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Stories of lost children, ghosts and the endangered present in contemporary theatre

This book explores connections between theatre time, the historical moment, and fictional time. It argues that a crucial characteristic of contemporary British theatre is its preoccupation with instability and danger, and traces images of catastrophe and loss in a wide range of recent plays and productions. The diversity of the texts that are examined is a major strength of the book. In addition to plays by contemporary dramatists, the book analyses staged adaptations of novels, and productions of plays by Euripides, Strindberg and Priestley. A key focus is Stephen Daldry's award-winning revival of Priestley's An Inspector Calls, which is discussed in relation both to other Priestley ‘time’ plays and to Caryl Churchill's apocalyptic Far Away. Lost children are a recurring motif. Bryony Lavery's Frozen, for example, is explored in the context of the Soham murders, which took place while the play was in production at the National Theatre, whilst three virtually simultaneous productions of Euripides' Hecuba are interpreted with regard to the Beslan massacre of schoolchildren.

Geraldine Cousin

This chapter begins with a defining stage moment from the 1990s that translated the sense of danger into an image of a devastated world. It occurred during Stephen Daldry's revival of J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls — one of the key productions of the decade. Daldry's production rescued An Inspector Calls from its perceived status as a creaky old repertory ‘war-horse’, but its huge critical and popular success cannot entirely be credited to the director, or the equally gifted designer. The longevity of the production, and the lesser success of other recent revivals of Priestley's plays seem to suggest that they have reclaimed a hold on audiences because they tap into the Zeitgeist of our age of anxiety.

in Playing for time
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Dramatisations of ‘return’
Geraldine Cousin

This chapter focuses primarily on four of Priestley's ‘time plays’, each of which is structured either around the return of a character or a reversal to a previous point in the action. Dangerous Corner and An Inspector Calls are also heavily indebted to a popular narrative form that relies on an investigation of the past in order to bring the present into clearer focus. Time and the Conways and Eden End are meditations on the nature of loss, but they also contain seeds of hope. The chapter ends by discussing J. M. Barrie's Mary Rose, which is haunted even more obviously than Eden End by the lost generation of the First World War. Loss in Mary Rose is eventually succeeded by redemption, but the ghostly protagonist can find release only by embracing her dead state.

in Playing for time
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Geraldine Cousin

This chapter discusses ghost characters in six Irish plays: Conor McPherson's award-winning The Weir, Shining City, Stewart Parker's Pentecost and three plays by Marina Carr: The Mai, Portia Coughlan and By the Bog of Cats. The return of a figure from the past is a frequent occurrence in Irish plays. These plays were chosen out of the explosion of Irish dramatic talent on the London stage in the 1990s and the opening years of the twenty-first century, because of the nature of their representation of time. McPherson's, and, even more obviously, Carr's, investment in the past lives of their characters creates static, liminal, worlds where ghosts multiply. The chapter ends with Carnesky's Ghost Train, which emulated a ride on a fairground ghost train, encapsulated the idea of stasis.

in Playing for time
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Arcadia and Copenhagen
Geraldine Cousin

Because they belong equally to past and present, it is the nature of ghosts to link these two aspects of time. In this chapter, Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and Copenhagen by Michael Frayn probe the intersection of past and present. Both premiered at the National Theatre, to critical acclaim, in the 1990s. Characters in these two plays hunt for clues, through research or into the recesses of memory, but, while a traditional detective story ends with the solution of a mystery, resolution in Arcadia and Copenhagen derives from a realisation of the co-existence of the then and the now within the simultaneous immediacy and ephemerality of the present moment of theatre. This chapter ends with a discussion of Michael Frayn's novel Spies.

in Playing for time
Geraldine Cousin

Bryony Lavery's Frozen uses elements of a fairy tale as pegs on which to hang her portrayal of a mother's quest for her lost daughter. This chapter analyses a selection of journalists' accounts of the children's deaths in relation to Frozen. It also discusses Shelagh Stephenson's award-winning The Memory of Water, Alice Sebold's highly acclaimed novel, The Lovely Bones, and Martin McDonagh's play, The Pillowman.

in Playing for time
Geraldine Cousin

Caryl Churchill's combination of technical experimentation and acute sensitivity to current social and political concerns has frequently been remarked upon. One innovative aspect of her work that has received little attention, however, is the radical use she makes of the fairy story and the whodunnit. The Skriker, Far Away and A Number, rely on the in-built expectations within these forms of an unambiguous resolution of difficulties, which Churchill is then able to subvert. In The Skriker, she reconfigures fairy stories in order to create her own dramatic parable about the imminence of ecological disaster. Far Away and A Number utilise the apparent simplicities of the whodunnit to explore complex notions of culpability.

in Playing for time
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Geraldine Cousin

This chapter considers a key play from the 1990s that encapsulated contemporary violence in images of shocking immediacy. Sarah Kane's Blasted, which involves, among other horrors, the eating of a dead baby, was first performed in 1995 at the Royal Court, and revived at the same theatre in 2001. This chapter examines reviews of the two productions, which are markedly different in tone.

in Playing for time
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Geraldine Cousin

In this chapter, the daughters are Lyra Belacqua, Philip Pullman's child-protagonist in the His Dark Materials trilogy, and Strindberg's protagonist, Indra's Daughter (also called Agnes), in A Dream Play. A dramatisation of His Dark Materials was running at the Olivier Theatre when Katie Mitchell's adaptation of A Dream Play opened at the Cottesloe Theatre on 15 February 2005. Katie Mitchell marginalised the Daughter, who is at the centre of Strindberg's play. This chapter attempts to relocate her—to find a ‘lost child’—partly through a discussion of the play, and various productions of it. In addition, this chapter refers to Strindberg's related letters and diary entries, and also to his paintings that were on display at the Tate Modern in an exhibition that ran concurrently with the Cottesloe production.

in Playing for time
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A final story
Geraldine Cousin

This chapter discusses Jamila Gavin's award-winning story of lost children, Coram Boy, an adaptation of which opened at the Olivier Theatre in November 2005. Like Priestley, Gavin utilises the idea of ‘return’ to forge a connection between past and present. While Priestley does this in order to question the shape of the future, however, Gavin concentrates on rediscovery and renewal. Virtually all the plays and novels discussed in the book are strongly reliant on narrative. This book ends with an emphasis on survival. At the end of Gavin's story, a lost child is found and a breach in time is healed.

in Playing for time