So, I tactfully ask Neil LaBute during our interview, where on earth have you been? Because it’s been an awfully long time since the former enfant terrible behind the 1997 film In the Company of Men has had a new play performed on these shores. “I’m still writing!” he says, at home in New York State where he lives with his second wife and their three-year-old child. “All a theatre has to do is ask me and I’ll give them a play. But we live in funny times.”
LaBute and I are talking because his 2001 drama The Shape of Things, which was made into a film starring original cast members Rachel Weisz and Paul Rudd, is being revived this week at London’s Park Theatre. It’s one of LaBute’s more stylistically playful dramas, an audaciously heartless examination of the ethical obligations of art that pivots on the ambiguous power relationship between student Evelyn and her ingénue boyfriend Adam – and yes, those names are deliberate. And if you don’t want to know the ending, I would avoid looking it up on Wikipedia – it’s a jaw-dropper. “I think the play holds up pretty well,” says LaBute, who admits to having tinkered a bit with the final scene, although hopefully not too radically. “I hope it still sends people off to Wagamama afterwards to argue over what they’ve seen.”
Twenty years ago, no one except the late playwright Sarah Kane could touch LaBute when it came to deploying extreme horror to ram home our spiritually screwed- up age. Throughout the Noughties, a new play would premiere at London’s Almeida Theatre with near clockwork regularity, each one seemingly more shockingly nasty than the last. Bash: Latter-Day Plays (2000) includes a description of a gay man being beaten to death and so infuriated the Mormon Church for featuring Mormon characters it disfellowshipped LaBute, at the time a member; LaBute ended up leaving the Church soon after. In 2002’s The Distance from Here, a desolate portrait of suburban nihilism, a baby is tossed to its death into a penguin pool. In 2003’s The Mercy Seat, which takes place on Sept 12 2001, a husband pretends to have died in the World Trade Centre attacks in order to begin a new life with his mistress. As a consequence of this parade of casual amorality, this most morally curious of playwrights, whose plays always force a reckoning with humanity’s capacity for abject cruelty, has been called a misanthrope and a misogynist more times than he cares to count.
“It feels like some people take the first, easiest thing that they see and make it a label,” says LaBute, who in person comes across as both terribly nice and unexpectedly guileless. “For me, it’s elemental: a writer can write characters who do appalling things who obviously are not them. But if you are given a label that’s very hard to shake. All you can do is get on with your work and, if it’s good, hope that someone notices.”
LaBute is now 60 and has spent most of the last decade producing short films and the odd feature, including last year’s Dracula-inspired comedy-horror, House of Darkness. He’s also had several new plays staged, most of them at festivals in the US and occasionally in Europe, although his last play to premiere over here was 2011’s In a Forest Dark and Deep, a queasy tale about two siblings.
But it is those early works that stand out, for their stylistic bravado and unflinching gaze, and for the way they now seem to have anticipated several of today’s big cultural phenomena. The Shape of Things, for instance, which brutally satirises the late 1990s craze for using the body as the primary canvas for art, now chimes intriguingly with our current cultural obsession with autofiction and confessional storytelling, a trend that horrifies the notoriously private LaBute.
“I had no idea we were all so narcissistic,” he says. “In my lifetime, we’ve gone from [the private confessions of] Dear Diary which had a lock and key on it, to ‘I must tell you everything about myself’ because somehow it’s important. A lot of art now seems to be about the artist as the centre of the universe, rather than about the universe. But there are a billion little universes out there, and I’m not sure every one of them is worth our time.”
Meanwhile, In the Company of Men, developed from an earlier play and on screen starring Aaron Eckhart as an alarmingly attractive but romantically embittered city slicker who sets about emotionally manipulating a female deaf co-worker for kicks, now reads like an early exploration of Incel culture – those involuntarily celibate, hate-fuelled men who rant against women mainly on online forums.
“I can certainly understand Incel culture, in the sense that most aspects of human behaviour don’t surprise me,” says LaBute. “Certainly, since I wrote that play, men haven’t become less anxious about where they exist in the universe. As the elevator has filled up, they’ve tried to find some elbow room through increasingly appalling behaviour. Men are feeling the squeeze – there’s just less room for white guys who ruled the roost for so long.”
Which, he would be the first to concur, includes himself. “Theatre today is trying to make it a level playing field so that everyone gets heard,” he says. “And people do feel, well, you’ve had your day, now it’s someone else’s turn. Of course you want to give people time to air their stories. But I’m not one of these people who’s big on participation medals. Just because you are young or come from a country that has produced less stories shouldn’t make it less easy for the rest of us.”
What’s more, America’s increasingly puritanical climate means there is less appetite for plays that delight in the sort of audience-baiting that LaBute believes the best theatre is obliged to do. His works are a triggering nightmare. They also demand debate. “Theatre is historically a dangerous place, where you should be able to say anything. But the feeling now is that no one wants to hurt anybody. My work is less interesting now to certain institutions for whom it once would tick certain boxes. It now feels like, oh, how dare you write a play that’s from the right [of the political spectrum] or that says something that we have decided isn’t fashionable or of interest to us. But where does it stop? With Uncle Vanya? Do we say next that we should ban Sophocles? Because there’s some nasty s--- in there.”
It’s a strange time to be LaBute. Whatever you think of his plays – and he’s had his critics over the years – freedom of expression is entrenched within their DNA. Yet as he points out, some American universities will no longer stage student productions of ’Tis Pity She’s a Whore simply because of the title. “So those great learning experiences [that come with watching a play] are lost to a single word.” He is heartened, however, by the recent lawsuit brought by Penguin Random House (plus various authors and parents) against the state of Florida, which argues that the removal of books from schools violates the First Amendment. “Of course, I fear that Florida will win. But you have to stand up to the bullies.”
The Shape of Things is at Park Theatre until July 1. parktheatre.co.uk