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Ask Lyn: Is David Hare right about reinventing British theatre?

Ask Lyn: Is David Hare right about reinventing British theatre?

Ask Lyn: Is David Hare right about reinventing British theatre? cover photo on Stagedoor
"Dear Lyn, I read that David Hare thinks that we must reinvent British theatre, that it needs more playwrights like John Osborne and that he finds it hard to think of any playwrights under 50 who can fill a theatre. Do you think he’s talking sense?" - Alison, Hammersmith

Dear Alison,

More like nonsense. I think that David Hare should spend less time looking back in nostalgia and use his bus pass to get out a bit more. I know we have all been indoors for the last year and that can make the world seem smaller, but Hare’s comments make me wonder if he’s actually been to the theatre since 1956 or if he’s ever seen a play by Lucy Prebble or Jasmine Lee Jones.

Perhaps he hasn’t heard of Punchdrunk or Kneehigh or Gecko? But then we do already know from previous pronouncements that he’s not a fan of the concept of “theatre-making.” Or indeed the influence of “European theatre” on British theatre culture. So maybe this latest salvo is a rallying cry for us to pull up the drawbridges and go back to writing plays as if it was 1956.

Maybe the problem is that he’s only been going to see his own plays, some of which I am pretty sure have struggled to fill theatres even though Sir David was 102 when he wrote them. Great Aunt Cecily says I’m being unnecessarily unkind, and she recalls quite liking The Secret Rapture, and that one about the Church of England although she can’t quite remember why.

Of course, it’s not Hare’s age that makes him sound so out of touch. It’s mind set. Great Aunt Cecily is 93 and very big on post-dramatic theatre, had to be restrained from leaping onto the stage and striking a match during Emilia and had such a great time at Barbershop Chronicles she went back a second time. I suspect David just needs to broaden his idea of what a play is and can be. Oh, and maybe he needs to be reminded that the plays of James Graham really are quite popular. Both on stage and on TV.

When Hare suggests that when Osborne wrote Look Back in Anger and Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey (infinitely more radical than Osborne’s play) the entire nation knew about those plays, he seems to be forgetting that the reason the entire nation knew about them was not because theatre was any more central to the nation’s culture life but because there were only two TV channels and if one of them told you about a play then everyone knew about it. Look Back in Anger did not become a cause celebre because of Kenneth Tynan’s review but because a snippet was shown on TV. You could say that Look Back in Anger’s triumph was one of marketing. For many, it was not Anger but the plays of Beckett and Pinter that proved way more influential.

It’s far harder to bring theatre to mass attention these days but that’s not to say that there aren’t shows that have wide appeal. Plays have been written since Jerusalem which appears to be the only other play apart from his own that Sir David can recollect. Maybe the problem is that most playwrights find it far harder to get their plays commissioned and staged than Sir David whose dominance on the South Bank may well have been at the expense of plenty of playwrights under the age of 50 who have just never got the chance to demonstrate their popularity.

I am not saying that British theatre is in a great place. It clearly isn’t, and has been knocked for six by the pandemic. But maybe this is the moment more than ever for theatres to take risks on younger, more diverse playwrights and give them a chance to fill main stages and mainn houses. That might mean that Sir David himself has to move over on occasion, but I’m sure he won’t mind and wouldn’t dream of using the pages of a newspaper to complain loudly if it ushers in a revolution.

Cover Image: Barber Shop Chronicles. Photo by Marc Brenner.

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Lyn Gardner

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