A 21st Century Shakespeare?


I saw Man and Superman at the National Theatre this week. A beautiful and highly entertaining production and I’d recommend it. But that’s not what this entry’s about.

Plays by George Bernard Shaw aren’t a constant feature of the London stage, but Shaw’s works are part of the recognisable canon of plays plucked for revival. And that led to pondering which more recent playwrights would belong to that august group in, say, 50 years. To give some parameters (and to make the exercise a bit easier), I limited the potential field to those writing in English and here’s what I came up with.

First to make the cut were Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard. Both have a distinguished body or work and their plays are already the subject of revivals.

I then hopped across the pond and picked out David Mamet and Edward Albee, before hopping back in time to recognise the claims of Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.

And that’s when it became more difficult. Who is writing the volume of work of a type that will still be produced in 50 years? David Hare? Possibly, too of-its-time political. Alan Bennett and Michael Frayn, I decided, were more likely. Alan Ayckbourn? Possibly too English of a time people won’t identify with (although that hasn’t stopped Noel Coward’s plays from continued success). Jez Butterworth? Ask me in 10 or 15 years and the jury’s also out on Martin McDonagh and Conor McPherson. I’ve never met a John Logan play I didn’t like, but is that too personal a view and will there be a sufficient body of work?

As I tied myself in knots, I realised that I’d never been so in awe of William Shakespeare. It’s rare to find none of his plays on the London stage, and that’s 400 years after he was writing. The quality of those plays is uneven, but they deal with the big topics – love, revenge, power, family relationships – whilst also drawing on political topics and playing with mistaken identity, secrets and misunderstandings. They say profound things about our lives, even today, but they are also entertaining.

So, where is the 21st-century Shakespeare?

Comments and suggestions for the list would be appreciated.

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