Mark Lawson: schools may soon be studying the plays of Polly Stenham

In musical terms, the second album is a crucial test. For 27-year-old Polly Stenham, it is her fourth play, Hotel, which opens this week at the National Theatre, that will make or break her career.

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Our sense of artists’ work is shaped by when we come across them. I feel privileged to have seen the last few stage roles of Paul Scofield, who had played a fabled King Lear in the year of my birth, but I have felt equal pleasure in following Simon Russell Beale from his bit-part in A Very Peculiar Practice on TV to his own Lear.

For theatregoers at the moment, there’s an excitement in sensing the arrival of a new generation of British dramatists who may one day be staged and – post-Gove education secretaries allowing – studied in the way that Pinter, Stoppard, Bennett and Churchill are now. Youth and creative daring are the hallmarks of four playwrights for whom their thirties are either a mystery or a novelty: Mike Bartlett (Cock, King Charles III), Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica, NSFW), James Graham (This House, Privacy), Nick Payne (Constellations, Incognito) – and Polly Stenham. The 27-year-old Stenham is doubly spotlighted at the moment; her new stage play Hotel opened at the National Theatre on 31 May, two days after her debut TV play, Foxtrot, was screened on Sky Arts as part of its Playhouse Presents series.

In music and literature, the second book or novel is seen as the crucial test for successful newcomers but, in the case of Stenham, a particular weight of expectation attaches to this fourth stage play and this first screenplay. Her previous three works all occupied quite narrow territory, becoming an informal trilogy about damage in posh families. In That Face, the imminent expulsion of her daughter from public school distracts an alcoholic divorcee from incest with her son. Tusk Tusk featured three children abandoned by a feckless mother, while the protagonist of No Quarter was an emotionally maladjusted twentysomething who mercy-killed his mum before a spree of sex and drugs with chums.

However striking the dialogue and confident the structure, Stenham seemed to be at risk of becoming a council (Arts Council) caseworker to the upper classes, potentially overmining her unconventional upbringing as the child of a rich single-father business tycoon.

Both Hotel and Foxtrot have troubled young people among the main characters but it soon becomes clear that the writer is heading in new directions, turning, for the first time, to the thriller genre. In the stage play, a British politician who has been forced to resign is holidaying at a luxury Kenyan resort with her husband and teenagers; in the TV play, which Stenham also directed, two employees of a brothel kidnap a boy as an act of revenge for their madam.

Foxtrot is a slight, sub-Pinter exercise in menace, an attempt to rope together a collection of extreme moments, though it does contain some tremendously economical speech. One kidnapper, played by Billie Piper, asks the other how she subdued their victim:

“Chloroform.”
“Retro!”
“You can get anything on eBay.”

The TV play also has a neat final twist and Stenham’s increasing skill with plotting is even more apparent in Hotel, which, without giving too much away, starts out with domestic concerns but finishes with international issues. The holidaying foursome of Robert, Vivienne, Frankie and Ralph mark the first appearance of a nuclear family in a Stenham piece – although, unsurprisingly, they are heading for a personal Hiroshima.

Following the close connections between her first three plays, the similarities between Hotel and Foxtrot – both set in bed-and-board establishments, both featuring a fluffy towel sculpted into a swan – suggest that Stenham, like some painters, prefers to work in phases or sequences of related work. If she is heading for a second loose trilogy, then it may be completed by her planned movie for the director Nicolas Winding Refn, which has been described as the “first all-female horror film”. Horror accommodates family homes and hotels. Wherever she goes next, Stenham – like her near-contemporaries Kirkwood, Bartlett, Payne and Graham  – will be worth following.

Pay per view

The work of Bill Viola makes art galleries feel like cathedrals: his installations, on plasma screens resembling altar panels, allude to sacred art through faces animated by reverence, ecstasy or despair. But his latest offering gives a cathedral – St Paul’s – the feel of an art gallery. At the far end of the south aisle, four plasma screens contain a human figure, initially still, until brought to life by falling or rising tides of soil, wind, flame or flood.

Martyrs combines the iconography of Christianity (burial, crucifixion, hellfire, baptism) with the atmosphere of Quakerism (silence and stillness) to create a transcendent, contemplative experience that can be received by both secular and spiritual viewers. At seven minutes and £16.50 full cathedral admission price, it works out at around £2 a minute and would be worth that cost – but there’s free admission from Monday to Friday at 11.30am and 2.15pm. Great art, in a building that is itself a masterpiece.

“Hotel” is at the National Theatre, London SE1, until 2 August

“Martyrs” is at St Paul’s Cathedral, London EC4, until late 2014

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. 

This article appears in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain