What Succession owes to subsidised theatre, writer Robert Boulton, and three shows to see next week...
Why Tom Wambsgans wouldn't exist without Cheek By Jowl. Plus a chat with the writer behind hit play Snowflakes, and more.
Hello, and welcome to The Crush Bar, a weekly newsletter about theatre written by me, Fergus Morgan.
There was no issue last Friday, as I was taking some time off, but I’m back in your inboxes today, continuing with this newsletter’s new-look format - an essay, an interview, and three shows to see. This week: a bit on what Succession - and other hit shows - owe to subsidised British theatre, a chat with writer Robert Boulton, and shout-outs for little scratch at the New Diorama Theatre, The Good Person of Szechwan at the Lyric Hammersmith, and the National Theatre of Scotland’s new show Kidnapped.
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What Succession - and other hit TV shows - owe to subsidised UK theatre.
Like many of you, I am watching the final season of Succession, HBO’s hit show about media mogul Logan Roy, his selfish, squabbling children – Kendal, Siobhan and Roman - and their various enablers and enemies. And, like many of you, I am loving it: it is the best thing on television by a mile. Apart from Only Connect, that is.
One thought kept coming back to me while watching the first episode, though: Succession would not exist – or, at least, would not be half as good – were it not for subsidised British theatre. So much of what makes it superb can be traced back to our publicly funded performing arts institutions.
Let’s start with an obvious example: Logan himself, the megalomaniac Murdoch-metaphor at the heart of the show. He is, of course, brought to gruff, grunting life by the incomparable Brian Cox. And where did Cox learn his craft? Born in Dundee in 1946, he trained at LAMDA, graduated in 1965, then spent most of the 1970s and 1980s working in subsidised British theatre.
Cox was a founder member of the Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre Company in 1965 – “the most formative experience of my theatrical life,” he called it in 2015 – and spent seasons with Dundee Rep, Birmingham Rep, Terry Hands’ Royal Shakespeare Company and Peter Hall’s National Theatre. His irascible Logan is surely built on the back of his RSC Titus Andronicus in 1987 – “the greatest stage performance I've ever given,” he wrote in 2013 – and his Olivier Award-winning 1990 King Lear at the National Theatre.
Who else? Well, most of the show’s cast is American but the show’s best character, the twerpy Tom Wambsgans, is played by another product of subsidised UK theatre. Matthew MacFadyen graduated from RADA in 1995, then spent his early career with Declan Donnellan’s Cheek By Jowl, the RSC, and the National Theatre. He played Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing with Cheek By Jowl in 1998, when The New York Times praised his “prickly, slightly clownish self-confidence.” Sound familiar?
Beyond the screen talent, though, Succession’s success is rooted in the work of writers nurtured by subsidised British theatre. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong is from a different stable – the Channel 4 comedy to big-budget drama pipeline previously ploughed by Edgar Wright – but his writers’ room is packed with playwrights whose early work was produced by publicly funded companies and venues.
Lucy Prebble’s first two plays – The Sugar Syndrome and ENRON – were both produced by the Royal Court Theatre: she is now an executive producer on Succession. Anna Jordan’s breakout play, the Bruntwood Prize-winning Yen, was staged at the Manchester Royal Exchange in 2015. Alice Birch’s breakout– Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. – was produced by the RSC in 2014. Miriam Battye is making a name for herself right now: her adaptation of Rebecca Watson’s little scratch was produced by the Hampstead Theatre last year and is now transferring to the New Diorama Theatre.
Subsidised British theatre’s influence on Succession goes beyond individual actors and artists, though: the show’s very DNA is descended from work produced in our publicly funded theatres.
A thinly veiled portrait of Rupert Murdoch? David Hare and Howard Brenton did it first with their 1985 play Pravda, produced by the National Theatre, then James Graham explicitly explored the media mogul’s life in his 2016 play Ink, produced by the Almeida Theatre. A satire of the super-rich? Mike Bartlett’s Albion (at the Almeida in 2017), Laura Wade’s Posh (at the Royal Court in 2010), David Eldridge’s Festen (at the Almeida in 2004), and Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money (at the Royal Court in 1987) all spring to mind. One could go further: what is Succession if not a modern-day riff on King Lear, and where is King Lear most frequently produced? In subsidised British theatre, that’s where.
Maybe you are one of those odd people who doesn’t like Succession. Fine. The same argument could be made of House Of The Dragon (stars Matt Smith, Emma D’Arcy and Rhys Ifans all started their careers in subsidised theatre), or His Dark Materials (writer Jack Thorne’s early work was produced by the Bush Theatre, the Arcola Theatre, and the Royal Court, among others), or The Crown (in which pretty much everyone involved on and off screen owes their careers to subsidised British theatre).
I am wary of categorising the performing arts industry purely as a conveyor belt leading to screen success – it is far more than that, of course – but it is undoubtedly true that the much-discussed golden age of television drama we are enjoying at the right now is built on a bedrock of talent developed by subsidised British theatre. And it is also true that that bedrock is being eroded by underfunding.
There was a longer version of this article that spiralled off into tracing the roots of more hit TV shows, discussed the financial woes facing subsidised British theatre, and concluded as a cry for more funding - both from ACE, and from the television giants like Netflix and HBO that build their brands around shows like Succession.
I think, though, that the point can be made more powerfully by pointing out another truth: of the subsidised theatres mentioned in this piece, all but two have spoken publicly about their financial struggles at some point in the last seven years. One, the Hampstead Theatre, recently had its Arts Council England funding completely withdrawn in the latest round of National Portfolio Organisation funding.
Understandably, their financial fears are making these theatres more risk-averse, less likely to programme new writing, and inclined to produce less work in general. Opportunities for emerging writers, actors and other artists - the people that would create the hit TV shows of the next ten years - are fewer as a result. Their development stalls. The conveyor belt breaks. The pipeline clogs. Those artists are forced to forget their ambitions. And the next Succession never gets made.
Meet Robert Boulton, who never meant to write about “cancel culture.”
In fact, the actor and playwright started thinking about Snowflakes – his darkly dystopian debut that premiered at the Old Red Lion in 2021, won Best Production at that year’s London Pub Theatre Awards, and now transfers to Finsbury Park’s Park Theatre for a three-week run – in 2016, before the term “cancel culture” had taken off.
“I tend to shy away from that term because it is so politicised,” Boulton says. “I’m interested in the justice system, the breakdown of social order and what social media is doing in driving wedges between people – but I’m most interested in telling a human story about three people in a room.”
In Snowflakes, those three people are Mark, Sarah and Tony. Mark and Sarah are two assassins, employed by a start-up that literally executes social justice on those deemed to deserve it, and streams it live. Tony is their job. Comparisons to Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror have been made. “The one-sentence precis is that it is a play about a group of hitmen who start a crowdfunding company,” says Boulton. “Ultimately, it is a play about revenge, and the cost of resentment on the human soul.”
It is a bold topic to take on, particularly in a debut play – but Boulton was inspired by bold writers. Born in London in 1991, raised in Hertfordshire and trained as a performer and director at the University of Kent, Boulton spent several years as a jobbing actor before turning his hand to writing.
“I’m influenced by anything that has got punchy, short, snappy dialogue,” he says. “I don’t like all his plays, but I love David Mamet’s dialogue. I love the muscularity and the language. I like Succession for the same reason. I like Mike Bartlett’s plays, especially Bull. Martin McDonagh and Lucy Prebble, too. Snowflakes didn’t start out as a political play at all. It was just a dialogue, and grew from there.”
Snowflakes was originally produced by Dissident Theatre, the company Boulton formed with director Michael Cottrell for an R&D run at the Old Red Lion in 2019. A full run in 2020 was cancelled due to Covid, before the play finally premiered in 2021. Most of the original creative team is still with it – Boulton, Cottrell, performer Henry Davis, and designer Alys Whitehead – but prolific company Chronic Insanity have been brought on board to co-produce its run at the Park Theatre.
On their website, Boulton and Cottrell profess an ambition to “find stories that confront the darker sides of both ourselves and society, to confront the base, the repressed and the ambiguous corners of the modern world.” They have a few ideas up their sleeves, Boulton says, but they are in no rush to produce any of them right now.
“I’m getting married in September, so I’m aware I might not have much time,” laughs Boulton. “I am writing a couple of things, though, and everyone involved in Snowflakes has got other projects on the go. We don’t know what the next thing we will do together will be. We don’t want to make something for the sake of making something. When something really inspires us, we will come back together and make it.”
Snowflakes is at the Park Theatre from April 12 until May 6.
Three shows to see next week
little scratch - New Diorama Theatre, until May 13
Rebecca Watson’s debut novel little scratch follows a day in the life of an unnamed woman, from the moment she wakes up to the moment she falls asleep. When it was published in 2020, critics hailed it for how it captured the co-existence of menial, mechanical everyday life and rapid, roiling interior emotion, and did so in daringly disruptive style. Miriam Battye’s four-handed stage adaptation – scored by Melanie Wilson and directed by Katie Mitchell, no less – was similarly acclaimed when it ran at the Hampstead Theatre in late 2021. It now makes an unexpected but entirely welcome transfer to the New Diorama Theatre for a month-long run. You can get tickets via the button below.
Kidnapped - touring, until May 20
Isobel McArthur is the theatremaker that ingeniously and irreverently reimagined Pride And Prejudice into the Olivier Award-winning Pride And Prejudice* (*Sort Of), a show that travelled from Glasgow’s Tron Theatre to the West End, and is still touring the UK. Now, together with composer Michael John McCarthy and the National Theatre of Scotland, she has done the same to Robert Louis Stevenson’s Kidnapped, and it is similarly brilliant – an adventure story, a queer love story, and a panto all stuffed into one superbly silly, song-stuffed staging. I saw it in Glasgow earlier this week and loved it. You can read my interview with McArthur in The Stage here, and you can - and should! - catch Kidnapped on its Scottish tour, in Newcastle or in Brighton until early May. Tickets via the button below.
The Good Person of Szechwan - Lyric Hammersmith, until May 13
Nina Segal was one of the earliest interviewees in this newsletter, way back in March 2021. She is the writer behind the unsettling plays In The Night Time (Before the Sun Rises), Big Guns and O, Island! – plus the intriguing War & Culture, which opens at the New Diorama Theatre in a couple of weeks’ time. Before that, though, you can catch her adaptation of Brecht’s The Good Person of Szechwan at the Lyric Hammersmith, where it has transferred after opening in Sheffield last month. I chatted to star Togo Igawa – the first Japanese member of the RSC – for The Stage this week. You can read that interview here, and you can get tickets for the show via the button below.
Shouts and murmurs
Here are some other bits and bobs that caught my eye this week, and that you might be interested in…
This Financial Times long-read from last month by Polina Ivanova on how the war in Ukraine has affected Russian theatre is essential reading.
I wrote about the issues around the £7m Edinburgh Fringe “hub” that is being planned in this newsletter a few weeks ago. Lyn Gardner has offered her insight in The Stage here.
A couple more interviews you might like: Giverny Masso chatting to Sap star Jessica Clark; and Lyn Gardner talking to the RSC’s outgoing acting artistic director Erica Whyman
And, to finish, a few opinion pieces that have provoked some debate: Kate Wyver on whether TV-to-stage adaptations are ruining theatre; Michael Billington returning to his favourite topic, the disappearance of classic plays on British stages; and Andrzej Lukowski on reduced programming post-pandemic, and whether it might actually a good thing.
Thanks for reading
That is it for this week. If you want to get in touch about anything raised in this issue - or anything at all, really - just reply to this email. Or you can find me on Twitter, where I am @FergusMorgan.
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See you next week. Happy Easter.