The Best British Playwrights 

13th February 2023

The Best British Playwrights 
Georgia Carter

Georgia Carter

I want to cover both more classical British playwrights and those which are more contemporary, as there is so much to learn from the two. So in this article the most famous British playwrights will feature – or as many as I can write about in the time I have. I want to delve into the British female playwrights who are taking the world by storm and what the future looks like for British theatre. So, let’s get stuck in and see who is on our list of British playwrights.  

William Shakespeare 

I couldn’t write an article about British playwrights without mentioning this classical icon of British theatre. He was born in 1564 and died on St Georges Day, in 1616. He wrote for The Lord Chamberlain’s Men, which then became the King’s Men in 1603 when King James ascended the throne. 

Being in the industry, you will have either studied or performed one of his plays and his work is the gift that keeps on giving. There is so much source material at our fingertips and I believe that we should go and see one Shakespeare play every year and certainly make sure that you read as many of his plays as you can – even read them again to get a different take of the work. I have been lucky to see a few of his plays, like Taming Of The Shrew, Romeo & Juliet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream – I even played Lysander in this one – Twelfth Night, Othello, Macbeth – to name just a few. And if you are a true fan then you are in awe of the language he uses. He famously wrote in iambic pentameter, and wrote using both prose and verse. 

David Hare

I am a true fan of this British playwright and even went to see his play Skylight with Carey Mulligan and Bill Nighy, which was incredible. He is most well known as a playwright of course for his plays that are post-WW2, and would be characterized as satires.  His career spans over 40 years and he has worked on many projects such as; The Blue Room, I’m Not Running, Beat The Devil, Stuff Happens and Behind the Beautiful Forevers. These are only a select few and he still today writes for the British stage. He also became known as a screenwriter when he adapted his play Plenty back in 1985. 

As praise for such an illustrious career, in 2011 Hare received the PEN Pinter Prize, given to a British writer of outstanding merit. He was also knighted in 1998. If you are not well versed with his plays, this would be your chance to really get to know his writing better, you will not regret it. 

Noel Coward

Noel Coward would be a prime example of a British comedy playwright and his plays are still being performed today, such as Private Lives, Blithe Spirit, Present Laughter, The Vortex and Hay Fever – which I managed to see with Judi Dench & Peter Bowles back in 2006. It was such a treat and the light comedic style of Coward really shone through. The plays seem to delve into the themes of true love, adulterous affairs, and domestic upheavals but also he was known to write more serious plays which focused on a variety of topics, including drug addiction, infidelity, and patriotism. 

His plays have become part of the British theatre culture and as an actor, you should know one or two – or them all really. This prolific British playwright deserves to be applauded for his work and I am glad that his work is still relevant and is being revived year upon year. He certainly left a legacy to aspire to for any aspiring playwright.   

Tom Stoppard

This British playwright has had a very successful career and is loved by many actors. Why? Well, his plays address the themes of human rights, censorship, and political freedom, often delving into the deeper philosophical thematics of society. Just look at Leopoldstadt, which is the passionate drama of love and endurance begins in the last days of 1899 and follows one extended family deep into the heart of the 20th century. His other works include; Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, Arcadia, Travesties, Rock ‘n’ Roll and The Real Thing – which I took my mum to see and it blew my mind. These are just a few of his works, but please do research his plays further as they bring new perspective and curiosity with every turn of the page. He has also written for film, radio, and television but he is most well known as a playwright. 

Harold Pinter

Every acting student will have come across this British playwright and for good reason. I remember studying Betrayal in a workshop and it is so layered and even though you could say it is a dated play, it is still relevant and was revived back in 2019 with Charlie Cox, Tom Hiddelston and Zawe Ashton. They started out in the West End and then the play, with the same cast, was transferred to Broadway. There will always be a penchant for Pinter. His other works include; The Birthday Party, The Caretaker, The Homecoming, Old Times, The Room and The Dumb Waiter – to name just a few again. Please carry on with your own investigation into his other works. 

With a writing career that spanned over 50 years, he was awarded with a Nobel Peace prize in Literature, and the BAFTA Fellowship, amongst many other awards for his notable work.   

Joe Penhall

In terms of British contemporary playwrights, you should get to know this one. Joe Penhall is an English-Australian playwright and screenwriter, best known for his award-winning stage play Blue/Orange, the award-winning West End musical Sunny Afternoon and creating the Netflix original series Mindhunter.

Joe’s prominent career in the theatre world was praised in 2008, when Variety magazine mentioned him as one of their 10 Screenwriters to Watch in that year. His debut Some Voices premiered in London to high acclaim in 1994, winning the John Whiting Award during its run at the Royal Court. He is a formidable and pioneering force in the British theatre scene and if you are lucky to be in one of his plays, you know you have scored big. I am interested to know what his next project will be and I will be watching very closely. 

Caryl Churchill 

Caryl has been writing for theatre since 1958, and has penned many successful plays, including; Top Girls, Downside, The Skriker, Here We Go, and Love and Information. I remember studying Light Shining in Buckinghamshire for GCSEs and being struck by her writing. She wrote it in 1976 and the play is set during the English Civil War and part of it dramatizes the Putney Debates. 

She is well known for covering the themes of abuse of power, sexual politics and feminist themes and also for her use of non-naturalistic techniques. She is a pioneering socialist-feminist playwright who has emerged from Second Wave feminism. Her plays have been performed all over the world, from the UK and the United States to Korea and Japan. 

Nina Raine

If you have ever seen plays such as Consent, Tiger Country, Tribes, Stories, Rabbit or Bach And Sons – which I did see performed in June 2021 and which Simon Russell Beale was in – you will know about Nina Raine. This last play was her most recent work, and was directed by Nicholas Hytner. 

She began her career as a trainee director at the Royal Court Theatre and then went on to direct her debut play, Rabbit. This premiered at the Old Red Lion Theatre in 2006 and after a sell out run transferred to the Trafalgar Studios in the West End, before being produced as part of the Brits off Broadway festival in New York. She directed her second play, Tiger Country – which I have seen and totally recommend if you can see it when it is on – at Hampstead Theatre. Her commission for the Royal Court Theatre, Tribes, directed by Roger Michel, enjoyed a sell out run and won an Offie award for best New Play. Needless to say, her career has been very successful and I will be watching out for what she does next. 

Bola Agbaje

Another prominent British female playwright to add to this list, Bola is one to watch out for. Bola graduated from the young writers programme at the Royal Court in 2007.  Her first play GONE TOO FAR! was selected to be performed as part of the Young Writer Festival and was performed at the Royal Court Theatre (Upstairs) in February 2007. It is a comic and astute play about identity, history and culture, portraying a world where respect is always demanded but rarely freely given.

Bola was also nominated for the Evening Standard Most Promising Playwright of the Year in 2008. Other plays include Off the Endz and Belong.

Roy Williams

Roy is a British playwright, whose first full-length play The No Boys Cricket Club, premiered in 1996 at Theatre Royal Stratford East. Williams has also worked in television, including adapting his own play Fallout, and also co-wrote the script for the 2014 British film Fast Girls.

The No Boys Cricket Club won him a nomination for New Writer of the Year by the Writers’ Guild of Great Britain. 

He is also known for Offside, Death of England: Face to Face, and Soon Gone: A Windrush Chronicle. He was awarded the OBE in the 2008 Queen’s Birthday Honors List for his services to drama. 

Closing Thoughts

Playwrights are essential to theatre and when you get a chance to see works by these theatre legends, then grab it with both hands. You can learn so much from theatre and the themes addressed are numerous. This is what each playwright mentioned here is able to do. To draw you in, focus on the story performed in front of you whilst questioning your own life and those of others. A successful playwright should communicate a plot, characters, thematic material, and a heightened language to an audience. And it is clear that these british playwrights do exactly that. 

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