Naturalistic/realistic drama

Plays

Anna Karenina (adapt. Edmundson)

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, is a meditation on the nature of love. It was first performed by Shared Experience at the Theatre Royal, Winchester, on 30 January 1992 at the start of a nationwide tour.

Married to a provincial governor, the punctilious Alexei Karenin, Anna revolts against her life of compromise when she meets the charming officer Count Vronsky. She embarks on a scandalous affair, which completely destroys her family life and brings her to the brink of destruction. Interspersed with Anna’s tragic downfall is the story of Levin, an idealistic landowner striving to find meaning in his life – a character often seen as a self-portrait of Tolstoy himself. Edmundson's adaptation illuminates the story's grand pattern: how the adulterous Anna travels towards disintegration and death, while the young landowner, Levin, travels toward maturity and a sense of wholeness.

Edmundson frames the action of Tolstoy’s novel within an imagined dialogue between Levin and Anna. She brings Anna and Levin together in the opening scene: 'This is my story,' says Anna. 'It seems it is mine too,' replies Levin, and for the remainder of the play scenes are set and emotions summarised through the imaginary exchange of their confidences. The device allows Edmundson to distil the novel down to a carefully curated selection of episodes; she is able to translate almost a thousand pages, and a cast of nearly as many, into an intimate chamber drama.

In an author's note in the published text, Edmundson explains her decision not to cut the Levin strand of the novel, as many adaptations do: 'Without Levin, Anna Karenina is a love story, extraordinary and dark, but essentially a love story. With Levin it becomes something great.'

The Shared Experience production was directed by Nancy Meckler and designed by Lucy Weller. The cast was Annabelle Apsion, Katherine Barker, Tilly Blackwood, Gregory Floy, Max Gold, Richard Hope, Nigel Lindsay and Pooky Quesnel. The production then toured to Cardiff, Oxford, Leeds, Leicester, Taunton, Salisbury, and finally to the Tricycle Theatre, London, where it opened on 10 March 1992.

The play was revived at the Arcola Theatre, London, in 2011 by The Piano Removal Company, directed by Max Webster.

Apologia

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Alexi Kaye Campbell's second play, Apologia presents a disastrous family reunion as the occasion for a critical look at what has happened to 60s idealists and their children. It was first performed at the Bush Theatre, London, on 17 June 2009.

Kristin Miller is an eminent and successful art historian in her sixties. As a young mother she followed her politics and vocation, storming Parisian barricades and moving to Florence. Now she has written a book about her life – a book that fails to mention her two children, Peter and Simon. So when her sons and their partners, Trudi and Claire, gather at Kristin's cottage in the countryside to celebrate her birthday, she finds herself ambushed by their very different versions of the past. Over the course of the evening, everyone must confront the cost of Kristin’s commitment to her passions.

The Bush Theatre premiere was directed by Josie Rourke with Paolo Dionisotti as Kristin, Tom Beard as Peter, John Light as Simon, Sarah Goldberg as Trudi, Nina Sosanya as Claire and Philip Voss as Hugh, an old friend of Kristin's.

The play was well received by the critics, with several remarking on how it built on the promise of Campbell's previous play, The Pride. Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph wrote that Campbell was 'fast emerging as a dramatist of rare distinction', while Henry Hitchings in The Evening Standard concluded that the play 'confirms his standing as a fresh and sensitive voice'.

Arthur & George

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

David Edgar's Arthur & George is a stage play based on Julian Barnes’ Booker Prize-nominated novel of the same name (first published in 2005), itself based on a real-life case in which Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (the creator of fictional detective Sherlock Holmes) found himself playing detective. The play takes the form of a detective thriller that raises questions about guilt and innocence, identity, nationality and race. It was first performed at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre on 19 March 2010 in a coproduction with Nottingham Playhouse.

In 1903, Birmingham solicitor George Edalji was found guilty of a series of brutal attacks on farm animals, known as the Great Wyrley Outrages. He was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment with hard labour. Desperate to prove his innocence, he recruited Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of the world famous detective Sherlock Holmes, to help solve his mysterious case and win him a pardon.

Edgar restructures Barnes's story. He starts with a meeting between Conan Doyle and Edalji that took place after the latter's prison sentence had been commuted, although his conviction remained intact. Through flashbacks, we learn the details of the case: how Edalji, his Parsee-born vicar father and his Scottish mother had been subjected to a campaign of sustained intimidation. We also learn how the sober, industrious Edalji had been accused of being part of the Great Wyrley gang that brutalised local cattle, and of being the source of the poison-pen letters to his own family. Conan Doyle determines to clear Edalji's name and, assuming the mantle of Sherlock Holmes, uncover the true culprits.

The Birmingham Repertory Theatre production was directed by Rachel Kavanaugh and designed by Ruari Murchison, with Adrian Lukis as Arthur and Chris Nayak as George. Other members of the cast were Richard Attlee, William Beck, Simon Coates, Daniel Crowder, Kirsty Hoiles and Anneika Rose.

The production subsequently transferred to Nottingham Playhouse, with performances there from 22 April 2010.

The Aspidistra Code

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Mark O’Rowe’s The Aspidistra Code, the first play he wrote, is a sinister but comic drama of honour and violence. It was selected by Ireland's National Association of Youth Drama as one of the winners of the Stage IT! Young Playwright’s Project, an initiative founded to encourage playwrights between the ages of eighteen and thirty. The play was first presented as a rehearsed reading at the Peacock Theatre, Dublin, on 2 December 1995, directed by Gerard Stembridge

The play is set in an 'average-sized living room' belonging to Brendan and Sonia, who are in debt. They fear the arrival of the Drongo, a violent and unpredictable loan shark. But Brendan’s brother Joe has hired protection in the person of Crazy Horse. As it turns out, Crazy Horse and the Drongo are old mates and the crisis seems to have been averted. That is until the Drongo’s code of honour is called into question, precipitating a bloody showdown.

In his foreword to Mark O'Rowe Plays: One (Nick Hern Books, 2011), O'Rowe describes the play as 'a light, funny piece, probably most easily categorised as a kitchen-sink-crime-comedy-drama'.

The Astronaut’s Chair

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Rona Munro's The Astronaut's Chair is a play about the race to be the first woman in space. The second of a proposed trilogy of plays about space exploration, it followed her earlier play Little Eagles (2011), about the engineer behind the Soviet space programme.

The Astronaut's Chair was commissioned by and first performed at the Drum Theatre, Plymouth, on 20 September 2012.

The play's protagonist, Renee Coburg (loosely based on pioneer woman aviator Jacqueline Cochran), is a gritty, glamorous aviator, the fastest, highest, bravest woman in the world. A self-made pilot, she battled against a poor childhood to fly planes in World War II. As America and the USSR enter the space race, she becomes determined to be the first woman to go into orbit. However, it won’t all be plain sailing as she faces stiff competition from an ambitious new rival. Jo Green is a determined, brilliant and much younger pilot with her eye on all Renee’s records. They both want to be the first woman in space but there’s only one chair at the top of the rocket.

The Drum Theatre production was directed by Simon Stokes and designed by Bob Bailey. The cast included Ingrid Lacey (as Renee Coburg), Tom Hodgkins, Jack Sandle, Eleanor Wyld and Amanda Ryan.

The Authorised Kate Bane

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Ella Hickson’s The Authorised Kate Bane is a play about families and how we're defined by shared family memories, both real and invented. It was first performed at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, on 12 October 2012 in a production by Grid Iron Theatre Company.

Kate Bane, a 30-year-old playwright, returns home to her parents' house in Kelso, Scotland, for a winter weekend to introduce her new boyfriend, Albin. As the snow falls, she finds herself searching with increasing desperation for the truth about her family’s past. Are her memories fact, or are they continually shifting acts of imagination? Unable to pin down the truth, she attempts to write a version of the family mythology that might ensure her own future happiness.

The playtext indicates four different settings: Kate’s flat in London, where she is writing a play; the imagined Bane family home in Kelso, where the action of Kate's play takes place; Kate's memory; and edited versions of the play as Kate rewrites it.

The premiere production was directed by Ben Harrison and designed by Becky Minto. The cast was Nicky Elliott, Jenny Hulse, Anne Kidd and Sean Scanlan.

The production transferred to the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, with performances from 30 October 2012.

Bad Weather

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Robert Holman's Bad Weather is a play exploring the nature of violence and the possibility of redemption. It was first performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, on 22 April 1998.

The play begins on a grim housing estate in Middlesbrough, North Yorkshire. There’s been a fight at a local Chinese restaurant. A man is badly injured. Two young men are involved, Luke and Jamie. Despite the fact that both boys are guilty of the attack, loudmouth Luke manages to get off whilst Jamie, unwilling to grass up his best mate, is sent to prison. To complicate matters, Jamie’s girlfriend (and Luke’s sister) Rhona is carrying his child. The court case takes its toll on Jamie’s French mother, Kay, whose stress is aggravated when her former nanny, Agnès, turns up unannounced having been estranged for twenty years. However, her appearance may just offer a means of escape for everyone involved and transform the storm in which they are trapped into a far brighter outlook.

As Colin Chambers writes in an introduction to the published script, 'Much of Holman's work has been seen to startling effect in small theatres because, as in Bad Weather, he reveals the larger picture beyond through small and often domestic detail, driven by sharp observation of life rather than a particular ideology and by a deceptive economy of style that is spare and steely, yet compassionate and emotionally powerful.'

The Royal Shakespeare Company premiere was directed by Steven Pimlott and designed by Ashley Martin-Davis. The cast was Emma Handy, Paul Popplewell, Ryan Pope, Susan Brown, Barry Stanton and Susan Engel.

The Beaux' Stratagem

Bloomsbury Publishing
Type: Text

The Beaux’ Stratagem (1707) is George Farquhar’s last play: it premiered a month and a half before his untimely death aged 30, at the Queen’s Theatre in Haymarket, a new venue built by dramatist and architect John Vanbrugh on the Western fringes of the city of London. Seen as one of the most humane and democratic writers of the post-Restoration stage, Farquhar did not live to see the play become one of the most performed plays of the eighteenth century.

Farquhar’s last play is the story of two fortune-hunting beaux, Aimwell and Archer, who have journeyed from London to the provincial town of Lichfield. Their plan is to work their way through several towns, alternately pretending to be master and servant until one of them finds a rich heiress. But at the first hurdle, Aimwell falls sincerely in love with his prey, and begins to woo the beautiful Dorinda in earnest. Meanwhile his ‘footman’ Archer arouses the wistful interest of the unhappily married Mrs Sullen, the wife of a boorish squire. The play is further populated by a corrupt innkeeper, his lovely daughter, a highwayman, a disguised Irish priest, a country gentlewoman who believes she has healing powers, and a lowly servant who became one of the best-loved comic roles of the eighteenth century.

The Beaux’ Stratagem has been praised for the range, depth and naturalism of its characters: at a time when most comedies were written in, for and about London, Farquhar leaves behind the tendency to portray country folk as uncouth and laughable rustics. In addition, the play has been seen as broaching the gap between the sharp wit of Restoration comedy and its plots full of rakes and rascals, and the more genteel, sentimental comedy of the eighteenth century, whose focus falls not on sexual one-upmanship but on the realities of marital discord. The use of marriage as a way to improve social status had been long dramatized and satirized, but it is in his discussions of divorce that Farquhar reaches out to a humane understanding of the feasibility of marital harmony.

Feminist criticism has read into the play an early stirring of woman’s rights. In the previous century, plagued by the failings of patriarchal authority in kingship and commonwealth, questions had been raised about marriage being the best and/or only option for women, as it brought with it the possibility of unkind husbands and further loneliness. Farquhar’s comedy, ending with both marriage and divorce, highlighted the need for a reform of the divorce laws; this was a pertinent topic, as, despite the ills of marriage, only six divorces were granted by an Act of Parliament between 1660 and 1714.

Before It Rains

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Katherine Chandler's Before it Rains is a play about parenthood, protection and provocation set on a proud, forgotten Cardiff estate. It was first performed at Bristol Old Vic, on 10 September 2012.

The play's action mostly takes place on a council state allotment. Gloria is a single mum who enjoys sitting in her deckchair drinking her troubles away while her son Michael (a man with high-functioning Asperger syndrome) digs the soil and makes sure everything is in order. Carl, a newcomer to the area, is a charismatic, articulate wild boy whose approach is invariably heralded by the sound of the ball he is always bouncing. Carl lives with a psychopathic older brother and a violent, drug-addled father, and when he takes the gentle Michael under his wing, it is the start of a great deal of trouble.

The Bristol Old Vic premiere was directed by Róisín McBrinn and designed by Alyson Cummins, with Craig Gazey as Michael, Lisa Palfrey as Gloria and Harry Ferrier as Carl.

Be My Baby

Nick Hern Books
Type: Text

Amanda Whittington’s debut play Be My Baby sheds light on teenage pregnancy in 60s Britain. Featuring an all-female cast the play has proved incredibly popular with schools and drama groups across the UK and is currently a set text for GCSE English Literature.

Set in a Mother and Baby Home in 1964 in the north of England, the play follows the fortunes of Mary Adams, aged 19, unmarried and seven months pregnant. Forcibly sent there by a mother intent on keeping up appearances, Mary – along with the other girls in the home – has to cope both with the shame and the dawning realisation that she will have to give the baby up for adoption whether she likes it or not. Despite this, and an overbearing matron, the girls’ youthful effervescence keeps breaking through, as they sing along to the girl-group songs of the period.

Commissioned by Soho Theatre, the play started out as a story of a grown woman meeting her adopted child. However, as Whittington began to research she came across the story of Britain’s Mother and Baby Homes. These homes were a well-kept secret that nonetheless blighted the lives of thousands of young women to whom Whittington has given a voice in this play.

Be My Baby was first performed by the Soho Theatre Company at the Pleasance Theatre in London in 1998. Since its initial production, the play has been revived many times including at the Soho Theatre, Salisbury Playhouse, Oldham Coliseum, New Vic Theatre and Hull Truck Theatre.

A movement in late 19th-century drama that aimed to replace the artificial romantic style with accurate depictions of ordinary people in plausible situations. In attempting to create a perfect illusion of reality, playwrights and directors rejected dramatic conventions that had existed since the beginnings of drama. Euripides had taken a tentative step towards realism in the 5th century BC but in later European theatre ordinary people speaking colloquially had only appeared in comedy or farce; even in such plays no attempt was made to create realistic sets or scenery. The 19th-century realist movement revolutionized contemporary theatre in every aspect, from scenery, to styles of acting, from dialogue to make-up. The first moves towards modern realism were made in 16th-century Italy with the introduction of perspective scenery. By the mid 19th century realistic gas lamps had exposed the unnatural appearance of canvas backdrops; the realistic box set with three walls and furnishings was subsequently popularized by the US director and playwright David Belasco. The Victorians also pioneered mechanical devices that were capable of producing convincing scenic illusions and sensational effects, such as fires and train crashes. In the 18th century David Garrick initiated the use of historically accurate costumes and sets, a trend that was followed by directors including Sir Henry Irving and Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. Despite these developments, it was not until the end of the 19th century that the drama began to emulate the serious treatment of contemporary themes achieved in the novel. The move away from melodrama and stilted dialogue to “the plain truthful language of reality” was led by Henrik Ibsen, who is often called the father of modern realism. Ibsen also broke with convention by taking the everyday lives of his middle-class audience as subject matter for serious drama. In this he was followed by the Russians Chekhov and Gorki: while the former explored the ennui of outwardly uneventful middle-class lives, the latter depicted the drudgery and suffering of the poorest classes. The first serious steps to codify realism in acting were made by Konstantin Stanislavsky for productions at the Moscow Art Theatre. Before his production of Gorki’s The Lower Depths (1902), Stanislavsky sent his actors into the Moscow slums to prepare for their roles as beggars. This technique was later developed and systematized by Lee Strasberg as the method. Other playwrights to contribute to the realist movement included T. W. Robertson, Henry Arthur Jones, Harley Granville-Barker, and George Bernard Shaw in Britain, Eugene O’Neill in America, Victorien Sardou and Augustin Eugène Scribe in France, and Gerhart Hauptmann in Germany.

from Jonathan Law, ed., The Methuen Drama Dictionary of the Theatre (London, 2011).