Theatre: How scripts keep losing the plot

The National's new-play policy has produced some real turkeys this year. Who's to blame: artistic director or literary manager? By Paul Taylor
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The Independent Culture
It's been a swell year for productions and a pretty lousy one for new writing. That seems to be the general verdict on the theatre of 1999. Nowhere is this disparity more sharply illustrated than in the endeavours of the National Theatre. Its artistic director, Trevor Nunn, rightly won the Evening Standard best director award for Summerfolk and The Merchant of Venice, his productions with the crack ensemble of actors whose teamwork, viewed over a wide range of pieces, has been one of the year's ongoing and incremental pleasures.

The Evening Standard judges decided to make no award in the best new play category, but if there were a satirical gong for the worst programming of new writing (gauged in relation to the resources available to a given institution), then the National Theatre would be on the receiving end of that, too. Last year, it garnered several prizes for Michael Frayn's challengingly erudite, and formally audacious drama Copenhagen. But that piece, and the fascinating world premiere (also in 1998) of Not About Nightingales, a previously unperformed play by Tennessee Williams, increasingly look like the honourable anomalies of this regime.

It is no pleasure to drag up the names of the past year's stinkers, but they include Remember This, Stephen Poliakoff's never-ending and ramblingly implausible play about memory and our hazardous reliance on the technological preservation of the past. Audiences were so poor that the play had to be pulled from the Lyttelton, and a Birmingham Rep production of Baby Doll brought in to fill the embarrassing gap in the schedules. There was also Hanif Kureishi's Sleep With Me in the Cottesloe. I find myself blushing even as I type out the title of that epitome of self-serving self-deception.

Eerily, some of the year's offerings have looked like poor man's versions of plays premiered during the previous incumbent Richard Eyre's tenure. Following on from Alan Bennett's The Madness of George III, Nick Stafford's Battle Royal was too formally dull even to be called The Badness of George IV. Honk!, the National's Christmas show, is great fun but, assessed by the highest possible standards, is weakly reminiscent of the great Wind in the Willows, which was far more than just a load of wicked camp in witty animal costumes.

What, then, has gone wrong in the course of this year - apart from, say, those unavoidable hiccups such as the fact that the Royal Court had to go out of action early on the new production front as it prepared to move back from the West End to its lottery-refurbished premises in Sloane Square?

You might feel that the underdogs here are the theatres, always vulnerable to being the victims of a temporary dearth or a brief suspension between authorial outpourings. But a more informed view would recognise that in the tricky relationship between writer and producing theatre, the balance of power always works in favour of the latter.

So it seems an opportune moment to train the spotlight on those powerful behind-the-scenes figures, the literary managers, two of whose cardinal duties are a) to advise the artistic director on repertoire and, by helping to inform and extend his/ her tastes, ensure that he or she makes good programming choices for that institution, and b) through all the various stages of talent-spotting and script development, to protect and defend the writer's interest if the theatre's power becomes oppressive or its indecision destructive.

The other day I went on a literary manager-crawl round London, visiting, in succession, Jack Bradley at the National Theatre, Graham Whybrow at the Royal Court, and Simon Reade at the Royal Shakespeare Company. All occupy cramped offices with packed shelves of folders that look like criminal records, and in some cases probably are, as near as damn it. From backgrounds in, respectively, playwriting, law and publishing, and literary management on the Fringe followed by TV script-editing, the three have functions that differ according to the distinct remits of their theatre.

All of them are obliged to find and nurture new writing talent, but this is a smaller proportion of the duties of Bradley and Reade than it is of Whybrow at that National Theatre of New Writing, the Royal Court. Reade refers to Bradley as literary manager to the nation and certainly, given the National Theatre's unique laboratory for experiment - its privately funded Studio - Bradley is well placed to recommend that an unsolicited script, which shows talent but which is obviously destined to end up at another venue, be granted development time there.

As well as supervising the use by the company of the Bard's text, Reade's brief covers advising Adrian Noble on a repertoire of classics and new writing that will complement and illuminate a season's Shakespeare productions, and acting as adapter and dramaturg for certain pieces, such as the stage version of Ted Hughes's translations of Ovid that he co-devised last year with the director Tim Supple.

Literary management is a powerful, fascinating job. It is a role which wooed Kenneth Tynan away from his critical perch at The Observer to the National Theatre in the 1960s. But Graham Whybrow cites a beleaguered memo Tynan sent to Olivier, his boss (included in the former's published correspondence), as a crucial instance of what can go wrong. Complaining of being overworked and understaffed, Tynan outlined his duties in bullet points. Whybrow focuses on "Preventing the Wrong plays from being chosen - as far as possible". He finds it revealing that this point is relegated to the end of Tynan's list and that it stands a literary manager's prime duty on its head, since it is ensuring that the right plays are chosen which is the aim.

If the job becomes one of damage limitation, then something has gone wrong in the ideally mutually trustful, honest and challenging relationship between the literary manager and the artistic director. Some artistic directors (Max Stafford-Clark at the Royal Court in the Eighties, Richard Eyre at the National before Nunn) have, in a beneficial balance, both a talent for directing and a nose for a good new play. I'd say it was no accident, either, that we know where both of these figures stand as citizens, not just as directors.

Others display dazzling flair as impresarios or theatrical magicians, without any pronounced gift for sizing up a new script. Which is where a literary manager can show strength and wield power. No syllable of disloyalty dropped from the lips of any of my three specimens, but - let me put it this way - if Trevor Nunn really is having open, frank and fearless discussions with his clearly very sympathetic and able literary manager, one shudders to speculate about the abysmal quality of the stuff they are discreetly turning down.

Eyre never directed a straight play at the National with the brilliance that Nunn brings to Summerfolk, but he did create a wonderful ethos and a coherent taste. And he did promote, in David Hare, a playwright whose values stood for those of Eyre's theatre and whose work, national in focus as well as National in spirit, had the scale to fill the Olivier.

There's no sign yet of a replacement. I very much hope that by this time next year, the Nunn regime's exploits in 2000 will have caused me to look back on this article with keen embarrassment at its prematurity and its failure to see emerging patterns. Just at the moment, though, I am not banking on it.