Keeping it real

Modern theatre is all about stripped-back, empty spaces. But is naturalism, with its clutter of teac

I am sitting in the rehearsal room of West Yorkshire Playhouse, watching the space fill with props and furniture. Actors bring on spades, cups of tea and bowls of borscht. What has happened? Have I turned into a naturalist dramatist, a propagator of what the director Tyrone Guthrie called "the cup-and-saucer school of realism"? What next, long dresses and ardent chat around the samovar?

There is nothing like a rehearsal to make you ask questions about how and why you wrote a play. Fast Labour is inspired by the true story of Viktor Solomka, a Ukrainian who came to Britain penniless and within four years forged an empire of workers from the former Soviet Union to feed the British food industry's insatiable appetite for cheap labour. It is necessary to explore raw experiences to write such a piece, and each scene emerged from an encounter that provoked my imagination. I could have dealt with the material in various ways: an agitprop piece indicting Barbour-jacketed farmers through song and satire; a verbatim piece composed of interviews, cautiously delivering the facts. Instead, I opted for naturalism - big scenes in real places, complex characters in ambiguous predicaments, a second half in real time, and even some French windows opening on to a garden.

There are few words in modern theatre more dirty than "naturalism". Since Peter Brook, theatre has been about "empty spaces" rather than slices of life. The aesthetic of Ibsen and Chekhov, with its nostalgia for bourgeois living rooms, heavy furniture and plates of macaroons, has been out of favour; Ibsen's morally charged narratives and taste for tragedy are hardly the best model for plays about modern life, which we are told is so slippery, so mediated, so impervious to the old forms.

Suddenly, however, Ibsen is ubiquitous - and not just in the West End but in edgier theatres such as Arcola. He is buffed up by younger writers such as David Eldridge and directors such as Marianne Elliott; Toril Moi has rescued him from the immense condescension of postmodernity in her study Henrik Ibsen and the Birth of Modernism. Even his most avid student, George Bernard Shaw, is being re-evaluated.

How are we to explain the return of these beardy blokes from the late 19th century? It is easier to explain why they ever fell from favour. In part we can lay the blame at the feet of that sly ironist, Bertolt Brecht, who smeared the whole naturalist movement as reactionary. In an age when the hippest idea is the "post-dramatic", where all the elements of theatrical storytelling (narrative, character, scene, action) are placed in inverted commas, pursuing naturalism feels incongruous. As the Arts Council celebrates every mode of theatre other than the written play, the clear, hard ideas of Ibsen feel off the map. As for political theatre - reduced to verbatim plays after the 11 September 2001 attacks - invention itself has become a sort of thought-crime, and naturalism's slow excavation of conditions is deemed out of step with the pace of events.

Yet Ibsen was no slouch when it came to confronting his audience, and Chekhov shaped ecological images of life that pre-empt our current concerns. Naturalism set out to see human action in a larger frame. All that fuss about the set, those long descriptions of samovars were n0t about cosiness: Ibsen tears us out of tamed social spaces into snowy wildernesses, Chekhov shows us the encroaching town, the inexorable spread of deforestation.

My play is also rooted in things, money and places. To understand the fate of the migrant worker, we need to know who earns what and how things work, and to see people in context: on the hard shoulder of the A1, in a fish factory, at a service station. I want to make it possible for the audience to identify with individuals from a world perceived as being full of mute victims or sinister crooks. I want theatre to show us extreme close-ups of individual experience and wide-angle shots of social effect; to be about love and business, about language and action; to be ethical and non-judgemental.

Shaw wrote about the excitement of watching Ibsen's The Wild Duck: "[You] sit there getting deeper and deeper in that Ekdal home, and getting deeper and deeper into your own life until you forget you are in a theatre . . ." Brecht would have disapproved of that forgetting, but surely the most powerful experiences in the theatre do abolish the division between inner and outer experience. Naturalism can shake the audience into profound re-evaluations comparable to the one which Rilke noted in his poem on viewing a torso of Apollo: "You must change your life." And that's political theatre, in my book.

"Fast Labour" opens at the Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse, on 19 April and runs until 17 May. It then transfers to the Hampstead Theatre, London NW3, on 30 May

This article first appeared in the 21 April 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Food crisis