Jack Absolute is the first one back up in a full auditorium, and it works.” The hope is for an October take-off. “People want a good night out,” he adds.
Talking of social distancing, David Greig, playwright and artistic director of the Lyceum, Edinburgh thinks that once rules are eased, we could see a new age of tactility on stage. “I think there’s going to be a big demand for sensuality, mess, eroticism. I’ve got a play on my desk that I really want to stage about women’s rugby – mud, bodies crunching together, sweat.”
However, he doesn’t believe theatres will be awash with farce and musicals. “I don’t think we’re in for a 1920s world of dancing chorus-lines. I think big ideas are going to be out there too. Now we’ve had our dystopia and discovered how normal it is – almost – I don’t think people will be writing “warning” plays anymore – it will be about exploring how things are changing, have changed.”
As artistic director of new writing flagship the Royal Court, Vicky Featherstone is better placed than most to provide an overview of what playwrights want to explore, and her thoughts are cheering. She agrees with Graham that it “takes a long time to process trauma” – citing Aids drama It’s A Sin as a prime example – but declares: “If I’m honest, my worry is that we’ve got too many good plays to put on.
“I’d say the number of scripts we receive has increased three-fold since the summer, with a lot of first-time writers.” Admittedly, she says, she has received a lot of plays about the pandemic, but also is seeing a lot of different world-views coming from writers who’re bringing to bear all kinds of personal experience.
“I’d say there’s less giddy, Zeitgeisty, disposable work. We’re also seeing a lot more intergenerational stories. And one of the consequences of Black Lives Matter exploding over the summer is that we’re receiving a lot of work looking at Britain’s role historically in complex world politics today.”
At Theatre503, a London fringe new writing powerhouse, artistic director Lisa Spirling is equally excited. “It feels really busy, really positive. There’s a perfect storm of political and emotional questions, with other concerns like the environment on top too – it feels fertile.” A looming boom, then? “God yeah, but also a bottleneck – because you’ve got all the plays that didn’t go on previously and all the projects on pause.”
Navigating the logistics of this – programming the pre- and the post-Covid projects, having to say goodbye to some, staying loyal to others, making room for fresh work – will be complex. Additionally, some writers have had to pivot mid script-writing to factor in the pandemic. Danusia Samal had started a play “about sex, human contact and clubbing” prior to Covid’s arrival. “For a time, I kept writing and pretending that it hadn’t happened. But in the last few months, I’ve realised that most of the things I now write will be touched by it and it’s OK – in fact, it’s going to be an important part of the play.”
Ryan Craig has finished, in a matter of weeks since Christmas, a comedy for the Theatre Royal, Bath: Speaking of Love, set in a university and dealing with issues of censorship. “It’s not a pandemic play,” he says, “but it tangentially references it. In the summer, the world kept throwing up these stories, times when someone said the wrong thing, or was censured for speaking incorrectly. I suddenly thought: maybe this is the story.”
In his new book on playwriting (“Writing in Coffee Shops”) he takes an invigoratingly broad view: “In the years after the Second World War, British theatre produced writers who burned with passion, writers who tore down the old structures… What new energy will be injected into our writers after this calamity?”
Even as the threat of Covid recedes, the political and socio-economic fall-out will be immense. Rather than stepping up a gear, some writers may do better to disengage from the news cycle. Graham himself admits to wanting to take more of a back-seat. “I don’t think it’s healthy for one single writer to have a monopoly on responding to the political climate,” he says. “I was quietly thrilled to see that Michael Winterbottom is taking on Boris Johnson [in next year’s TV drama This Sceptred Isle].”
He adds: “This has been a 12-month period of such absurd and extreme political moments. But I’ve realised that what excites me is not to write something in the centre of events. I don’t like to do the literal main story. I quite enjoy going through the backdoor of something or running with a story adjacent to the main event.”
Given the devastation that has afflicted the theatre industry – with many freelancers taking a ruinous financial hit – the understandable assumption has arisen that it’s been all quiet on the playwriting front. Yet the opposite appears to be the case. We may even be in for a golden era. Only yesterday producer David Pugh tweeted: “Just read the most wonderful script by [Elijah Young] who I believe is just 22 and so talented.”
Whether Graham and other familiar names dominate the culture going forward remains to be seen but the prognosis is clear: everything’s in flux and it’s all up for grabs.
Sound Stage, a new season of eight audio-digital plays featuring a new work (title tbc) by Roy Williams will run from March 26 to Nov; lyceum.org.uk