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2023 National Theatre New Views

The feedback from younger theatregoers about plays that attempt to address contemporary issues affecting them tends to be that characters, as they are written, speak in a way that older people would imagine younger people speak, which isn’t the same as the way in which they actually do speak. The reason for this is often because the playwrights are indeed older, and their own lived experiences are markedly different to what teenagers and young people go through today.

3.2.1 by Keira Grierson – NT New Views 2023 winning play (c) Emma Hare.
3.2.1 by Keira Grierson – NT New Views 2023 winning play (c) Emma Hare.

The National Theatre’s New Views Festival seeks to provide 14 to 19-year-olds with an opportunity to write a play – as far as I can tell, the subject matter is of their own choosing: that is, their works are not commissioned. This year, over a thousand submissions were received, with the winning play, 3.2.1, performed in the NT’s Olivier Theatre. I use the word ‘perform’ – the expectation was that it would be given a staged reading, and despite an announcement just before the play started from director Ian Rickson that sounded rather like those warnings that precede a party political broadcast on national television, the performances were slick and smooth in a briskly paced production.

The cast only had three days to rehearse a half-hour play, and had elected not to ‘read’ at a ‘staged reading’ at all. Rickson, frankly, ought to have had a little more faith in them: telling the audience there might be the need for a line to be called, or even a brief show stop altogether, might well have been managing expectations, but the company seemed to know they were going to pull it off, and to slightly misquote a long-running West End musical, they did not throw away their shot.

One need not be a youngster to understand what transpires in Keira Grierson’s play, even if some of the social media and mobile telephony terminology might go over the heads of people who don’t tend to engage with those things, whatever their age. Brynn Ryder (Rowan Robinson) takes a selfie, describing in almost excruciating detail how her desired look is achieved. What would take the likes of yours truly anywhere from half an hour to half a day is done in ‘three, two, one’ (geddit?) by this impressionable teenager. It’s apparently provocative (the audience doesn’t see what it looks like, but may well do in a ‘full’ production) and while it doesn’t go viral, it’s shared between various classmates.

While treading a well-trodden path of exploring society’s expectations, where, for instance, boys like Dylan (Brandon Grace) are told they mustn’t cry under any circumstances, the play also explores areas of teenage life that are less familiar. What is really going on when a teenager seemingly nonchalantly scrolling through texts, group chats and direct messages on their phone? As 15-year-old Grierson herself pointed out in a post-show discussion, the wisdom of previous generations to navigate through the digital world doesn’t exist, because the digital world as it is these days didn’t exist a generation ago.

It really doesn’t – younger people have displayed astonishment and disbelief when I’ve said to them we used to agree in advance a time and place to meet friends, and if they weren’t there at the time, we might wait a little while, but there came a point at which we simply assumed they weren’t going to show. These days, a message would already have been sent to the rest of the group apologising for being late and advising a revised estimated time of arrival. Here, Brynn gets concerned when there isn’t an instantaneous reply from love interest Ashton (Kieran Taylor-Ford) to a message sent – three minutes seem like an utter eternity.

The play was something of an eye-opener, and there were calls for it to go out to a wider audience, perhaps touring schools, or even a production made available to the general public. A request to consider making the show longer was rebuffed, because the show is not a minute longer than it needs to be, though I take the point that it might be difficult to get the public to go to the theatre for a thirty-minute play. Either way, there’s a lot of rhythm in the play, steeped in poetry: the temptation is to compare it to Shakespeare’s blank verse, but there aren’t any lords, knights or bishops in Grierson’s play, which ascribes rhyme to everyone. The cliffhanger ending suits the narrative, a story still incomplete.

As it is, it’s remarkable how much ground is covered in such a short time – and the implications of the topics raised are far-reaching. It’s not exactly unheard of, for example, for a deleted tweet to reappear elsewhere – all it takes is one person to screenshot the offending viewpoint. Even I’ve done that. And that’s the beauty of 3.2.1 – it has relevance far beyond the age profile of its secondary school-aged characters. If the future of British theatre is as perceptive and witty as this play, then the future just might be truly terrific.

By Chris Omaweng

Keira Grierson’s play called 3.2.1 was selected from entries from 90 secondary schools and colleges across the UK. The play was presented as a staged reading on the Olivier stage for the first time at the NT’s New Views Festival.

National Theatre
Upper Ground, London SE1 9PX

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