Mark Ravenhill, free radical

Mark Ravenhill Mark Ravenhill - © Ed Marshall
Posted: Mon Jul 25 2011

In-yer-face playwright Mark Ravenhill talks politics, survival and Marc Almond.

Playwright and Guardian polemicist Mark Ravenhill wouldn't exist without the welfare state. Comprehensive school enabled the 'Shopping and Fucking' author to be the first person in his family to go to university, where he was swiftly radicalised (it was 1984 and the miners' strike was, he recalls, 'all we talked about in the drama department').

As for the NHS, 'I am,' he says, 'in my body aware of what it means.' That's more than a luvvie metaphor: since he was diagnosed with HIV in 1990 the NHS has supported him through years when epilepsy prevented him from working more than a few hours a day.

'I used to have a fit about once a month so I'd have to pace myself really carefully,' says Ravenhill, whose gentle, puckish vibe might surprise those for whom he is synonymous with hardcore in-yer-face drama. Ill health has honed his willpower and some of his best work has come out from its shadow.

In March 2007, when a serious fit left him in a coma with no memory of having agreed to write 17 short plays for Edinburgh, he doggedly rose from his sick bed and wrote them anyway. The result? 'Ravenhill for Breakfast', which became a play-cycle called 'Shoot/Get Treasure/Repeat' and was a hit at the festival.

Four years on, 'energetic' and 'released' by new anti-epileptic drugs, Ravenhill's in Edinburgh again with 'Ten Plagues', a survivor's song cycle set in bubonic London, written with composer Conor Mitchell for Marc Almond. After Edinburgh, London's free outdoor theatre, The Scoop, beckons: Ravenhill may even tread the boards in his own version of Brecht's 'The Mother' - which he has pared down, based on his new German husband's literal translation.

'This year, with the student and TUC demos and the Arab Spring, it feels like its time has come,' says Ravenhill. Brecht's play about a worried housewife who ends up leading a people's revolution was written in 1931 to tour Berlin's beer halls, where it was violently disrupted by police and the local Nazi party. 'It was written for non-conventional theatre-spaces, working class audiences and changing times,' says Ravenhill, who has been fascinated by it for years.

The Scoop, with its 50/50 mix of passers-by and theatre-seekers, has a similarly open audience - though there's no risk of state-led disruption, unless you count drunken Boris Bike-riders careering along the South Bank. But the arts and the state are under attack in subtler ways in London - something that Ravenhill is loudly and clearly on--record about. In a recent comment piece, he suggested that theatres get rid of tiers of bureacracy and marketing instead of cutting art-makers, and inadvertently prompted a shit storm.

'I got into a lot of trouble for it,' he admits. 'There was a bizarre response from Polly Toynbee who is a great journalist but who hasn't worked in theatre for 20 years as I have. Most people were furious. I thought: Oh God, why didn't I keep my mouth shut? What have I done? But then a few quite senior, quite surprising people gave a whispered “Spot on” in my ear. I hope it gave organisations a bit of ammunition here and there. Marketing and development shouldn't be ringfenced at the expense of art-makers just because it's expensive to sack people who are on a salary.'

The received wisdom that says theatres must have 'whole tiers of bureacracy and marketing that they didn't have before' is, argues Ravenhill, 'ideological' - and indicative of a wider marketised ideology that politicians are still buying into despite the lack of empirical evidence to prove its worth.

'If the current cuts had come in when I was a child or going to university it would have changed everything for me. I am a child of the welfare state and I never heard anyone say, “I feel so oppressed by it, I wish I had more choice.” It sounds great in theory, that Milton Friendman idea that we're all longing to be free. But it's something they got from a book. It doesn't work in practice.'

So is there anything that makes him feel optimistic? Social media and students are at the top of his 'like' page. 'I love Facebook. I'm Facebook friends with a lot of students who occupied buildings this year'. It's given him a window into the next generation and convinced him that they, like he and his peers in the '80s, are ready for collective action.

'Different people find they have something in common when they're in a kettle together. Even in this rigidly Marxist play “The Mother”, which dates from before identity politics, the mother discovers you've got to bring together the leftie teachers with the peasants and get the women out of the kitchen.'

Will his Facebook friends become a new left movement? 'There's a danger of slactivism: you click then feel you've done something when you haven't. But it does bring people together. And it's great for people of my age whose friends have kids and partners and mortgages - you can carry on having the same interconnectedness that you did in your twenties.'

Ravenhill's hope is that theatre will get in on the act. 'When UK Uncut stages operations in banks it's a form of street theatre. I'd like to find a point where theatre and the spectacle of protest can mix up again.' Meanwhile, he's waiting in the online wings advising the new generation: 'I'm the grandad in the crowd, remembering what happened in the '80s.' And Brecht? 'Brecht is a way for me to get tooled up to make that new kind of theatre.'