“They can be quite unnerving,” Mark Ravenhill says of the Secret Theatre company, suggesting that their 12 months of working together has given way to a kind of openness he hasn’t come across in many rehearsal rooms. He elaborates further: “On the whole, everyone in British theatre is on these short contracts so everyone makes this big effort. And although you might think it’d be nice to be rid of that, it’s actually a little bit disarming for the first few days because they’re quite neutral. They’re very calm and centred. It takes a while to adjust to that.”
Ravenhill is a late addition to the Secret Theatre ensemble. He joined the company after Lyndsey Turner (who directed his adaptation of Candide at the RSC last year) suggested he write to Sean Holmes asking to be involved – “You don’t know if you don’t ask”. And though there was no space for him at first, things very quickly shifted around a couple of months ago as the entire process was extended and the repertoire was fiddled with. With Edinburgh looming close and a spare slot at Paines Plough’s Roundabout secured in Summerhall, he had to start writing straight away.
The play is based on an idea that had been in the back of his head since reading Naomi Klein’s study of disaster capitalism, The Shock Doctrine. The book, which considers the way in which Milton Friedman’s ‘Chicago school’ of economics forced neoliberal reforms on ‘shocked’ countries, focuses heavily on Chile under the fist of Augusto Pinochet. During this time, Ravenhill elaborates, “members of the new Pinochet regime that were supported by the American neoliberal lobby adopted the kids of disappeared members of the opposition and brought them up as their children.” Within this notion, he suggests, is “a classic Greek tragedy situation – what if you grow up your whole life thinking you were the children of neoliberals, and then discovered that in fact your mum and dad were trade unionists?” The play – which is as-yet untitled – picks up on this idea and runs with it.
It is, Ravenhill admits, a “pretty nihilistic” play, in which characters speak in a fractured language which suggests that “everyone’s numbed themselves and cut themselves off from the past”. I suggest that, vis Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, this sounds like a case of people believing Fukuyama’s argument that we’ve come to “the end of history” now ‘democratic capitalism’ is found in every corner of the earth. Ravenhill is quick to point out that hopes the play subverts this argument, because for Fukuyama the end of history was “a good thing, though even he’s renounced it now. But there are allusions to the nineties idea that communism collapsed and we’re all in some happy neoliberal present. It’s a negative end of history play.”
So have we come so far beyond the hope and promise of the ‘68 generation that we will never know any different? Ravenhill isn’t sure: “As every year goes by we get more and more in debt, so it becomes harder and harder to imagine any alternative.” And how about the fact that capitalism co-opts protest? “Both the beauty and the terror about capitalism is that it’s ultimately suicidal, and even if you want to renew capitalism you need a space where people can think afresh; quite a lot of what that generation of 68 did was refresh capitalism. But if there’s no space that side, then capitalism is hastening its own death, even though it may take down the planet and humanity with it.” On the other hand, Ravenhill does believe that “the context of a play is optimistic anyway – it’s ridiculously optimistic that a group of people can work together enough to make a whole thing.”
A year ago, at the Edinburgh Festival, Ravenhill made a speech which challenged the way in which the theatre industry has steeped itself in the language of the market-place in the last couple of decades, and asked young theatre-makers to think about viable alternatives. Interestingly, it was similar in intent and passion to the speech Sean Holmes gave at the launch of Secret Theatre, so it’s perhaps no surprise the two have finally teamed up. It’s an uphill struggle, however: “I think whereas in 1968 the theatres and the student movement and the workers movement had the same vocabulary, now (however much people inside theatres feel some sort of liberal or left-wing sentiment) the language that Occupy and the language that theatres speak is very different. Nobody in the Occupy movement decided to form a committee and team up with the Royal Court.”
This may all sound very obvious, but to hear a playwright speaking about such big ideas is a rarity in our corporate-sponsored world. As Ravenhill notes, there’s an “anti-intellectualism” in British theatre, and though we may expect playwrights like Tom Stoppard and Michael Frayn to give us “an In Our Time sort of experience”, there’s a sense that younger playwrights are often discouraged from grappling with big ideas: “I remember about five years ago literary manager once told a writer – who’s very successful now – ‘You’re too clever to ever really be a playwright’.”
It was in opposition to this trend that Ravenhill would hold monthly writers’ groups at the RSC when he was Writer in Residence, pilfering local bookstores for provocative writing by scientists and philosophers to inspire the sessions. This all culminated in the provocation day for the recent Midsummer Mischief season (which included Alice Birch’s “major landmark play” Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again), which he organised as one of his last jobs before leaving the company. Looking back, Ravenhill notes that the Secret Theatre ensemble is not far removed from the ensembles at the RSC, who are ordinarily contracted to perform a number of shows. “It becomes a job but in the best possible way. They’re still hard-working and focused, but it takes away a lot of the extra anxieties, therefore allowing better, braver work to happen.”
Ravenhill is a staunch advocate of the rep system. “It’s a trade-off isn’t it for actors? If you can give them job security (which means essentially earning as much as a secondary school teacher) then you take the casino aspect out of the career. So they’re probably giving up the one percent chance of being the total winner of the casino and becoming Brad Pitt, but also they’re taking out the potential that they may never work again.” He suggests that because many agents invite TV and film producers to shows, actors are forced into giving similar ‘realistic’ performers on every occasion; the rep system, arguably, reduces some of this anxiety. “It’s not glamorous but it’s not gambling.”
Indeed, the playwright would go so far as to say that the rep system actually makes more economic sense. “It’s hugely wasteful to keep on pumping out productions that last for six weeks. Having something in the rep, so that things the audience like can keep going, makes commercial sense in a different way – they can be invited to international festivals, you can actually make money.” And though Ravenhill would be keen to see a “different economics” being employed by theatres, he argues that “even if you’re balancing the books, using an ensemble with rep works.” In Germany, for example, productions are contracted for several performances over the first few months, which allows the possibility of slowly dropping it from the repertoire if it’s bad.
Though Ravenhill never goes so far as to suggest we should emulate European systems completely, he does end our discussion by noting his belief that British audiences would benefit from more exposure to our continental cousins. “I’ve always thought the Royal Court should have a season where they actually bring a Dennis Kelly play, a Simon Stephens play or whatever in a foreign language production to the Royal Court, just to open our eyes to the different ways our playwrights are being produced in different countries.” Now there’s an idea.
Photo by Tom Gladstone.