Talking with the Bush Theatre’s artistic director Lynette Linton last week, she spoke of her good fortune in directing Lynn Nottage’s Sweat for the Donmar in late 2018 and then in the West End earlier this year.
It was, she said, “a brilliant play”. But she went on to add that it was produced at just the right time, so it seemed to be speaking directly to the political moment in the UK.
When Sweat played New York in 2016, just after the shock result of the US presidential election, the Wall Street Journal announced it as “the play that explains Trump’s win”.
In London, it didn’t just feel like a play that helped to explain the outcome of the Brexit vote, but one that also interrogated the bitter divisions that the referendum exposed. Sweat strikes me as a play that in being specifically local – about the experiences of people living in a small town in Pennsylvania – also harnesses the ability to speak universally.
It is a particularly sweet spot for a playwright to locate and a gift to a director staging the play. But I reckon Linton is also right that Sweat was exactly the right play for the right time.
When a play lands can be as crucial as the quality of the writing and the rigour of the dramaturgy. In a ‘new play culture’, always seeking ever newer writers, a play whose timing is just a bit off and fails to chime with the zeitgeist is unlikely to get a second chance.
Unlike, say, Ibsen or Miller, the plays of contemporary writers seldom enjoy the opportunity for reassessment and reinvention that such classic playwrights have the good fortune to enjoy once their work has entered the canon.
It doesn’t help that plays frequently take years to reach the stage. The issue is not the playwrights’ ability to write quickly and respond to the world around us – they can and do – but lies much more in the way new writing is developed and theatres are programmed.
‘Sometimes the way theatres keep writers hanging on in the hope their play will be produced is like cats toying with mice’
On the afternoon after I had met Linton, I spoke to a writer who has been developing a play for more than three years with a particular theatre. The work has twice been on the brink of being programmed, only for it to slip through the net for reasons of balance or budgeting within a season. After all the time that has elapsed, the theatre has now informed the writer that they think the play’s moment has passed.
For that young writer, the play has been a significant part of their career.
While shaping it to fit the theatre’s vision may have been a useful learning process, to some degree it also inevitably feels like the whole thing was a waste of time.
Sometimes the way theatres keep writers hanging on in the hope that their play will eventually be produced, if they can just rewrite it sufficient times, makes you think of cats toying with mice.
I know it is not easy to programme seasons and there will always be gains and losses and disappointments for some, but three years is just too long.
The 2019 winner of the biennial Bruntwood Prize, Phoebe Eclair-Powell’s Shed: Exploded View, has just been announced, but plays that made the longlist two years ago, so were probably written in the year before, are still wending their way very slowly on to our stages.
I’m not suggesting that plays written in 2016 are undeserving of their slot in a theatre’s schedule. Merely that it must be frustrating for a writer to have spent so much time and effort on a play, only to find when it’s finally produced that it no longer has the urgency with which it was originally conceived, and that the landscape has changed.
The last three years have seen momentous cultural and political shifts, and plays that don’t reflect those shifts, whether they are around #MeToo or the climate emergency, can look dated. We really cannot expect playwrights to be clairvoyant.
For those making programming decisions a year or more ahead, even if every single one turns out to be a cracker, where is the room for the plays that are a response to the moment?
In an age when everyone has 24-hour news at their fingertips, it is not surprising that long lead times in programming, added to long development periods, sometimes leave theatre and individual plays looking a little dusty.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner