“As we recongregate and watch plays, what do we want to see?” asks theatre director Ian Rickson. “The Beaux’ Stratagem is a really great play, for instance — but do you want to see it first up out of lockdown? Or would you rather see something that is fresh, new, pioneering, trying to look at where we are and give you something you’ve not seen before?”
That’s a question for directors and audiences right now. As English theatres start to reopen in 10 days’ time, many will rejoice to see the West End coming back to life, with familiar favourites such as Hamilton, Wicked and The Lion King returning this summer.
For Rickson, that’s great to see — “We all need those big shows back” — but it’s also a time to embrace the new. Before lockdown, he was at London’s Harold Pinter Theatre with a star-studded Uncle Vanya. Now he’s back as artistic director of Re: Emerge, a season of new drama produced by Sonia Friedman.
Showcasing young writers in the commercial pressure cooker of the West End would be bold at any time; at a time when finances have been stretched to breaking, it seems more audacious still. But Rickson suggests it’s more important now than ever to bring new voices to the fore.
“[The pandemic] has given us all time to think about what we really value and what theatre is for,” he says. “To consider what we want to come back with, how we want to work, who we want to include, who is allowed to have access to it. The more the months went on, the more we [he and Friedman] felt, ‘Let’s try and be as bold and incisive as possible.’” (Friedman is not the only leading producer acting on this instinct: Nica Burns’s Rising Stars Festival is giving 23 young producers a slot at her theatres this summer.)
Rickson points out that no household name started out famous and that, throughout history, cataclysmic events have led to change and innovation, as artists have sought to respond to the experience their generation has just endured.
“You’ve got the birth of modernism and all the radical invention after the first world war,” he says. “Then existentialism and Beckett and Pinter after the second world war. We wouldn’t want to wish [the pandemic] on anybody. But when you focus down to who are we, out of the forge of these traumatic events you come back really strong.”
For him, the three plays in Re: Emerge all take up that baton. Walden by American playwright Amy Berryman reflects on climate change through the prism of sibling love and rivalry; Joseph Charlton’s Anna X, inspired by the true story of fake heiress Anna Delvey, explores aspiration, deceit and online identity. In Yasmin Joseph’s J’Ouvert, serious questions about history, racism and sexism thread through a joyous, music-laced drama about two young black women at the Notting Hill Carnival.
Together they offer a chance to reflect on where we are now, says Rickson. But they are also funny, sparky and come at the epic through the intimate: “There’s no checklist, you’re not trying to cover things,” he says. “Each of the writers is trying to write about the world in a really involving contemporary political way that isn’t diagnostic or preachy.”
For Berryman, whose play Walden opens the season (directed by Rickson), that’s important. She imagines a near future in which Nasa is establishing colonies on Mars, climate activists retreat to live in the woods and debate rages over whether to fix the planet or flee. Recent events have made the play more timely, she suggests.
“I was waiting for confirmation that this production was going to happen while I was watching the Perseverance Rover land on Mars,” she says. “And while my aunt, who lives in Texas, was experiencing blizzards.”
But while the ethical issues underpinning the play are huge, Berryman’s focus is domestic. Questions about how to live become entangled with family history and the complex bonds between two sisters. Berryman hopes the play can make space for audiences to reflect differently on an issue that can feel too divisive to debate or too big to contemplate.
“It’s set against the backdrop of this huge crisis, but it’s just about three people,” she says. “It may sound naive to some people, but I think if we’re all sitting in the dark having the same experience, you can walk out changed.”
At a time of increasing polarisation, drama can explore the grey areas, agrees Joseph Charlton. “I think that’s the point of theatre,” he says, “to spend time with people you wouldn’t think you want to spend time with and examine what you share. It’s so easy to condemn.”
In Charlton’s Anna X we meet two such people: a con artist who passes herself off as a super-rich art curator and the tech CEO behind an exclusive dating app. Inspired by (but not about) the fake heiress Anna Delvey, it becomes a sort of Great Gatsby for our era, exploring self-reinvention through the internet, Instagram fame and what constitutes success.
“I was writing the play while the Fyre Festival debacle was happening,” says Charlton, referring to the 2017 fake luxury festival. “That was a good example of someone who put up some pretty pictures of famous people and sold an idea that wasn’t a real thing. And recently, when young people were canvassed in America, the job they most wanted was YouTube influencer. I don’t know where we go from that really. It’s the fetishisation of success. If you can get there by any means necessary, people will forgive you almost anything.”
The play was first staged in the underground space of The Vaults beneath Waterloo Station in London and, for Charlton, it needs to retain that sharp, snappy, innovative style: “I really want it to feel like a departure from what you might normally go and see in the West End,” he says.
Yasmin Joseph echoes that thought. Her exuberant play J’Ouvert had a run at London’s tiny Theatre503 in 2019, where just three actors had to evoke the thronged, pulsating atmosphere of the Notting Hill Carnival. That improvisation became central to its nature.
“We couldn’t afford a chorus of 100 people to be a crowd,” she says. “But we kept reminding ourselves that if we look at Carnival, the event itself is about resourcefulness: about British Caribbean people who came to this country, contributed massively, got so little back and managed to claim these streets in the same way, every year — and that in itself being an act of resistance.”
Set in 2017, in the wake of the Grenfell Tower tragedy, it’s a play flecked with grief and anger, but one that bursts with the defiant joy and love of its young female characters as they assert their right to be there. It needs to spill over and embrace the audience, says Joseph — including in the West End.
“The audience always felt like the final character in this play,” she says. “So it’s trying to find ways to dispel the idea of the well-behaved audience and telling them, ‘Yes, you are allowed to laugh, you are allowed to call out, sing, laugh and shout back.’ On a night when that clicks, it can be magical.”
Joseph’s play has already won the James Tait Black Prize for Drama and been filmed for the BBC. Yet she will be only the second black British woman to have a work in the West End. For her, Re: Emerge sets down an important marker. But it’s also about nurturing the grassroots for new work to flourish.
“There’s been a lot of conversation about wanting the industry to look different when we come back to it,” she says. “It’s about removing the barriers to getting started — not equating people with financial risk.”
Re: Emerge runs from May 22 at the Harold Pinter Theatre, atgtickets.com. ‘J’Ouvert’ is on BBC iPlayer