THE 1990s IN REVIEW: Theatre - The voice-over was king

Diversity rules, and that's fine. But, with a few brave exceptions, where have the politics gone? By Robert Butler

In 1995, the actors' bible Spotlight came out on CD-Rom. There were 8,000 actors listed, and a quick search showed that 5,000 of them lived in Voice-Over Land, also known as London. Only eight said they lived in Belfast, a city where possibly the largest number of events of dramatic interest were taking place. In a decade when nearly everyone's voice was available for hire, the advertising industry, rather than the Arts Council, had become the major subsidiser of British theatre. It was tough for those theatres that weren't within a taxi ride of a sound-recording studio in Soho.

Successful directors moved from one theatre to another without fear of artistic compromise, because the house style nearly everywhere was pick 'n' mix. The National was good at Shakespeare; our national Shakespeare company, the RSC, was good at Chekhov. Everyone could have a go, say, at a Marxist play by Brecht, and a firm of chartered accountants would probably sponsor it. By now the canon had been tamed: shmooze ruled, and directors would join sponsors and critics in the intervals of their shows for chardonnay and canapes.

Breakaway groups showed a more combative approach: with actor-manager Barrie Rutter and his company Northern Broadsides, doing no-nonsense Shakespeare in disused mills in northern accents, refreshingly attacking other productions and firing off indignant letters. Or, over at the Globe - which opened in 1997 - actor-manager Mark Rylance defied the sceptics who had labelled it "heritage" and "Disney", by showing how exuberant non-realism liberates the text and the audience's imagination. When Dominic Dromgoole took over the Oxford Stage Company earlier this year, he set about staging non-commercial plays that challenged orthodox ideas about West End plays.

Many of the best directors carried their house style with them - tortoise- like - back and forth across the Thames or up and down the M40. The purist Shaker temperament was upheld by Katie Mitchell in The Phoenician Women (1995) and her first version of The Mysteries (1997). While Declan Donnellan brought 25 years of Cheek by Jowl to a close with a lively Much Ado About Nothing (1998), as choreographed and calculated as a puppet-master could hope, but with bags of wit. Tim Supple took his imaginative join-up-the- dots approach, that he had developed with Christmas shows such as Grimm Tales and The Jungle Book at the Young Vic, on to the National and the RSC.

The appointment of Trevor Nunn to the National in 1997 was greeted with disdain by many, as he was considered too old for the job (he was roughly the same age as many of his detractors, who seemed perfectly happy to carry on with their own jobs). Nunn built up an terrific ensemble at the National, presenting the classics with the same showbiz clarity and social breadth that he had employed in musicals. It was impossible watching his luminous productions of Troilus and Cressida or The Merchant of Venice not to sense an implicit criticism of the work going on up at Stratford.

The rise of "in-yer-face" drama took a play with three asterixes in the title to the newly-christened Gielgud Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue. Mark Ravenhill's capacity to shock in Shopping and F---ing (1996) was never wholly divorced from a less appealing streak of puritanism. Blasted, the play that catapulted Sarah Kane to fame in 1995, played in a 60-seat theatre: a smaller seating capacity, that is, than a a double-decker bus. According to a recent poll of 5,000 young people in other countries, Kane became, after her death, the best-known British writer after Shakespeare. There was a surge in Irish drama, led by Sebastian Barry with The Steward of Christendom and Conor McPherson's The Weir (1997), the generosity and humour of which marked him out as a talent that would last. There was a surge in "Ooirish" drama too. After the excitement of The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh's prolific output ended up feeling as authentic as the themed pub in your high street. With trademark black cardies, dying embers and bottles of poteen, Ooirish drama was another world from the Ireland that had one of the fastest growing economies in Europe.

There was always the fear with "new writing", lovingly nurtured in tiny venues, that it wouldn't have the sheer verve and and ambition to compete in the bigger theatres up against Ben Elton's Popcorn or Patrick Marber's Closer. They had West End Material stamped all over them. Producers in the 1990s waited in vain for a West End play by Stephen Fry or Richard Curtis or Emma Thompson. The most successful play of the decade, Art (1996), was written by a woman, Yasmina Reza, and incorrectly dismissed by a number of male critics as philistine. In North London, the Almeida set up a rival National Theatre presenting a tremendous range of drama - including Racine in the West End. The message was, the barmier the programming seemed, the greater its chance of success. The Tricycle Theatre unearthed a rich and authentic vein of dialogue with their meticulous stagings of transcripts about Nuremberg, Srebenica and the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

Most worrying was the development of what might be called Short-Change Theatre. This involved casting a leading film actor in a revival - Nicole Kidman, Cate Blanchett, Juliette Binoche or Liam Neeson - and drawing in a whole new audience to the theatre only for that new audience to discover that the film star wasn't as good on stage as he or she was on film. Only Kevin Spacey in The Iceman Cometh (1998) was superb in both media. British theatre's greatest asset is its 8,000 actors - the range and depth is extraordinary - and theatre serves itself most when it gives the best stage roles to the best stage actors.

Tarantino brought rhetoric and male banter back into fashion (see Jez Butterworth's Mojo). Sexual orientation, drugs, the Holocaust and child abuse were recurrent themes - often a combination of these. The Balkans was a frequent backdrop in classical revivals. Many of the issues that preoccupied the broadsheets - the debates over national identity, the food crisis, the population explosion, Northern Ireland, climate change, animal rights, genetics, the arms industry, the rise of republicanism, women and work, and new types of parenthood went relatively unexplored. Britain had no Ibsen. And very little taste for journalism. Meanwhile every other dramatist was working on a new "version" - but very rarely, actually, a new "translation" - of a play by Chekhov.

NINETIES PLAYS

1993 OLEANNA

No one got home from David Mamet's play without first having an argument with their date.

1995 THE PHOENICIAN WOMEN

Katie Mitchell directed Euripides with an urgency and simplicity that was also richly textured and contemporary.

1996 GUYS AND DOLLS

Richard Eyre's glorious revival of his revival.

1996 ART

Yasmina Reza's play with a cast of three that kept changing in suprising ways.

1996 COMPANY

Adrian Lester brought zen-like cool to Sondheim.

1997 IVANOV

David Hare's new version with Ralph Fiennes at the helm.

1997 CLOSER

Patrick Marber put cyber-sex on stage.

1998 COPENHAGEN

Michael Frayn's thrilling piece of detective work.

1998 THE ICEMAN COMETH

Hollywood star Kevin Spacey revealed himself to be one of the great company

performers in Howard Davies's production.

1999 THE MERCHANT OF VENICE

Henry Goodman is spellbinding as Shylock, in the highlight of Trevor Nunn's ensemble season. RB

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