David Lister: The Week in Arts

Where are the playwrights in this hour of need?
Click to follow
The Independent Online

As Gordon Brown licks his wounds, it might be some consolation to him that his miseries and mistakes are unlikely to be portrayed on stage. OK, in the pain of post-election depression that's a fairly small consolation. But to those of us interested in how theatre portrays and analyses contemporary life, it is puzzling that playwrights fail to be inspired by the travails of the Prime Minister.

The assurance that they are not inspired by Gordon Brown comes from one of Britain and the world's leading playwrights, Sir Tom Stoppard. He says: "We've had a new Prime Minister, but political life doesn't feel new; it feels like more of the same. It's not like the Thatcher era, when reaction was in the air like the weather. Playwrights were dashing to their typewriters. This doesn't mean there's nothing to have opinions about. It means that an opinion isn't a play. A play is a more complex reaction. A worthwhile play is a reaction, but there needs to be an action to provoke it in the first place."

Sir Tom is clearly not alone in seeing little playwriting scope in the politics of New Labour compared with the Thatcher years. The Thatcher years gave rise to the often epic-scale political plays of the likes of David Edgar, Howard Brenton and David Hare. But the lack of political playwriting now has caused the head of the National Theatre, Nicholas Hytner, to lament the total lack of right-wing plays, and the head of the Royal Court theatre, Dominic Cooke, when he took over, to call for a move from the long-dated kitchen-sink plays to plays that look at "what it means to be middle class, what it means to have power and what it means to have wealth".

Mr Cooke's reign at the Royal Court is one worth following. He has already made inroads into the Muslim community with a new writing project and has succeeded in finding new playwrights there. And I gather he will be staging in the autumn a play with the US presidential election as a backdrop. But still there is no sign of a British play that looks at our own centre of power.

Only Tom Stoppard can know what he does or does not wish to write a play about. But I am puzzled by his assertion that the Thatcher years could provoke reaction from playwrights and thus worthwhile plays, but the Brown era cannot. It may be too facile to look at political fiascos like the 10p tax rate and say "go write a play". But the dilemma of a political leader balancing pragmatism and political principle surely has scope, as does Brown's own psychological journey to the top, as do political issues from immigration and the national character to the wealth gap and the bonus culture.

Some of Dominic Cooke's pleas have been answered. There are certainly plays looking at middle-class life. Yasmina Reza's new comedy of two warring middle class couples, God of Carnage, is a prime example. But it is a domestic comedy, and the vast majority of plays from writers old and new today are domestic dramas. The centres of power remain unexamined.

What has happened to our political playwrights? Iraq, of course, led to a considerable amount of work on stage. But on domestic politics, Blair and Brown have provoked hardly any theatrical work. It seems that Hytner is right, and playwriting is a left-of-centre occupation. We need a new generation to take over from Hare and Edgar. And it needs to be from across the political spectrum. Perhaps this weekend, in the wake of the local elections and turmoil at the national centre of power, someone might feel inspired.

We owe it all to you, Max

I have remarked before on the ingratitude of the Beatles in never giving thanks to PR guru Max Clifford. Max has remarked how as a 19-year-old in the EMI press office he helped to launch the Beatles, though he sometimes omits the word "helped". It's a scandal that none of the biographies of the group has mentioned him, and Paul McCartney has failed to pay tribute in any of the thousands of interviews he has done. But this week we learned that the Beatles were only a small part of Max's portfolio.

In a newspaper interview, he said: "We launched the Beatles, we launched Motown, Smokey Robinson, Stevie Wonder, Woodstock I did, Bob Dylan, Joe Cocker, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, Beach Boys, Bee Gees, Cream, Isle of Wight festival."

In short, without young Max there would have been no music industry at all. Yet still these stars fail to pay tribute to the architect of their success. Perhaps we could at least re-name Woodstock Maxstock to give a little credit where it is due.

* Venu Dhupa, director of arts at the British Council, has resigned after barely nine months in the job. It was a controversial tenure, with her proposals for shaking up her department, and disbanding the art form advisory panels, leading to a protest delegation of artists led by Antony Gormley and Sir Anthony Caro.

One can't be certain about the rights and wrongs of the matter, as there probably hasn't been enough time to see if she would have been successful. But as a student of British Council-speak, I have followed Ms Dhupa's pronouncements with interest, if not full understanding. She called her plans for her department a "narrative", proposed a "market intelligence network", and a "knowledge transfer function" for the British Council. She also wanted it to take on roles such as "progressive facilitator" and to be a "modern pioneer." This year's Plain English Awards panel should make a special category for the British Council arts department.