10 British Contemporary Playwrights You Should Know

London's West End | © Gerry Lynch/WikiCommons
London's West End | © Gerry Lynch/WikiCommons
Creative prowess has truly come to the fore in Britain over the last 50 years; the increasingly multi-cultural society unearthing not only unique British contemporary playwrights of varied descent, but also more culturally interlaced and stimulating works for the stage. The mark of a truly great playwright is almost impossible to distil into a singular phrase – needless to say, a considerable portion of the recipe stems indisputably from originality, something all 10 writers displayed here have demonstrated in abundance.

Caryl Churchill

Fascinated with staging the complexities of female sexuality, Caryl Churchill has been penning award-winning productions since her debut as a student playwright in 1958 – catapulting her career into view with the acclaimed Downside. From 1974–5, Churchill was Resident Dramatist at the Royal Court, and from here was involved with theatrical groups Monstrous Regiment and Joint Stock well into the 1980s. Churchill’s arguably greatest accomplishment is the Obie Award-winning Top Girls (1983). Centred on the character of Marlene, first seen seated at a celebratory dinner taking place in the present, the plot unravels to reveal an entirely female cast representing what Sadie Jones labels a ‘female global humanity’. This feminist global humanity comprises of Pope Joan, Isabella Bird and a Japanese courtesan among others, all of which have carved themselves notable space in a male-dominated world, at whatever price. When Marlene’s own lineage is displayed in the second half, it becomes clear that she has been contextualised against these mythic, heroic yet tragic figures. Churchill has consistently delivered across her career, the recent, ‘kaleidoscopicLove and Information (2012) being testament to her seemingly boundless ability to connect with current social disjunctions.

Dave Pape Follow img_33432 "Far Away", by Caryl Churchill Presented by Since the Fire Theatre Company @ Manny Fried Playhouse

Nina Raine

Two years after graduation, Nina Raine had been awarded the Channel Four/Jerwood Space Young Regional Theatre Director Bursary (2000), enabling her to train as a director at the Royal Court Theatre. After directing and assisting in a multitude of successful plays, Raine’s first work as a playwright, Rabbit, premiered in 2006. Rabbit soon bounded from strength to strength; transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the autumn of that year and winning both the 2006 Evening Standard’s Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright and the Most Promising Playwright Award at the 2006 Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, before promptly moving to the Brits off Broadway festival in New York the following year. Following the success of Rabbit, Raine took her second play, Tribes (2010), to be performed by the Melbourne Theatre Company, and has since directed and created numerous additional plays to critical acclaim.

debbie tucker green

Requesting her name be presented in lower-case letters, debbie tucker green creates feisty and emotionally fraught portrayals of racial perception and modern living. She transcribes the depth of psychological exploration expected from a novel into the medium of the play, seen perhaps most poignantly in Stoning Mary (2005). The three interlacing sections of Stoning Mary evoke poetry and lyric whilst maintaining dynamism on the stage, via the heated action and energy of domestic strife. Tucker green is an award-winning playwright, having established herself in the world of theatre by 2004 with Born Bad, which scooped the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Newcomer Play in that year. She is also the esteemed winner of a BAFTA for Random, (2010) adapted for Channel Four from its run at the Royal Court.

Green's characters are rife with ambivalence and the scars of time. © JULIETA CERVANTES/The New Yorker

Bola Agbaje

A British contemporary playwright of Nigerian origin, Agbaje places Nigerian ethos and philosophy centre-stage in a sensitive yet not idolatrous manner – as seen in the somewhat desperate political undertones of Belong – interweaving the social concerns of British society to demonstrate unseen and untold connections between the two cultures. Agbaje has accumulated an impressive array of awards; attaining the Lawrence Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement for her debut play Gone Too Far! in 2004 – currently under development with the UK Film Council – and her second play, In Time, nominated for the George Devine Award in 2008. Agbaje is also the winner of the 2010 Woman of the Future Award in the field of Arts and Culture, cementing her as a prominent and important voice for her generation: a win that was achieved, and made increasingly poignant by, her ability to take heed of generations passed.

Bola Agbaje © Brian Would

Lucy Prebble

Lucy Prebble is now recognised predominantly as the series writer of ITV2’s acclaimed Secret Diary of a Call Girl, often compared to the American smash hit Sex and the City for its upfront approach to female sexuality. Prebble has also had resounding success with ENRON (2009), based on the bankruptcy of the ENRON Corporation, which transferred from the Chichester Festival Theatre to the Royal Court Theatre in London, premiering on Broadway in 2010. She was awarded both the George Devine Award (2004) and the TMA Award for Best New Play (2004) for her debut as a playwright – The Sugar Syndrome (2004) – which spurred future success with The Effect (2012) premiering at the National Theatre to immediate recognition as the winner of the Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play.

Roy Williams

Roy Samuel Williams OBE is a member on the board of trustees for Theatre Centre and has become a staple of British theatre over the last 30 years. The BAFTA, Evening Standard, George Devine and South Bank Show Arts Council Decibel Award-holder, is the creative mind behind the 2010 smash hit play Sucker Punch, which playfully and astutely interweaves racial issues with connotations of cultivated violence, fame and young love. Honing a down-to-earth but linguistically energetic and dynamic style, Williams has produced, directed and written scores of plays, each to rave reviews, making him entirely worthy of being the first ever recipient of the Alfred Fagon Award in 1997 for Starstruck.

"Antigone" by Roy Williams © Pilot Theatre

Terry Johnson

Terry Johnson is a prolific contemporary playwright, director and television dramatist. His play Insignificance – winner of the Plays & Players Award for Best Play and Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright – was adapted into the 1985 comedy-drama of the same name, starring Tony Curtis and Will Sampson, with music by Hans Zimmer. Periodically gleaning inspiration from characters with pre-existing literary or historical existences, Johnson thrives on the idea of what might have been – both in terms of what might have happened and what might have been said or envisioned. An ideal example of this is Hysteria (1993), winner of the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in 1993, elaborating upon a meeting between Salvador Dali and Sigmund Freud reputed to have taken place in 1938. The play deals with secrecy, mystery and intrigue arising in an ostensibly ordinary fashion towards the end of Freud’s life, made extraordinary by the two intensely exciting and temperamental personalities in focus.

Joe Penhall

Joe Penhall is a formidable force in the field of British theatre. Listed by Variety magazine as one of their 10 Screenwriters to Watch in 2008, he continues to have an impressive track record of successful play-runs maturing seamlessly into award-winning television shorts and successful films. Penhall’s debut Some Voices premiered in London to high acclaim in 1994, winning the John Whiting Award during its run at the Royal Court. Following a successful run on Broadway, Some Voices was adapted for film in 2000, starring Kelly Macdonald and Daniel Craig – the latter also appearing in Penhall’s film adaptation of Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love four years later (2004). Blue/Orange (2000) is arguably Penhall’s greatest triumph. Starring the 2014 Oscar nominee Chiwetel Ejiofor, Bill Nighy and Andrew Lincoln at the National Theatre, the play centred upon the difficulties of two NHS doctors dealing with a young, black schizophrenic patient. Blue/Orange dominated the award shows during the millennium year, scooping up prizes from the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards, Lawrence Olivier Awards and Evening Standard Awards, before moving to television in 2005. Despite this consistent success, Penhall is perhaps best-known for his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road in 2009 starring Viggo Mortensen. It was this project that propelled his name into Hollywood and on to future BAFTA success with his BBC detective drama Moses Jones (2009).

Tanika Gupta

Tanika Gupta MBE, a British playwright of Bengali descent, is outspoken in her rejection of the stereotypes often forced upon her; critics and admirers attempting to limit her to, or perhaps to claim her exclusively as, a playwright addressing predominantly Asian audiences. Gupta instead prefers to view herself as a playwright tackling increasingly prominent and controversial issues that are to be universally heard, such as the idea of female sex tourism in Jamaica – portrayed in Sugar Mummies (2006). Exploring the expression of femininity, dispelling stereotypes and addressing female sexuality are areas of great interest for Gupta, particularly having worked in an Asian women’s refuge for many years prior to full-time writing. Since leaving her post at the refuge, Gupta has been writer in residence for the Soho Theatre (1996–8), 1991 finalist for the BBC’s Young Playwrights Festival and writer of over 30 plays for BBC radio.

Jez Butterworth

Jeremy ‘Jez’ Butterworth has a prolific number of plays and corresponding awards to his name, none praised higher than his much-loved Jerusalem (2009). Jerusalem was, as The Art Desk’s Jasper Reed so aptly phrases it, one of the ‘once-in-a-decade, trade-a-granny-for-a-ticket’ events that brilliantly showcased Butterworth’s collision of realism with idealism, projecting a thought-provoking and, at times, a disturbing image of the future. Many of his other works (most notably Mojo) pay homage to Harold Pinter, his theatrical and creative mentor.