by David McShane
Polly Stenham made her name at 19 with That Face, an examination of the barbarism lurking within a middle class family. Now 27, Stenham’s Hotel is on in the National Theatre’s Shed. At first it seems to be an updated That Face. The first half of Hotel is the comedy of a family vacation as they try to move past their father’s online sex scandal. But a turn of events then fractures this narrative, refocusing the play into a violent post-colonial examination of the U.K.’s relationship with Kenya. Hotel plays with the broken, with notions of responsibility and the idea that patronage can be patronising. The big question it asks is what’s changed since the days of the glorious Empire; or, more precisely, what hasn’t?
Hotel is a good play, not a great one. The taut dialogue can feel too deliberately taut; conversely, some moments sound too poetic and writerly: in these moments Stenham’s voice is the one on display, not the teen or middle aged man in whom we are asked to believe. But the dry comedy and clever plot gives the play the pace and verve of a political page turner. The set is stylish, as is the sound and lighting. So it’s well worth the £20 ticket.
There’s a neat bite-size interview on YouTube (http://bit.ly/1naTdQp) where Stenham muses on her development over the past decade. What’s exciting is to see is how she’s employing her innate grasp of the workings of relationships and brutality to comment upon the all too real vestiges of white imperialism. Brilliant at capturing the middle class voice, Stenham’s willingness to write plays about what should be the middle class concern makes for disquieting theatre. There was a moment in Hotel where the black maid delivered her lines directly to the mostly white audience. A wave of uneasy seat-shifts was heard; the audience was accused of forcing her acts of violence through their bland acceptance of of the new guises the old imperial mindset has adopted.
In this sense Hotel is nothing new. This is old territory, Heart of Darkness territory, Lord of the Flies territory where all structure is stripped away until the bare questions remain. We’re among mirrors in Victorian dining rooms, talking about the ‘orient’ whilst refusing to equate that big Other with ourselves. This angry play serves its most pivotal role as a voice which might blow some dust off these mirrors and polish them up for some fresh self-examination. After all, Hotel is playing one in of the most British institutions: the National Theatre. And Stenham is one of Britain’s most celebrated young writers. This combination shouldn’t fail to be heard.
The maid’s soliloquy in the midst of Hotel, on the devastation wreaked by pesticides in Kenyan farms, chimes with a moment in Lucy Kirkwood’s stunning Chimerica (which Kirkwood wrote in her late 20s). Chimerica’s protagonist presents a powerpoint about Chinese-American relations, during which she turns on her audience and forcibly emphasises how much they don’t, or won’t, understand. These ‘presentations’ in Chimerica and Hotel were, for me, the weakest moments of both plays. Not because the facts are irrelevant, but because the plays are working to undo our placid acceptance of the facts. The plays exist because the facts are not enough, we don’t sympathise with statistics. The responsibility these writers feel to their subjects is realised not through an overload of information, but through pure drama; the debt to their subjects is paid through the creation of narratives which linger in the memory of each audience member. This is what will humanise the clinical figures whenever we next read or turn on the news.
What is evident, from Hotel and its kin, is that there are some great plays coming our way. A generation of young writers are about to reach maturity. Some contemporaries of Kirkwood and Stenham – Ella Hickson (29) Nick Payne (30) and Tom Wells (28) – are collaborating on a show at the Edinburgh Fringe in the coming months. And they’ve all had plays which have played to pretty much universal acclaim at places like the RSC, The Royal Court and The Bush theatre. An atmosphere has arisen in which plays and writers speak to one another, without fear of the big topics. Some drama which is at once stunning and important might be just about to emerge.