Seen any great plays recently? Seen any new plays recently?
More than six months have passed since the Covid-19 pandemic closed UK theatres. While we streamed archive productions and lockdown shorts at home, most of the country’s venues remained shut and they still face a desperate future – as do the individuals who create work in them. An outdoor summer season was salvaged, but a date for fuller reopening of indoor theatres isn’t expected for another month, at least.
A small number of venues are now welcoming socially distanced audiences. On stage, as for new online offerings during the pandemic, monologues or small casts and short running times have become the order of the day. There are some openings to set the heart racing: a sequel to Death of England, a romance by James Graham, a bold return for Sarah Kane’s Crave. But in an era of uncertainty and economic turmoil for theatres, with many still waiting to hear about their share of that arts recovery package announced back in July, it is perhaps inevitable that we’ll have a flood of safe revivals of the “classics” programmed to woo audiences back as a Covid winter beckons.
Over summer, our own Michael Billington proposed a dozen forgotten plays that he would love to see again. In our new series, Future plays, launched today, we showcase a collection of dazzling new scripts that have yet to be staged at all. Every fortnight, a playwright will be writing about their play alongside a key extract from it. Some of the scripts may have a confirmed production on the horizon; others may not. They are written by emerging as well as established writers from around the UK and beyond.
The new series is the brainchild of playwright Tamsin Oglesby, whose plays include Future Conditional, the title of which sums up the theatre industry’s current default planning mode. Oglesby approached the Guardian with the idea that running extracts from unstaged plays could whet audiences’ appetites while so many theatres remain closed.
New writing, says Oglesby, is the lifeblood of theatre, and there are particular joys to be had from reading plays rather than watching them. “In trying to think how the flame might be kept alive in however small a way, I reckoned that the written word has none of the pitfalls of the journey from stage to screen; it’s in its element, it looks good on the page, dialogue is dynamic, you can get the essence of characters and story from a few pages. So why not take excerpts from plays that are slated to go on, or should be, and offer readers and audiences something to look forward to? Like a series of trailers.”
The initial scripts in the series have been chosen after conversations with directors, dramaturgs, writers, artistic directors and producers from around the UK. It has been invigorating, says Oglesby, to talk with them about “new, inspiring plays and their conviction and enthusiasm for them. Because when theatre comes back it has to move forward. This pandemic has made it obvious that a lot of things were broken and need fixing – and theatre is no different. The phoenix won’t rise from the ashes on the wings of monologues, or two-hander revivals by Mamet, or – God help us – pandemic-themed Shakespeare or updated classics begging for contemporary relevance.” Oglesby actively encourages a “break from the Bard”, too. “Let him go. Shakespeare can afford a sabbatical. Living writers can’t.”
We have chosen plays that are raucously funny and politically urgent, that elucidate the present sometimes by revisiting history, that are not confined by the limitations of a pandemic staging, and that spark the imagination even in just a brief extract. The series starts today with a riveting, rambunctious scene from Abbie Spallen’s epic 19th-century Norfolk Island convict drama, Sheep on Fire in Penal Australia.