In recent years it seems New York stages have been teeming with British plays. Though playwriting is still alive and well in the United States, British writers are thriving — perhaps even more so than their U.S. counterparts — in part due to greater government subsidy of the arts through the Arts Council of Great Britain and the existence of a true National Theatre with three main auditoriums and an international reach. Thanks to greater freedom to produce daring new works, theatre in the U.K. has produced a higher number of younger playwrights — many of them women — and many of whose plays are more adventerous, both formally and in terms of their subject matter.
This season alone, there are four major British plays opening on Broadway: Jez Butterworth's elliptical three-hander The River starring Hugh Jackman at the Circle in the Square Theatre; Nick Payne's formally audacious Constellations with Jake Gyllenhaal at Manhattan Theatre Club's Samuel J. Friedman Theatre; The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (Simon Stephens' adaptation of Mark Haddon's novel), direct from a smash-hit production at the National Theatre in London; and The Audience by Peter Morgan, which stars Helen Mirren as Queen Elizabeth II and depicts the imagined conversations of the Queen with her prime ministers counterparts over the years.
To celebrate the season's vibrant British offerings, we've chosen nine of the boldest British productions in New York from the last ten years. Audacity — in terms of formal daring, imaginative production elements and unique subject matter — has been given precedence for the purposes of this list, so many other acclaimed but otherwise conventional shows, like One Man, Two Guvnors; The History Boys and Frost/Nixon have been omitted. You'll see two names — the National Theatre and the Royal Court Theatre, which is devoted almost entirely to new work — repeated multiple times throughout this list, because these two institutions represent the pinnacle of new and ambitious productions in the U.K. Though there are a great many other theatres in London producing new works (the Almeida, the Bush and the Arcola are just a few), a vast majority of those plays that make it across the pond come from these two producing powerhouses.
Click through to see our picks.
By Sarah Kane
Though playwright Sarah Kane died in 1999, nearly ten years prior to the 2008 New York premiere of Blasted at Soho Rep, her brilliantly provocative play absolutely deserves a place on this list by dint of its cultural impact. Having originally premiered at London's Royal Court Theatre in 1995, Sarah Kane's writing had a massive impact on her generation of playwrights, some of whom formed an unofficial school of writing, branded "in-yer-face theatre" by British critic Aleks Sierz. Blasted, which takes place in a Leeds hotel room on the brink of catastrophic ruin, uses shocking images of war and sexual violence to tell the story of its protagonists, Ian and Cate, whose mysterious tug-of-war is interrupted only by the arrival of a gun-toting soldier. Its images of blood, violence, oral sex and masturbation — among other acts — remain shocking today, but the play is first and foremost an example of how shocking imagery, once mainly a staple of film, affected British theatre. Though forerunners to Kane, including Edward Bond (Saved), and to a less shocking extent John Osborne (Look Back in Anger), had been pushing audiences' buttons previously, Kane's explosive use of cruel imagery and language marks a turning point in British drama. Soho Rep's devastating and brilliantly designed production gave American audiences a taste of Kane's massive influence.
If Sarah Kane represents the shock-value segment of modern British writing, on the flip-side is Tom Stoppard, whose plays — from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to The Real Thing to Arcadia — have presented some of the most acclaimed writing from within "the establishment." Despite his somewhat more conformist attitudes, however, Stoppard is no less bold than his contemporaries. Exhibit A is his epic trilogy, The Coast of Utopia, which played at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theatre during the 2006-07 season, winning seven Tony Awards (the most ever for a straight play). A vast epic of Russian writers and philosophers, the play's three parts clock in at about nine hours of playing time. Characters include real-life figures like Alexander Herzen and Ivan Turgenev, and the Broadway cast boasted Brian F. O'Byrne, Jennifer Ehle, Billy Crudup, Ethan Hawke, Richard Easton and Martha Plimpton. Inserts in the Playbills before each part (Voyage, Shipwreck and Salvage, which ran in repertory) explained the history of the characters and situations and, for the latter two parts, recapped the events that had come before. Some (myself included) found the plays overstuffed and occasionally unemotional (Stoppard has always been more a writer of ideas than feelings), but there's no denying the boldness of his acclaimed trilogy.
By Mike Bartlett
Of the new generation of British playwrights, Mike Bartlett ranks among the most oft-produced. His big break in the U.K. came with 2007's well-reviewed My Child at the Royal Court, and he's had almost ten major productions in the U.K. since. New York audiences would had to wait until Cock in 2012 to experience his bold writing, which often tackles big themes by distilling them into succinct interpersonal situations. The play follows protagonist John as he struggles to choose between his boyfriend, from whom he's taking a break, and a girl he meets who may be "the one." Exploring bisexuality or sexual fluidity on stage remains a bold choice, even in an age where gay plays no longer seem so audacious. Bartlett uses his skill as a playwright to keep the dials of our sympathies and assumptions as audience members teetering dangerously toward one conclusion about John before darting toward another. Scenes shift and time lapses with the help of ingenious light cues. In the play's New York production, a circular plywood auditorium was built within the Duke Theatre on 42nd Street so that audience members sat close to the audience and felt the full impact of the play's twists and turns.
Hot on the heels of successes at the Chichester Festival and Royal Court Theatres in the U.K., as well as a West End transfer, Enron arrived on Broadway in 2010 seeming like a surefire hit in the making. It dealt with epic financial themes relevant to the economic slump in the U.S. and had received rave reviews in London. The U.K. and Broadway productions were both directed by Rupert Goold (who also directed Patrick Stewart in Macbeth). Playwright Lucy Prebble ripped most of the play's major events straight from the headlines (the plot is roughly the same as that of the documentary "Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room"), but she gave the stage play an oddly effective twist by stylizing the stage pictures inherent in the story of the rise and fall of one of America's most notoriously unethical corporations: onstage velociraptors (personifying the company's hidden perfidies), laser effects and delightfully strange musical sequences composed by Adam Cork made the production a unique theatergoing experience. But audiences, who either felt the play hit too close to home or that Brit Prebble's outsider perspective was unwelcome, didn't embrace Enron; the show closed on Broadway after little more than a month of performances.
By Jez Butterworth
Playwright Jez Butterworth, who had his first big success in 1995 with the play Mojo (which was revived in London's West End last year with Rupert Grint), has gone on to write a number of plays since — including this season's The River. One of his most audacious is Jerusalem, which played London's Royal Court Theatre in 2009 and the West End in 2010 before transferring to Broadway in 2011 with its original star Mark Rylance. The play, which takes place over three acts (a relative rarity nowadays) is set in a rural English wood, where Johnny "Rooster" Byron has set up camp in a shoddy mobile home. It's the day of the local fair when the play begins, and though local officials want him evicted, Rooster has other plans in mind. Though the play takes its title from a William Blake poem about the state of England during the Industrial Revolution, its subject matter is England now in the 21st century, where green space is being gobbled up and eccentric characters like Rooster and his friends fight for a foothold on the land they believe to be rightfully theirs. Unlike Lucy Prebble's Enron a year before, Jerusalem found critical acclaim in New York thanks in large part to Mark Rylance's physically demanding performance which won him a second Tony Award.
Sleep No More
No list of bold British productions would be complete without the inclusion of Punchdrunk, a British theatre company formed in 2000 with a mission of creating "immersive theatre" — theatrical experiences where audience members (who are masked in this instance), instead of simply sitting in an auditorium, move throughout a space, interacting with the actors to piece together their own unique experience. Sleep No More, which has been running in New York since 2011, was originally produced in former schools in London in 2003 and in the Boston metropolitan area in 2009 in a co-production with the American Repertory Theatre. For its New York production, the company has built the show's expansive set, which encompasses more than 90 rooms, within an abandoned warehouse that they've renamed the McKittrick Hotel. The show takes its inspiration from Shakespeare's Macbeth and du Maurier's "Rebecca" (as well as Hitchcock's suspenseful take on the latter), featuring many Shakespearean characters audiences recognize but with a completely non-linear plot (as much as there is a plot at all). What makes the show such a success is how well it embraces the unexpected; there's no way of telling, even as a repeat visitor to Sleep No More, what shape the evening will take. The only guarantee is that no visit will be exactly the same as the last.
By David Hare
The audacity of David Hare's political play Stuff Happens comes mostly from its blend of actual speeches from the lead-up to the Iraq War and imagined conversations that could have taken place behind closed doors. With George W. and Laura Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice (portrayed leading a chorus of "Amazing Grace" at a war cabinet meeting) and Tony Blair included as characters, Stuff Happens takes its title from a now-famous response Rumsfeld gave to a reporter in 2003 in response to a question about looting in Baghdad. In the play's Public Theater production, the audience was seated on either side of the action as the actors (including Jay O. Sanders as President Bush) recreate the events of 2003 and 2004 using mainly swivel chairs as props. When the play premiered in the Olivier Theatre at London's National Theatre in 2004, the subject matter of Hare's recent-history play was exceedingly timely. By the time the play came to New York in 2006, the political edge of the play had dulled somewhat, but Stuff Happens retained its dramatic potency thanks to Hare's sharp (and funny) writing.
By Nina Raine
If a number of plays on this list are bold because of audacious subject matter or vast, elaborate physical productions, others, including Tribes by Nina Raine, are bold for other, quieter reasons. Raine's play, which premiered in 2010 at the Royal Court in London and played the Barrow Street Theatre Off-Broadway from 2012-13, is about a young deaf man who brings a girl home to meet his parents who is slowly losing her hearing. In portraying this budding relationship, the playwright makes use of the meaning — and lack thereof — to be found both in spoken dialogue but also in American Sign Language and dramatic silences. It's rare for theatre, which is oftentimes such an auditory medium, to tackle disability (a contentious term in and of itself), let alone deafness and hearing loss. But in a day and age where captioned performances are de rigueur, it's time playwrights dramatized, realistically or otherwise, the lived experiences of the differently-abled in deeper and more complex ways.
Though the play War Horse, adapted by British playwright Nick Stafford from the young adult novel by Michael Morpurgo, has a straightforward, family-friendly World War I story at its center, the National Theatre's 2007 production, which eventually transferred to the West End (where it's still running) and Broadway (from 2011-13), was anything but timid. Featuring life-size but stylistically impressionistic horse puppets by Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa, the play's primary success was in persuading its audiences to care deeply for the horses who are, essentially, the play's central characters. Controlled by three actors, the puppets of War Horse brought attention to the oft-neglected art of puppetry but also explored the storytelling potential of animal characters on stage, proving that imaginative direction and visual stagecraft can be just as important in the theatre as masterful writing. The play's New York production, directed by Tom Morris and Marianne Elliot (who will direct The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time this fall), took home five Tony Awards in 2011, including Best Play.