We are used to the idea that the arts offer a different perspective on life from the one that is relentlessly thrust down our throats by our rolling news culture. But we tend to consume art in bite-size chunks; so it was interesting to stumble across an assembly of playwrights, and to consider their collective vision.
The occasion was the awards ceremony for the Bruntwood Prize, the premier award for British playwriting, which allocates £40,000 in prize-money every year to a winner and several runners-up. It is a sum that often enables the winner to begin writing full-time, and the Bruntwood is thus an important biennial influence on the development of British theatre. It is hosted by the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, which has just given a full production to the 2013 winner, a dystopian drama, Pomona by Alistair McDowall.
What the ten shortlisted entries to the 2015 competition had in common was the ability to make us see our everyday world with different eyes. The world from the news intrudes, of course, in a play set in the world’s largest refugee camp, and another about the destructive power of religious extremism in Africa. But the focus was chiefly on how the social phenomena of our times are refracted through the lens of the personal.
One play offered a critique of welfare reforms in a portrait of a young carer taking a zero-hours contract job to support her ill brother. The mindless warehouse packing routines that she performs echo the rituals of obsessive compulsive disorder in which the brother is trapped. Another play dealt with our contemporary fear over paedophilia, in the tale of a naïve grandmother who allows a “nice man” to take her toddler grandson to the lavatory in a supermarket café.
Yet the dramatists’ collective vision shows our preoccupations to be more inwardly focused. One play centred around the ups and downs of internet dating. Another offered an encounter between a couple who met after encountering one another on a phone sex line. A third plunged us into life in a town dissected by roads and railways, whose occupants felt that the world was passing them by.
One play hinted with foreboding at the sadness of any divorcing couple who use their child as a weapon in the breakdown of their relationship. Another dealt with a bipolar young woman whose adolescent-specialist psychiatrist wanted to pass her on to an adult therapist when the patient saw an opportunity to end all treatment and come off medication.
Perhaps the most compelling of the plays, of which short extracts were performed at the awards ceremony, was one about a woman who brought the public and the personal together, as she struggled to decide whether to douse herself in petrol and set herself alight in front of the Houses of Parliament, in a protest over an unspecified grievance.
Watching one extract after another in close succession was an experience that was both disturbing and enriching. It sent us more deeply into the pain of the world whose dramas flash superficially across our television screens. Yet it also brought us face to face with the humour, joy, and tenderness through which human beings find little redemptions in a world of travail.