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Teaching Literary Genius


Theresa Rebeck's Seminar

directed by Terry Johnson

Shortly before last week's announcement of 2014's Nobel literature prize winner, Swedish Academy member Horace Engdahl lamented to journalists how the "professionalisation" of creative writing is wrecking Western literature. Fierce debate raged as a result, unsurprisingly, especially in Europe and America where taught writing courses are such a huge industry these days. This brouhaha couldn't have come at a better time for the Hampstead Theatre's excellent revival of Theresa Rebeck's funny but penetrating play about writers, both wannabe and over-the-hill, which premiered on Broadway in 2011. Roger Allam - always worth the admission price alone whatever show or film he's in - plays Leonard, once a famous novelist, now a bitter old editor and tutor who earns his dime terrorising aspiring young authors who hang off his every word. At least initially. Leonard's four liberal arts grad students in Seminar have coughed up $5,000 each for the privilege of attending his ten-week course. If they expected their teacher to provide fluffy encouragement, gentle constructive feedback and a shortcut to literary stardom, they have another thing coming. He rips them to shreds. Pretty, Jane Austen-inspired Kate (Charity Wakefield) hosts Leonard's weekly sessions in her Manhattan penthouse (which belongs to daddy). Leonard's verdict on her manuscript, which she's spent six years lovingly crafting? He disgustedly tells the group she's a spoilt, "completely inexperienced" rich girl "who has nothing to say" so dreams about Jane Austen all day long. Ouch! Harsh, but bitingly fair, it would seem. Next up is Douglas (Oliver Hembrough), a priggish, over-intellectualising preppie fond of jargon like "interiority and exteriority" while prone to slip ups that reveal his pseudishness, like saying "Indigo" Jones when he meant "Inigo." Encouragingly for Douglas, Leonard finds there's "something in your writing" - but it's not exactly what Douglas hoped he would uncover. Such caricatures of pretentious literary students are somewhat predictable, but the writing is so tight and the comedy so acute that they feel hilariously fresh. Blunt, cruel Leonard has more surprises in store for the remaining two pupils and, it transpires, they for him. Rebecca Grant catches the eye as seductress Izzy, while Bryan Dick's passionate Martin offers glimpses of the impoverished noble artist cliché, struggling financially but desperate to pursue his writing dream. Though he too was able to scrape together his five grand to pay Leonard. Seminar raises interesting questions about the business of writing, the nature of talent, the lengths some ambitious people may go to, ethics, and the value (or not) of creative writing classes. Impressively, its playwright (and a teacher herself) delivers all this with an enjoyable lightness of touch throughout. The Nobel prize's Engdahl, for one, made his views about Leonard-style writing tuition abundantly clear. "I think it cuts writers off from society," he moaned to French paper La Croix last week.

photo | ©Alastair Muir

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