Bernard Kops, 1926-2024

The death last month of Bernard Kops took me back sixty years to the era of the so-called Angry Young Men, British playwrights who upset their elders by writing in ways that were new and different and controversial. As far as theatre was concerned, it was out with the drawing room and in with the kitchen sink, out with Hamlet and in with the The Hamlet of Stepney Green.

The young men were angry about a lot of things but mainly about class and tradition, the twin foundation stones of British society. Sadly, in spite of their efforts, little has changed. Class divisions remain, going hand in hand with inequalities of race and gender. The challenge to tradition  has settled back into the theatrical armchair of re-imagining the classics.

In 1980, twenty years after Stepney Green, Bernard Kops was still defying convention On Margate Sands, with a cast of rejects from the country’s psychiatric wards. Relevance then was not just a matter of playing Shakespeare in modern dress, it was to be found in the serious work of young writers, not the mad scramble of young directors up the theatrical ladder.

Bernard Kops was 98 when he died, Joe Orton, who was born ten years later, was only 34. Both came from the social and theatrical working class, both still writing when they died. Orton grew up on a council estate in Leicester, Kops in the East End of London. Neither of them went to university. To that extent, both had a lot in common with Shakespeare and Dickens.

Once again, British theatre languishes in the doldrums. Its old men are comfortable, if slightly irritated. David Hare soliloquises in a variety of upper class accents, lamenting the decline of serious theatre and the rise of the musical. The National Theatre performs regularly to tourists in London, with the support of an annual grant of £16m from Arts Council England. A revival of Oh What A Lovely War is touring the country, sixty years after it was first performed by Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop. I haven’t seen it yet, but hope that when I do I will understand its relevance to 2024 without needing to have it pointed out to me by the schoolmasterly finger of an angry young director.

Revivals of plays by Bernard Kops coming soon, I hope, in their original form, to a theatre near me.


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