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There is very little that playwrights, film directors, fiction editors and journalists agree on. But on one subject there does seem to be an almost universal consensus, and that is that you – the reader, the listener – are bored, most of the time. Look at any contemporary guide to making art, or working in the media, and the assumption is that an audience’s natural state is one of restless ennui. Our job as writers is to provide a sort of espresso shot. Grab them quickly, grab them hard – otherwise they will change channels or walk away.

And so we throw spectacle at you, make sure there are three laughs on every page, grip you with the power of ‘what happens next?’, do what we can to shock you with graphic sex and violence. From the worthiest of new-writing theatres to the brashest of musicals, from the Booker shortlist to the BBC newsroom, the assumption is the same – that you out there are very easily distracted.

Maybe we should blame the invention of the TV remote control: people often do. At some point around 30 years ago, it became possible to hop aimlessly between channels. Programme-makers became convinced that they had to make a pitch for their show in its opening few seconds, and then keep on pitching just to keep the audience on side. But why has this requirement to grab, grip, deliver a punch (the language is nearly always that of physical violence) infected nearly every other medium? After all, you’ve already chosen to buy that novel, or theatre ticket; the chances are you’re going to stick at it even if the story moves slowly, if it rambles or pauses to digress. But more and more, it seems, we treat every audience as though they carry a phantom remote control. We are terrified of losing them.

Polish theatre director Krystian Lupa isn’t scared of his audience. He never seems to consider that we might all be suffering from some kind of attention deficit disorder. And the chances are you haven’t even heard of Lupa. His work isn’t much known in our rather inward-looking island, though he is big news in the rest of Europe. I knew nothing about him myself until recently, when I was invited to Wroclaw in Poland to see him receive the Europe Theatre prize, an influential award given to those considered to be major figures in contemporary theatre.

I arrived in Poland a day too late to see Factory 2, Lupa’s eight-hour homage to Andy Warhol. But, before the prize ceremony, I was fortunate enough to see his Marilyn, a three-hour work-in-progress that will eventually form part of a nine-hour exploration of ‘personality’. It wasn’t at all what I thought it would be: I suppose I was expecting some kind of spectacle – maybe abstract, maybe symbolic – but nevertheless, a burst of theatrical pyrotechnics. In fact, what is remarkable about Lupa’s work is its simplicity, its slowness, its longeurs.

On a realistic-looking reconstruction of a movie backlot, Lupa showed a series of long dialogues between Marilyn Monroe and her acting coach, a photographer and a studio doorman, as Monroe prepares (as she was reportedly doing shortly before her death) for a New York theatre adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. One thing struck me very soon into the show: this was the first time I had seen Monroe as a truly dignified person, entirely apart from the screen persona she created. Here was a woman whom you believed might seduce Arthur Miller with her mind, as well as her body.

Apart from an arresting final few minutes, featuring video and the sudden appearance of a crowd, the three-hour performance was slow and talky. At first, I found it hard to watch. Here were actors who didn’t seem to care whether I was engaged or not. But Lupa’s work is about the thought and the emotion taking place right at that moment, and his actors aren’t afraid to take their time; he is not interested in rushing us forward, or building suspense. So yes, I was initially frustrated. But then I suddenly became hugely excited: for almost the first time in my theatre-going experience, I was truly being treated as an adult, someone who didn’t need to be constantly diverted, who had chosen to be here and was being given space for my own responses. And it seemed OK to sometimes engage fully with the performance, and sometimes drift off into my own thoughts. Here was theatre that didn’t stop to worry that I might get bored. Sometimes it was boring: it was really, really boring. But it was never dull – and it was all the better for it.

Mark Ravenhill


A friend recently pointed out to me that artists of all kinds often make their discoveries early in their working lives. Writers, painters and musicians, he suggested, frequently know what they want to say and how they want to say it by the time they are 30. The rest of their careers are then spent refining these initial discoveries.

It’s an idea that has a great deal of truth. Look at the retrospective of Francis Bacon that has just opened at Tate Modern, and you see an artist who discovered as a relatively young man a small but resonant set of images that spoke to him. He then refined this personal iconography over decades. Major events in his life may have rearranged the furniture a little, but the twisted bodies in the little rooms remain essentially the same.

Samuel Beckett is perhaps the starkest example of a writer whose work was not about discovering new perspectives as he got older, but about refining his vision; his diminishing word count is evidence of this. After emerging from the shadow of Joyce, Beckett moved from the novel to the theatre, and his theatre work gradually became shorter and sharper. The four rootless adults, the boy and the tree in the two-act Waiting for Godot, seem recklessly extravagant compared with the stark images of his later work: the isolated, babbling mouth in Not I, the brief glimpse of litter and the sound of exhalation that constitute the tiny play Breath.

Great artists such as Bacon and Beckett distil; lesser artists become self-referential and self-conscious as their work goes on. A personally defined landscape can easily become an enclosed and introverted prison, referring only to itself.

I like to think I’m open to new experiences and new ways of writing, even though I am now, by anyone’s definition, middle-aged. It gets harder to encounter new people and new experiences as you get older – not just for artists, but for all of us. The wide network of friends that I moved in as a young person has now become a handful of familiar faces. When I was in my 20s I worked in the laundry of a mental hospital, a building society and a drug rehabilitation centre. Now I sit at a desk all day and write.

Whenever a novel starts with the character of a writer sitting in a Hampstead kitchen, struggling to finish a novel, I throw the book straight in the bin. I recognise where that impulse to write about writing comes from. From time to time, I find myself thinking of ideas for plays about screenwriters working in Hollywood, or actors putting on a play. This terrifies me. There has been some great writing about writing, terrific films about films, brilliant television about television. There’s an inevitability about the fact that Ricky Gervais began by telling us stories about an ordinary workplace (The Office), and then, once he was massively successful, moved on to stories about showbusiness (Extras). But this seems to me something of a dead end. If it’s a struggle to stay connected to the world as you get older and more established, I think it’s worth it.

It’s not as though the outside world isn’t ready to embrace artists. Recently, I ventured out into north London with a group of young actors, stopping Camden market-goers and asking them about their lives. We started nervously, assuming that approaching strangers with the opening line, “Hello, I’m a writer and this is an actor and we’re researching a play,” would meet with a frosty response. But almost everyone wanted to talk to us, often at great length. We were humbled by the way many of these people told us deeply personal and often painful things about their lives. We came away with a great sense of responsibility for the complex and difficult insights into other existences we had been given, often within minutes of meeting people.

No doubt a Freudian would tell me that the outside world only reflects back to me my own inner conflicts. They may be right: work that seems objectively researched when I’m writing it is often surprisingly autobiographical when I look back at it later. Still, I remain committed to seeking new experiences to inform my writing. If you’d like to invite a writer to your factory, or mosque, or family get-together, please get in touch. Kafka once advised writers to sit in a room and wait for the world to reveal itself to them. Right now, I’d rather get out and explore.

Mark Ravenhill