A great British farce

Mark Ravenhill's latest drama is typically profane. But don't blame him, says Simon Tait. Blame the simmering vitriol of those caught up in the Dome fiasco
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The Independent Culture

There can't be many drama-school studio theatres that have West End producers and artistic directors standing in the aisles for a show, but perhaps that's because there's only one that can boast world premieres of works by Mark Ravenhill. The theatrical bigwigs recently crammed into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts' 120-seat MacOwan Theatre to see his North Greenwich. If the enthusiastic response was anything to go by, the show might well put eight young actors in the West End very soon.

There can't be many drama-school studio theatres that have West End producers and artistic directors standing in the aisles for a show, but perhaps that's because there's only one that can boast world premieres of works by Mark Ravenhill. The theatrical bigwigs recently crammed into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts' 120-seat MacOwan Theatre to see his North Greenwich. If the enthusiastic response was anything to go by, the show might well put eight young actors in the West End very soon.

The play is another collaboration with Lamda (Ravenhill's Mother Clap's Molly House was also one). It lifts the lid on what Ravenhill calls "the Great British cock-up" - the Millennium Dome - by using the words of the main participants.

In established Ravenhill style, it surprises and shocks. It features walk-ons from characters including Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Lord Falconer, and among its main protagonists are Jennie Page, the former chief executive of the Dome, who is ripely frank in her views of politicians; the "design guru" Stephen Bayley, whose experiences with the Government, and with Mandelson in particular, have a whiff of the Mafia; and Sally Greene, the owner of the Old Vic, for whom what promises to be a good New Year's Eve family party has a devastating effect.

The characters' colourful candour is no surprise to us when it comes from the pen of the author of Shopping and Fucking, but it was a surprise to Ravenhill. The words are the characters' own, faithfully recorded in almost 20 hours of interviews done by drama students and cut and shaped into a two-hour script by Ravenhill. They are revealing in ways most reporters at the time never approached.

Ravenhill hadn't intended to write about the Dome. The work started out as an exercise in verbatim drama, "vaguely about globalisation and capitalism", but ended up as a comic but stark exposé of the billion-pound Millennium disaster.

The author had sent 27 students to Greenwich, home of mean time and so, it is claimed, the theoretical birthplace of globalisation, to interview locals and find a story. The theme of the Dome emerged, he says, almost unbidden. Once this happened, interviewers arranged longer chats with as many principals as they could persuade.

Politicians do not come out of the process well. For Bayley, who was the Dome's creative director, Mandelson was a particular problem. The politician assumed charge after the 1997 election and straightaway scrapped Bayley's proposed simple title of "Millennium" for the new organisation in favour of "The New Millennium Experience Company". Bayley tried to resign twice before he succeeded: "Extraordinary things happened afterwards," Bayley says. "More than one person said, 'We've been told not to work with you', because Mandelson has lots of contacts in the advertising and media world."

Yet the interviews, and the play, reveal something else: endemic racism and a political indifference to it. This includes a publican who blames the local crime wave on Somalians. Ravenhill was shocked by "the pious political noises made about multiculturalism."

The Dome was divided into zones - the Work Zone, the Communications Zone, the Body Zone, and so on - each intended to attract sponsorship. Ravenhill's ire is centred on the Faith Zone. Page says it for him in the play: "The Faith Zone was a microcosm of the nightmare of the Dome."

It was to have been the very nub of multiculturalism, where all religions could come together in Enlightenment, order and harmony. Except the organisers hadn't realised that gambling is against the Islamic faith and so the Dome, built with £758m of lottery money, was forbidden to Muslims. So the mosque had to stay outside. The play asks what kind of multicultural message that sent.

"The other real difficulty," Ravenhill says, "is that a Millennium celebration is about the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Christ, but there was hardly anybody there to whom the birth of Christ really resonated as anything truly meaningful. So quite what were we actually celebrating?"

"New Labour," he answers himself.

The second half of the play reveals the unpublished sequel to that terrible, comical, New Year's Eve of 1999. "It's the deal to finally sell the Dome, the Sally Greene stuff, the various people manoeuvring to buy the Dome, which wasn't reported. It starts to push you into new areas," Ravenhill says.

Promises were made and broken. Lord Falconer - Blair's post-party "Dome minister" after Mandelson had moved on - plotted the best deal for the Government, and the disposal was finally made to a company backed by an American billionaire. "At last we got to something like globalisation," Ravenhill says.

The "Sally Greene stuff" relates to the remarkable testimony of the theatre owner about herself and her husband Robert Bourne. Despite later farcical developments, the New Year's Eve opening was a fun outing for the couple and their two small sons. Only later did it become a nightmare, particularly for Bourne: "I think it gave him a breakdown, to be honest... it was too much for him. He just went mad. He doesn't live in England any more."

Bourne had decided on a whim to bid when the Dome came on the market, becoming more and more enthusiastic, believing he had Falconer's word on the deal. He even had a birthday cake in the shape of the Dome from his family. Then he found it had been sold elsewhere.

Greene relates a subsequent encounter with Tony Blair at a party after the dust had settled: "He comes up to me and says, because I know him quite well, he says, 'I've ruined your life, haven't I, Sally?' And in a way he did. He did."

North Greenwich started as part of the Lamda director Peter James's "long project", a scheme in which final-year students work with noted writers and directors to produce a new work. Twenty-seven third-year students workshopped the material with Ravenhill and James to present an end-of-term production in June. Between them, they then decided there was material for a proper play, and Ravenhill spent July and August shaping the piece. In September, eight of the 27 were chosen as the cast.

"'Play-making' is vital to what we do," says James. "It increases the students' awareness of the larger structure within which they work as actors." Harold Pinter's Remembrance of Things Past, another National transfer, and, last year, Peter Morris's A Million Hearts for Mosley, in which a dreaming Lady Diana Mosley changes history outrageously, both came out of the scheme.

Mother Clap's Molly House, a raucous piece of bawdiness about 18th-century homosexual brothels, which became a sensational production for Nicholas Hytner at the National, had originally been a long-project collaboration, too.

"It's an amazing learning tool, and if it hadn't worked and the end product had been rubbish, it would still have been a success from the education point of view, because working with someone like Mark is education enough," says James.

But while Ravenhill came with the idea for Mother Clap fully formed, this time he had nothing but a vague notion to offer the students. "They had to take me on trust, and I was a bit alarmed that, when we came to the performance in June, some of them clearly hadn't got it yet," Ravenhill says.

"You do just have to throw yourself into those things, and the long project allows us to fail," says James. "We could say after 10 weeks, 'We've learned a lot, but it's a mess and we don't want to take it further.'"

Actually, he confides, they knew they had something rather good, with robust material to work on largely thanks to the straight-talking his non-journalists managed to prise out of their interviewees. (Moreover, the students' input gives them more ownership than in previous projects, so a transfer would include them in the package.) There's a point in the show when the production director at the Dome, Paul Cockle, is consoling a cast who have been letting the Daily Mirror's political barbs get to them: "Now, this is bollocks," he tells them. "Don't believe what you read."

But you can believe what you hear in this show. Revealing, surprising, even shocking as some of it is, all the interviewees have approved their appearances.

"One of the things about doing this kind of piece is that you can't have an agenda. You really do have to respond to what people say," asserts Ravenhill. "The pleasure of it is not deciding what you're going to say, not going out looking for things that are going to prove a point for you, but being open and finding out what people want to tell you. That's all this is."

HIGHLIGHTS OF A CONTROVERSIAL CAREER

North Greenwich is Mark Ravenhill's seventh play. Now 38, he was a freelance teacher up the point when he stepped straight into controversy with his first success - whose title couldn't even go up in lights. Most reviews had to present it as Shopping and F***ing, a frank exploration of consumerism and obsession among the jeunesse dorée.

The title was enough to stop the British Council touring it abroad, but The Financial Times enthused about Ravenhill: "He is a searing, intelligent, disturbing sociologist with a talent for satirical dialogue and a flair for sexual sensationalism," ran one review.

Shopping and Fucking had been directed at the Royal Court by Max Stafford Clark, of Out of Joint, who had been impressed by Ravenhill's 10-minute monologue Fist at the tiny Finborough Theatre in Earl's Court.

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