A West End run for a play about Enron suggests that 2010 could be a bumper year for new work on the London stage.
Writing a wrong
The London plays that everyone remembers from 2009 are the classics starring familiar faces: Othello with Lenny Henry, A Streetcar Named Desire with Rachel Weisz as Blanche Dubois, Hamlet with David Tennant as the prince. The bankable blockbuster is not a trend that's going to disappear in 2010 - tickets sold quickly for A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Rose in Kingston from today, starring Judy Dench as Titania - but as the new decade gets under way, there's a buzz around fresh, original work. And three of the most talked-about plays to hit London's big theatres in January were brand new.
The Royal Court is known for nurturing up-and-coming talent, and in January two of its plays transferred to the West End. First up was Enron, which deals with the Texas energy company's financial scandal by mixing music, dance and video with prescient dialogue that seems to foreshadow the current recession (it was written before the credit crunch). Penned by Lucy Prebble, 28, its premiere at the Chichester Festival Theatre last July met with wild acclaim and it sold out a subsequent six-week run at the Royal Court. Now it is reaching an even bigger audience in the West End's Noel Coward Theatre, before heading to Broadway in April.
Its director, Rupert Goold, the artistic director of the Headstrong Theatre company, has already won an Evening Standard Best Director Award for his work on the production. Prebble's first play, The Sugar Syndrome, gained her a Critics Circle Award in 2004. A graduate of the Royal Court's young writing programme, she went on to write the television drama Secret Diary of a Call Girl, starring the former pop star Billy Piper and based on the anonymous blog Belle de Jour, before finishing Enron, which took her four years to write.
Finance sounds a tough subject to make thrilling, but Prebble has said that her play is more about "hypermasculinity" than economics. "If you watch a trading floor in action," she said in a recent interview, "it's one of the most theatrical places." Originally conceived as a musical, Enron morphed into a hybrid of an ancient Greek tragedy and a 21st-century multimedia piece during early talks between Prebble and Goold, whose company presented the show in Chichester, where the critics praised the script and strong performances by Samuel West and Tim Piggot-Smith.
The other transfer at the end of January was Jez Butterworth's Jerusalem, which started its three-month run at the 800-capacity Apollo Theatre. At 41, Butterworth has plenty of his career left in front of him, but he's had a bit more time to get used to the spotlight than Prebble. The London-born writer and director had a hit in 1995 with Mojo, a black comedy set in a Soho nightclub in the 1950s, for which he won an Olivier award. It was later adapted into a film featuring Harold Pinter. Another film he wrote, Birthday Girl, was shot in 2001 with Nicole Kidman in the starring role.
Butterworth is a prolific writer; another work, Parlour Song, only made its debut in London in March last year, to positive reviews, but it has already been overshadowed by the acclaim doled out to Jerusalem, which opened at the Royal Court in July and won Best Play and Best Actor at last year's Evening Standard Awards. Mark Rylance won the latter, for his performance as the hellraiser Johnny "Rooster" Byron, a Romany pied piper figure who spices up his rural caravan-dwelling existence by throwing raves for local kids, guzzling drugs and telling tall stories.
The role of an energetic eccentric is perfect for Rylance, who has won a raft of acting awards (including Oliviers, Tonys and a Bafta) for stage and screen work and who became the first artistic director of the Shakespeare's Globe theatre in 1995. Known for being outspoken, he has read poetry at awards acceptance speeches, presided over often outlandish productions of the classics, and in 2007 co-authored with Derek Jacobi a "Declaration of Reasonable Doubt" on the authorship of Shakespeare's work in order to encourage fresh research on the subject.
The judging panel at the Evening Standard Theatre Awards called his performance in Jerusalem "so charismatic, so mercurial, so complete and compelling that it doesn't look like acting". While Jerusalem was starting its run at the Apollo, a very different but equally raved-about piece of new theatre was gearing up for a performance at the Barbican's 2,000-capacity main auditorium, preceded by five nights at the Battersea Arts Centre (BAC). Trilogy, by 27-year-old Nic Green, started life as a short dance piece exploring women's relationships with their bodies, co-written with a colleague on holiday in France.
With the support of several theatres and funding organisations (as well as the cash Green won when she was awarded the prestigious Arches Award for Stage Directors in 2008) it was developed into a three-part, three-hour production addressing what it means to be a feminist today. The finished play had its premiere at the BAC in May before heading to the Edinburgh Fringe, where it received rapturous reviews. Support from the BAC and other arts bodies has been crucial in getting Trilogy to the stage, and according to the theatre's artistic director, David Micklem, there is an unprecedented amount of funding currently being funnelled into the arts in Britain.
"Right now," he says, "London's theatre scene has never been healthier." And that is making theatres - such as the BAC and the Barbican, which worked together to promote Trilogy - co-operate in an unprecedented way. "Ten years ago, that would have been unthinkable," he says. "We were all competing for limited funds and what we thought were limited audiences. But over 10 years of really strong investment by the government into the arts in this country, we've got a much more collaborative and collegiate way of working."
But with expected cuts in government funding on the horizon, and a possible change of leadership this year, the future may not be as bright. "There's a looming anxiety about what the future might hold," he admits. "We know that the last time the Conservatives were in government, they weren't particularly strong supporters of the arts, whereas for all the anxieties people might have had about the Labour government, one thing in their favour is that they have massively invested in the arts."
It has clearly paid off, from the looks of what's on offer at the beginning of 2010, but the uncertainty makes it even more imperative that anyone visiting London in the near future make the most of this current crop of exciting new work.