Angry young man shakes the scenery

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JUST as John McEnroe would stare balefully at an umpire in baffled innocence after a volley of obscenities, so Gregory Motton last week stared into a mug of tea at his London council flat and begged to know why people resented him furthering theatrical debate.

Debate, for the 31-year-old playwright, is along the lines of: 'The National Theatre and the Royal Shakespeare Company are run by mediocrities,' followed by a shake of his black mane before: 'The head of the Royal Court is more interested in furthering his own career than in championing new writing.'

This barb, at Max Stafford- Clark for directing King Lear, seems particularly ungenerous. Stafford-Clark is staging a new Motton play in the Court's Theatre Upstairs in July. Another Motton work, A Message for the Broken Hearted, opened at the BAC fringe in south London last week.

He should be the toast of the theatrical fringe; few writers have two plays opening in London. But Motton will not forget that he went four years without a play staged in Britain - shut out, he claims, because he dared to criticise the theatre establishment.

'He is this decade's angry young man,' says Paul Blackman, head of the BAC and a Motton admirer. Stafford-Clark is a little more circumspect: 'His pieces contain searing moments. If you asked who are the characteristic voices in the theatre at the moment, then he is certainly one. Yes, I would say he is an angry young man though I don't think there's any justification or justice in his criticisms. Our ratio of classics to new plays has been tiny. But his anger is understandable because the plays we haven't been putting on are his.'

Motton's plays are not polemical works dealing directly with political issues, but collections of short, expressionist scenes, often set among the urban underclass. They are faintly reminiscent of Samuel Beckett's prose poem plays, without his poetic scope.

For some, the opacity of Motton's plays does not necessarily disguise any inner truths. Paul Taylor of the Independent, in a review which Motton delighted in throwing around his room when I saw him, scorned his 'barmy need to vaunt his own talent by a sweeping dismissal of everyone else's'.

But he has champions. The director Lindsay Posner says he is 'probably one of the most original talents of his generation. His form is radical. He writes brutally humanist plays and is more interested in the workings of the soul than political housekeeping.'

That, reckons Motton, is one of his problems. 'The people who control our theatres like things that have immediate social relevances, that reflect issues in society. But it should be what you write, not what you write about.

'Anyway, what have these political writers achieved? David Hare and Howard Brenton have had the run of the place for years, yet look how people vote in general elections. But directors like political theatre because it furthers their careers. There's no obvious reason why directors should be the artistic controllers of theatre. Even the writers' theatre (the Royal Court) isn't controlled by writers. It drives me crazy that anyone who calls himself a director - meaning he may have directed a show at university - can judge writers who may be intellectually superior to him. What do we get? The directors of our subsidised theatres strangle innovation and bring back conventional middle- class plays, calling them surreal indictments of Thatcher's Britain because the director mentions her name in the programme notes.

'With me, when my plays weren't being performed, my views were dismissed as sour grapes. Now I have two on I am ungrateful and paranoid. So I would like to know, what time is it suitable for a writer to have thoughts about the theatre?'

If Motton is to become a dissident voice in the theatre, his time as a radical is likely to be short, warns Posner. 'It's very difficult to be an angry young man any more. The problem is that radical artists are quickly de-radicalised, particularly by the media. The moment you shock you are on the cover of a magazine. And conditions have to be right culturally for people to be angry. It's difficult to target a dull government.'

(Photograph omitted)