Ravenhill Plays: 1: Shopping and F***ing; Faust is Dead; Handbag; Some Explicit Polaroids (Contemporary Dramatists)

BOOK: Ravenhill Plays: 1: Shopping and F***ing; Faust is Dead; Handbag; Some Explicit Polaroids (Contemporary Dramatists)
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Mark Ravenhill

 

Plays: 1

 

Shopping and Fucking, Faust is Dead, Handbag, Some Explicit Polaroids

Mark Ravenhill
’s first full-length play
Shopping and Fucking
, produced by Out of Joint and the Royal Court Theatre, opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in September 1996 and was followed by a national tour. It transferred to the Queen’s Theatre in the West End in June 1997 and was followed by an international tour. His second play
Faust is Dead
was produced by Actors’ Touring Company (national tour) in 1997.
Sleeping Around
, a joint venture with three other writers, opened at the Salisbury Playhouse in February 1998 before a run at the Donmar Warehouse, London, followed by a national tour.
Handbag
was produced by Actors’ Touring Company in 1998.
Some Explicit Polaroids
, for Out of Joint, opened at the Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, followed by a run at the New Ambassadors, London, in October 1999. All the plays have been widely translated and produced across the world.

MARK RAVENHILL

 

Plays: 1

 

Shopping and Fucking

Faust is Dead

Handbag

Some Explicit Polaroids

 

 

 

Introduced by Dan Rebellato

 

 

 

 

 

 

Methuen Drama

Contents
 

Chronology

 

Introduction

 

SHOPPING AND FUCKING

FAUST IS DEAD

HANDBAG

SOME EXPLICIT POLAROIDS

Mark Ravenhill
A Chronology

 

September 1996

Shopping and Fucking
, Out of Joint and Royal Court Theatre (Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and national tour)

April 1997

Faust is Dead
, Actors’ Touring Company (Lyric Hammersmith Studio and national tour)

September 1998

Handbag
, Actors’ Touring Company (Lyric Hammersmith Studio and national tour)

September 1999

Some Explicit Polaroids
, Out of Joint (New Ambassadors Theatre and national tour)

Introduction
 

In February 2000, as the Royal Court prepared to open their newly refurbished theatre in Sloane Square, the press reported a problem with the computer system. The settings on the internal network, designed to inhibit the sending of obscene or abusive e-mails, was preventing anyone mentioning the name of one of the Court’s most successful plays of the 1990s: Mark Ravenhill’s
Shopping and Fucking
.

The story reminds us of the persistently disruptive nature of a play whose title could not be displayed outside theatres, printed in full in newspapers or on book covers, nor spoken unprompted on the telephone. Ravenhill is very good at titles, and this one has entered the public consciousness in a way that no play has done perhaps since
Look Back in Anger
forty years before. No doubt it contributed to the international success of this play: two West End runs, a national and international tour, and dozens of other productions around the world.

Along the way, as the play transferred into larger and larger theatres, some of the subtlety of the play might have got trampled down by its ‘scandalous’ reputation. There was, undoubtedly, a thrill in seeing this defiantly young, queer, strutting play occupy three West End theatres. There’s a genuinely contemporary ease in these plays’ smart cultural references, rubbing playwrights like Crimp and Brecht up against
The Lion King
and Take That (who lend their names to the protagonists of
Shopping and Fucking
). All of these plays move in a recognisable world of webcams, mobiles, CCTV, and pagers, powered onward in a kind of amyl nitrate rush. But while we should never underplay the genuine originality of the characters, their casually nihilistic amorality, their tracing of new forms of friendship, our developing interactions with information technology, overstating all this cyberglamour distorts the delicate moral shapes of Ravenhill’s work, his relationship to traditions of British playwriting that he engages and contests, and the fierce satirical energy that powers the work.

He has a reputation among some critics as a theatrical
enfant terrible
purveying sexually explicit, sensationalist, shock-loaded drama, and there’s stuff in the plays one could point to, but Ravenhill is profoundly moral in his portraiture of contemporary society. His vision is elliptically but recognisably social, even socialist. He addresses not the fragments but the whole, offering us not just some explicit polaroids but the bigger picture.

An earlier generation of playwrights developed the ‘state-of-the-nation play’ as a vehicle to carry their critique of society’s political drift. This form – epic in its scope, national in its sweep, often spanning decades – is dying, despite Michael Billington’s best efforts. And it’s not hard to see why. There seems now something curiously parochial about addressing oneself to a nation at a time when the boundaries of the nation state are being punctured and dismantled by global forces, where one can communicate instantly across continents, where multinational companies do not so much court politicians as shop globally for the cheapest politics they can buy. In the plays gathered here, it seems to me, globalisation is Ravenhill’s theme, and he is concerned to trace what happened when we turned from a nation of shopkeepers into a nation of shoppers. It lies only a little below the surface of
Shopping and Fucking
, colours and animates the lives of
Faust is Dead
and
Handbag
, and comes right to the fore in
Some Explicit Polaroids
, in which Jonathan, the George Soros-like international speculator, starkly describes the ecstasy of powerlessness, of individuals swept along by the movements of international capital. Ravenhill shows us our society, the state of our communal bonds, ripped and tattered by transcontinental economic forces. When Microsoft and Monsanto have a firmer grip on our lives than any government agency, the sources of real power seem terrifyingly unreachable and uncontrollable. Small wonder that Nadia in
Some Explicit Polaroids
sees herself as ‘alone in the universe’.

In this sense, the uncompromising sexual abundance of the plays is only part of the story. These plays are not just about fucking, but crucially about shopping too. These two terms couple promiscuously through the first play. In the phone sex lines, a topless audition for a shopping channel, rent boys, the variations on a tale of sexual slavery, the terms combine and recombine orgiastically. Yet this is not celebrated. Again and again, the play asks how these activities came to overlap so consistently, whether there is anything left in our lives together that cannot be bought and sold. Tellingly, it is a moment of pure giving – Robbie’s distribution of 300 free Es – that gives him a fleeting, chemically-induced rush of global insight. Imagining himself rising above the world and looking down, he declares: ‘Fuck it. This selling. This buying. This system. Fuck the bitching world and let’s be . . . beautiful. Beautiful. And happy.’

The steady dismantling of those social arrangements which might once have fostered our desire and ability to live together have left these characters without the common bonds to help them do so. Their primary relationships are with consumer goods, and they seem barely able to form any kind of connection with one another. Like the individual microwave meals that Lulu, Mark and Robbie eat, there is no sharing in these characters’ lives. They seem to make avoidance of personal contact a badge of pride, like David and Suzanne, the market researchers in
Handbag
, who live with the consumers they are surveying, but stay ‘Strictly impersonal. Observation not relationship orientated.’ Instead of reaching out to one another – which Mark in
Shopping and Fucking
sees as a dangerous addiction and Victor in
Some Explicit Polaroids
sees as weak – they have turned inwards, gazing emptily at themselves. A mist of pop psychology and vacuous new agery tries to validate this failure to make contact. In
Some Explicit Polaroids
, this narcissistic blather is brilliantly pastiched: ‘I can say it now. I’m a nice person. But that’s quite a new thing for me, you know?’ confesses Nadia. ‘We had to practise. With a mirror.’

Inventing characters just to scorn them would make for rather thin entertainment, and there is much more to these plays than that. Unlike Tim in
Some Explicit Polaroids
who patronisingly explains away Nick’s early-eighties politics but remains oblivious to the modishness of his own beliefs, Ravenhill carefully shows us that this preening self-obsession is the exemplary attitude of the world these characters have grown up into. Mark, in
Shopping and Fucking
, only feels comfortable with sex when he has paid for it, when fucking is a form of shopping. Gary, the rent boy, describes Mark’s sexual desire for ‘the usual things’ as ‘regular’ as if sex were an item on a McDonald’s menu. And look how Nadia and Tim, in
Some Explicit Polaroids
, describe what they mean by ‘being happy’:

Tim
     It means we’re content with what we’ve got.

Nadia
     And we’re at peace with ourselves.

Tim
     And we take responsibility for ourselves.

Nadia
     And we’re our own people.

Tim
     And we’re not letting the world get to us.

 

The avalanche of triteness is hilariously well-observed. In particular the phrase ‘we’re our own people’ hangs around in these plays and subtly suggests that economic ownership has come to characterise even the way that we view ourselves. In
Handbag
, Phil is sucking off David, whose pager beeps, announcing that his child is being born. ‘Be your own person,’ urges Phil, and the ties of kinship and friendship are once again severed by the urge to claim private ownership of your life.

This is what sharply differentiates these plays from the wave of gay plays which preceded
Shopping and Fucking
into the West End. While the feelgood pleasure of Jonathan Harvey’s
Beautiful Thing
or the elaborate earnestness of Kevin Elyot’s
My Night With Reg
may have paved the way for Ravenhill’s plays, he goes far beyond them. As Naomi Klein suggests in her anti-globalisation handbook,
No Logo
, the drift towards identity politics of the 1980s may have played into the hands of corporate power. Campaigning for better representation of marginalised groups was very appealing to sectors of the advertising industry, while a recognition of diversity was easily transformed into a form of niche marketing. It’s an arresting and challenging idea, and should be taken seriously for all its abrasiveness. In these plays Ravenhill suggests that an obsession with self is what happened to politics after being processed through an advertiser’s focus group. The sexual explicitness in these plays is part of his scandalised portrait of an apolitical generation with no values but economic ones, media-fixated and self-obsessed, fucking while Rome burns.

In Britain, over the last twenty years, the welfare state and all other aspects of civil society – all those institutions that lie between us and corporate power, protecting us from them – have been steadily eroded. But, as these plays show, the desire for protection has not disappeared. Gary in
Shopping and Fucking
and Phil in
Handbag
both cry out for someone to watch over me. In these plays though, it becomes clear that we are now only watched over by CCTV, and even this is largely in the hands of big business (whenever there’s a major crime, it’s striking that the best quality video images are always from in-store security cameras).

One of the ways that the Conservative governments from 1979 to 1997 habitually undermined the welfare state ideal was by dismissing it as wrong-headed ‘paternalism’. The disappearance of this paternalism shows up codedly in many plays of the 1990s in the form of the absent, failing or abusive fathers, notably in David Greig’s
The Architect
, Jez Butterworth’s
Mojo
and Sarah Kane’s
Blasted
, in which fathers are either threatening and dangerous figures, or are absent altogether. Ravenhill’s work has a complex and difficult relationship with fathers, who are variously abusing, absent, sugar daddies, roles adopted for daddy/son sexual role play, and even appear in absurdly mythopoeic form in references to
The Lion King
. Characters like Gary and Phil long for fathers, but are denied them. Gary reaches his lowest point when realising that the protecting father he yearns for can never be found: ‘he’s not out there,’ he cries. ‘I’m sick and I’m never going to be well.’

BOOK: Ravenhill Plays: 1: Shopping and F***ing; Faust is Dead; Handbag; Some Explicit Polaroids (Contemporary Dramatists)
10.65Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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