New writing? No thanks


 Why I don’t want to see your shit play – some thoughts on the shortcomings of student written theatre, from Frederick Harrisson.

The other day a certain Oxford “thesp” addressed his Facebook friends in a plaintive tone. Since I wasn’t in the room when he typed the melancholy message (I’ve never met him, our online friendship is one of those inexplicable things) I can’t be sure how he looked. I like to think he kneeled before unknown gods, craned his neck to stare at the cold sky and let forth an anguished cry: “Why does new writing always get 2 stars?” The query echoed through time and space until I heard it, distant and faint. No doubt the very mention of this taboo enquiry has you shaking in your shoes but have no fear, gentle reader, and question no more, dear thesp, I have taken it upon myself to answer this question. And most incredibly, the drama editors (clearly desperate for content) have condoned its publishing.

 First off, we wouldn’t be proper students if we didn’t ‘challenge the terms of the question’. Not all new writing gets two stars – Matthew Parvin’s A Row of Parked Cars received rave reviews at last year’s Turl Street Arts Festival, and again when it transferred to the Burton Taylor.  Most of the blissfully short pieces in the OUDS New Writing Festival were up to scratch – of particular note were The Tulip Tree  and Rubber Dinghy. At the other end of the spectrum, Broken Stars got just one, in a review that condemned pretty much every detrital aspect, but especially the writing. However, I suspect what our anonymous thesp really wanted to ask was why did anyone care about the writing – surely the acting of Oxford’s best can go a long way to repairing the holes of a faulty script? 

The short answer to that is no. The long answer is really, really no. Watching good actors deliver bad lines or play out bad plot points is truly painful, and makes you wonder why nobody declared mutiny and went off to the EFL in search of a decent script. The fact is most student new writing is mediocre, and the four or five star pieces are rare. That’s not to say Oxford’s writers don’t have talent, far from it, but they’re not at their best, and nor should they be. Oscar Wilde didn’t pen The Importance of Being Earnest while he was swanning around Magdalen (though you’d be forgiven for thinking he had, given the number of productions here). When the plot holes get too large, the clichés too evident, the dialogue too stilted, something’s got to give, and that something is the star rating. Not even Oxford’s best thesps, among which my online friend doubtless counts himself, can make up the balance. 

Yet, they cry, we don’t judge productions for their scripts if they choose an established writer. Moreover, why should a theatre critic who is, after all, not a literary critic, judge the writing? Yeah, about that – any literature student (that’s literature in any language) reading this who has reviewed a play for us, OTR, or god forbid, the Cherwell, please put your hand in the air. We know what we’re doing when we say the writing’s bad, and really we’re only saying it to be helpful. 

Okay, so the writing’s bad, but the writer is young, passionate, and they’ve put pen to paper, which is more than most. Should we give new writing a break? Make allowances for a writer not yet firmly in their oeuvre? It’s tempting to make that argument, and sometimes it is employed in borderline cases, but for the most part it’s a poor excuse. Come off it, you’re at Oxford now – getting points for effort isn’t in vogue anymore. Besides, in the end a crappy piece of new writing at the BT costs the same as any other show, and to demand a poor punter part with a fiver to endure two hours of pained emissions from actors who ought to know better is not great Art – it’s arrogance.


Frederick Harrisson