Playwright E V Crowe was meant to be writing a prequel to King Lear. At least, that's what the Unicorn Theatre in London commissioned from the 32-year-old. The script that Emma Victoria Crowe handed over was Liar, Liar, a contemporary play set in the bedroom of a 14-year-old girl, Grace. When a little boy gets beaten up, Grace arouses suspicion. She's a brilliant liar, adept at telling people the stories they want to hear, and the play brings to life the art of invention (an excellent topic for theatre, playfully realised – expect snowstorms, raves and the seaside to be evoked as she imagines them). But it also investigates the way in which, if teenagers get labelled "bad", they may believe that it's the truth.
So, as Purni Morell, artistic director of the Unicorn, credited with revivifying the young people's theatre, points out, it really is not a prequel to King Lear. Fortunately, she liked it anyway. But it was an "honest attempt" to write that play, says Crowe, and there are similarities, beyond the assonance of Lear and Liar. There is the fraught relationship between Grace and her "errant father". And whereas Shakespeare's tragedy "starts with Cordelia telling the truth to her father, my play ends with the daughter telling the truth to her father about how she feels". It may not conclude with a Lear-esque bloodbath, but it's not giving too much away to say there isn't exactly a reconciliation.
This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Crowe's work. Her Kin in 2010 was deemed "disturbing" by critics for its exploration of friendship, desire and hatred between two pre-pubescent girls at a posh boarding school, and the recent Hero followed increasingly tense interactions between two primary school teachers – Danny, gay and bold and unafraid, and Jamie, straight, in a state of crisis, and ultimately jobless. Both plays premiered at the Royal Court; both include awkward, unlikeable characters and tackle issues of sexuality, prejudice, and the corrosive nature of envy.
Liar, Liar is aimed at teenagers (the Unicorn's repertoire is aimed at an audience aged two to 21), and Crowe was a solid choice: in Kin she created a convincing, if fantastically foul-mouthed, idiom for her charges, and Liar, Liar exhibits similarly slangy speech patterns. There's an engagement with modern technology, with whole scenes conducted through BBM (that's BlackBerry Messenger, to the uninitiated; like texting).
Writing came easily; Crowe's job before was in youth work, and more recently she's been teaching playwriting to 12-year-olds. "After a while, the rhythms of speech and attitudes and ideas absorb into my brain," she explains.
Kin shocked in some quarters by casting young girls; Crowe says director Jeremy Herrin – who also helmed Hero, to wide acclaim – was supportive about the need to do so. And the girls "were always very confident, and very happy, and very brilliant," Crowe insists. I suggest we underestimate the abilities of young people. "Definitely," agrees Crowe. "In life in general – which is what Liar, Liar is about. Our version of young people is quite misguided sometimes, undervaluing [them]."
How did she approach writing for teenagers? "Exactly the same, only a bit more fun and a bit less sweary," she says. But there's a serious point too. In Liar, Liar, when a nosy middle-class neighbour grills Grace, she gives him the story he expects, a narrative of rioting, mindless teenage destruction. I have a sense that Crowe doesn't feel that the 2011 riots were mindless – that she is trying to get into the minds of these young people. "I live in Tottenham, and I felt I knew why it had exploded – because there's nothing for young people," she says. "It added to the idea that young people are violent or they are criminals. And it adds to the possibility that a young person could internalise that idea about themselves – that they're bad, even if that's not true. And that's how Grace feels … but actually she hasn't really done anything."
Liar, Liar features a character who is gay. Crowe is straight, but she's clearly drawn to this as a contemporary issue; Hero sharply revealed in the character of Jamie an ingrained, unacknowledged, homophobia. "I think most of us are culturally homophobic. You have to actively counter it. 'You're gay' is still a slur in most schools. Most of our cultural experience trains us to believe it's abnormal."
Hero originated from two different teachers' real-life stories: a straight man who had reacted with anger to being called "gay" by a pupil, and a gay man who constructed a game to play in class that let him gently introduce the fact that he had a husband … "That they co-exist in the world – that felt like the start of the play," Crowe says.
One esteemed broadsheet critic interpreted Hero as a drama of repression, writing that it "takes two hours to tell us that people are generally happier if they acknowledge their sexuality". But in Crowe's mind, Jamie isn't gay.
"The crisis for him is a loss of position, and a loss of power. And I think for a straight man watching it, it could be very uncomfortable. I probably under-anticipated how strong the cultural narrative is, that to be homophobic is to be a repressed homosexual."
There was another, slightly depressing response. "Some young people came to see Hero and they said to me: 'Do you have to be rich to be a playwright?'" Crowe found she had to be honest: having a financial safety net helps. "I said, 'd'you know what? Most playwrights are disappointingly middle class.' Because even for me it feels like a massive risk – that's why the withdrawal of arts funding is a real crisis. You're going to get the same old voices."
Crowe did a Masters in playwriting at the University of East Anglia, but only on joining a young writers' programme at the Royal Court did playwriting really become a possibility. She became part of the theatre's first "super group" in 2009 – "in that group was Penny Skinner, Alia Bano, Anya Reiss, Nick Payne … there was a whole gang of us, a little brat pack," she laughs. They were taught by Leo Butler and Simon Stephens, and Crowe is emphatic: "I wouldn't be writing without it. That kind of investment and support is essential."
Crowe – who gives measured answers, a little wary, almost amused – will not be drawn on whether there's any rivalry there, simply commenting "I really like all of their work." I mention that a lot of ink is spilt over the recent rash of young, female playwrights, and while Crowe says, yes, it is important "that women are represented in all aspects of society, including playwriting", she concludes that it's really about the work. She wants to see the next Lucy Prebble play, Penelope Skinner play, Anya Reiss play, because they write good plays (there will be chances to see more Crowe, too: she's writing a play about farming for the National Theatre, and a short film for Channel 4).
"It doesn't matter who's written [a play], if it sets you alight somehow, it's an amazing thing," she says. "That's why I write."
'Liar, Liar' is at the Unicorn Theatre, London SE1 (unicorntheatre.com), 31 Jan to 6 Mar
Royal Court 'Breat Pack'
Penelope Skinner Her debut, Fucked, was at the Old Red Lion theatre pub in 2008; she had a hit with The Village Bike in 2011, and writes for Fresh Meat.
Anya Reiss wrote her first play, Spur of the Moment, at 17, winning the Evening Standard's Most Promising Playwright award. She followed up with The Acid Test, and a new version of The Seagull last November.
Nick Payne If There Is I Haven't Found It Yet won him the George Devine Award, and transferred to New York (starring Jake Gyllenhaal); Constellations was the Evening Standard Theatre Awards' Best Play of 2012.
Molly Davies A Miracle was her first play; she has reimagined Orpheus and Eurydice at the Old Vic Tunnels, and penned Shooting Truth for Connections at the National.
Alia Bano Her debut at the Royal Court, Shades, won her the ES Most Promising Playwright award; her play Hens went out on Sky Arts as part of its Theatre Live! season.
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