Breaking All the Rules

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Martin Crimp, one of the most innovative playwrights to emerge in Britain in the past 20 years, spoke to Kelly Hilditch about the revival of his play Attempts on her Life.

Originally written in 1997, Attempts on her Life is being given its first major production in Britain this March. The play is a series of 17 scenes or "attempts", trying to discover who Anne or Annie is. In the end she seems to be more of a "guide or pivot" around which the story is told than a character in her own right.

"I have two ways of writing," playwright Martin Crimp said. "I do still write what you would call conventional plays. But ever since I discovered this alternative way of writing with Attempts on her Life it has continued to fascinate me."

Pick up a copy of the play and it immediately hits you how different Martin's way of writing is. Firstly there is no list of characters, or even a note saying how many characters there are in the play. So although the text is broken so as to let you know when there is a change of speaker, the number of actors, their gender, skin colour or nationality are left up to the people producing the play.

Martin explained, "When a play is performed many times, as Attempts was, I want it to be different every time. I want it to mutate, to respond. All plays do that to a certain extent but I wanted to set that as a stamp on this play."

Like many innovative playwrights, Martin is performed and appreciated much more widely outside Britain. His style seems to fit with the traditions of European writers like Federico García Lorca and Eugène Ionesco rather than British playwrights.

Theatre in Britain had always lagged behind the rest of Europe in terms of breaking away from the 19th century idea of what theatre was and should be, from the space used for performance, to the strict hierarchy of author, director and then actors - theatre's own internal class system.

When I first read Attempts I was struck by how much it rejected these conventions. Martin explained, "When I wrote the play it was out of a sense of frustration at writing. It was written as an aggressive gesture at theatre.

"People often talk of this play as a post-modern artefact in which I have dispensed with even narrative. But each (attempt) is a very strong piece of narrative or the whole thing would fall apart.

"I wrote the play at a time when I felt a real nausea about conventional plays. The really interesting thing about writing in this way is that you can travel, you can cover time and space in a way that you can't in traditional plays. So it is about going back in a way, to the traditions of storytelling.

"I think that the actors and directors will find more interesting solutions of how to stage this play than the ones I had sketched in my head."

One of the themes that run through Martin's plays is the idea of people facing up to the horror and the injustice of the world in which we live, and how people try to fight back.

Martin said of his continual return to terrorism in his plays that it was because it was about, "breaking of all the rules. At a more simple political level there is a fascination with terrorism because it is normally the tool that is used by the people who have no voice.

"These plays are not implicitly ideological, but I think there is an undercurrent, always present, that the world is really crudely divided into the people who have and those who have not. And I think that that is something that is always bubbling away in what I am writing.

"Attempts is not political in the way that my more recent play Cruel and Tender is. But in Attempts each scene, or attempt, is really an attempt to grab capitalism and really grapple it to the ground, but then it gets up again and it presents another form. So I think the play is a kind of wrestling with the joys and the horrors of capitalism.

"The world is full of punditry, and the last thing we want is playwrights as pundits", he adds.

Since the beginning of the Iraq war in 2003 there has been a surge of political plays being produced. "It's fascinating how the huge political mistake that is the war in Iraq has made many disengaged people engage, that it has drawn such strong opinions out of the woodwork," Martin said.

"The war and the situation pushed me to write my first explicitly politically engaged piece of theatre, Advice to Iraqi Women.

"I think that this wave of theatre that we are seeing at the moment is because a society gets the theatre that it provokes."


Attempts on her Life is on at the National Theatre, London, from 8 to 29 March and it is part of the Travelex £10 season. The season of four short Bertolt Brecht plays, including Martin Crimp's translation of The Jewish Wife, is on at the Young Vic theatre, London, from 29 March to 5 May