Click here to download a PDF of In Yer Face
University o f the West of England, Bristol
Friday 6th-Saturday 7th September 2002
When Aleks Sierz wrote In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today (London: Faber and Faber, 2000) - describing a wave of young playwrights during the 1990s - he probably did not anticipate by 2002, he would be apologising to an auditorium of academics and theatre practitioners for proliferating the term. By the end of the two day conference held at University of the West of England, Bristol, (September 6-7), no one wanted to hear those three words spoken in the same sentence again. It was as if he had created a monster which now needed to be laid to rest. There was the problem of who had been excluded from the book and what the implications were for the cannonisation process which ‘fixes’ history.
At the helm of the ‘in-yer-face’ movement was Sarah Kane’s Blasted – an urgent reaction to the war in Yugoslavia and Shopping and Fucking by Mark Ravenhill, which explored the deterioration of the traditional family unit and the reduction of human emotion and interaction to economic transactions. Jez Butterworth’s Mojo and David Eldridge’s Serving It Up were also grouped in the mid-90s with those which – according to the critics – were out to shock and disturb their audiences. Stomachs were to be turned and walk-outs were not uncommon. Eldridge described the in-yer-face crowd as a ‘Thatcher’s children’ becoming playwrights. It was an opportunity to vent the ‘anger of the working class child’, who had ‘vivid memories of cold war fear’, a ‘dissatisfaction with reductive language’ (i.e. political correctness) and reflected the emergence of the dance music scene and the drug, ecstacy. The violence and sexually explicit aspects of the plays served as stumbling blocks which came to be the general characterisation or easy reference for anything shelf-marked ‘in-yer-face’.
But to be shackled to a specific era or genre places a responsibility on a play and creates expectations before a reading or performance. In essence, it disrupts the artistic integrity through preconceived notions of a play because of a simplified label. Plays and playwrights risk being annexed or ‘ghetto-ised’ when given a superficial monolithic focus. This was reflected in number of papers from all over the world, which primarily explored the works of Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill through theoretical lenses of postmodernism, metaphysical theatre, Artaud’s theatre of cruelty, and Lacan. Through no fault of the organizers - this was apparently an accurate reflection of the conference submissions.
In his own defense, Sierz stipulated that ‘in-yer-face’ was not a movement, but an ‘arena’ or ‘a sensibility’. In-yer-face theatre describes only a part of the body of works during the 1990s. He accepted the limitations of his book and the label, acknowledging it as both London-centric and limited in its scope. However, as Max Stafford-Clark (founder of Out of Joint and Joint Stock theatre companies and ex-artistic director of the Royal Court theatre and the Traverse in Edinburgh) stated when asked about plays in the 1990s: ‘Everybody’s looking at the same view, so the paintings are bound to be have similarities’ (interview with Elaine Aston, Caryl Churchill, Plymouth: Northcote House Publishers, 1997, p 5).
Declaring the ‘heady days of in-yer-face theatre’ (Sierz), to be well and truly over, the question had to be posed: What next for new writing and those whose work binds them to a bygone era?
Scottish playwright David Grieg – whose most recent work, Outlying Island, transferred from Edinburgh’s Traverse theatre to the Royal Court in September 2002 - proposed a ‘rough’ theatre. Compelled by his recent experience in Palestine, he lay out the challenge of a theatre genuinely liberatory and resistant. Watching a performance take place in the remains of a theatre on the frontline despite its decrepit, bombed state - with no electricity, real bullet holes, little roofing - it became clear why the theatre’s sign read ‘Inad’ - Arabic for ‘stubborn’. Here was theatre responding to a need: a vital, urgent and committed audience and company joined together in an act of resistance against that which dominates their everyday existence.
Greig suggested an attempt to ‘resist the management of our imagination by global capital’. The strength of theatre lies in the fact that it is one of the few remaining public spaces which cannot be globalised: it is a local space, in essence, accessible to all people. Under no illusions that theatre will be able to change the world, Greig reminded us that ‘if the battleground is the imagination, theatre is a strong weapon.’ In light of September 11th, he suggested ‘if terror is the malignant way that the unimaginable can erupt, then theatre is the benign way that the unimaginable can erupt’. Theatre is a place to play out possibilities - the possibility of believing something you know to be untrue.
Greig’s ‘rough’ theatre encompasses the idea of a theatre which is poetic, not prosaic, childish, transcendent, in a rough space which is taken over, cheap, written and rehearsed quickly, musical, enchanting, unsuccessful, understanding, performed by amateurs, spiritual, non-fiction and fiction. The spirit of the ‘rough’ is situationist and beyond London-centric, intercultural and international.
Another playwright, Steve Waters, warned of the ‘vast enterprise of new writing’. His advice was to keep plays close and out of the circuit of literary departments, marketing strategies, and keep new works detached from the context of a theatre and its physical structure.
Sierz encouraged playwrights to become more ambitious, to write for larger spaces, find a new sensibility, employ a fusion of styles, use different theatrical languages, write for subversive space and create renegade theatre. The playwright has to take initiative, move away from sending hundreds of scripts out and make things happen. He suggested a return to creating art for art’s sake, for the sake of an event; a moment – locating the essential and pure in theatre. Sierz ended the conference shouting: ‘Let a thousand squatted theatres bloom’.
With the notion of eras and movements having been thoroughly deconstructed throughout the conference – in an effort to root out the individual – it seemed a contradictory note to finish on. But an important message emerged through the conference (evident in the sheer volume of academic research and publications about this short period in British theatre): the playwright works in a powerful medium, each time a pen touches paper it is political. Good plays have a two-fold existence: they embody their own time, whilst expressing eternal truths.