If you’ve been to the theatre at any point in the last twenty years, chances are you’ve heard of John Godber. His characteristically biting, bittersweet plays have enjoyed enduring popularity among professionals and amateurs alike. His older plays are perhaps the most popular, and provide staple material for school and university drama, as exemplified by his prevalance on the Oxonian scene.
Godber is renowned for two things in particular. Firstly, in 1993 he was cited by the Plays and Players Yearbook as the ‘third most performed playwright in the UK, behind Shakespeare and Ayckbourn.’ Secondly, in his plays he demonstrates an ability to tap into something, to empathize with people regardless of their socio-economic background, drawing them into the theatre, a medium of entertainment they may never have previously considered. As well as writing, Godber directs: during our interview he was on a lunch break from rehearsal for Weekend Breaks, touring early this year across the country. Though he is most famous for his early plays, he has also penned adaptations of Anthony Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange and Bram Stoker’s Dracula, as well as an extensive filmography, ranging from episodes of Grange Hill in the late 1970s to filmed versions of his own plays.
When asked what first stirred his extensive interest in theatre, his answer is characteristically down to earth and comedic, making me feel slightly better about opening with a rather hackneyed line. ‘When I was about eight’, he tells me, in a strong Yorkshire accent, ‘I fell in love with a group of girls dancing. Great big teenagers.’ He describes how drama was compulsory at his school, believing that this ought to be enforced across the country, as it is ‘essential to creating three dimensional human beings’. Before he became a critically acclaimed playwright of the people, Godber was a teacher, which affected the way he wrote enormously. ‘I taught for five years in a rough comprehensive – I had to keep the kids’ attention. I had to design the lessons around them. Chekhov wouldn’t have worked.’ The titles of Godber’s most famous plays illustrate this in their brevity and simplicity: Bouncers, Teechers, Shakers. ‘I deliberately wrote short scenes, used short titles to make everything accessible,’ he adds. This ethos is once again reflected when I ask him about the popularity of his plays. ‘I’m just trying to reach as wide an audience as possible,’ he says. ‘Those plays were designed to draw in an audience from a very working class city. The titles are transparent. I wanted to bring people who didn’t have a degree in English into the theatre.’
Godber frequently discusses class as a factor in his writing style. When I question whether class barriers still exist in the 21st century, his tone becomes solemn. ‘Yes. More so now than ever. We have become much, much more class divided. And it isn’t just about culture; it’s about finance and opportunity. It’s worse now than it was in the seventies.’ It is through theatre that Godber seeks to tackle these issues. ‘Theatre chose me,’ he states, when asked why he sought to do so via the stage. ‘Theatre can break boundaries in different ways. It can get people into acting, into literature. At the beginning of my career, theatre was aimed solely at middle class audiences, graduate audiences. I wanted to break that mould. I wanted to bring theatre to people who thought it wasn’t for them.’
Given that Godber seeks to reach an audience that would not immediately be associated with an institution such as Oxford, perennially accused of elitism, it is perhaps surprising that the student community has displayed such a fondness for his plays, with a successful run of Bouncers in Michaelmas and Teechers this term. When asked about this, he is frank. ‘People put on your work for various reasons. Just because something has mass appeal, it doesn’t mean it isn’t particularly good. It’s the Spielberg effect. No-one took him seriously as a film maker until he made Schindler’s List, they just thought he made trashy movies. If people want to put Teechers or Bouncers on, or even some of my more autobiographical stuff, if a group of students want to put on a play then obviously it says something to them. If it didn’t, they wouldn’t put it on in the first place. I have no jurisdiction over that.’
Interestingly, it is Godber’s earlier work which is proving to be the most popular, within the Oxford drama scene at least, though this does appear to reflect a general trend. His newer, autobiographical work, the plays he claims he is ‘most proud of,’ despite receiving critical acclaim, are still to reach the popularity levels of plays like Up ‘n’ Under. I ask him whether he finds this frustrating. ‘Yes, of course,’ is his reply. ‘The play I’m working on at the moment is not as well known as some of my others. Yet. Bouncers, Teechers, Up ‘n’ Under, I wrote those plays for a theatre company, a theatre company I no longer work with, to keep that company alive. My particular penchant for German expressionism wasn’t going to do that. If I’d put that on in Hull in 1984, I would have closed the theatre. Even now, Brecht doesn’t do well in England. It’s about getting the balance right, between what you want to do, and what is safe to do. And since I left Hull Truck Theatre Company, I’ve become much more focused on what I want to do as an artist, rather than what I need to do to make a company work.’
We move on to discuss his work as a director. A prevailing criticism of writers who direct their own plays is that they are not suitably divorced from the text, and have problems with flexibility of vision given that their instrumental part in the play’s conception. Godber states he does not have this problem, as he is ‘naturally drawn to directing my own shows. I feel very comfortable directing my own work.’ He uses a core group of actors, and when asked whether he is influenced by them, he answers ‘Definitely. I mean, they’re essentially an unofficial ensemble, people I work with all the time. I ask them if they want to do a show. We’ll go have a coffee and sort it out. I know who I’m writing for, and I’m always looking to push the limits of their performances. There’s a real security in writing for them.’
Godber’s plays are fast, funny and forever accessible. He succeeds in retaining humour while dispensing lessons in equality. It is this attribute that ensures the enduring appeal and popularity of his plays, and one cannot help be impressed by his unashamed frankness and commitment to the breakdown of social barriers that have sadly become firmly established within the theatrical world. Anyone with a vague passion for theatre would surely agree that in order for its survival sustained relevance is crucial. Availability and accessibility are therefore incredibly important. Godber has recognized this, and as a result his plays exhibit equilibrium: he balances creativity with commercial popularity, while easy, affable humour is not forsaken in an ongoing critique of social injustice in modern British society.