Jim Cartwright is suffering from a heavy cold and can’t speak very loudly. The Rise and Fall of Little Voice writer whose new play Raz opens this week at Trafalgar Studios positions himself tucked away in the corner of the cafe of Riverside’s rehearsal rooms, afraid, he says, of passing on the germs. But he’s just being courteous and thoughtful, traits that are symptomatic of the softly spoken northerner hanging out in his casual brown leather jacket, pullover, jeans and baseball cap. Not the uniform, one might think, of one of Britain’s best-known playwrights, but then Cartwright is probably one of the least pretentious theatrical giants one could wish to meet.
Despite the playwright’s inability to speak quite at normal volume, it’s clear that words, their verbal delivery as well as the ones that are written on the pages of his new play, are important. But Cartwright’s not in a rush to explain himself, unlike Shane, his 30-year-old protagonist and sole narrator in Raz. Instead, in a manner which feels original and fresh and which reminds me of another great social change chronicler, Mike Leigh, he weighs up each word carefully and is slow to answer my questions, as if contemplating their impact before releasing them out into the world unguarded and, potentially, into the murky realms of theatre criticism history.
Originality is clearly a defining feature of Raz too. It might be a contemporary play about a group of “weekend millionaires” who, somewhere in a fictional Lancashire town, “hit it hard” every Friday night, yet there’s something about the work that separates it from its kitchen sink realist cousins like Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey or anything by the writer to whom we constantly refer throughout the interview, Alan Sillitoe and his seminal Saturday Night, Sunday Morning. Shane “has to speak” says Cartwright and tell it how it is about a world that is kitchen sink and comes out of that movement, but it is told with a “once upon a time element to it”. Above all else, though, Shane and his cohorts; hard-working 5 days a week 30 somethings, still living at home and spending their dough on drinks, drugs, Viagra and quick sex on the weekends, are the “forgotten generation, who can’t leave their homes and progress to the next stage.” Of course, it’s apt I am talking to Cartwright on the day that George Osbourne unveils his “nicer ISA” plan for the under 40s. The announcement comes just after my meeting with Cartwright so I can’t question him on how it would affect the fictional Shane (most probably very little) but I do ask the writer how Shane and his buddies would vote, if at all, in the EU referendum. His reply is to take a direct quote from his vocally literate character: “The only party for us is the one on a Friday night.” This is not to say that Shane and his gang are “thick” warns Cartwright, who does not want to patronise. They have, as he writes, “Degrees in their back pockets.” But for Cartwright, it’s about this lost generation getting through the week to the weekend where the characters lose themselves, almost totally, in an “obliterating” cycle having sex down dark narrow ginnels and taking drugs.
There are three things that are striking about the play. It almost obsessively charts the generational differences between Fathers and Sons whose cultures have vastly different approaches to getting plastered. “Pubs shut at 11 am in the days of Saturday Night, Sunday Morning’s Arthur Seaton” but now “You really have to put yourself on the edge to have a good time,” says Cartwright. In the play, this generational difference is typically measured by Shane’s descriptions of how the interiors of northern Pubs have changed. Gone are the snug bars and the clubs that shut at 2 am. Out are early closing times, in are veritable lists of what drugs to take when and Viagra if you pull. There’s nothing for Shane and his gang to “kick against” except themselves, which suggests that the normal and recognisable social obstacles that appear as walls in plays like Barrie Keeffe’s Barbarians for instance, have become even more hidden or too disingenuous. Hence, Shane and his gang have to run themselves to near obliteration to be satisfied and use up their energy, the previous outlets or class constructs where dissent could be expressed having disappeared. Shane and his brothers in arms may all be friends, but there is no sense of community or belonging, or pride, they are like satellites in free fall. It’s not that Cartwright hasn’t written about such things before and in these ways, but it is that the treatment of the same themes is different. Take Road for example, one of Cartwright’s early plays, mostly performed as a promenade and a hit for the then young playwright at the Royal Court in 1986. Charting the desperation of the working poor in Thatcher’s era, Scullery, the play’s narrator, takes the audience on a journey into the lives of the people who live on Road. Structurally, it works on multiple levels, with layered characters and there’s a deep sense of community, political awareness, hope and togetherness. “Where I come from, being working class was a way of life, there was a rhythm people understood. You may not want to break out as I did, but at least, there was something to break out of” says Cartwright. In Raz though, it is as if Shane is operating in a vacuum.
The second observation is Shane’s highly emotive, poetical vernacular, which falls off the tongue as easy as popping pills. The language is “slightly heightened” yet “still accessible” the pictures Cartwright paints make up a dark yet almost diurnal place, like the underbelly of Wordsworth’s romantic poetry. It’s even dark magical realist I suggest, though without a lot of “Northern-isms.” Cartwright agrees. He remembers old men from his childhood whose accents were so thick it made it impossible to understand what they were saying. “It’s thinning out now” Cartwright adds, sadly. “The really strong Northern accents don’t seem to exist.” At least how women are talked about hasn’t changed though I say, challenging Cartwright on Shane’s constant referring to girls as ‘Birds”(I'm a northerner but it is still a shock to realise that this euphemism is still in general use). But Cartwright’s not going to let me get all politically correct on him when I ask if there has been a generational change in how men perceive and talk about women. He warns me, “There’s a difference between what people want the world to be like and what it really is. As an artist, you have to decide, do I write a version that’s not offensive or tell it how it is?” He’s right. The one thing Shane and his mates have, perhaps the only thing, is free speech and expression (for now) and that’s terribly important.
Which leads onto the third most striking thematic obsession, an obsession running in a lot of Cartwright’s work, which is his characters’ tendency and desire to imitate. In Little Voice, we all know what happens when LV opens her mouth. In Raz, Shane has the voices of his friends down to a tee, and often ends up imitating his friends imitating others. He is a folk storyteller, a vehicle through which all things flow. It’s this redemptive quality that lifts Raz head and shoulders above other similarly themed writing that remains in the doldrums of naturalism.
Allowing his characters to be bards in the gutter also makes Cartwright a compassionate and humorous playwright. He stresses to me it is important for a writer not to criticise their subject; Raz is not a criticism of the “lost generation”. In fact, Cartwright is keen to point out that Shane and his mates have a lot of fun and that this is often ignored by the public, who can only fault find when images such as Joel Goodman’s Wells Street on New Years Eve in Manchester did the social media rounds. This sort of ideology defies any pigeon-holing of him as any kind of “northern writer” or “Kitchen Sink Dramatist” a label Cartwright clearly dislikes. Raz’s linguistic versatility, its rhythm and intonation and redemptive quality that comes near the end where Shane seems to experience an epiphany that defies words, is not misery drama, but a shout out at the universe. Shane may be part of the disenfranchised and switched off, those hard to reach voters who don’t care anymore, yet something shifts for him.
If Raz’s canvas spans generations, who is it for? “It’s for everyone who wants to come and see it” insists Cartwright. “All young people are experiencing this. Hopefully, it’s for Modern Britain.” So far Raz has enjoyed success, playing to packed houses at last year’s Edinburgh Festival where, Cartwright tells me, the show attracted a wide demographic. This is also typical of Cartwright’s reach although one does not get the sense it is on purpose. “Artists don’t always know what they are writing,” he says and again and again in bemusement as I make the classic interviewing mistake of talking about my own wild interpretations of Raz. I agree and I relate to him an anecdote about Katie Mitchell arguing with Martin Crimp over what a play of his was really about (Mitchell insisted it was about children and Crimp eventually came around to her point of view) and point out that sometimes it isn’t up to the artists to know what it is that they are doing. Cartwright laughs and comes in with his own anecdotes about Beckett and Pinter who floored interpreters with one liner’s such as “What does it not mean?” or it means “The weasel under the cocktail cabinet”.
There’s only one question left to ask the playwright about Raz. Can things get better for Shane and his ilk and if so, how? “Governmental schemes are meaningless rubbish” Cartwright states firmly. “People need to have the same opportunities and a sense that they can change the world the same as anyone else can. But that’s knocked out of you at school now.” It’s a concern and I can see it preoccupies the 57-year-old who readily admits that it would be more difficult for him as a young artist today, to come to London and make use of its artistic opportunities; he wouldn’t be able to afford. “People are finding it harder and harder to break into anything really unless you are from a privileged background” he acknowledges. This is why Shane hits it so hard at the weekends. It’s obvious that Cartwright loves his character Shane and Shane shares the same kind of compassion his creator has for his band of merry drinkers and pill poppers. “If you write what is going on, you can always change it,” says Cartwright softly and thoughtfully. And this just about sums him up. He’s a slow, thoughtful playwright even if on the page, his characters defy that image, rushing about with all the frenetic energy for life that they do.
first published in Exeunt magazine