Mark Ravenhill: ‘Gay playwrights are less visible today. Where are they?’
Over the course of a Saturday, Mark Ravenhill and I watch a writer emerge. A friend dropped out of accompanying me to the National Theatre’s Young Chekhov trilogy, so Ravenhill snapped up my spare. Other playwrights wouldn’t, I suspect – too long, too dusty, too Chichester [from where the shows transferred] – but Ravenhill is drawn to great plays above all. The previous night, he’d seen The Alchemist at the Barbican; The Plough and the Stars the night before that.
Watch Chekhov’s first three plays and you see the Russian playwright circling a set of ideas and emotions: listlessness, masculinity, thwarted brilliance and so on. He returns the same sort of characters to the same configurations in the same remote rural estates. Platonov is clunky, even cut-down to shape. Ivanov less so, with fewer asides and neater exposition. By The Seagull, in the evening, it all comes together. The Chekhov we know comes out of his chrysalis.
Ravenhill himself didn’t emerge so much as explode. It took one play to make his name: Shopping and Fucking. Back in 1995, the title blazed a trail in advance, banned from public display by a century-old law against indecent advertisements, but the play itself proved a firework. Its tangle of 20-something flatmates chowing through ready meals, ecstasy and each other seemed gobsmackingly fresh. “For the strong of stomach,” wrote the Independent, “there’s the chance to see a real talent at work here.”
Over two West End runs and a tour, some 70,000 steeled themselves to do just that. Shopping and Fucking became one of the definitive plays – perhaps even cultural events – of the decade. Back then, playwrights didn’t take off like that.
“We find it almost impossible to conceive of now, but before the mid-1990s, there was no way the Royal Court or the National would be open to you unless you had a big pile of plays written,” says Ravenhill.
Young writers were left to ferment on the fringe, or else got stuck at the NT Studio. Stephen Daldry, the Court’s hip new artistic director, changed all that. First came Blasted by Sarah Kane, then Jez Butterworth’s Mojo – the first main-stage debut since Look Back in Anger. “Stephen said, ‘This is insane. Why are we sending writers away for five years?’ It was a total change of mindset,” Ravenhill recalls.
Chekhov had written hundreds of short stories by the time he turned to theatre. He was a literary figure. Pre-Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill had two shorts: a farce about an outed MP, Close to You, and Fist, a two-hander “about fisting – it does exactly what it says on the tin”. Max Stafford-Clark saw the latter and asked if he had a full-length play. Ravenhill lied that he had, then got started.
What began as a skit about a group of mates filming a Princess Diana porno – the original title was Fucking Diana – developed into something much deeper and darker. Even now, Ravenhill finds it quite elusive. “It’s doing something concrete, just not something you can boil down into a take-home sentence.”
Twenty years on, Shopping and Fucking is about to get its first major revival at the Lyric Hammersmith. It’s the latest in a line of controversial classics to be staged by artistic director Sean Holmes: Blasted, Saved, Herons – all of them violent, all youthful, all very much notorious.
People still expect me to be this crazy junkie
But if Shopping and Fucking’s reputation precedes it, it will, I suspect, surprise new audiences. History has obscured new writing of the 1990s; the ‘in-yer-face’ label eclipsing the whole to leave this sense of a non-stop shockfest – a generation of irreverent, sensationalist provocateurs.
“People still expect me to be this crazy junkie,” Ravenhill laughs. Snug in a knitted green hoodie, a grey beard under his chin, he’s anything but. Age has softened his looks. His burly frame and bald head once made him seem imposing. These days, his face matches his manner: smiling and mischievous with an arch sense of humour. If the enfant terrible ever existed, he’s now a regular at West End restaurant Joe Allen, greeted at the door with mock formality (“Mister Ravenhill”) – yet still the in-yer-face tag sticks.
Ravenhill remembers the 1990s quite differently: “There was a real plurality of styles and voices. There’s almost nothing in common between Martin McDonagh, Rebecca Prichard or Patrick Marber.” Plays that don’t fit the theory get forgotten, he says. “Somebody gives it a label, writes a book, and something’s always going to be lost.”
For Ravenhill, however, the era’s cornerstone wasn’t shock, but politics – playwrights letting go of labels and moral standpoints. In the 1980s, he says, to be taken seriously, a writer had to self-identify. “You needed an ‘ism’: I’m a socialist, feminist, blah blah blah. Really, all of those 1990s plays are a reaction against that. More exciting was thinking, ‘I’m going to ignore those conventional labels of the liberal left and just write whatever’.”
He found his own tone through Dennis Cooper’s novels – books such as Safe, Frisk and Closer that “put you into the middle of very dark situations – no guide, no moral comment”. He adds: “You’re left on your own. You were used to authors reassuring you of their balanced, liberal ethical stance, but with Dennis Cooper, you just didn’t know.”
Shopping and Fucking is the same. It shows likeable characters behaving despicably – sometimes defensibly, sometimes not. That had a marked impact. Writer Dennis Kelly remembers reading the script: “It’s a brutal play, but, really, it showed you could write about all sorts of things. Before then, I’d thought there were no plays for people like me. I just didn’t know you could do that – talk about really big things without looking, full-frontal, at issues.”
What Shopping and Fucking really does – arguably more than any other 1990s play – is pin down its moment. It skewers an ideology. Ravenhill catches a generation that came of age under Thatcher. Everyone in the play is self-centred. Every action is a transaction – sex, labour, friendship. Shopping is erotic and employment is exploitative. Ravenhill’s shopper-fuckers put themselves up for sale: Robbie and Lulu manning sex-lines to pay off drug debts; Gary and Mark using one another for meaningless sex. They are, in critic Dan Rebellato’s words, “a generation with no values but economic ones, media-fixated and self-obsessed, fucking while Rome burns”.
This is what Ravenhill does – he writes of ideologies, not issues. His plays tend to dig down in search of prevailing norms. They take the temperature of the times. Some Explicit Polaroids (1999) charted the chasm of Thatcherism with a prisoner released after a 15-year sentence. Post 9/11, Product (2005) attempted, as he wrote introducing it, “to find a voice for the changed emotional and intellectual landscape of a new era”. The Cut (2006) suggested self-loathing and self-improvement through an unspecified surgical procedure, and Pool (No Water) (2006) examined our habit of turning people into products, lives into art and art into voyeurism. This was the era of Big Brother, two years after the launch of Facebook. Later came the tiny epics of his Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat cycle (2008), a response to the Iraq war, and Over There (2009), a story of ideological schism in post-war Berlin; two twins raised either side of the Wall.
He is, as Product’s director Lucy Morrison puts it, “a philosopher-playwright: always moving, always thinking”. She continues: “He can have 10 ideas before you’ve had coffee, but that’s the deceptive thing about Mark. You need to look much deeper to understand.”
It’s a deliberate ploy. Ravenhill has “never wanted to write issue plays” – what he calls “theatre that chases behind the news”. Partly, it’s a matter of ploughing his own furrow, steering clear of the topical issues everyone’s chasing, but there’s more to it than that – a desire to make theatre count, but also a desire to make theatre theatre.
“We shouldn’t just be following whatever’s being talked about on [BBC Radio 4’s] Today programme,” he says. “Like most people, I’ve always been interested in the state of the world, but I don’t want my plays to be op-eds about the social issues of the week.” Ravenhill’s plays are concrete things in their own right: theatre, not theses. They couldn’t be anything other than plays.
Though rarely revived, they have a certain longevity as a result, even a level of prescience. Ravenhill plays resonate far beyond relevance. Shopping and Fucking may be Pot Noodles and VHS tapes, but as Holmes notes: “What Mark was sensing then, we’re all in the middle of now.” Our lives are more mediated and more monetised than ever. What’s Tinder if not a system of shopping and fucking? “It just feels incredibly modern,” says Holmes. “The narcissism, the solipsism, the stories we sell about ourselves, sexual relationships coloured by fantasy and fashion and pornography, the saturation of imagery – they’re all the problems we’ve got now.”
Shopping and Fucking was ahead of its time in another way. “The theatre language we have now sits with the play much better,” says Ravenhill. That language, he believes, is “more tooled up” to handle its choppy scenes and extreme, almost surreal, situations. “It was always a bit of a tight squeeze to get it into English social realism.”
Thinking back to the first draft, for example, Ravenhill remembers a fourth flatmate silently filming everything on a camcorder. Deemed unnecessary at the time, the spirit of that gesture can be revived for today’s mediated theatre. “There was always a sense of being videoed. Now we’ve worked out what that means. We’ve got a language for it.”
One language we’ve lost, however, is that of homosexuality. Ravenhill writes gay lives with a precision and specificity you rarely see on stage today. Mark and Gary in Shopping and Fucking; Tim and Victor in Some Explicit Polaroids. Mother Clap’s Molly House (2001) tied contemporary clubbers to the drag queens of the 18th century. It hasn’t escaped Ravenhill’s attention: “That’s one of those strange mysteries. There’s less visibility of gay characters and gay playwrights today. Who are the gay playwrights at the National or the Royal Court?”
In the 1990s, two slipstreams existed. One sought to draw gay culture into the mainstream, taking a “positive and assimilationist” approach. In drama, that meant likeable, witty gay characters and plays such as Beautiful Thing and My Night With Reg that were, at base, fairly conventional. The other, says Ravenhill, aimed to delineate it, “to say there’s something profoundly different and subversive about being queer – and not to be so fucking binary about it”.
Ravenhill leant towards the latter side, but believes the former largely won out. “It’s a sort of benign suppression to make gay stories invisible. It’s like, ‘Oh you’re so normal, so like us, you don’t need your own stories or characters.’ ”
He knew he was gay from a young age – and that he was going into theatre. “I never had any doubt,” he says.
Born in Haywards Heath in 1966, the son of a design engineer and a shorthand typist, Ravenhill was putting on plays by the age of seven, building cardboard sets out of boxes his dad brought home from work and knocking on neighbours’ doors to drum up an audience. In his teens, his tastes sharpened. He learned Lucky’s speech from Waiting for Godot and leaned towards the “harsh poetry” of Bond, Brecht and Wedekind, before leaving home at 16 to take theatre studies A level in Chichester. There he talked his way into rehearsals.
After university – drama and English at Bristol, a few years before Kane – Ravenhill moved to London, working in admin at Soho Poly, and diving into the fringe scene: writing, directing and, occasionally, acting.
During that time, Ravenhill was diagnosed with HIV. He spent the following decade in and out of hospital, and his boyfriend died of complications from an Aids-related illness in 1993. You see it in his work. Illness and injury recur, as do their counterpoints – treatment and care.
Mark Ravenhill’s top tips
• Read Keith Johnstone’s Impro. It’s the thing that really got me writing. He started all this stuff for the writers’ group at the Royal Court in the late 1950s, working with Ann Jellicoe, even though he ended up working with makers and actors later on. It’s indispensible.
• One hour of drama is 9,000 words. It took me 15 years of trial and error to discover that. Everyone should be told that. If you’re going to write a play, you’re shaping time. You need to know.
• Get a good agent and a good dealer and give each of them no more than 10% of your earnings.
Blood runs through Shopping and Fucking like a seam, sometimes entwining – shockingly – with sex. Some Explicit Polaroids contains an unflinching portrayal of Aids, as Tim refuses medication. There’s The Cut’s enigmatic procedure, and the comatose artist of Pool (No Water), his life maintained by machines. Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat is peppered with cancers, diseases and palliative care. “It would be bizarre for that not to creep into your writing. It was my day-to-day experience: hospitals, illness, death.”
By the time he wrote Shopping and Fucking, Ravenhill was seriously ill; sometimes too ill to write for months on end. “We didn’t really have any medication then, so they gave you five to 10 years to live.”
In 1995, he had passed the five-year mark, and treated the fate he’d been given with a mix of acceptance and defiance. “When you’re 22, you don’t really have a concept of death. I just didn’t really believe them.” He’d think: “That’s not going to happen.” A few years later, he held a living funeral. Nonetheless, he remained “perversely hopeful”.
Ravenhill was lucky – “so lucky”. In 1995, a new class of HIV drugs became available. Antiretroviral therapy had a dramatic effect on the death rate among people living with HIV. “I was within three months of missing the new medicine. I was literally the first generation. Three months’ difference and I wouldn’t have got it.”
That must have a psychological effect on a person, I say. “It was pretty extreme: ‘You’re going to die. You’re going to live.’ ” I suspect that explains a lot about Ravenhill – not just his jovial, friendly manner, and his embrace of people, but also an almost contradictory approach to work.
On the one hand, there’s a restlessness – a desire to do every project that comes his way. Morrison mentions his “urge to get stuff on”. She explains: “He’ll come in with a thought or an idea in the morning and he’ll want to be doing something about it in the afternoon.”
He collaborates widely and turns his hand to anything that piques his interest: operas about irritable bowel syndrome (Intolerance), song cycles with Marc Almond (Ten Plagues), pantomime for the Barbican. He’s penned shorts for schoolkids, protest movements and horror festivals. “It can be too enticing to do all sorts of different things in different forms.”
On the other hand, the opposite impulse exists – purpose; a desire to leave a core body of work behind. “I’m very old-fashioned like that. I want to be part of the canon.” Sift out the offshoots, and you find a concentrated set of texts. Many younger, male playwrights – Mike Bartlett, Jack Thorne, Simon Stephens – have many more.
Ravenhill’s are more like cultural interventions: occasional but deliberate. “I’ve always resisted the idea of ‘new writing’, because it’s a category – quite a new thing. It becomes its own little thing: new-writing theatre for new-writing audiences.”
Ironically, its genesis might date back to the 1990s – to Shopping and Fucking and Co. Buzzed by New Labour funding, a development system began to emerge and, essentially, playwriting was professionalised. The flipside, says Ravenhill, is that it “became a little bit industrial. The plays were becoming a bit similar because they’d been through the same process. You get a play at the end, but, in the process, you infantalise the writer.”
That’s changing and, as it does, Ravenhill is itching to return to his core practice, concertedly clearing space to write. A new play is due for delivery at London’s Royal Court in December, though superstition stops him saying more. Writing, for him, is a matter of needing to write: “The best things happen when I can’t imagine getting through a year without writing, when I can’t function or breathe unless I’ve written this or that particular play. I sort of feel like that at the moment.” He stops for a second. “I guess I’ve never really managed to professionalise this. For good or bad, I’ve never turned it into a job.”
There is, he thinks, something to play for. “The generation that’s holding those main stages, the David Hares and Alan Bennetts, aren’t going to be doing it forever. In 10 years’ time, someone has to write those plays. They don’t have to be state-of-the-nation, just ambitious and capable of speaking to 700 people at a time. I don’t know if many people can do that. I don’t think I can every time, but I certainly have the potential. That’s what I really want.”
It’s a drive that takes him back to the greats: Shakespeare, Brecht, Moliere. Chekhov. “I want to write plays for the theatre with ambitious narratives – the aim being that they can sit alongside any other play, be it Hedda Gabler or The Seagull.” It makes you wonder. A hundred years from now – a Young Ravenhill trilogy?
CV: Mark Ravenhill
Born: 1966, Haywards Heath
Training: Bristol University
Landmark productions: Shopping and Fucking, Royal Court, London (1995), Some Explicit Polaroids, New Ambassadors Theatre (1999), Mother Clap’s Molly House, National Theatre (2001), The Cut, Donmar Warehouse (2006), Citizenship, National Theatre Connections (2006), Pool (No Water), Lyric Hammersmith (2006), Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat, Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh (2007), Over There, Royal Court (2009)
Awards: Evening Standard most promising playwright (1998)
Agent: Judy Daish
Shopping and Fucking runs at Lyric Hammersmith, London, until November 5
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