Celebrating their 250th anniversary, the Royal Academy is hosting a 10-day Festival of Ideas, bringing together some of the finest creative minds in a series of intellectual debates on art, music, theatre, literature, architecture and film. Writer James Graham and Director Rupert Goold are two men not short of ideas, and a one-hour conversation about making responsive accessible theatre expands into an engaging examination of everything from the British character and the right moment to present new work, to theatrical purpose in Ancient Greece.
In a panel Chaired by leading arts writer Sarah Crompton held in the Royal Academy’s amphitheatrical Benjamin West Lecture Theatre, she described her guests as illuminating every stage on which their work appears. Graham is an Olivier-award winning playwright whose astonishing productivity saw three new plays in the West End in little over a year, of which Labour of Love opened cold with Ink soon transferring to the theatre next door and will open on Broadway in 2019. Rupert Goold has been Artistic Director of the Almeida Theatre since 2013 spearheading the production of some of the best new work of recent years including Lucy Kirkwood’s Chimerica and Mike Bartlett’s King Charles III as well as directing Ink.
Both known for tackling political subjects, Crompton opened the debate by asking what draws them to these subjects in particular and why the 1970s has featured repeatedly in their work. For Graham, a love of narrative history was the key and a desire to examine points in time when one way of living was replaced with another. The 1970s, he explained, was the point at which the “slow death of post-war consensus” politics was ousted by Thatcherite neoliberalism, creating an interesting dramatic juxtaposition for a “characters in crisis,” against a backdrop of “a nation at a crossroads.”
Goold meanwhile acknowledged that Graham’s generation has embraced political playwriting in a way his own did not but insisted that there are only some many times you can “reanimate a classic”, theatre by its very nature can have an immediacy and nimbleness that other arts cannot share. For Goold, the interest in the 1970s represents the dying out of the spirit of 1960s radicalism and understanding where that went.
In creating work about politics, Crompton went on to ask about balance and intent which Goold felt changes considerably when asked what theatre is for. The Ancient Greeks, he explained, mandated theatre attendance ensuring that all citizens listened to and debated the stories being presented, but across history, it is censorship that has most “liberated the political voice”. With free speech, our era lacks the kind of opposition that drives the creation of such work, he claims.
Graham challenged this idea, speaking about theatre as a community activity through which a consensus can be reached. He explained that in his own work, which he self-deprecatingly described as “unfashionable,” he strives to present a balanced multi-perspective narrative in which audiences can delve more deeply into the motivations and intent of those with whom they may disagree politically. There is “an empathy deficit in our national discourse” Graham argued, so theatre has a role in helping audiences understand, if not necessarily agree, with others.
Crompton then asked about the dangers of topicality and Goold discussed the British satirical tradition which, as he discovered with the Enron transfer to Broadway, does not always translate to other cultures where real revolutions have taken place. Yet some world events require time to digest before writers can tackle them he felt. Graham picked-up on this point to discuss his forthcoming TV drama which takes place in the 10-weeks leading up to the Brexit vote, and, despite his preference for “self-contained timeframes” into which drama can be inserted, is challenged by the ongoing revelations about Leave Campaign activities that are still emerging.
Finally, the panel discussed accessibility and creating space for non-traditional audiences to find the work. Graham used the recent This House tour as an example of understanding the regional response to his plays and wanting to ensure greater diversity among the people making theatre in order to draw wider audiences. Goold and Crompton agreed that ticket prices were a significant barrier, and Goold explained the Almeida Theatre hopes to make at least a fifth of its tickets free in the future, but, with cuts to government funding for the arts, such schemes must rely on private and corporate donations that come with their own agenda.
But both panellists argued passionately that school is the place where a love of theatre is born and including arts education in the curriculum has an equalising effect. Graham’s latest project the co-written play James Graham’s Sketching, opening at Wilton’s Music Hall at the end of September, is an attempt to offer the kind of mentoring and support he received to a diverse group of new writers.
Crompton concluded the session with a question about populism, wondering why both panellists have chosen to create plays that are entertaining as well as educative. “I have a low boredom threshold”, Goold joked and wants the work to be gripping and provocative but not complacent about audience attention. Graham agreed, never wanting audiences to think they should see something but to go because they want to. It’s vital that audiences ultimately have a good time.
With plenty of work in the pipeline and active attempts to improve the industry things could look very different 5 years from now. After an hour of healthy discussion, some debate and plenty of insight into the creative process, arts access and the political theatre tradition, it’s fair to say that neither Goold nor Graham is short of ideas, we just need to keep listening.
The Festival of Ideas runs at the Royal Academy of Arts until 16 September
Maryam Philpott | Images: Mark Brenner/ Steve Tanner