Acclaimed British playwright Simon Stephens (Punk Rock, Pornography, Seawall, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time) recently wrote a short essay about writer Chris Thorpe for the programme of the Berlin theatre festival, Theatertreffen. It has been reproduced here with kind permission from Simon Stephens and Theatertreffen, and if this doesn’t make you want to see Chris Thorpe’s Confirmation, here this week, we don’t know what will…
Chris Thorpe makes me want to try harder. He makes me want to be bolder with my form and braver with my content. He makes me want to be a better writer.
I’m a middle-aged man now. I don’t quite know how this happened but it appears to have happened. I can’t help feeling that if I am going to continue writing for theatre I need to work hard at avoiding re-writing the same plays over and over again. It is for this reason that collaboration excites me. It is for this reason that I am drawn to writing versions of classic plays in new English language translations. And it is for this reason that I find the work of younger playwrights stimulating. They keep me thinking about what a playwright does and what theatre is.
Nobody makes me think harder than Chris Thorpe. He came out of the devised theatre culture in the Fringes of British Theatre in the middle of the last decade. His background was very different to the background at the Royal Court that I came through. He wrote pieces for actors he collaborated with. He wrote for himself. His work was more likely to be staged in the key fringe venues of the Battersea Arts Centre or the Forest Fringe than in the mainstream houses.
This background gives him a relationship with his own work that I find provocative and exciting. He’s not a writer committed to orthodox relationships between text and performance. He is more a theatre maker than an author. This position infuses his writing with a sense of exploration and invention. Few writers write with such concreteness for actors in space. The actors he writes for feel specific and clear in his imagination. The spaces similarly so. It gives his work a ferocious directness and a brilliant playfulness.
In a Chris Thorpe play the audience is unapologetically acknowledged. The space of the theatre is unapologetically shared. The houselights stay on. The actors eyeball the punters. We are in the same place. We are here to share something together.
This acknowledgement of the architecture and processes and structures of theatre rather than limiting his imagination allows him to push harder. His plays have the veneer of the familiar but sitting under them as a constant presence is the possibility of a nightmare. He writes of violence and loneliness, of despair and love and horror and he writes with inspiring tenderness and truthfulness.
Watching a Chris Thorpe play the audience is left with a sense that they have been examined because he sees under the skin of our dishonesty to ourselves and exposes it with a tender clarity. It is a rare and exciting experience. Chris Thorpe never writes, though, to shock or to upset. He writes, I think, with a love of humanity and a compassion for the ways in which we lie to ourselves.
His is not the prurient glee of a Neil Labute or a Larry Clark. Thorpe is a writer with an understanding of the complicated mess of what it is to be human. This understanding compels him to be honest. But never places him in the position of being a judge.
This synthesis of formal boldness, theatrical inventiveness and generous, searing honesty is exceptional. As I totter into my middle age his work thrills me as much as the work of any playwright I read.