Max Stafford-Clark: The Arts Council and National Theatre are sucking the life out of new writing

Croach Touch Pause Engage - Robin Soans - National Theatre Wales/Out of Joint - 19 February 2015
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Croach Touch Pause Engage - Robin Soans - National Theatre Wales/Out of Joint - 19 February 2015 Directed by Max Stafford-Clark Designed by Angela Davis Lighting by Katy Morrison - Credit: Robert Workman Photographer

As his latest play tells the story of gay rugby player Gareth Thomas, the Holloway director tells Bridget Galton why he’s still entering the political scrum.

The irony is not lost on Max Stafford-Clark that, just as the National Theatre revives two older plays he helped to birth, his latest projects are under threat through lack of resources.

As found of Joint Stock and artistic director of the Royal Court in the Thatcher era, the Holloway resident became one of Britain’s most influential directors, staging plays by Caryl Churchill, David Hare, Andrea Dunbar, Howard Brenton and Timberlake Wertenbaker that have became modern classics.

But his method of nurturing often fledgling writers to produce brilliant new plays - including weeks of research and collaborative workshops - was in 2011 deemed by the Arts Council insufficient value for money.

His 2014 book: Journal of The Plague Year eloquently lays out the consequences of a dramatic funding cut upon Finsbury Park-based company Out of Joint.


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“It’s bitterly ironic that the facilities at the National Theatre studio which were open to anyone for research are under Rufus Norris now restricted to NT productions only, which is a cruel blow. Work like Light Shining in Buckinghamshire and Our Country’s Good (both revived there this year) depended on that kind of research being put into development.

“At a time when new work in the commercial theatre is as rare as rabbits on the motorway I am very fearful not just for Out of Joint but because the infrastructure that for 20 years has supported new work is disappearing.

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“Regional theatres are having to make safer and safer choices. If there is not a palette presented by theatres in a town that includes new work, then the taste for it begins to wither because the people haven’t experienced it.”

Unlike many subsidised companies Out of Joint tours to small regional venues. Their latest Crouch Touch Pause Engage, a co-production with the National Theatre of Wales, comes to the Arcola Theatre this month.

“We are an expensive company because we put resources into research and development and touring itself is expensive. We are being encouraged to turn into a business – every theatre company has to submit it’s business model to the Arts Council – but new writing and business can’t really co-exist in the same sentence.”

Robin Soan’s twin-stranded verbatim piece examines both the coming out of Welsh rugby captain Gareth Thomas in 2009, and the “mysterious epidemic of teen suicides” in his home town of Bridgend.

Using trademark Stafford-Clark techniqes such as Brechtian role sharing, stylised movement, and a narrative that flows across time and space, it has been hailed by critics a dynamic study of alienation and identity.

“Gareth was an iconic player. Sport and rugby in particular is still intolerant to players coming out,” says the 74-year-old.

“He is a very charismatic character who felt he could no longer live without telling his friends, parents and team. The agony he went through and the pressure he put himself under brought him near to suicide.”

Thomas’ story links with that of two young women from Brigend covering up personal trauma and contemplating taking their lives.

“The media wrongly attributed the suicides to a Satanic internet cult. The real reasons are the same for any place experiencing post industrial collapse, depressed fathers out of work, self-harming and young people with no future.”

Stafford-Clark says his role doubling and sharing - here each of the six actors takes the part of Thomas - “is a playful way to focus on the issues rather than the personalities,” but admits “all aesthetics are driven by economics.”

Currently researching a new piece about the idealism that founded the new towns in 1948, he believes his rich career including staging Churchill’s Cloud Nine and Top Girls, Dunbar’s The Arbour, and Hare’s Fanshen is based upon the idea that theatre is both a forum for social debate and to examine history.

“I love new writing because of the dialogue with the writer, the joy of seeing it for the first time – it’s a slightly superior form of horse racing. Sometimes like with Our Country’s Good you feel its going to be a disaster then the reception is extraordinary.”

More recent work; examining the privatisation of the railways in Hare’s The Permanent Way; the grooming of young women by Asian men in A State Affair, and the NHS in This Won’t Hurt a Bit proves he’s still entering the political scrum.

“I am very lucky to have had a working life in a country where theatre is the most important medium for social examination.

“It should of course be entertainment as well. When you get it right it’s joyful.”

Crouch Touch Pause Engage runs at the Arcola in Hackney until June 20. arcolatheatre.com

Bridget Galton

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