For three years, #ReadaPlayaWeek was a, well, weekly feature of our blog. Starting out as a way to familiarise myself more with the canon, long-established and establishment writers were a regular feature. Later, we (now a co-authored blog) decided to challenge ourselves to read more and more widely, and to give equal focus between male and female writers.
By the time we decided to pause it at the end of 2016, it was by no means an all-male, white, British, showcase. Indeed, playwrights so well known that their first names aren’t necessary were still featured but there were also plays by Stephen Karam, Annie Baker, Tanika Gupta, Winsome Pinnock, Roy Williams, and Rachel De-lahay. Finding plays to write about wasn’t always easy. Outside of London and Amazon, bookshops and libraries are heaving with Shakespeare, Bennett and Churchill (not a complaint), but it’s rare to see something new or not on the syllabus.
After a two year hiatus, it’s back with a monthly blog post (or at least that’s the aim). Last year, in the midst of a new house and job and perhaps in a Fluoxetine-fuelled inertia, it took me six months to read one play! The play wasn’t particularly long or dense and was actually very good, as reflected in the sweeping five star reviews in its recent London transfer. But I read a scene, forgot it and then re-read until I was stuck in a cycle of American rustbelt procrastination. I’ll try to re-read it and include it later in the year.So here we go:
In Arabia, We’d All Be Kings (1999) by Stephen Adly Guirgis
From Our Lady of 121st Street to The Motherfucker with the Hat and Between Riverside and Crazy, Adly Guirgis is interested in how people sink or swim in a changing New York City.
Here, in the Hell’s Kitchen of the nineties, a neighbourhood bar is at the centre of reformed criminals, junkies and prostitutes. Is there a list of 100 best opening scenes? If not, then there’s a strong argument that this play should rank highly.
A recently released Lenny is attempting to hold his own in his old roosting ground. But for all of his bluster and aggression, it’s all futile. He argues with his girlfriend who later walks out on him, and squaring up to another man results in a pathetic attempt of power at a jukebox. The most power he has is to make the younger man sit outside. And when some old friends walk in, he is left to find that most of his old acquaintances are dead and his old haunts have been gentrified, before being completely demoralised by a 17 year old girl. He can’t even get a drink.The dialogue always zips forward with vim; and any issues or themes are driven by story and characters, who are always well-rounded with a sense of decency, or at least humanity, whatever their flaws. It’s a cracking play and makes me even more excited to see Jesus Hopped the ‘A’ Train next month.Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.The Guys (2001) by Anne Nelson“We have no idea what wonders lie hidden in the people around us”I hadn’t heard much about this play. Staged 12 weeks to the day after 9/11 at the Flea Theatre, just a couple of blocks away from the site of the World Trade Centre, Anne Nelson’s play is a fascinating blend of theatre and journalism which put theatre’s claim of immediacy to the test. We hear that “After September eleventh, all over the city, people were jumping tracks”. A writer living in New York, sharing in the city’s sense of uselessness, was asked to help a fire chief to write a number of eulogies for the men he’d lost. In this fascinating two hander, originally staged as a workshop with Sigourney Weaver and Bill Murray, we hear the details from the day and its aftermath and the machinations of a NYC firehouse. And most memorably, we hear about the lives of those men lost: as firefighters, as friends and as family members. This play is – at least mostly – autobiographical. Like Nelson, Oklahoma-born Joan has made New York her home. Like Joan, Nelson witnessed 9/11 via the TV and through a phone call from her husband who saw it from his office. Like Nelson, Joan went out to vote later that same day. It brings to mind that this is one person’s perspective, only one experience of how their life was touched and changed by such horrors. It’s a difficult play but opens a window to the idea that behind the shadow of every person lives a wealth of talent, friendship, love and opportunity.Published by Random House.The Nest by Franz Xaver Kroetz (new version by Conor McPherson)“Look around at everything you’ve made possible…”Billed as a modern morality tale, McPherson’s take on Kroetz’s play is a scant two-hander about the anxieties of parenthood and consumerism. Soon-to-be-parents, Kurt and Martha, live on the breadline in an unnamed European city where material wealth represents happiness and well-being. Kurt earns a living driving trucks for up to fifty hours a week. He feels the pressure to provide for his wife and provide the best that money can buy for their unborn child. Yet, this consumerist philosophy has devastating consequences when Martha finds out just how far Kurt will go to earn and extra an Euro or two.Xaver and McPherson target debates concerning what makes a ‘good’ parent and the immorality of capitalism. In Kurt’s striving to be a good parent he is increasingly a physical absence from his son’s life. The insistence that Martha stays home to look after the baby highlights the enduring imbalance of the sexes when it comes to the work/life balance. In an age where the typical nuclear family is fast becoming a defunct notion, the outdated man/woman and father/mother binaries are here brought into sharp focus. Thematically, these issues are portrayed strongly by McPherson, whereas other socio-political subjects seem tagged on as a means of pandering to the zeitgeist. An eleventh hour eco-message is somewhat lost amidst the human drama, and Kurt’s casual racism, although topical, seems too flippant to create any lasting impact.The Nest is a brief but thoughtful insight into modern parenthood and ethical responsibility.Published by Nick Hern Books.
born bad (2003) by debbie tucker green“the bits don’t make the bulk and the bulk don’t mek the whole and the all a your bits together don’t make your versions true”debbie tucker green’s first two plays were staged within months of each other. At such an early stage of her career, born bad (originally directed by Kathy Burke at the Hampstead) has the distinct linguistic style characteristic of her later work. In an early scene, we see Dawta call Mum a bitch. More than just a throwaway remark, Dawta is resolute and purposefully harsh in her tirade: ‘if yu actin like a bitch/ I’m a call yu it’. As the play unfolds in a series of conversations between Dawta, Mum, Brothers and Sisters 1 and 2, we start to piece together the jigsaw of a family in the immediate aftermath of the revelation of abuse.Characters may be named after their familial roles (more specifically their roles in relation to Dawta), but they are fleshed out. It does draw attention to their roles they play and how they cope when this can of worms opens. This trauma upturns their world: the play delves into a plexus of fraught relationships as they examine everything they’ve believed to be true. One of the sisters and Mum swing from refusing to believe Dawta to blaming her, covering a huge amount of self-doubt. And as in tucker green’s random, language (spoken and unspoken) holds power. What may be mistaken as stylistic tautology, characters repeat, pick others’ phrasing apart, hold others to account, and ensure that words are not put into the mouths of others. But the play also relishes silence particularly that of Dad. But, in an ending which perhaps speaks of how the family will move forward, Dad still gets the last word.Published by Nick Hern Books.The Strange Death of John Doe (2018) by Fiona Doyle“Falling through space. And time. Into space and time. Falling”A body falls out of the wheel well of a British Airways plane about to land at Heathrow. Where did he come from? What’s his story? What put him in this position? As a team of morticians try to piece together the anatomical material of what’s happened, DC Kavura becomes obsessed with trying to get to the centre of Ximo’s life and find the soul behind the body. Doyle’s incredible play is an unnerving exploration into someone’s inner universe, searching for meaning of what a life is composed of beyond the physical and interrogating the boundaries between body and soul. I was fascinated by the way the text pushed to use space in ever more fluid and innovative ways: rib cracking shears in London become hedge clippers in Africa, continents merge and bodies become omnipresent. Doyle’s sense of drilling down to the reasoning behind an all too common tragedy leads her to tapping into an intriguing and topical subject. Published by Nick Hern Books.