A playwright who aims big

Anne McElvoy on writers and players who can transfer skills to the small screen from the big stage

On Theatre

This article is taken from the October issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

One of the most telling impacts of the pandemic on theatre is that borders of stage and screen are blurring fast as actors and directors find themselves in exile from bricks-and-mortar theatres.

TV drama production, meanwhile, is returning to life, albeit with some constraints. Sex scenes are off the menu, due to social distancing rules. A document entitled Directing Nudity and Simulated Sex Guidelines helps the uninitiated stay on the right side of the erotic rules.

A standout exponent is Lucy Prebble, whose range and mordant excavations of life at the extremes of affluent modernity hit the zeitgeist on the head with vigour

In these circumstances, writers and players who can transfer skills to the small screen from the big stage are fiercely sought-after commodities. A standout exponent is Lucy Prebble, whose range and mordant excavations of life at the extremes of affluent modernity hit the zeitgeist on the head with vigour.

I admire Prebble (above) because she aims big thematically. Enron, her 2010 breakthrough at Chichester/ The Royal Court, preempted wider lessons of economic moral hazard in a fast-paced study of a collapsing Texan electricity company. It is really an updated lesson of Nicholas Nickleby —“four hundred nobodies were ruined” — but Enron also opened up a new generation of plays chronicling financial trickery and the evasions of responsibility.

A tragi-comic take by Prebble on the Kremlin-inspired killing of Alexander Litvinenko, A Very Expensive Poisoning, was similarly prophetic and the subject of Russian assassinations has turned wearily familiar given the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and the poisoning of Alexei Navalny, leader of Russia’s opposition.

But it is the interplay of power, fame and loads of dosh and drugs which shows Prebble at her best. She is one of the writing team on Sky Atlantic’s Succession, a Borgia-like corporate family saga based on an amalgam of Rupert Murdoch and the irascible tycoon Sumner Redstone. Now Sky Atlantic is broadcasting Prebble’s latest offering, with Billie Piper in the lead role of I Hate Suzie, a picaresque romp through the excesses of fame and its Faustian pact with social media use and abuse.

Suzie and the real-life Piper are close cousins — prodigious, erratic talents who have morphed from child pop stars and tabloid fodder to rocky marriages and comebacks as “serious” actresses.

It begins with attractive, anxious Suzie, in the middle of a magazine shoot involving a leopard-skin coat, two large hired dogs and fake blood, discovering that pictures of her in flagrante with a man other than her drearily right-on husband (Daniel Ings) have leaked onto the internet. Even the dozy policeman who comes to investigate the case is really angling for a selfie.

There are some exhilarating set-pieces along the way, showcasing her capacity to capture polite-with-bite verbal combat. Naomi (Leila Farzad) is Suzie’s co-dependent manager and friend, a British-Iranian facing the tactless presumption of inquiries about where she is “from”.

I reckon the reason this Sky Atlantic drama works (in the wake of a considerable number of expensive turkeys) is that Jane Tranter, its executive producer, and Prebble bring the pizzazz and physical sense of theatricality into the TV medium.

Where it fails is the familiar trap of TV drama in resorting to too much sex for not enough reason. The seven-minute bout of auto-erotic action being hailed as “the longest solo sex scene in TV” is a good four minutes too long, if we’re counting and not just hiding behind a cushion.

Crucially, it is dishonest: Prebble is a feminist writer and the DNA of the show is how the sexes are differently treated when indiscretions go public. “He lost nothing,” Suzie concludes of her fling while her life and career unwind.

But we don’t see a man masturbating, just a very pretty young woman, and the effect fulfils the waspish prediction by my director friend Caryn Mandabach (Peaky Blinders) that the desire of TV commissioners is to have as much over-sexed material as possible on the small screen because they are increasingly competing with the porn industry for attention.

I needed to get that off my chest because I Hate Suzie is otherwise very smart, funny and melancholy about the workings of stardom. You would not want to put your daughter on the stage afterwards, but you might chuckle uncontrollably at the moment Piper shoots out of a rehearsal run by a pretentious male director of the type who muses, “I just want to say, I have no idea where we’re going with this.” Her revenge is a rude valedictory message in the style of a musical theatre climax. It takes a keen grasp of the interdependence of stagecraft and TV skills to pull off a moment so telling and mischievous.

We recently said goodbye to a towering figure in theatre who also mastered the stage-screen segue with aplomb in a 40-year career. Sir Ronald Harwood’s best-known play remains The Dresser, channelling his years in Sir Donald Wolfit’s theatre company, and a touching study of artistic and personal co-dependence (not unlike the relationship of Naomi and Suzie, but in an era of suppressed longings).

I knew Harwood (always “Ronnie” in his world) mainly through his work on the aftermath of Nazism and his abiding fascination with how those of us lucky enough to have lived without oppression would have responded to pressures to conform — or collude.

The Deliberate Death of a Polish Priest (1985), based on the trial of security policemen after the triumph of Solidarity, was a significant waymarker in drama on the road to the revolutions of 1989, and The Handyman, with its moral probing of late-life responsibility for early crimes, has twenty-first century echoes across Europe today.

Convivial, unsmug and a jolly conversationalist, Harwood trod the line between “serious drama” and entertainment with flair. He could write the screenplay for Polanski’s The Pianist and serve up a frothy commercial comedy in his screenplay of The Quartet, about an ageing band of opera frenemies, but reflect that Bertolt Brecht had Hollywood right as a place where “they only read books to see if they can make
movies out of them”.

Ronnie was not a lecturing sort, but he leaves a lesson for those following in his
prolific shoes: to think big and keep pulling together the threads of liberal freedoms which hold democracies together. Fame evaporates. Ideas live on.

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