Culture: I don't believe in monsters

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The Independent Culture

I can't remember a play I've looked forward to so much as August: Osage County by the Chicago-based playwright Tracy Letts. The winner of this year's Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize for Drama, it depicts a series of incidents that befall an American family presided over by a terrifying, alcoholic matriarch. It opens at the National Theatre on Wednesday, having transferred from Broadway.

In America, August: Osage County has been compared to the most ambitious works of Eugene O'Neill and Edward Albee, not least because of the sheer scale of its production. Unfolding over three-and-a-half hours, it has 13 characters and a three-story set. Even Letts himself has called it "a very expansive, broad-shouldered American play". Expect rave reviews in Thursday's papers.

For several British playwrights, the most significant thing about August: Osage County will be its muscular dimensions. Rebecca Lenkiewicz, David Eldridge, Moira Buffini, Richard Bean, Roy Williams, David Greig and Owen McCafferty formed a group called "The Monsterists" a few years ago that campaigns for large-scale theatre – big plays, with big casts and big sets. It is a response to the shrinking size of British theatre, with artistic directors looking more favourably on compact, well-made plays for the simple reason that they're cheaper to produce. The Monsterists don't want to be constrained by budgetary considerations. They want to be given the same freedom to write large, ambitious plays that earlier generations of playwrights had.

During the period in which I worked as a drama critic (2001-06), I was disappointed by the Monsterist plays I saw, such as Owen McCafferty's Scenes From A Big Picture. The plays that impressed me the most were often from members of the Monsterist group, but working on a smaller scale, such as Richard Bean's Harvest. My conclusion was that these playwrights are mistaken if they think the size of a production has any bearing on its quality: a play doesn't have to have a cast of thousands to possess an epic grandeur. I can understand why they would grumble about the obligation to keep costs down, but in general, the more constraints playwrights are forced to work under, the better their work.

But there are exceptions – and I expect August: Osage County to be one of them.

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