The arrival of 21-year-old Polly Stenham’s award-winning That Face (written when she was just 19) in the West End this week signals an exciting new phase in British theatre that stems from the Royal Court, home of modern playwrights since John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in 1956. Winner of the Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award, the Critics’ Circle Award for Most Promising Playwright and the TMA Award for Best Play, Stenham’s play is a product in particular of the Royal Court’s Young Writers Programme which, guided by associate director Ola Animashawun, has fed the exciting recent results straight into the main theatre policy of artistic director Dominic Cooke.
Cooke has shown a Stephen Daldry-like open-minded adventurousness, not only in programming That Face in the Court’s Jerwood Theatre Upstairs last year, but in also giving extended life to other talented graduates of the “Critical Mass” initiative, part of the YWP, which specifically sought out new black writers.
These include: Bola Agbaje, whose debut play Gone Too Far!, a searing frontline drama of racial tension, sibling rivalry and peer group pressure on an inner city housing estate won this year’s Laurence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in an Affiliated Theatre and is slated to return in July, this time to the Royal Court’s main stage; and Levi David Addai, whose 93.2FM, a vivacious look at life in a local radio station, received a full Royal Court production and whose next piece, Oxford Street, opens at the Sloane Square venue two days before That Face bows at the Duke of York’s.
The commercial presentation of That Face, and Lindsay Duncan’s knock-out performance as Martha, a booze-sodden, sadly incestuous mother in a middle-class dysfunctional family, is a focus for a whole new raft of playwrights knocking noisily at the door. “The Royal Court programme is brilliant,” says Stenham, a bright and watchful cigarette-smoking blonde urchin with a view that “theatre should be as exciting as a rock music gig”.
“At the end of the writing course, they said I could enter something for the Young Writers Festival, no pressure. Could I be bothered? I could, and that’s changed my life.” Her English degree at University College, London, is on hold, but she still shares a house in north London with her student contemporaries.
“The big table at home is divided into two sections. All my friends are at one end doing what really happened in the world in politics and history for their degrees; I’m down the other doing what didn’t really happen, what doesn’t exist, in my plays. It’s a weird job, playwriting – making up people and hoping that other people, the actors, will pretend to be them, and then hoping that an audience will pretend to believe in them, too.”
Stenham’s play draws on her own background of boarding school and broken families, though she’s keen to play down the autobiographical card. She travelled the world with a girlfriend but now has a male actor boyfriend. Her beloved late father, Cob Stenham, an unstuffy businessman who chaired the Institute of Contemporary Arts in the 1980s, dragged her round theatres in her teens. She particularly remembers liking Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things and Glenn Close in A Streetcar Named Desire.
Googling new writing
Bola Agbaje and Levi David Addai had no such theatrical induction. Both, as it happens, googled “new writing” and found the Young Writers Programme. Both are in their mid-twenties and re-defining ideas of nationality in stories that relate to their respective Nigerian and Ghanaian origins.
Agbaje’s family lives in Camberwell, south London, and she works as a housing officer in East Ham. Her mother’s a school cook, her father works in Southwark social services. Her brother is currently in prison, and her play is dedicated to him as someone “who sometimes goes too far. I hope you realise you can turn back”.
The YWP gave Agbaje not only “a bit of structure” in her writing, but belief in her ability. Addai echoes this, saying that the culture shock of coming to the course from his home in Lewisham, also in south London, gave him an idea of himself as an artist while moving out of his comfort zone. Earlier this year he worked on attachment to Paines Plough and produced a canny comedy of sibling rivalry and mother love, House of Agnes, in which Cecilia Noble played a Ghanaian matriarch almost along Peggy Mount lines of overbearing cussedness.
Ola Animashawun says that taking risks with these writers is essential to building a new repertoire. He is already in receipt of 20 new plays for this year’s YWP Critical Mass programme to be announced this month. “The next generation is poised,” he says, “and what’s good at the Court at the moment is that what is coming through with Polly, Bola, Levi David and the rest is that this work is not secondary to the theatre’s activity, it’s core. There’s no mystery about it. Write a play. We’ll help you do that.”
Agbaje’s next play, Off the Ends, not yet announced for production, is about friendship and brotherhood, and she sums it up by saying: “The life-long thing in life is about choices; you are the only one who can control your own destiny. I am not a Christian or a Muslim, but I do believe in a God, and in the deeper meaning of self, that guides you towards the positive.”
A twenty-something old hand
Another Royal Court protégé, Mike Bartlett, is a 27-year-old veteran compared to his YWP colleagues. He graduated from Leeds University in 2002 having already made, he says, “a lot of odd, bad theatre,” and formed his own outfit, Shapeshifter Theatre Company, with John Terry, assistant director to Howard Davies on Howard Brenton’s Never So Good at the National.
I saw a stunning large-scale play of his, Stuff I Buried in a Small Town, at the Heat and Light educational wing of Hampstead Theatre two years ago. Following its premiere at the Bush in February, his latest play, Artefacts, a wonderfully wrought story of a disaffected English girl re-discovering her Iraqi father on home territory, is now going to New York as part of the Brits Off-Broadway season later this month.
Like Stenham’s That Face, Bartlett’s My Child at the Royal Court last year was a pitiless tug-of-love play, this one involving a manipulative, rather revolting child, so one’s sympathies were never allowed to take root. But having come through the YWP process, the Royal Court threw everything at the 45-minute play: an unrecognisably re-configured main auditorium designed as a Tube train with a coffee shop, and a top-notch cast including Ben Miles, Lia Williams and Sara Kestelman.
Bartlett’s new play at the Royal Court, Contractions, is an office comedy set in one of the theatre’s own offices, placing the audience once again on unsafe ground at a meeting between a male manager and a female employee. Again like Stenham, Bartlett’s material is rooted in his white, middle-class (albeit “lower,” he says) background of church-going and public school. He hails from Abingdon, south of Oxford; his mother’s a teacher and his father an educational psychologist.
Polly Stenham sums up the YWP experience at the Royal Court as one of empowerment. “You never feel patronised and I’ve always been treated with such respect and such grace. The level of care is considerable. They keep pulling you back for workshops and meetings. Once they’ve decided you’re one of them, you really are one of them. I feel very attached to the theatre. I think we’ve all been incredibly lucky.”
That Face opens at the Duke of York’s on 9 May 2008 (previews from 1 May). At the Royal Court, Oxford Street runs from 2 to 31 May; Contractions from 29 May to 14 June; and Gone Too Far! from 23 July to 9 August. A longer version of this article appears in the May issue of What’s On Stage magazine (formerly Theatregoer), which is out on Friday (2 May 2008) in participating theatres. Click here to thumb through our online edition. And to guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatregoers’ Club - click here to subscribe now!!