Abandon all hope ye who enter here. Prepare yourself for violence, for sex, for shock and sorrow, the explicit of all things. If you’ve ever asked yourself “what is in-yer-face theatre?” You’ve got every reason to be intrigued. But do be warned: you might not like what you find out…
In-yer-face theatre is a style of theatre associated with young/emerging playwrights and shocking, provocative material. While in-yer-face theatre began as a movement in British theatre in the 1990s, it is often used as a stylistic descriptor of contemporary work that explores topics as diverse as sex, violence, addiction, mental health, class struggle and even war. It is, arguably, a genre unto itself.
In this article, we explore a brief history of in-yer-face theatre, review a few of its key players and their notable works. We’ll also talk about the evolution of the style into a genre, and examine where it sits today.
A Brief History of In-yer-face Theatre
The phrase “in-yer-face theatre” emerged in the 1990s, and while it is often attributed to a critic named Aleks Sierz (who wrote the definitive book on the movement), he himself denies having coined the term.
The term was used to describe the prevalence of new, angry writing by young playwrights—particularly those in the London/British theatre scenes. These plays would typically deal with unlikeable characters, and would usually tackle ‘shocking’ material such as violence, sexual violence, drug addiction, racial hatred, misogyny and mental health.
Funnily enough, in-yer-face theatre constitutes less of a rigid stylistic movement, and more of a cultural trend in 1990s Britain that saw the prevalence of similar works being produced at once. Some critics point to cultural events such as the AIDS epidemic or the aftermath of the Thatcher Era to explain the emergence of such anger in the art being made.
However, despite the near ubiquity of in-yer-face theatre, the ‘movement’ burned brightly but briefly. Audiences and playwrights alike began to tire of on-stage brutality. Many established stage writers, such as Martin Crimp, Martin McDonagh and the American playwright Tracy Letts owe their careers to explosive starts in in-yer-face theatre. However, the anger of their younger work is largely missing from their recent, more ‘mature’ work.
The three main figures in in-yer-face theatre, according to Aleks Sierz, are Sarah Kane, Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson. However, other writers have been associated with the movement, including: Jez Butterworth, Martin Crimp, Stephen Daldry, Denis Kelly, Tracy Letts, Martin McDonagh and Phyllis Nagy.
By no means an exhaustive list, but this should get you started with a few of the heavy hitters:
- The Pitchfork Disney (1991) by Phillip Ridley
- Killer Joe (1993) by Tracy Letts
- Mojo (1995) by Jez Butterworth
- Blasted (1995) by Sarah Kane
- Shopping and Fucking (1996) by Mark Ravenhill
- The Beauty Queen of Leenane (1996) by Martin McDonagh
- Attempts on Her Life (1997) by Martin Crimp
- Closer (1997) by Patrick Marber
- Cleansed (1998) by Sarah Kane
- 4:48 Psychosis (1999) by Sarah Kane
The Legacy of In-yer-face Theatre
It might seem strange to attribute so much time and effort to in-yer-face theatre, given that the movement—in contrast to the rest of the history of drama—is a flash in the pan. So what is its legacy? Or, to be more frank: why should we care?
In-yer-face theatre was always defined as a genre that belonged to youth. It was the young, angry playwrights who were pissed off with the world, politics, their parents, and the theatre scene itself. When they had their chance to speak, why wouldn’t they do so with vitriol and curse words? For this reason, in-yer-face theare finds a steady stream of admirers in young, impressionable theatre artists. You tend to encounter Sarah Kane in drama school, right around the time you wish Shakespeare, Moliere and Miller would just fuck right off.
This is why it’s easy to get wrapped up in the movement. The plays of in-yer-face theatre, even though they’re over a quarter century old, still feel fresh and brimming with energy. While the style might have gone out of vogue, there’s always joy to be found in the work of young, brilliant writers with anger on their minds (many of whom went on to enjoy amazing and varied careers). Plus, now that the critical hype/hate has died down, we’re able to more accurately appraise plays that may not have been given a proper go by audiences weary of all the eye-gouging.
In-yer-face theatre gets a lot of criticism for being flashy, over-the-top and provocative for its own sake. Despite this, it shouldn’t be dismissed. Give the genre a go, and see what beauty you can find in its calculated ugliness. You may be shocked, but you won’t be disappointed!