The world according to Crimp

Martin Crimp's hugely successful translations are sharp, witty and pungent. So why isn't his own challenging work better known? He hopes his new play, The Country, will finally put him on the map

"The Theatre has strapped me into planes, welcomed me at airports, driven me into strange cities," writes Martin Crimp in the preface to his forthcoming first volume of collected plays. "The Theatre buys me drinks and takes me back to my hotel at 2am. Three hours later it turns on a bright lamp close to my eyes, tells me to wake up and vomit."

You might also say that the Theatre puts a gun to his back and forces him to have lunch with strange, prying critics, especially when he has a premiÿre coming up, as he does now. Directed by Katie Mitchell and starring Juliet Stevenson and Owen Teale, The Country opens next week at the Royal Court.

Asked about the dry, witty ambivalence of that foreword (which also describes the Theatre whisking him to East European countries where the loose dollars in his pocket would pay his host's salary for a month), Crimp replies that he is attempting to convey the huge tension that exists for him between the very private act of writing and the tremendously public nature of theatre. "A tension", he adds, "which is present for us now in this interview."

If that last remark makes him sound a touch precious, the impression is misleading. An intense-looking, bony-faced 44-year-old with a greying bob, he certainly comes across as a man possessed of a strong, lonely sense of vocation and a perfectionist's temperament, but the attitude he adopts throughout our meeting is gentle, alert and affable. Also, alas, adamant: in no way will he let me have a sneak peek at the script of his latest drama.

On that subject, he at first confines himself to coy, cryptic remarks. He says that his last two pieces have progressively taken apart the idea of a play: his new one is "an attempt to put a play back together again". Crimp is referring here to The Treatment (1993) and Attempts on Her Life (1997), works with which he took a major leap forward as a dramatist.

In the late Eighties and early Nineties, he had made a distinctive impact with cool, bleakly comic and meticulously observed pieces such as Dealing With Clair and No One Sees the Video. These demonstrated his gift for hinting elliptically at the danger and edgy emotion beneath the surface of impersonal encounters. The former dramatised (shades of the Suzy Lamplugh case) the growing tension between a pretty young estate agent and an enigmatic cash-buyer. Set in the world of market research (where he had a peripheral job for three years), the latter illustrated his abiding preoccupation with the tragicomic limits of different types of language. In one very funny scene, a researcher, programmed with jargon, could not stop herself asking questions about frozen pizza even when her interviewee brokenly confessed that she had been abandoned that morning by her husband.

Then, in 1991, as part of a writers' exchange programme, he spent "three weeks fruitfully adrift" in New York and the experience seemed to liberate something in him. "I suppose I would always resist being held up as the example of an experiment that succeeded," Crimp laughs when I ask him about the value of exchanges, but he admits that the "terminal energy" of New York jolted him, inspiring him to use the city almost in the way that the Jacobean dramatists used Venice; as a way of heightening and distancing the decadence, violence and sexual anxiety of their own society.

The result was The Treatment, which one critic suggested resembled a collaboration between Evelyn Waugh and Bret Easton Ellis. The void that had purred beneath the earlier plays now became the immersing element, as he conjured up a gleaming sushi-bar world of "facilitators" where two predatory film producers tried to buy up the life story of Anne, a young runaway from an abusive marriage. Control, rather than truth, was the name of the game in which even a pushy secretary could say, indicating the real-life subject, "You see, this is not my idea of Anne."

Quizzed about the relation between The Treatment and his next play, Attempts on Her Life, Crimp says that the latter is "a kind of grotesque footnote to The Treatment, but like most grotesque footnotes it probably swallowed the original". That is putting it mildly. Both plays have titles that equivocate between art and violence; both have heroines called Anne. But in the 17 contradictory scenarios of Attempts, the question of who or what Anne is comes up for grabs. Tourist guide or semtex courier? Porn queen or new brand of car etc etc? In one scene a group of po-faced Late Review-style critics discuss an exhibition of the objects associated with Anne the artist's attempts to kill herself in the past few months. "It's theatre," opines one of these pundits, "for a world in which theatre itself has died." Radically dispensing with plot, characters and stage directions, and negotiating what feels like an eerie post-human planet, the play, too, came across as a kind of artisticsuicide note: as extreme and terminal a drama as Finnegans Wake is a novel.

In Tim Albery's original hi-tech Royal Court production, it was the depersonalised modernity of the piece that struck critics, who divided into those who saw it as "a seminal text for the Nineties" and those who scathingly complained that it is "post-civilisation, post-truth, post-art, post-feeling, post-teeth, post-everything". You could argue that the play would not be so disturbing if it did not honourably risk a confusion between its own values and those depicted.

But Crimp explains that there have been productions put on in Europe (where it has proved to be a huge success) that have highlighted quite different elements. Katie Mitchell's low-tech, highly physical staging in Milan, for example, focused on the improvisatory nature of the writing, her cast being caught in the Pirandellian bind between apparent freedom and artistic domination. Anne's baffling changes of identity were now less an enigma than (in one critic's description) "the protective, ultimately suicidal camouflages forced on one woman by consumerist society".

Instead of plot hints, the Royal Court publicity for The Country offers a tantalising snatch of dialogue. As this seems to involve a young woman receiving and then rebelling against "treatment", I suggest to its author that the piece promises to be very Crimpian.

"This is where we get into a difficult area," he laughs, "where you throw my obsessions at me and I keep ducking them." Pressed, he'll go as far as revealing that the new piece "at a very simple level is about fidelity and infidelity and the different kinds of pain that both might entail and it explores, or it plays with, the relationship between the urban and pastoral".

He also divulges that, after the chilliness of much of his preceding work, The Country is his first stab at a "hot" play. In terms of how it develops from what has gone before, he keeps returning to the idea that it is a bid to put the dismantled components of drama back together again. Attempts at reversing Attempts?

Over the last few years, Crimp has been so busy as one of the theatre's most praised and prolific translators (pouring out excellent versions of Genet, Koltes, Marivaux, Moliÿre et al) that one had begun to wonder whether, with his last original piece, he had indeed driven himself into a creative cul-de-sac. Given his caginess, it would perhaps be premature at this stage to offer The Country a wholehearted welcome - except as a sign that, in his case, there can be continued artistic life after so dazzling a theatrical suicide note.

'The Country' opens at the Royal Court, London SW1 on Thursday, 020-7565 5000

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