Theatre in Wales

Books, critical writings, pamphlets and published plays



Now You're Talking- Edited Hazel Walford Davies

"Now You're Talking” (2005) is the last book to be published in Wales on its contemporary theatre. The excellent “the Actors' Crucible”, reviewed November 2015, is principally a retrospective. “Now You're Talking”, inevitably for Wales, had its source in public sector action. In 1993 the members of the Drama Panel of the then Welsh Arts Council were concerned that theatre practitioners in Wales lacked a forum for debate.

New Welsh Review was provided with resources to produce a Theatre Supplement. They may be read on this site, the link being fifth from last to the left on the navigation column. Over the course of this period Hazel Walford Davies interviewed the dramatists of Wales. 15 feature in “Now You're Talking.”

The speaking voices are all distinctive and enlivened, cumulatively coming to form a vivid picture of an earlier time in Welsh theatre. The tonal range is considerable, irritation and vexation at one end to accomplishment and pride. Dic Edwards recalls that the BBC once wanted to enliven drama. His choice of subject, narcotics in the Valleys was not wanted. Frank Vickery puts in a reminder that he was translated into Welsh, Gaelic, Spanish, Frisian. An earlier cohort of dramatists went out into the world. Mark Jenkins was performed in the Sidney Opera House.  

Unexpected elements of biography appear. Greg Cullen spent a year and a half in Angola in the employ of a company that flew Hercules transport planes. Gary Owen spent a period in Jutland. Chapel is supposed to be a source for culture, in music at least. For Sion Eirian religion is the opposite of morality. “What I found in that upbringing as the son of a minister...was that it stultified anything creative...the writing was more to with what I escaped from.”

There are comments on the craft. Sion Eirian: “philosophy especially helps one to train and structure ideas and in the dialectic that always exists within dialogue itself, let alone within the general shape of a play.” Charles Way says rightly that theatre goes into an emotional place that is beyond words. Greg Cullen: playwriting requires “a cool head and a passionate heart.”

This was the period when discussion of  a national theatre was a constant. The people of Wales, says Charles Way, are dispersed. Theatre needs to “go to them and be part of their lives.” Lewis Davies looks forward to a national theatre doing revivals of Alan Osborne- “that kind of production would certainly draw audiences.” “Those who plead for a National Theatre and do nothing to feed the roots are self-serving individuals” speaks another voice. Dic Edwards: “I think that a Welsh National Theatre would be a disaster.”

The critics of the time get their drubbing: “To engage in reading criticism is often to wade through an awful load of rubbish and I have to say that people who review for newspapers in Wales are generally not very good.

“Billington and a few other reviewers in England really care about theatre. That isn't the case in Wales. In fact, if you're a dramatist here and have any sense you probably won't read the reviews in “the Western Mail.” You can get wound up by the stupid things that are there. It's best to make a decision to ignore reviews and put your energy into your work. Writers need to have respect for professional reviewers who can give them informed and objective feedback. But that respect needs to be earned. It's certainly not earned at the moment.”

Some things endure. The media in England mainly dance to the PR piper. Ed Thomas: “the reality is that when it comes to our profile in the UK no-one cares whether we exist or not.”

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Parthian Books

published:
29 October 2018

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The 101 Greatest Plays- Michael Billington

“The 101 Greatest Plays” was published in 2015, the weightiest book of its year. It went unreviewed here at the time but appears now as part of the process of wrapping-up. Any book that comprises a list provokes a first reaction: to go in punching. There will always be objections to choices for inclusion and equally exclusions that are blatantly absurd. The very act of selection provokes.

Joyce Macmillan wrote a reliably punchy review for the “Scotsman.” She ends with “Billington’s enthusiasm remains undimmed; as does the elegance and vigour of his writing, which – backed by his unparalleled banks of theatrical knowledge and wisdom – makes these essays a joy to read, even while we rage and quibble over Billington’s choices, and set about compiling lists of our own.” She has it perfectly.  

Before that conclusion Macmillan picks out the factors that underlie. “It is therefore essential”, she writes, “to point out that Billington’s choice has an unsurprising bias towards the English stage, and is almost exclusively focused on the theatre of the western hemisphere. There’s no attempt to include any classic work from the repertoire of Noh theatre or any other eastern tradition; and even within the western canon, it’s clear that a similar list produced by a French or American critic would look very different.”

In fact there is a generosity to Germany with Lessing getting in. Schiller and Kleist both contribute a couple each to the best 101.

Macmillan, a fiery reporter from her own patch, observes: “as for Scotland, it barely features at all; indeed of all the plays created and produced in Scotland since mediaeval times, only Ena Lamont Stewart’s great 1947 drama “Men Should Weep” makes the final list. Nor does the list feature many other women playwrights, although Billington seems to strive.” Her strongest objection is reserved for “it’s astonishing, given his generally left-leaning sympathies, to see nothing here of either John McGrath or Joan Littlewood, the two great pioneers of radical British theatre in the 20th century.”

Surprisingly, the theatre of Wales appears not just on the first page but as the first line. The reason is the year of Aeschylus' birth and thus the opening of the book. “We gathered in the Brecon Beacons on a sunny August evening in 2010 to see the oldest surviving play in Western drama. No-one who was there will ever forget Mike Pearson's production.”

The essay that follows is a model for the 100 that follow, a wide-ranging view across four translations and three productions. The scale of the learning is formidable, the range of experience unique. He has simply been there for a length of time without equal. He was there to review two radio plays from a new name. The titles were “If You're glad, I'll be Frank” and “the Education of Dissolution of Dominic Boot.” The year was 1966.

So the book is to be read for what it is, ever elegant and eloquent, with an underlying aesthetic, and moral, bedrock to it. The approach is clear from the introduction. Billington is no "interrogator" of “text.” “The book is not a study of plays on their own. Their experience is not inseparable from their enactment. The experience is their enactment.” So,the aesthetic point revealed on Mynydd Epynt is: “what we discovered- or at least I did- was that Aeschylus from the start had unearthed a fundamental principle of drama: that it should contain moral and political ambivalence and that its meaning should vary according to circumstance.” The same point is repeated 343 pages on in the first line on “the Crucible”. “Great plays change their meaning depending on time and circumstance.”

These aesthetics are elaborated in discussing Frank Wedekind. “I hope I've made clear my admiration for naturalism, a movement that turned drama and fiction away from the purple excesses of romanticism and allied them to a Darwinian spirit of scientific enquiry.” Page 335: “by now the basic qualities that I look for in a great play should be fairly clear. I seek the smell of reality, a clearly defined social context, vivacity of phrase, moral ambivalence, a fluctuating tragi-comic mood.” In a stimulating demonstration of contradiction he goes on to select Ionescu who embodies none of these qualities.

The book never lets us forget that theatre is an event with the critic a live presence. “It was one of those nights no one who was there will ever forget: 4th July 1997.” Read the book to know the what- as a pointer Ian Rickson was directing. In ranging far and wide across “the Cherry Orchard” he remembers a director who has a branch fall climactically through a window next to the abandoned Firs. That was Peter Stein for the Berliner Schaubuehne in 1989.

Solipsism in online writing on theatre is a default, the intent being to convey authenticity but a category mistake. The realised critic falls back on the word “I” rarely and selectively but when it is done it is done with a point. Thus: “I can only say that “All That Fall” in its localised richness has a humanity that leaves me more moved than by any other Beckett play.”

To be moved: that is what it is for. Among the quotations Oscar is here. He speaks for a strand of today's theatre in “My play was a complete success. The audience was a failure.” As for the author himself the aesthetics of theatre are stripped down to 9 words that end the essay which opens with Mike Pearson. “Drama is, first and foremost, the art of contradiction.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
24 October 2018

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Who Keeps the Score on the London Stages?- Kalina Stefanova

Critiquing the Critics

This is a book that is different. It was published in the year 2000. The National Library does not hold a copy. The largest bookseller site has a few copies on offer, its price averaging £100. It was probably read in small quantities at the time; its appearance here is only because it turned up nine years ago on the shelves of the Oxfam bookshop in Aberystwyth's Great Darkgate Street. I read it in 2009 and, in this time for retrospection, again in 2018. Much of the content is anecdotal and forgettable. Nonetheless, even if its readership is likely to be narrow, its 210 pages hold much of interest.

Kalina Stefanova won a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship to the Department of Performing Arts at New York State University. The year was 1990 and she was from Bulgaria. She followed the period in the USA with a British Council Scholarship to City University. From the USA time she published “Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?” This book is the British counterpart. Formally, it is made of 19 authorial questions to a range of theatre professionals. The answers, printed verbatim, are of varying length from a paragraph to a page. The range of interviewees is  formidable, comprising 28 critics, 15 dramatists and directors, 5 producers and 6 publicists. Nick Hern, the sole publisher, also contributes.  

For an academic imprint Stefanova's approach puts empiricism before theoretical considerations. Her own direct writing is contained within an 8-page conclusion. Her judgement on the critical scene of her survey is “a very worthy and admirable model of theatre criticism- an exemplar of the golden middle way.” This middle way is one that distinguishes London from both USA and Europe. “Not a star who calls the shots, as is the case in New York. Neither a lofty scholar nor a biased insider, as is mostly the case in Eastern Europe.” The effect of formative years in pre-1989 Bulgaria is evident.

The making of the book took place in another century. The Web had been in existence for eight years but was the domain of a small minority. James Christopher remembers the time before. At Edinburgh in 1986 the newspaper for which he was writing folded. He had the use of a photocopier and printed his own. In A3 format with a run of 1,000 the information had a value, priced at £0.20 a piece. These were different days.

A minority of the interviewees hold teaching jobs in universities but most have a background in plain journalism. Jeremy Kingston at Punch was a restaurant critic for 6 years. Alastair Macaulay at the Financial Times did dance, then music before theatre. Jack Tinker was an exception. “When I was about 12, I decided I wanted to be a critic.”

That journalism paid and the critics write about occasional flights to Moscow or Beijing. The rooting in journalism means that the prose has to readable. The fight for space and greater word-count is a consistent topic. Lyn Gardner: “good theatre criticism requires space but newspaper editors don't want to give it.” John Gross writes of the stylistic tradition: “English [sic] journalism is more casual than American journalism in general. English writing tends to be more personal, ironical and nuanced.” Matt Wolf, an American in London, points to the advantage here: “British critics have just seen more.”

John Elsom provides a comment that does sound British. “The death of the critic is when they become slick, when they use the same adjectives or phrases, like the same things and lose any connection between the theatre and life. This could lead to a self-obsessed and rather masturbatory activity. Critics can easily become narcissistic.”
  
The book does not take the lid of the theatre of Britain as a whole. It is London and Stratford. One of the interviewees comments on the resilience and vitality of regional theatre. It is theatre that is made from plays and dramatists. The Fringe gets small mention so it is a view from the centre. But then the centre is an impressive one.

Relations between makers and commentators are mainly cordial. Michael Billington recalls the cuffing he received from David Storey, an incident that was amplified in the retelling. But more common is “there are at least half a dozen critics whose responses are intelligent and whose work I listen to.” Arnold Wesker says of the ones whom he rates highest: “you get a sense that they care about the theatre. If something excites them, it's a discovery.”

Alan Ayckbourn: “the best criticism is written by those with a genuine love for the theatre who want to convey their enthusiasm to their readers.”

Sir Alan has it.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Harwood

published:
01 October 2018

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Peggy to Her Playwrights- Edited by Colin Chambers

The role that Peggy Ramsay (1908-1991) played in the theatre of Britain was both colossal and central. She also played a part in the history of theatre of Wales. At the time when Dic Edwards was the most performed dramatist on stages beyond Wales Ramsay was his agent. If Dic Edwards does not appear in this selection of letters it is because the wealth of playwrights that her agency represented astounds.

The starting list of 40 starts with Rhys Adrian and ends with Charles Wood. It proceeds through almost every dramatist who impacted the theatre of the era. The dramatists in translation are of the stature of Arrabal, Ionescu, Pinget, Vian. Adapters and translators are of the like of John Barton. Names of note not in this selection are Frayn and Osborne, Pinter and Stoppard but these few omissions are swamped by the legion whom she represented.

Her prominence as an agent was unique to the extent that her presence jumped well beyond the small office in Godwin's Court. These revealing letters should be read in conjunction with Simon Callow's memoir of 1999. She can be traced as an inspiration in fiction in Ayckbourn's “Absurd Person Singular”, Peter Nichols' “A Piece of My Mind” and David Hare's “the Bay at Nice.” Vanessa Redgrave played her in the film of “Prick Up Your Ears.” Editor-selector Colin Chambers includes a letter of 8th May 1987 in which she asks John Lahr that she be removed as a character from his “Diary of a Somebody”.

The correspondence reveals the sheer pace of a life at the centre of theatre's business. The schedule recorded for 2nd October 1968 covers a dress rehearsal of a client's play, a five minute gap for a 10:30 showing of another author's play. “Television was Work”, Simon Callow wrote in “Love Is Where It Falls”. The day includes a Gandhi prayer meeting and another TV play. The next is scheduled for lawyers, yet more TV drama before a weekend in Brighton loaded with scripts to be read.

The leading quality that pulses through the letters is enthusiasm. 5th May 1967 she sees “Dingo” in Bristol and writes: “I was tremendously moved by it.” To the Head of Plays at the BBC 25th August 1969: “I know that Arden has the finest writing talent in England [sic] today and possibly in the English speaking world.” Her stance towards her clients, 22nd September 1969, is generosity. The agent's due to the playwright is simple- “to foster talent.”

The letters touch on the solicitous. On July 1st 1970 she writes to the Ardens who had been briefly detained by police in Assam: “do be careful about going through your money too lavishly. I'm a bit worried that you'll be without sufficient means when you return.” To Robert Bolt, 18th July 1978, about a fellow writer: “Peter Nichols has just written a 6-part TV on his career which is full of hate and malice, and I've tried to tell him that without love and compassion an author is nothing.” Then as now distractions to writing are many. 3rd November 1981 she commends Howard Brenton for turning down an event at a US university: “Two of our authors, to say the least, are absolutely behind because they can't resist a free jaunt.”

Simon Callow reveals the music she listened to at home. Zemlinsky and Schoeneberg were indicators of a deep cultural knowledge. In a letter, 24th October 1957, to Frith Banbury she vaults across de Maupassant, Quiller-Couch, Tennessee Williams, Marlowe, Baudelaire, Havelock Ellis, Ovid, Gide, D H Lawrence, Villon. Unsurprisingly, the book reveals dramaturgical depth. 19th January 1983 to Max Stafford-Clark: “Before I was an Agent I ran a theatre. A mistake over the choice of director, designer, play, actors and lighting was crucial.” In a studied letter, 14th March 1962, she advises Alan Ayckbourn: “you need a long sustaining scene to act as contrast between Act 1 and III.”

She writes to Terry Hands, 3rd May 1974, about the challenge of staging “the Bewitched”. Peter Barnes is pitched between the Jacobeans and Laurel and Hardy. The result is “sheer naughtiness entirely lacking in sexuality or eroticism.” Writing for live acting is its own art. To Edward Bond, 14th August 1969: “Anyone who thinks that writing for the stage is in any way similar to TV, or that writing for TV has anything to do with films, is mad and incapable of judgement.”

Even back in the last century she was noticing the decrease in the proportion of money flowing through to activity on a stage. “But no theatre will ever be entirely satisfactory until the money is put onto the stage, which is the reason for the theatre being there in the first place.” She advises against over-intellectualism: “there should remain something of the child to communicate with a mixed body such as one finds in an average audience.” Playwriting is no different from accomplishment in any field of endeavour: “talent isn't enough; work and self-criticism is essential.”

“Peggy to Her Playwrights” is also a report from history. On 5th February 1964, in an uncharacteristic tone, she meets a director of the moment: “I lunched with Hall. It's terrifying to watch the effect of his maniacal will to power, which is almost destroying him. My God, why doesn't he read Schopenhauer and see the danger he is in.” In an unimaginably different climate the Ardens go on strike because they do not like what the RSC is doing with their play “the Island of the Mighty.” The loyal agent has private reservations but helps with legal advice and takes hot soup to the picket line.

An agency is a business. Simon Callow was her executor and reveals the size of her estate in his book. It was considerable but her approach to money is consistent. On the one hand she mentions, 23rd February 1957, that after two years representing Robert Bolt: “so far I haven't earned one single penny.” But there are other times as on 28th February 1967: “On Friday evening I sold LOOT film rights for “£100,000!!!”

But she observes the lures of success in the theatre. On 22nd January 1970 she writes of N C Hunter: “All his plays ran for years at the Haymarket, and the poor bugger is now stranded on the island of his past success, utterly forgotten, and a sad and embittered man. I met this ghost at a party a few years ago...he hadn't learnt a thing from all his success.”

The theme is constant. To Bolt 4th December 1963: “once an author has become successful and famous, it becomes more difficult to speak the truth, and this is why people like Rattigan become bloodless, because, in time, people fear to give them anything but lip service for self-preservation's sake.” To Michael Elliott 23rd March 1962: “[John] Mortimer's big weakness is a passion for success, and the trappings of success.” She sees talent being drained: “the people who love successful people exploit them, take them up, throw them away, and sometimes only a shell is left.”

She earned millions and the life was lived with hedonism but not ostentation. She wrote 11th August 1964 on earning enough to live satisfactorily: “we can all live more simply, and give ourselves time to think and feel and see. We don't need better cars, more clothes, bric-a-brac or luxuries. All these town houses, mammoth offices, fleets of secretaries, business lunches- ludicrous”. The film industry presents a particular temptation. To the enormously successful Bolt 5th October 1964: “you must live exactly as your audience lives, with all the concerns which we have all the time.” She makes the comparison with herself. “I often think the only reason I am doing well (financially) as an agent, is because I live the same way as the very ordinary man in the street.”

Theatre is ever a cause for simultaneous elation and despair. The roll of dramatic talent that unfurls across the pages is awesome. But nonetheless in August 1971: “the West End is crammed with deplorable plays, led by so-called stars...and that goes for the Royal Court too who are the worst of the lot”. “No Sex Please We're British” is banking £7000 a week.” As for the critics a letter to Michael Billington, 16th July 1979, in defence of Wallace Shawn critiques his narrowness of criteria. A letter to Irving Wardle is a stinger of rebuke although signed off “affectionate greetings.” As for the press as a whole she reassures David Hare at the bad time of “Knuckle”: “F*** the critics”- all in capital letters- “They've all compromised or sold out...They are hired helps of perhaps the most disgusting press we have ever had.”

historical surveys

ISBN:978178684295
££20

Oberon Books

published:
27 June 2018

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How Plays Work- David Edgar

Description is often a better educator than prescription. There is not a charity shop that does not offer a stack of “how-to” books on painting and illustration. As primers they all have something of interest to say. But the jump is still huge when it comes to picking up charcoal or pastel to make form or meaning. Description needs to be what Ryle and Geertz called thick and its source needs to be that of a master. David Edgar has been in theatre, as practitioner and commentator, for 48 years and is such a master. “How Plays Work”, nine years old and frequently reprinted, is not just a primer but a refreshing and stimulating read in in its own right.

The pleasure is in the punch of style, the breadth of reference and the company of the author. If he is austere even slightly alarming in person, in print he is generous and far-seeing. John Godber even receives a commendation for his mastery of a particular strand of play. Edgar's approach is low on theory and high on example. His concern is theatre that has fused with audiences. He cites a philosopher, Mary Midgley, but only as a comment on the nature of evil. He brings in the makers of rules from Aristotle and Vauquelin to Syd Field. Anthony Minghella took pride in “The English Patient” being used as an example of how not to write a script. The Robert McKee prescriptive formula, says Edgar, damaged BBC drama. McKee, he says, now accepts open and closed endings, multiple protagonists, non-linear time

The eight brisk chapters are thematic: audiences, actions, characters, genre, structure, scenes, devices, endings. The theatre he draws on for illustration vaults the centuries. How Etherege, Goldsmith and Sheridan did what they did is still valid for today. But classics are outnumbered by dramatists of now: Crimp, Eldridge, Griffiths, Keatley, Lavery, Nichols, Penhall, Ravenhill, Shaffer, Shinn, Roy Williams are just a sample. Edgar writes a lot of theatre but manifestly sees a lot too.

Critics' voices are used sparingly in “How Plays Work.” But he cites David Lodge, Michelene Wandor, Jonathan Culler where they are needed. Eric Bentley says all that need be said on the making of dialogue. Properly made dialogue serves four purposes simultaneously. Edgar, like Bentley, is a writer of tautness, his longest chapter being “Devices.” In his terminology “devices are mechanisms for conveying dramatic meaning within scenes...the device goes to the very heart of what theatre is.” The examples of practice that follow take in Rattigan, Shakespeare, Churchill, Pinter, Friel.

As for structure it is simply a grid of time and space, within which the dramatist reveals connections. On the topic of the internal architecture of connection he finds a source who declares that scenes “must be knotted together in such a way that the knots are easily noticed.” The prescriber is one B. Brecht.

If theatre is liable to be tussled over that is sign of a lively culture. But it is not a lecture podium- it shows but does not teach. If it has a purpose it is to reveal the distemper of the times not to prescribe simple-hearted remedies for amelioration.

Edgar's references roam over genre. John Grisham's sixth rule is “Give the protagonist a short time limit. Then shorten it.” “The Magic Mountain” is a novel of greatness. Jay Parini once asked Gore Vidal “do you think I can have characters talking for fourteen or fifteen pages about history and aesthetics and that sort of thing?” Vidal: “only if they are sitting in a railway carriage and there is a bomb under the seat.” Edgar calls it the ticking clock. He shows its application in “Romeo and Juliet”, “Skylight”, “Poor Bitos”, “Plenty”, even Coward and “Still Life.”

The reading of “How Plays Work” is a return visit, prompted by 2018's recent seeing of plays of contrasting success. It lives up to its title in full.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
31 May 2018

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The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth- David Ian Rabey

Rhug, in the upper valley of the Dee, has a well-known landmark, Wales' only public sculpture of a bison. On a blank-coloured Sunday in January I found myself in the car park, near the bison, in impromptu discussion with the owner of a neighbouring car. If the subject was writer Jez Butterworth it was not so surprising. Wales is small and companionate. The main routes in the north are few and five A-roads meet at Rhug. The conversation had a prompt, the other traveller being author of the only book-length study of Jez Butterworth. The book was published a couple of years ago and noted at the time as one to read. The accidental encounter was prompt to do just so.

Jez Butterworth and Martin McDonagh are both writers at the top of the tree and share things in common. Born a year apart, March 1969 and March 1970, they were successful at a young age. Butterworth's “Mojo” (1995) was the first debut play in a generation to be performed on the main stage of the Royal Court. McDonagh was at the National Theatre by the age of 27. Both have moved to span successfully theatre and film. Both have been the subject of a particular criticism. The 1990's McDonagh trilogy was critiqued for an inauthenticity in its rendering of Ireland. An Irishman from Elephant and Castle was felt not to be the real thing.

A similar criticism is fired, a generation on, at “the Ferryman.” The critics adore it, the online world less so. Voices of Ireland condemn it as inauthentic. At the extreme its audiences are damned as complacent know-nothings, Brits who would return its border setting to the status of bandit country it held for so long. The critiques are probably true but they point to a paradox. “The Ferryman” is a theatre work of magnificence. Its formal qualities awe, its climax devastates. At the same time magnificence need not necessarily embrace authenticity. Returning to McDonagh, his Ebbing, Missouri is not a study in documentary accuracy.

David Rabey addresses this aesthetic ambivalence early on in his crisp, lucidly written study. Just as the map is not the territory, the world on stage is not the world outside. Rabey locates the right critical voice, one which is particularly appropriate for Butterworth. In “Shakespeare's Festive Tragedy” (1995) Naomi Conn Liebler writes: “What is represented is not a “real” community, any more than the characters are“real” people. They are representational models designed to express the complex relations of an exemplary society whose story is frozen for examination purposes at a particular moment in its fictionalised history.” In extrapolation this means that a critical approach to “Jerusalem”, says Rabey, is different from an approach to Edward Bond. The book uses the phrase “political formalism” for Bond.

Rabey is a university authority on theatre who is interested in theatre as drama, art even. He does not approach theatre as a vehicle to exemplify theories from Walter Benjamin or Guy Debord. He cites the good writing voices who were there in an auditorium to see plays performed by actors. He quotes from Aleks Sierz, Nicholas de Jongh, John Nathan, John Peter. Susanna Clapp has interesting things to say on director Ian Rickson. Charles Spencer is there for three hours of Johnny Byron in “Jerusalem” and simply sees “one of the greatest performances I have ever witnessed.” These critical voices add flavour and richness to the book.

The critic is a first draughtsman of history's judgement. The university voice, a good one at least, takes judgement to a next plane. “The Theatre and Films of Jez Butterworth” was written before “the Ferryman”. One of its fascinations is how its assessment of the continuity in the Butterworth oeuvre prefigures the epic of 2017. Good writers also give insight in providing context and making connections. Rabey cites another strong academic voice who does drama. Michael Mangan recalls the vestigial pagan figures who overhang the work. No other dramatist is haunted in the same way by the Green Man or the Summer King, the Trickster or the fool-king.

The book reveals a key influence on “Mojo” to be a Karel Reisz film, “We are the Lambeth Boys”. A critical contrast is made with David Hare's “Teeth 'n' Smiles”. The shadow of Beckett is everywhere in theatre. Rabey points to a difference; the shambling duo in “the Night Heron” discover decisiveness. The theme of sacrifice links Butterworth to David Rudkin's “Afore Night Come” and as far back as Sophocles. “Jerusalem” is revealed as gradual in its making. Discussions with Ian Rickson and Mark Rylance mattered. Butterworth went to Ted Hughes, the “tougher, fiercer poems”.

The chapter “Fairy Tales of Hard Men” digs deepest as to why Butterworth commands the theatre of today. The work is about “frictions between members of a community who have conflicting senses of entitlement.” It is no surprise that the setting of County Armagh called. The Edgelands, to which Rabey refers, are locations that unsettle. The themes are “the rituals, transformations and sacrifices by which the male gender distinctively attempts to negotiate development and meaning.” The results are inevitable in plays that “examine the messages men hear about what is traditionally expected of them”. These edicts “prove fragile, restrictive, self-contradictory, self-defeating and self-destructive”.

In the book's aim to unify the work thematically Rabey pinpoints “a consistent, but increasingly overt and central, purposeful mythic quality”. In his last action Quinn Carney, combining self-realisation and self-destruction, becomes suddenly and dramatically Hamlet . The title of the book is revealing. Its theme is the theatre, not the plays, of the author. A new opportunity for an audience to make its own judgement occurs this summer. “Jerusalem” receives its first revival at the Watermill.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Bloomsbury

published:
31 March 2018

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Other People’s Shoes. Thoughts on Acting- Harriet Walter

The reading of “Brutus and Other Heroines” in January was prompted by gender and representation dispute. It was also a reminder that Harriet Walter is author of a book on acting. “Other People’s Shoes. Thoughts on Acting” dates back to 1999 but has been reprinted several times. Like Simon Callow's “Being an Actor” Harriet Walter's book on acting holds up well.

Stage acting awes and the more it is viewed the more it awes. To read about it is like one of those fractals devised by Benoit Mandelbrot. To home in on a detail of the complex patterning does not make it simpler. It just yields a new complexity, albeit at a closer level. Which is not to mean that books by actors are not worth reading, because they are. The good ones have the effect of making the awesome more familiar, even if no less awesome. The clue is in the word itself. Acting is that- it is a sequence of acts over time and across space. Language is a different category, a symbol-rendering, encapsulating, abstracting process outside time and space. When writing turns to acting, it can only aspire to be a rough simulacrum.

In this linguistic circling around the uncatchable Richard Eyre in interview with Judi Dench asked: “Is it difficult to talk about acting?” The actor's response: “I don't think we should talk about acting because there's nothing to talk about, really. It's as if we are blank canvases. It's the play and the author and the author's intention that energise the actor. It's only when you're telling the story that you're doing your job; after you've done that there's nothing really to talk about.”

There is something to talk about. Harriet Walter writes of the art where the self yields up its fixedness of being itself. “Since I was very young”, she remembers, “I have been able to watch someone and imagine myself inside them, moving their limbs, striking their poses and by some strange mechanism, getting an inkling as to their feelings and thoughts.” But she runs up against the limits of description. “It's hard to explain how it's done because it is not a systematised process; it is just part of our equipment.”

The genesis of every actor is its own. The book is not an autobiography but she is sharp on the differences and the commonalities in her parents. “What they also shared was a well-concealed but deep lack of self-confidence.” The adult child sees a common cause: “both had a dominant parent who had given them a sense of failure.” The effects of separation and private school in her own experience are dealt with economically. She writes of the elasticity of the teenage persona: “I started to capitalise on my versatility, being one thing to person, one thing to another.” Christopher Lee is revealed in a single line as an uncle. She adds an elliptical accompanying sentence. Lee's “own career, though relatively blessed, has never been anxiety-free”.

She is modest on her own career. A turning-point is 7:84. She has an early job in Lancaster and 7:84 visits. John McGrath leaves her his telephone number and later, out of work, she calls. Of her experience with 7:84 she writes of the demands on the actor. “I had to coarsen up my act, broaden my humour, put over a rowdy song.”

She joins Joint Stock and plays a male apprentice. “I had spent most of the evening under a table scraping out paint tins, and yet I remain prouder of “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” than of most other shows I have been involved with. The reason for this is simple. We had time. The show belonged to us all. Every experience in the last six months, whether ordeal or treat, had bound our imaginations together and this informed the quality of the work.”

William Gaskill was the director for that production and she has particular observations on the director role. “The absence of a strong director breeds insecurity and fear”, she writes, “which in turn brings out the worst in people. If you cannot trust the Overseeing Eye, you compete for attention. Over-acting and upstaging...it is not a question of malice towards the other so much as a fear for oneself.” As for the role of leadership “there is an important distinction to be made between power and authority...power comes with the position, but authority has to be earned...we need the director's authority, but we can be messed up by their power.”

The reports from the rehearsal room are illuminating. “I have taken part in useless time-wasting improvisations and I have witnessed near-miraculous ones.” “We worked on obsession and status, and these exercises went a long way towards unlocking the play.” Out on the street the actor observes other people. “Which part of their anatomy leads them? Their nose? Chest? Chin? Knees?” There are useful keys to unlocking another person. “Look for the fear” she advises, “fear is a great clue to psychological motive.”

She observes the different media. The camera offers the solidity of recording performance. But theatre leads. “When we sit in the audience we don't just watch a fait accompli, we are part of the event. We remember the play as a personal memory. It is something that happened to us.”

A permanency of discomfort is essential to maintaining artistry in acting. She observes actors who become habituated. “Clinging to your method can become a security blanket and actors are not supposed to be secure.” She describes the personality as “a ravelled muddle” but ends on a note of harmony. “I have been victim, neurotic and clown, and in playing out these extremes have settled on my true mien...belatedly become an adult who is relatively happy in her skin.”

These “Thoughts on Acting” are illuminating and informative; they are also engagingly likeable. It is a book that has deserved to last.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Penguin

published:
31 March 2018

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Sweetly Sings Delaney- John Harding

It is the way of the touring calendar that too many productions arrive over too short a time. In February, two productions were performed at different locations in the west on the same day. The advertising for one declared its foremost quality to be that it was “cinematic”. Since the arts of cinema and theatre have small overlap the advertising acted as anti-advertising and sent me to the other.

As an episode it came to mind in the reading of John Harding's absorbing book. The film of “A Taste of Honey” is a regular on television. As a film it is lifted by Walter Lassally's superb photography and the Tushingham-Melvin acting partnership. But it is far different in flavour from the play that propelled the nineteen old Salford writer to fame. Among other things, “Sweetly Sings Delaney” reclaims the play for its place in theatre.

Most first writing for theatre involves the playwright working their way through their admirations. With Shelagh Delaney it was the opposite. At the Opera House in Manchester she saw Terence Rattigan's “Variation on a Theme” and disliked it, thinking she could do better. The result, written in a matter of days, was sent to the Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. Gerry Raffles said of “A Taste of Honey”: “Quite apart from its meaty content, we believe we have found a real dramatist.” In the ever competitive atmosphere between the two innovating theatres the production programme took a swipe at the Royal Court. Their dramatist was the “the antithesis of London's angry young men. She knows what she is angry about.”

Then as now, there was no shortage of aspiring writers for theatre. The Salford City Reporter of 9th May 1958 quoted a Mr G Raffles: “we have had 2500 plays sent to us in the last five years and this is only the fourth we have accepted. The love scenes are amazingly frank and a scene between the girl and a Negro boy is brilliantly written.”
Behind the scenes, Joan Littlewood was frank on what she saw as the play's deficiencies. The dialogue sparkled but she considered many of the scenes undeveloped and the plot anecdotal.

The solution in the production was to use direct audience address and to put a jazz group on stage. Johnny Wallbank's Apex Trio provided each character with a signature motif. The play vaulted to the West End in January 1959 and played for 368 performances. Broadway followed and John Osborne bought the film rights for a then weighty £20,000. Tony Richardson's film went on to win, among other awards, Best Actress and Actor awards at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival. Its status stands as the most performed play by a post-war British woman playwright.

“Sweetly Sings Delaney” combines the virtues of slimness with fullness. Undogmatic and untheoretical, John Harding roams across an array of contemporary sources. He revisits the records of the Lord Chamberlain, the licensor of theatre in its days of censorship. The Lord Chamberlain's assistant, a Brigadier Norman Gwatkin reports: “I think it's revolting, quite apart from the homosexual bits. To me it has no saving grace whatsoever. If we pass muck like this, it does give our critics something to go on.” Its licence was granted with the word “castrated” taken out and a self-revelatory speech by the gay character Geof removed.

Over at the Arts Council Drama Panel Harding finds an opinion that “it seems to have been dashed off in pencil in a school exercise book by a youngster who knows practically nothing about the theatre. Miss Delaney writes with the confidence of sheer ignorance.” The Daily Mail's critic took the same line, saying the play exuded “exercise books and marmalade” and that any “similarities to real drama are quite accidental.”

The media was delighted to have a West End playwright of apparently genuine working-class background. The Daily Mail described Delaney as “wolfing down a meal of sausage, cabbage, beetroot and weak tea.” In a true indicator of another era the News Chronicle viewed her as “like a kennelmaid on her day off”. The Evening Standard reported her as having started smoking at age six. But in the nature of writers there was rather more ambivalence to her than these simplifying labels conveyed.

Her work appeared to include being assistant to a photographer. In the letter she wrote to Joan Littlewood to accompany the script she said that two weeks previously she “didn’t know the theatre existed”. Journalists saw a cultural background in music hall and visits to the cinema three times a week. The truth was that she had worked as an usher and regularly went to plays with a friend, artist Harold Riley. He said he was “struck at the time by the extent of Delaney’s knowledge of the history of the theatre”.

Joan Littlewood offered her young playwright guidance. “Read a good play,” she wrote “an Ibsen for example, then analyse it, note the construction. Playwriting is a craft, not just inspiration.” The next play “The Lion in Love” did not match the first and her writing life moved to short stories, radio and film scripts. Delaney is a crucial part of the story of Lindsay Anderson. In “Charlie Bubbles”, directed by and starring Albert Finney, an acclaimed writer makes a return to northern roots. Finney too came from Salford and Harding begins his book there.

His Salford of the 1950s is a report from a world gone. Its lack of sunshine was due to sulphur dioxide concentrations that were twice those of neighbouring Manchester. The incidence of bronchitis was twice the national average. Over 1955-65 more houses were demolished per capita than in any other city. It was not just bad housing that went, but civic buildings with communal function, cinemas, churches, banks, department stores, pubs. Salford though had small affection for its writer. “A taste of cash for Shelagh but a kick in the pants for Salford” ran an early story for the Salford City Reporter. The film “the White Bus” was yet “another slur on Salford's good name”. Eras change; in 2014 Salford City Council organised the first Shelagh Delaney Day.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Greenwich Exchange

published:
27 March 2018

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Brutus and Other Heroines- Harriet Walter

Everything that is new is new in its own way. But nothing is ever entirely new. When Nietzsche wrote about eternal recurrence he was right, albeit not quite in the right way. Cultural life is normally quiet, as much in England as in Wales. In January there was a flare-up. It was unsatisfactory in that an issue was raised that was deep and felt. But it went without continuity and without continuity there can be no resolution. One national arts company participated in a manner that was eloquent and forthright. Another held its silence. Alfred Hirschmann wrote in 1970 on the choice between “Voice” versus “Exit.” The thing with silence is that it also speaks.

Surface symptoms mask deep issue. The issue of who gets to represent whom in performance is perennial. Its actualisation at any one time is a mix of expediency, convention and the decisions of those in power. In 2000 Hytner directed Gambon in a play by Nicholas Wright called “Cressida.” It was the subject of that play and the period of its setting was the year 1600.

The latest chapter can be dated to 1992 and it involved two Richards. Richard Ingrams led the charge in fulminating against Richard Eyre. Clive Rowe could be a Damon Runyon chancer but Eyre's casting of him as Oscar Hammerstein's Mr Snow was an instance of a director going too far. It was a new chapter but not a new issue. In 1960 the New York Times inveighed against Sid Caesar's representation of East Asians. In 1936 Orson Welles' casting for Shakespeare earned it the sneer of the “Voodoo Macbeth”. Nothing is ever entirely new.

Harriet Walter's latest book is thus timely. This season a group of women actors are at London's Bridge Theatre plotting a coup d'etat against power. Adjoa Andoh, omitted from the short press reviews of “Julius Caesar”, is mesmerising as Cascar. Michelle Fairley is a fine companion as Cassius. Yet the blogosphere is unhappy.

“I'd assumed Fairley and Andoh were playing men, but this seems to suggest Cassius is female” says one “Sorry to niggle, but while I'm fine with actors playing across gender I'm not knowingly going to any more productions where the gender of the characters has been altered.” “I'm not at all fine with actors playing across gender- if the characters ARE men/women then they should be played by men/women.” In these commentators' eyes they see women before they see actors.

Harriet Walter's subtitle is “Playing Shakespeare's Roles for Women”. Its ten chapters cover Ophelia, Lady Macbeth, Portia, Beatrice, Cleopatra. But the last 53 pages are devoted to the playing of men. Her Prospero which she performed in London and New York is not included but Brutus and Henry IV are.

Phyllida Lloyd took her company into Holloway Prison. Harriet Walter discovers that the crimes are nearly all petty. “Nearly all women in jail are there” she writes “because of a man in their life: a pimp, a drug dealer, or a violent partner.” The workshops tell her one thing. “We did get confirmation that the play was the right one to do.” When it is over she concludes “I hoped we had done “Julius Caesar” justice, but I also felt we had left them with a sense of the talent we waste when we sideline swathes of society or lock them out of sight.”

When it comes to Henry IV it is a big production. The cast of fourteen is “composed of women of all ages, sizes, colours and sexualities, some of African, some of Caribbean, Chinese or Indian descent, some Irish, some Scottish, one Spanish.” The production has a result for the actors in “that the women do not inhabit familiar categories.” Again the women of Holloway give insight. The prisoners see in Falstaff and the Prince the relationship of dealer to user. “Thanks to the prisoners” she acknowledges “we adopted this story as our input.”

As for the transfer into maledom Harriet Walter is as good as any actor has been in print. “Playing men was not so much” she observes “about putting on deep voices or blokeish walks; it was more about stripping away feminine gestures. We found so many of our cultural habits...were about accommodating other people and making ourselves less threatening. We tried to get into a mindset of entitlement; entitlement to be seen and heard. To take up space and dominate a room.”

“Brutus and Other Heroines” is not just about acting and gender. It is also about Shakespeare and it ends with a five page letter that starts “Dear Will.” “The women in your plays often have a moral clarity that comes from their very exclusion.” Among the characters and the actions she cites much of the verse and values highly the words of Brutus. “The abuse of greatness is, when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Before it all begins she asks herself a question “could I risk a bit of bloody criticism from my male colleagues and male critics?” The answer here in print is “Of course I bloody could."

Acting

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
05 February 2018

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Let Me Play the Lion Too : How to Be an Actor- Michael Pennington

When Radio 4's “Front Row” wished to pay tribute to Michael Bogdanov their first call went to Michael Pennington. It was Pennington who provided the most telling phrase for his collaborator-friend “an extraordinary mixture of scholarship and mischief.” The English Shakespeare Company, which they co-founded in 1986, features in the actor's 410-page book. It was a challenger to the RSC and National Theatre's in its ability to mount large-scale classical drama. Its funding, says Pennington, was “a happy conjunction of judgement, hunch and the right political moment”.

It features in the section of his book “Summing Up an A-Z”, the entry titled “Going It Alone.” Classical theatre appears in his book- Pennington played “Hamlet” well over a hundred times- but it is part of the span of performance that ranges just about everywhere an actor may go. His opening section is all about film, prompted by a co-appearance, modest in length, with Robert de Niro. He explains how to do it and details how a film set works. Roles such as the Best Boy, who has seven primary duties, are explained.

Pennington has acute things to say about radio, not least its defying every prediction of demise. “Let me play the lion too : how to be an actor” has the wisdom of experience running through it but is lacking in dogma. At the opposite end of the spectrum, when acting in a Mamet play, he finds young actors reading the playwright's guide-cum-polemic “True and False”. To Pennington it is “a blistering piece of propaganda”. He hurls the copies from the rehearsal room's window, although decently recompensing the books' owners.

But this is an uncharacteristic piece of high opinion. In the main his book is a wealth of observation that provides advice. He has, he admits, been around a long time. The young actor was in Berlin in the summer when the Anti-fascist Protection Rampart was built. He recalls the murder of a seventeen year old in Southall in 1976. The Chair of the National Front's comment was “One down, one million to go”. In that other Britain the speaker is acquitted of the charge of inciting racial hatred. But his book is not a memoir. If its structure rambles then it is a ramble at the hands of a guide filled with ripe information to fascinate.

The book's tone can be seen in the chapter headings. Chapter 9 is titled “Sex and Drugs and Turning up” and is just that, although done with levity. Moments of theatre history run lightly in and out. He reports on Meyerhold worrying over a moment in playing Tusenbach in the first production of “the Three Sisters.” He and Stanislavski hit on the idea of opening a bottle of wine and Tusenbach having difficulty with the cork.

When he is in Ronald Harwood's “Taking Sides” his preparation by way of historical research is substantial. Then he encounters his director in the form of Harold Pinter. Pennington reprises the tale of a young Alan Ayckbourn enquiring of the author what Stanley in “the Birthday Party” might be thinking but not saying. “Mind your own f***ing business” is the Pinter response.

He has the actor's take on previews, a habit more or less invented by Peter Hall. The cast's stance is split: “ however many previews they're never quite enough- except that by now they want to get the thing on and running.” He is both acid and confessional on the subject of awards. “You might as well compare someone who specialises in meringue glacé with someone who is good at gutting a fish on the grounds that they're preparing something to eat...comparing a performance of a Shirley Valentine with a Medea is about as stupid an activity as you can get involved with.” He is appalled by the anonymity of web opinion.”Public reviewing” he says “is a responsible job that should be done with care and an open mind.”

He has his views on critics but his book is primarily about actors. He meets an actor who did not work for six years and estimates that his income when they briefly work together to be £100,000 a year. As for the worries over intake “the same proportion of talent and willingness is flowing into the profession as it ever did.” The new generations face what all generations have faced. “All that is certain in any career is that nothing is certain.”

Acting

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
19 December 2017

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Worlds Elsewhere- Andrew Dickson

Pamela Petro, Massachusetts author and ardent Cymrophile, wrote a first book “Travels in an Old Tongue”. In it she travelled the world encountering pockets of Welsh and Welshness everywhere. In the remotest metropolitan area on earth, in down-town Perth, the biggest retailer is called “David Jones.” So too it is with Andrew Dickson. He is interested in how Shakespeare has flowed just about everywhere. Sure enough in Hong Kong his introductory guide is Dean of Drama, Ceri Sherlock.

The full title of his book is “Worlds elsewhere : Journeys around Shakespeare's Globe” and it is long, 480 pages. It has a fifteen page bibliography, is well-indexed and is journalistic in style. That is a compliment to indicate accessibility and readability. Its interest in considerable. As a small item of the literary world Dickson wrote about Dominic Dromgoole's book on Shakespeare (reviewed here June '17) unflatteringly. Dromgoole had previously reviewed Dickson's earlier book and called the author “a man whose Uber-Pooterishness is so beyond self-parody that is becomes almost endearing.” He also noted reviews of productions that were “lazily and airily dismissive”, adding that one of them had been his. Literary snipery apart “Worlds Elsewhere” is filled with moments of discovery to fascinate.

Dickson opens with a performance of “The Comedy of Errors” from the Globe’s 2012 Festival of Global Shakespeare. The place is Kabul and sets him wondering. “Why was Shakespeare, a writer who barely travelled, so popular globally? And why had he been not only adapted, but adopted, in so many countries worldwide?” He looks for answers in four locations. Gdansk, formerly contested German Danzig, was surprisingly a city which saw a group of English players construct a theatre early in the seventeenth century. 1611 was the year of “the Tempest” in Britain and that year British actors were twice in Danzig.

Dickson moves to Weimar, the high Olympus of German culture. Schlegel's peerless translation yoked Will of Stratford across the North Sea. Probing into the German Shakespeare Society Dickson quotes snippets of academic declaration from the past. Hermann Ulrici: “we want to de-Anglicise the English Shakespeare. We want to Germanise him.” Karl Fulda: “we have an undeniable right to call him ours, because we have made him thanks to German industry, German spirit and German scholarship.” Nationalism took its short-lived deadly descent into hell and took Shakespeare with it. In 1936 Professor Hans Gǔnther's reading of Shakespeare had turned him into a full-blown eugenicist.

Reverence for Shakespeare from the United States started early. Thomas Jefferson on a visit to Stratford lowered himself to kiss the ground. The young republic had a preference for the republican message of “Julius Caesar”. Dickson finds an account from 1851 by the Edinburgh writer J D Borthwick of a rumbustious “Richard III” in Nevada City. Henry Folger began his collection of the folios and other documents. The Folger Library in Washington DC now holds 256,000 books, 250,000 playbills, 60,000 manuscripts, 200 paintings.

In the theatre of pre-1989 Eastern Europe the court of Elsinore was amplified to be a place of uniforms and surveillance. In South Africa in 1970 “Titus Andronicus” in the Afrikaans language was set in a fascist Rome. Dickson gives a good summary of the country's brave theatre flourishing led by Barney Simon and Janet Suzman. He summarises the history of China's theatre back to its first recorded origins. In the modern day he records how in 2011 the Chinese Premier made a three-day state visit to Britain. The plane landed at Birmingham Airport which allowed him to visit the local Chinese-owned car plant. But he too wanted to make his pilgrimage to Stratford. When the Premier had been a young man copies of Shakespeare in Chinese had been put on public bonfires. The leading playwright, the translator of “Hamlet”, was denounced, arrested and tortured.

Dickson roams back in time to Voltaire in exile both wonderstruck and appalled by what he sees on London stages. In the present day he philosophises as to why the world has revered and absorbed Shakespeare. His theories are several but perhaps Samuel Johnson had it nailed down a time back. The plays are “the real state of sublunary nature...in which, at the same time, the reveller is hastening to his wine, and the mourner burying his friend.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

The Bodley Head

published:
01 December 2017

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Granton Street- P H Burton

The rediscovery of Philip Burton's “Granton Street” has attracted considerable interest. Its culminating performance in Port Talbot was clearly an event of import for the town where its author was maker of one of Wales' acting greats. Lewis Davies was present for the performance and concluded “It is a play with a history and is of significance to the tradition of Welsh stage history.” Not only has Fluellen Theatre performed a service in bringing it to audiences of 2017 but it is also available in print. Once again it is a tiddler of an organisation that has done it, in this case Alun Books also of Port Talbot.

It is important not to over-praise “Granton Street”. It is a play written by a thirty-year old. It does not have the granite quality of Burton's contemporaries- O'Neill, for instance, who was writing in the same decade. Nor is it touched by modernity of style. It was written in response to a challenge and has the dramatic concentration of abiding by the classical unities of time and place. Its front plot is straight out of “Romeo and Juliet” but that does not matter. There are only seven plots anyway. Its background is politics. Indeed its exploration of politics has more depth than anything that has occurred on a Welsh stage in at least the last couple of decades.

Any artwork of depth is a mirror; each age looks to see itself within. “Granton Street” in 2017 is about the fraying of political tribes. One of the paradoxes of humanity is the politics-economics division. Politics, the order-making drive, is rooted in groups of similarity, familial, social, linguistic. At its extreme the clan displaces the state entirely. Economics, the creative object-making drive, is grouping by capability; social similarity takes secondary place. The two are in conflict and on June 23rd the first took precedence over the second. Fixity of party allegiance went and Westminster is a nine-party jostle.

Thus Burton's Mary, the daughter of the family, says to her mother “If I had had a vote I think I should have voted for Mr Granton.” Granton is the business-turned-candidate for the Conservatives. A young person expressing such a view could not feature in a present-day script. In the same vein the majority of young people voted in the 1980s for the governing party. Theatre of the time did not reflect this. The gap between the non-Conservative parties is also stark here. Will: “I can respect a Conservative, but a Liberal...He's a little man who wants to be a Conservative because it's respectable, but is prevented by what remains of his conscience.” John, the brother who has had benefit of university education, just laughs “where did you get that from?”

Burton has also caught the tensions within Labour. Their fiftieth anniversary this year has seen a revisit to the great social reforms of Roy Jenkins and Alice Bacon at the Home Office. The politics were bitter, the MP's of trades union background opposed utterly. Here the election canvasser Thomas observes of son Will: “He gets disappointed with the old stalwarts of the Miners' Federation...Of course, he's better educated than we are. He has read more and he talks about things we don't understand.”

Angela V John has provided a ten page introduction. It elegantly retraces the history of the play and its genesis. She reiterates the colossal impact that can come from an inspirational teacher and local presence. Like son John in his play Burton had benefit of a university education although the lecture theatres were of less allure than the real theatres of Cardiff. From his teaching position in Port Talbot he wrote and directed a vast pageant on the monastic history at Margam. The nascent BBC was a different corporate creature and a flood of radio scripts ensued. “Granton Street” itself was broadcast, albeit in truncated form, on February 13th 1937.

Her analysis of the play is rooted in a knowledge of time and place. Her context of the politics of Mountain Ash runs back to the by-election occasioned by the death of Keir Hardie. Burton also had as a child a fine singing voice and had performed for Lord and Lady Aberdare and guests at Duffryn House. The second half of his life was a transformation, spent at the epicentre of the theatre of the USA. His friends ran the span of O'Casey, Coward, Dorothy Parker, Bobby Kennedy.

The appearance of “Granton Street” in print courtesy of Alun Books has had a particular genesis. Had Parthian not gone ahead with “the Actors' Crucible” (reviewed here November 13th 2015) it is improbable that Angela V John's curiosity would been fired. Thanks are due to Christian Alderson of North Carolina who holds copyright for the Philip Burton estate. The historian Paul O’Leary comes from Mountain Ash and aided with expert knowledge. Peter Whitebrook, once theatre critic for “the Scotsman”, provided encouragement.

Early 2018 hosts an event for those who have an interest. At the Dylan Thomas Centre in Swansea on Saturday 17th February Angela V John will be talking about the author. Fluellen Theatre will be reading from “Granton Street” and there will also be excerpts from Philip Burton’s writings on Shakespeare. The play will most likely be seen again later in the year.

single plays

ISBN:
£

Alun Books

published:
28 November 2017

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Shouting in the Evenings- James Hayes

The name of the author is not one to jump out in a flash of celebrity recognition. James Hayes is not a parader of any theory and there is not an ideological bone in his body or in his book of 378 pages. He is the backbone of theatre culture, the jobbing actor at, or near to, its hub decade on decade. His subtitle is “50 Years on the Stage”. As for the title itself only Britain would publish a title like “Shouting in the Evenings.” It is a reminder of why I troop out once weekly, why it feels a privilege to be observer of people who work vastly harder than I.

James Hayes has a section on page 219 headed “the Mighty Bodger.” In one year he acted in five Bogdanov productions. He homes in on the Calderon, the de Musset, the Brecht and the Shakespeare. Hayes was also member of the cast for “The Romans in Britain” and he retells the tale in all its dismal detail. The obituaries to Michael Bogdanov this summer past were filled with love and reverence. They were also polite. If a director of his time were his equal in tempestuous passage then we are yet to know. Hurricane Michael he was and here he is in the Cottesloe at the technical rehearsal for “the Mayor of Zalamea”. He decides the set does not work and it is got rid of. “This was a typical example” observes the actor “of Michael's fearlessness.”

Later he qualifies this. “I have often felt that Michael is the greatest hit-or-miss director in England.” (That “England”- sic.) “When his productions work they are a joy to be in and behold. Goldoni's glorious comedy”- this was the “Venetian Twins”- “gave him a wonderful opportunity to exercise his outrageous sense of fun and anarchic sense of comedy.” Bogdanov was in Wales ten years ago with Goldoni (reviewed June 2007) and Hayes is absolutely right. The memories of delight from that production still run high. But let us not forget the yin and yang of this mercurial talent. That season's “Romeo and Juliet” also evokes powerful memories of another temper altogether.

The vivacity of “Shouting at the Audience” starts on page 2. Hayes is doing Pirandello at the Lyttelton. Hytner wants him for a four minute extract from Peter Nichols' “the National Health” in the Olivier. It is scheduled for 9:15 and the curtain comes down on the Pirandello at 9:10. That is five minutes to get from upstanding Italian bourgeois in three-piece woollen suit to pallid bed-bound patient in wynceyette pyjamas.

The recounting of productions are fine-grained in detail. The Beckett estate is notorious for its protection of its Grail. The team wonder if its custodians will tolerate a breaking of wind in a production. Samuel never wrote a fart in his text but they get by without the guardians striking it out.

Actors are the most scrupulous of observers and he notices a particular gesture in Trevor Nunn. He puts one arm over his shoulder and scratches the same point on his back. It is so perpetual that it has removed all the dye at that point from his habitual denim. Hayes is later onlooker at a cultural collision. Two German directors are working with a British company via translators. They differ over the length of a pause. Christopher Plummer to the translator: “tell them I left a f***ing pause big enough to drive a f***ing horse and cart through.” Translator hesitates. “Tell them!” The rehearsal collapses entirely and Olivier is required to mend the director-actors fissure. There is a fine metaphor in there.

The acting life is long and it all starts for Hayes in June 1963 with the twenty-two year old departing Limerick station. He describes the difficult self-application of Leichner make-ups. His London is a far-off time, that of Watneys Red Barrel and Mateus Rosé but also Charles Marowitz, Peter Terson and Peter Cheeseman.

The descriptions of tours around the globe are unexceptional but the book scores whenever he is inside a theatre or rehearsal space. The names run and run: Simon Gray, Jacobi, Cilento, Quayle, Blakemore, Hopkins, Rigg, Callow, Dexter, Hall, Harrison. Hayes tells a tale of Tony Harrison in a train in Ireland and a passenger, an old woman, asks what he does. “I'm a poet” says the great remaker of classical theatre. She nods in approval. “That's a good line of work. That's a good thing for a man to be.”

The days between Christmas and New Year, for those not on a pantomime stage, are a strange time of year. I cannot imagine a nicer book to curl up with than this one.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Matador

published:
27 November 2017

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Balancing Acts- Nicholas Hytner

The tenure of the National Theatre's fifth director is reckoned to have been a high-point in the institution's history. The most telling point in this absorbing record recounts a moment far from the stage and the lights. Hytner opens his fourth chapter in his own office at 9:30 on a Wednesday morning. Twenty people are squeezed in. They include Mark Dakin, Nick Starr and Lisa Burger from finance. “Balancing Acts” is about the productions but the running sub-text is the team. The notion of the sole leader is a chimera; leaders of distinction create teams of greatness.

The second telling point that changed the institution's history occurs a few chapters on. The subsidised sector has always been intricately interwoven with the commercial. Yvonne Murphy expressed it with an eloquence that can not be bettered in her testimony to the Senedd committee on October 18th. Productions had always vaulted from time to time from South Bank to West End. But the risk had been borne by commercial companies and so too the rewards. In the Hytner-Starr era the theatre kept the lot. That needed the board's backing; great management teams create great boards.

The National Theatre sells tickets, not always, because it puts on plays. “Balancing Acts” is suffused with tales of dramas sought and dramas staged. “We're looking for plays” he writes “that answer what Tennessee Williams called “the crying, almost screaming need of a great worldwide human effort to know ourselves and each other a great deal better.”

Dramas require dramatists and they are regular in the book. An early meeting with Harold Pinter is ripe in curses and “f***ings.” Hytner is reassured that a part of the job is to be damned early on by Pinter. The making of “Great Britain” was a piece of bravura. “Richard Bean's voice is simultaneously humane, mordant, hilarious, offensive, angry and tolerant of any amount of deviation from polite conformity. His plays are torrents of theatrical energy.” The theatre's studio is in the background nurturing the new but dramatists are also craftspeople. Of James Graham and his big hit: “This House” arrived within months. James isn't a writer who hangs about.”

“Balancing Acts” differs from the books of Hall and Eyre on their times at the helm. Hytner kept no diary so the account is reconstructed in hindsight. It is calmer than the others without the press of daily events and occasional mayhem. It is low in assertion but an aesthetic stance is inevitable. “I am less interested in plays that mirror my own way of looking at experience than in playwrights who dumbfound me with their conviction and authenticity.”

Theatrical values are to the fore. “Boring scripts flooded in” he remembers “all of them monomaniacal about making some point or other, none of them remotely theatrical. Plays that make points rarely are.” That did not mean an exclusion of productions of conviction. When it came to verbatim theatre Hytner's time staged two of the best in “the Permanent Way” and “Stuff Happens.” But they were good because the figures on their canvas were rich and wide. It was a method that failed with “the Power of Yes”; the motivation swung too much to projecting virtue and goodness.

Goodness is nice in life but tedious on a stage. The usual suspects who looked to the National Theatre as their house company were outraged by “England People Very Nice.” Hytner's view is that “Nobody could accuse “England People Very Nice” of delicacy. It worked like a scurrilous cartoon, the action peppered with projected comic strips.” National theatre in London in the Hytner view does not belong to the Guardian. “Despite my sympathy for the Guardian's doctrinal pieties, I preferred to run a theatre that felt confident enough of itself to be able to poke them with a sharp stick.” The key phrase and the key value is “confident enough of itself.”

The writing is economically eloquent. Of Howard Davies “his death in 2016 robbed British theatre of a large part of its conscience.” Of Rona Munro's great trilogy that coincided with Scotland's referendum “the James Plays...were funny, violent, informative, sexy and staged with swashbuckling élan by Laurie Sansom.”

A small controversy boiled over in 2017 as to who and what directors are for. Hytner is brief. “If you direct someone else's play, your job is to be useful to it. If you have nothing to say about it, if it means nothing to you, if you think that all you need is to get out of the way, you end up draining the life out of it. But directors too determined to use a play as a vehicle for their own preoccupations can send it down a dead end where it locks its audience. When you discover a personal stake in a play, you need to balance your connection to it with your need to connect it to an audience.”

“Balancing Acts” is an anthem for theatre in the public domain that matters. It also contains an episode of tribute to the art of the actor which must join the classics. “Frankenstein” is on the agenda and the casting swap between the two main parts is intrinsic to it. Danny Boyle knows Jonny Lee Miller from “Trainspotting.” He has no doubts about Benedict Cumberbatch's suitability for playing Frankenstein but wonders about the Creature. As it happens the actor is performing in the building and is invited in.

“Absolutely no problem” are Cumberbatch's words. In Hytner's full description. “He lay on the floor of the rehearsal studio and shut his eyes. A few seconds later he opened them. They grew large in amazement, as he saw the world for the first time. He started slowly to twitch his limbs. Slowly and painfully, he tried to hoist himself to his feet. His legs buckled from under him: his limbs were like jelly. He collapsed painfully, and grunted in shock. He repeated the noise he'd just made, and realized he had a voice. He tried to stand again, grunting, mewling, bouncing at the walls. Locked in a room with him, it was impossible not to share his birth-pangs. I started to sweat, hoping it would end soon, but Benedict had only just started...the Creature's agonies weren't going to stop until somebody pulled the plug. After about twenty-five minutes Danny finally thanked Benedict very much, so Benedict thanked Danny very much, and returned to his dressing room to get ready for Rattigan.”

Actors are beings of wonder.

Directing

ISBN:
£

Jonathan Cape

published:
07 November 2017

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J O Francis- Mary Owen

Mary Owen is Port Talbot-born and a Merthyr resident since 1962. Her route to J O Francis is via the route of local history rather than literature and theatre. Her hundred page publication is equally divided between biography and a selection from Francis' writings across the genres. It is thus considerably more than a journal article but not quite a fully fledged book. Francis still awaits a major reassessment in his own right but in the meantime this is an introduction of the greatest interest.

The author, coming from her historical perspective, is particularly strong on the social geography of the town at its economic peak. The life of John Oswald Francis spanned 1882-1956. At the time of his teenagehood a walk from Pontmarlais Circus led to the Theatre Royal and Opera House. The County Intermediate and Technical School was new. The school that Francis attended had been thirty years in the planning. “And what a blessing the school was to Merthyr. And what a blessing it was to me!” was how Francis expressed it later in a radio broadcast.

The school provided the springboard of a rare opportunity, a place at the University of Aberystwyth. Although Aberystwyth brought him into the company of no less than George Bernard Shaw he was already steeped in love of drama. In Merthyr's Temperance Hall and theatre he had seen Shakespeare and the melodramas of the era. In a radio broadcast in 1955 he said he had “fallen head over heels in love with the theatre as a young boy.”

The life continued to a year in Paris and a teaching job in Ebbw Vale. A full biography is rendered difficult in that there is no footprint of the life as revealed in diaries or letters. His friends were wide and high, including his contemporary Gomer Berry, the future press tycoon. Francis found renown as a playwright at the age of thirty. Lord Howard de Walden, originator of the first national theatre, had offered a prize of £100 “for the best play written by a Welsh author and dealing with life in Wales”. Francis' prize for “Change” updated for inflation was the same as the Bruntwood Prize today of £10000.

By December 1913 “Change” was at the Haymarket Theatre in London. In January 1914 it was at the Booth Theatre in New York followed by performances in Pittsburgh, Scranton, Chicago and Montreal. A newspaper reported that President Wilson had much liked it. In May 1914 the audience at the New Theatre in Cardiff included David Lloyd George.

Five full length plays and a stream of thirteen one-act comedies followed. The fate of the work is revealing; cherished in the bubbling amateur sector it is unnoticed in the official theatre. Richard Burton was one of many who have played the lead in “the Poacher.” The centenary of “Change” in 1912 was marked only by a production from the Neath Little Players.

In the second part that comprises forty pages of the writings the essays are equal in brio to those of G K Chesterton. In one extract Francis takes the Paddington to Fishguard express. “When the train pulls up at Newport” he writes “the atmosphere grows a little warmer. One feels that the glacial period is done.” The humour is pointed but genial. As for “Change” the extract of two pages certainly reveals it to be of its time. There are a lot of words for sure. But then there are words in excess in Shaw and a goodly number in Granville Barker. The proof is in the seeing. Fluellen has done the drama of Wales good service in 2017 in disinterring Philip Burton's first play. A similar service in assessing Francis would be welcome.

“J O Francis” is priced at £5.00. Enquiries and interested should be made at Merthyr's history society.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Merthyr History Society

published:
25 October 2017

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Who Keeps the Score on the London Stages?- Kalina Stefanova

Critiquing the Critics

This is a book that is different. It was published in the year 2000. The National Library does not hold a copy. The largest bookseller site has a few copies on offer, its price averaging £100. It was probably read in small quantities at the time; its appearance here is only because it turned up nine years ago on the shelves of the Oxfam bookshop in Aberystwyth's Great Darkgate Street. I read it in 2009 and, in this time for retrospection, again in 2018. Much of the content is anecdotal and forgettable. Nonetheless, even if its readership is likely to be narrow, its 210 pages hold much of interest.

Kalina Stefanova won a Fulbright Visiting Scholarship to the Department of Performing Arts at New York State University. The year was 1990 and she was from Bulgaria. She followed the period in the USA with a British Council Scholarship to City University. From the USA time she published “Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?” This book is the British counterpart. Formally, it is made of 19 authorial questions to a range of theatre professionals. The answers, printed verbatim, are of varying length from a paragraph to a page. The range of interviewees is  formidable, comprising 28 critics, 15 dramatists and directors, 5 producers and 6 publicists. Nick Hern, the sole publisher, also contributes.  

For an academic imprint Stefanova's approach puts empiricism before theoretical considerations. Her own direct writing is contained within an 8-page conclusion. Her judgement on the critical scene of her survey is “a very worthy and admirable model of theatre criticism- an exemplar of the golden middle way.” This middle way is one that distinguishes London from both USA and Europe. “Not a star who calls the shots, as is the case in New York. Neither a lofty scholar nor a biased insider, as is mostly the case in Eastern Europe.” The effect of formative years in pre-1989 Bulgaria is evident.

The making of the book took place in another century. The Web had been in existence for eight years but was the domain of a small minority. James Christopher remembers the time before. At Edinburgh in 1986 the newspaper for which he was writing folded. He had the use of a photocopier and printed his own. In A3 format with a run of 1,000 the information had a value, priced at £0.20 a piece. These were different days.

A minority of the interviewees hold teaching jobs in universities but most have a background in plain journalism. Jeremy Kingston at Punch was a restaurant critic for 6 years. Alastair Macaulay at the Financial Times did dance, then music before theatre. Jack Tinker was an exception. “When I was about 12, I decided I wanted to be a critic.”

That journalism paid and the critics write about occasional flights to Moscow or Beijing. The rooting in journalism means that the prose has to readable. The fight for space and greater word-count is a consistent topic. Lyn Gardner: “good theatre criticism requires space but newspaper editors don't want to give it.” John Gross writes of the stylistic tradition: “English [sic] journalism is more casual than American journalism in general. English writing tends to be more personal, ironical and nuanced.” Matt Wolf, an American in London, points to the advantage here: “British critics have just seen more.”

John Elsom provides a comment that does sound British. “The death of the critic is when they become slick, when they use the same adjectives or phrases, like the same things and lose any connection between the theatre and life. This could lead to a self-obsessed and rather masturbatory activity. Critics can easily become narcissistic.”
  
The book does not take the lid of the theatre of Britain as a whole. It is London and Stratford. One of the interviewees comments on the resilience and vitality of regional theatre. It is theatre that is made from plays and dramatists. The Fringe gets small mention so it is a view from the centre. But then the centre is an impressive one.

Relations between makers and commentators are mainly cordial. Michael Billington recalls the cuffing he received from David Storey, an incident that was amplified in the retelling. But more common is “there are at least half a dozen critics whose responses are intelligent and whose work I listen to.” Arnold Wesker says of the ones whom he rates highest: “you get a sense that they care about the theatre. If something excites them, it's a discovery.”

Alan Ayckbourn: “the best criticism is written by those with a genuine love for the theatre who want to convey their enthusiasm to their readers.”

Sir Alan has it.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Harwood

published:
11 September 2017

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Hamlet: Globe to Globe- Dominic Dromgoole

A shadow hangs over this book. The Globe has been London theatre's bad news story of the last year. The ruckus rumbles on with the last production, “Twelfth Night”, compared unfavourably with a production just along the Thames at the National. This book is a record of the Globe at a high, performance after performance of “Hamlet” in city after city. As known from previous books “the Full Room” and “Will and Me”, reviewed December 2016, Dromgoole is a lively writer and an authoritative voice on theatre.

In public he has expressed solidarity with a fellow director. The book pauses to laud the excellence of the Globe's board. An early sentence reveals his own approach to his craft. “The best way to have a conception is to have no conception at all.” This leaves the concept-ers embarrassed because they have nothing to talk about but the play. “Our job at the Globe was always to tell the story cleanly, to judge the relationships impartially and to let the language do the work.”

The subject matter of the Globe's global travel is vast with material that might fill several books. The destinations kick off with Amsterdam, Bremen, Wittenberg and eleven venues seven Baltic countries. A distinguished visitor has been seen at the Globe itself prior to the great journey. President Obama is visitor to mark the four hundredth Shakespeare anniversary. The tally is 185 countries. Roseau, Managua, Monrovia, Freetown, Antanarivo, Bishkek, Dushanbe, Vientiane, Lesotho: the locations and their range awe. Unfortunately they make for a disappointing book.

The drawback to the concept is that Dromgoole was not there. A venture of this kind requires a diary capturing the close-up detail. But he was not there on the ground but an accompanist flying in and out of destinations. That gives the description of places a blurry feel. The Zocalo, the great square at the heart of Mexico City, is given a skimpy description of a visitor at speed. Djibouti is given a quick fly-in geopolitical summary. There is in literature a contrasting visitor. Look only to Evelyn Waugh when he was in the region to see the richness of observation in accomplished writing.

In Phnom Penh the snapshot history and treatment of the Khmer Rouge is not good. “It was a horror show that only invasion could sort out.” The rushedness is reinforced by the proof-readers letting through a sentence about political legitimacy being “leant” rather than “lent.”

The grandeur of central Bogota as an example is lost. Instead the text ambles towards the author's daughter who has been reading Kerouac just before he leaves for Latin America. Quito is undescribed in favour of references to Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise. The result is a pity because Dromgoole's stewardship of the Globe was a period for acclaim. The sharpness is there when he turns to “Hamlet” itself. He looks to the treatment of speaking the verse identifying the “iambic fundamentalists” against “those who don't give a toss.” “Both are criminal” he says “the latter deserving of a longer sentence.” The Globe has a guru in Giles Block. “The stresses are flexible, there is a form in the verse and observing that form, and its hidden music, is the best way to understand the intentions behind the thought.”

Like all writers Dromgoole is strong and illuminating when on his home territory. Unfortunately these insights are infrequent across the length of “Hamlet: Globe to Globe.” He says of theatre itself “when every detail is animated, then we start to warrant that life- not speeches, or ideas, or patterns- is at the heart of the mystery of each play.” That animation of every detail is not enacted in his book.

Directing

ISBN:
£

Jonathan Cape

published:
01 June 2017

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Shakespeare The Director's Cut: The Histories- Michael Bogdanov

This second volume of Michael Bogdanov on Shakespeare was published two years after the first. It includes a few quotations of recommendation for the first volume which are apposite. Michael Pennington is not quite a voice of objectivity but he has a nice summary. “He is at once scholar, provocateur, puritan and Lord of Misrule.” Willy Maley, a Professor of Renaissance Studies, praises the practitioner's knowledge as to what works on stage. But more importantly the performance is “never losing sight of what is most politically resonant and socially engaged. The meat is moist closest to the bone, and these are choice cuts from a master.”

The histories under discussion are the five monarchs from Richard II to Richard III. Again it is a slim 160 pages, slim but tough-minded. Once again there is knowledge of the background; so it not just Holinshed's history but the second volume of 1587. Bogdanov knows the texts where the Welsh language has ceased to appear. Geoffrey of Monmouth, who was crucial for the plot of “King Lear”, can be seen in the rebels' defeat in “Henry IV, Part I.” Shakespeare's partiality for things Welsh might have been the influence of his school teacher, Thomas Jenkins. Then again his grandmother was Alys Griffin from a possibly exalted lineage of Wales.

There is no introduction by Peter Stead for this volume but in its place a twenty-two page introduction to the English Shakespeare Company. It set sail with £100,000 from the Arts Council of Great Britain and similar amounts from the Allied Irish Bank and the Canadian Mervishes. Prior to that “I had been doing mediocre work at the National Theatre.” The results were a wonder. Soon the director-founder has Michael Billington in for a critical punching with John Peter swift to follow. Richard II becomes a Regency dandy of a Beau Brummell kind. Jack Cade has spiky red hair and a Union Jack t-shirt. A mass by Byrd accompanies a battle scene. Berg's atonal violin concerto is used to suggest disintegration.

The span of government has changed but its dilemmas persist. On the fifth page of the book Northumberland is criticising the waste and incompetence in the management of the public finances. Ross lambasts the “grievous taxes” in pursuit of war and private extravagance. The remoteness of power is unchanged. John of Gaunt: “A thousand flatterers sit within thy crown/ Whose compass is no bigger than thy head.”

Richard II was ripe material for the stage for his cronyism and readiness to murder and three other plays were performed in Shakespeare's time. Elizabeth did not care for its portrayal of a court filled with favourites and flatterers. At the end Bogdanov sees much sympathy in the fallen king. “I did waste time and now doth time waste me/ For now hath time made me his numbering clock."

Falstaff dominates the next stage. The nine early years in Ireland were crucial for Bogdanov and he sees the fat knight as decidedly un-English. He likens him to Dylan Thomas or Brendan Behan. He has little time for Prince Hal and has a swing at Michael Billington over what he sees as a textual misreading of a Hytner production. The war in France was won more by luck than judgement. Harfleur is the scene of atrocity.

Henry VI is notable for the emergence on stage of female power. It also sees the political order under most threat. Jack Cade is “a cross between democratic utopianism and fascist dictatorship.” Over fifty thousand died at the Battle of Towton, a number greater, the author reminds us, than any before or since in a battle on British territory. Richard of Gloucester is at first just the ultimate arbiter of realpolitik with his “I will break a thousand oaths to reign one year." Later he becomes a prefiguring exemplar for modern nihilism, a Nietzchean uebermensch. Bogdanov irreverently evokes Schwarzenegger and the early Eastwood.

Shakespeare through the Bogdanov telescope is not a figure of remote time. Then as now “sanguine, rational people succumb to the rush of adrenalin that the sound of drum and shell stir in the blood.” The writer is generous with quotation from the plays. The writing is informal. Fluellen “produces a leek of Max Boycean proportions.” The Henry VI's “sprawl and brawl and run wildly up and down the field like a kid with a new pair of football boots that are too big.” He himself says there is too much Blair in the text but he is an excitable writer. But most of all Bogdanov is excited by Shakespeare and that excitement jumps off the page.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Capercaille

published:
25 May 2017

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Locating the Audience:..Value in National Theatre - Kirsty Sedgman

This is a book of interest on several counts. Firstly, it is an evocation of a good summer of a good year. 2010 was the year of the National Theatre of Wales' inaugural season and the core of the book summarises audience responses to two of the peak productions. Marc Rees' “For Mountain, Sand and Sea” in June at Barmouth and Mike Pearson's “the Persians” in August on the Sennybridge training area were reviewed in glowing terms on this site. These two chapters for those who were there awake memories of affection and respect.

The framing is an academic study. The bibliography is extensive covering two hundred and fifty references. It ranges back to Carl Tighe and David Adams in the last century. Dedwydd Jones is given a respect that is not really deserved. His was a voice that was idiosyncratic but being neither a theatre practitioner nor a scholar it was a voice of self-publicity. Chapter two is a comprehensive survey of the intellectual and cultural setting that preceded the foundation of the National Theatre of Wales. Roger Owen, Heike Roms, Anwen Jones, Gill Ogden, Ruth Shade and many others are all brought into the narrative. As a matter of record the company was incorporated on September 8th 2008 as a result of a coalition agreement in the Assembly. The company is a result of government decision. The Wikipedia entry “founded by a community of theatre makers and practitioners in May 2009” is an alternative fact. The authorial tendency can be seen in the low-sense “with no permanent theatre building, but instead based on an accumulated body of practice.” As a whole the entry with its incompleteness, misspelling and unreliable punctuation is not a good piece of cultural reportage for Wales.

Kirsty Sedgman describes a challenging methodology. Marc Rees, Mike Pearson and the company did not wish that response forms be distributed prior to the performances. It was a right decision. The data was collated from a mix of questionnaires after the event and face-to-face interviews. The audiences were too small to generate samples of high statistical validity. The interviews were not guided in a formal Bayesian manner. Nonetheless, these chapters make for intriguing reading not least for the questions and ambiguities that they present.

Around two hundred inhabitants from Barmouth and its locality saw the production. One interviewee expressed dissatisfaction in wanting a more formal history. She was confused by what appeared to her to be a structural disjointedness. But that is to do with expectation not being met. For those with prior knowledge of Marc Rees and his collaborators the experience was joyous. Overall the residents as a whole were less impressed than the visitors and theatre-going regulars. While Sedgman herself borrows the rhizome analogy from Deleuze and Guattari the voices she captures have their distinctiveness. “I felt guilty about the merched y wawr serving me tea and cake” says one “and still wonder whether they got paid and hope they did from an ethical standpoint.”

The book provides context to “For Mountain, Sand & Sea”. Marc Rees spent a period of time running what were called “Story Shops.” Residents were invited to share their memories and images of Barmouth. The information was then used as inspiration for the action on hill and alley, beach and railway. The results were highly visual such as the performer in an ape mask brandishing a bone in slow-motion to the “2001: A Space Odyssey” theme. To some of the interviewees the treatment of their town was oblique. In a later comment the writer has added “they tended to be those with little experience of this kind of avant-garde event. A cluster of audience members came precisely to see known stories performed in understandable ways.” The conclusion is “that when local expertise conflicts with NTW’s professional theatrical expertise, it often loses the battle.” But that raises the question of who the company was aiming primarily to please.

The book records a reaction to “the Persians” that is quite different. By definition the location had no residents and the book states that there was small local advertising. In an article afterwards she adds “So what’s really interesting is why “the Persians” was so popular. How did people articulate the value of this event? It was clear that most people saw “the Persians” as having little national cultural relevance.” “Here, NTW’s capacity to engage with ideas of local identity was less important than the ability of theatre generally to tap into a kind of essential humanity. Instead, what audiences appreciated was the sense that The Persians had looked beyond Wales to the “universal”.

The least involving part of the book is the preliminary chapter prior to tackling the subject. The scholarly method requires a review of the literature. The coverage is admirably exhaustive but much of what the author is obliged to report is not inspiring. There is the inevitable sub-Derridean wordplay. “Audiencing the Audience” is to any discerning reader hideous phrasing which an editor with a respect for language would throw back at its author. This class of writer loves its neologisms. “Vocacity” turns up in connection with the propensity to watch television in excess. But then Segdman cites John Holden from 2004 on a cultural climate where aesthetic values including beauty are all suspect.

The flaw in some of this treatment- the literature not Kirsty Sedgman- on the subject of audience is that it has no primary data. It is neither aesthetics nor does it have the empirical base of the social sciences. To witness a piece of theatre is anyway an activity of serial cognition that is unreproducible. Sedgman refers rightly to Bruce McConachie and his encouragement neuroaesthetic approach. Whether declaration is scholarship at all is debatable.

There is an unusual postscript to this book in that the author has distanced herself from it to a degree. There is nothing wrong with that in that all authors mature over the course of doing it. A more revealing part is “To other academics my writing often seems too accessible. This is because it focuses on people’s lived experiences of art rather than relying on abstract philosophical theories. For some people it’s too dense; for others, not enough.”

There is the paradox here of authors drawn to theatre for reasons antithetical to those that draw in audiences. The description of her own role in theatre ecology comes across as more worthwhile. “My job is to listen to audiences: to pay attention as they reach for words to describe the ineffable, to hear not just what they say but how they say it, and to consider how people’s reactions are inflected by the subject positions they take up. By doing this, I believe we can get a sense of the meaning-making process in action.” As art is a meaning-making activity for a symbol-making species that sounds a mission worth the pursuing.

She also in retrospect writes of small-sample attributions of “excellent” or “average”. “By themselves these numbers are admittedly pretty meaningless: after all, my ‘Excellent’ may well be someone else’s ‘Average’.” The later writing also throws down a challenge. “This all boils down to a question about legitimacy. Who believes they have the right to speak about theatre and in what ways?” Indeed.

Those founding years were ones of astonishing accomplishment for the National Theatre of Wales. A full written record has to be assembled. “Locating the Audience: How People Found Value in National Theatre Wales” is an intriguing beginning, its parts cumulatively illuminating. Two quotations are apposite. Terry Eagleton is persuasive in his view of culture as “a way in which we could sink our petty particularisms in some more capacious, all inclusive medium.” Up on Epynt Sedgman finds an audience member vocal on the topic of relevance “relevant is an entirely bogus notion in relation to theatre. Just do good stuff.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Intellect Books

published:
22 May 2017

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Shakespeare: The Director's Cut- Michael Bogdanov

Shakespeare The Director's Cut”, dating from 2003, is a slim book comprising eight essays over 160 pages. The issue of how to treat Shakespeare has not lost a jot of topicality. This season Daniel Kramer has had a critical kicking. Michael Bogdanov was irreverent. He had a young Montague entering on the bonnet of a red sports car, the model (geddit?) an Alfa Romeo. But his treatment was irreverence-with-attention and there is all the difference from radicality-with-inattention. Michael Pennington, long-term collaborator, describes the task as to “cut through the crust of convention and theatre tradition to get at the material itself and render it fresh. “These essays brim with wisdom and acuity.

There is no need to strain after topicality. Peter Stead's preface sees in Shakespeare a world of dynastic imperialists and financial imperialists. In Bogdanov's hands “ we are expertly and succinctly guided through the power nexus in all the plays discussed.” First, there is the aspect of scholarship of rigour. Bogdanov knows his difference between Quarto 1 and Quarto 2 of “Hamlet”. The 1608 version of “King Lear” is known as Q1 or the “Pide Bull Quarto.” As for the material great art has the capacity to latch onto current anxieties. “Plays go in and out of focus” Bogdanov writes “different aspects are suddenly highlighted by contemporary events.” For three hundred years “Lear” was not highly regarded and now it is seen as a peak. Bogdanov ascribes its ascent to our greater proximity to nihilistic mayhem.

Hamlet may well be a figure of existentialist doubt. Bogdanov cites Brecht and the “Organum” approvingly. The centre of the play is the war. Norway has to cross the territory of Denmark to make war in Poland. A speech by Marcellus is too frequently cut. The subject is “the daily cast of brazen cannon/ and foreign mart for implements of war.” The histories as a whole “are a litany of fraternal and paternal slaughter.” As for the lean figure in black Gertrude says of her son “he's fat and scant of breath.” The prince is aged thirty. The actor Richard Burbage weighed seventeen and a half stone.

In Verona Bogdanov's first concern has a timely prescience. He is not interested in romantic death. “Any production of “Romeo and Juliet” ” he says “must begin with an analysis of the social responsibility for the death of the two young people” He is rigorous on context. “Marriage is an affair of negotiation over power and property, the two a threat to the order of things.” The first adult years in Ireland were crucial, said Pennington in a tribute last month. Kings in exile were real. In a toilet in Neary's bar Bogdanov met a claimant to the Kingship of Connaught. In the Ireland of the 1970s matchmakers were active in marrying old farmers to young girls in order to secure an heir.

The point of pungent criticism is not to command agreement but to urge the reader to see in a more complex way. Bogdanov assaults centuries of conventional treatment of “Macbeth.” No more good-bad, right-wrong” he says. “Life's but a walking shadow, a poor player/ That struts and frets his hour on the stage” is a cry of existentialist individualism. He finds support for this in the fact that Macbeth gets no death speech, no recantation. In his close reading Duncan may be not much of a king anyhow.

The key to “Taming of the Shrew” is in the first scene. Bogdanov notes it is too often cut- he gets a swipe in at Greg Doran for a “Bridget Jones production at the RSC.” Without Christopher Sly and the huntsmen the play that ensues has lost its focus.

This book is light and sharp, a good companion to any future production. Peter Stead in plain language says that Bogdanov is identifying the bastards. “There is nothing gratuitous or fanciful about this exercise for Bogdanov's utterly convincing argument is inspired by his familiarity with the fullest versions of the texts.” The books endure- there is a companion volume on the histories- and the persona surges through every paragraph.

Directing

ISBN:
£

Capercaille

published:
21 May 2017

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Peter O'Toole: the Definitive Biography- Robert Sellers

Every great acting presence possesses an alchemy of its own. In the case of Peter O'Toole to read the biography is to be reminded of the experience. In “Lord Jim”, on a giant cinema screen in 1965, the camera looked deep into those unique eyes with their fathomless wells of suffering. O'Toole's film record has like all film records its highs and lows. His General Tanz in “the Night the Generals” is to be seen regularly on the Sony film channels. “The Stuntman” of 1980 vies with Truffaut's “Day for Night” to be the film industry's best ever film about itself. His film director Eli Cross is a masterpiece in a master film that is too rarely seen.

I saw him once on stage and he was mesmerising. That it was a matinee before a twenty-first party made it an occasion to doubly cherish. Siân Phillips by contrast has had a career of remarkable longevity. Her singing of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” was an unforgettable melange of langour and seductiveness. That performance in “Pal Joey” in 1980 was hailed and nominated for an award. On this site she was in the Frantic Assembly-National Theatre of Wales collaboration “Little Dogs” and toured the lead role in Alan Bennett's “People.” She made a memorable appearance in Cardiff in November 2014 speaking and reading in tribute to Caradog Prichard's “Un Nos Ola Leuad.”

The material is rich and important. Sadly it is let down by a tabloid treatment in a book that is mainly a rampage through the press cuttings. Siân Phillips does not feature in the acknowledgements and there is hardly a clue to the inner life. The most accomplished aspect of the book is the cover photograph, the work of Wales' David Hurn for Magnum. The proper biography remains to be written.

Attention to the art is occasional. Alcohol predominates with carousings with Richards Burton and Harris, an entire weekend of binging with Michael Caine. Off duty from filming “Lord Jim” O'Toole wheels a rickshaw and driver into the lobby of Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel at two in the morning to buy him a drink. In a rare moment the author locates a quotation that gets under the carapace of alcoholism. “What does anyone get out of being drunk? It’s an anaesthetic. It diminishes the pain.” But the nature of the pain goes unexplored.

The authorial language is colloquial to say the least. “He had his eye on a pretty lass, barely sixteen, who showed up with a wild-looking individual with flaming red hair called Keith Waterhouse.” A disagreement on a film set between star and director is reported as “[Jack] Hawkins thought [David ]Lean was talking bollocks.” The assessment of the director is stark. David Lean…as a director…could be a real bastard, someone who tested people to the nth degree, gave them hell.” Over some contractual manoeuvring “when it was discovered what had happened the shit really did hit the fan.”

The preference for an informal prose starts early. At RADA on a first morning the young actor is “standing in the foyer…what forms to fill, all that stuff.” Meanwhile fellow students pass by. One is “a blonde bombshell in slacks; his eyes were on stalks.” RADA gives its departing students a little blue book. “Goodness knows what O’Toole did with the thing, chucked it into the bin most likely.”

Sellers prefers film to theatre. He is in the majority there and lets slip his view on Shakespeare in a proposed “Hamlet”. “Olivier also insisted on the uncut version on stage, five bloody hours on stage. When O'Toole does get to play Hamlet the description is remarkable. “It was six blasted nights and two sodding matinees”.

The book ventures occasionally into items of film history. Albert Finney was screen tested for T E Lawrence, the process taking four days and costing thousands. For the Sharif role other unlikely actors included Horst Buchholz, Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. But the judgements are unreliable. “How to Steal a Million” is undervalued considerably- “deliberately lightweight the main attraction is the double act of Audrey and O’Toole.” Of Geoffrey in “the Lion in Winter” he is “a nasty, devious piece of work, typical middle son.” Getting to “the Stunt Man” the critique skims the surface with “by turns crazy, sophisticated, surreal and base, it is a thoroughly entertaining jigsaw puzzle that demands repeated viewing. The cast are uniformly excellent but this is O’Toole’s gig.” The last noun is popular. In another production various directors are under consideration. “Ultimately [John] Huston got the whole gig.”

An interesting aspect of the editing is that women actors are tagged by first name and men- Harris, Finch, Burton- by surname. Thus “Siân didn’t touch the stuff. The first thing O’Toole did to the poor girl was initiate her into the dark arts of boozing.” As for the marriage “he was never going to be a straightforward nine to five guy, that she knew”. It is remarkable that a treatment that divides the gender should go out in our era under the name of a venerable name in publishing.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Sidgwick & Jackson

published:
20 December 2016

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Will and Me- Dominic Dromgoole

There are more obvious theatre books to look to at the end of 2016. Simon Stephens has published a working diary. Joan Littlewood's autobiography has been reissued with a new introduction. That is a reprint from 1994. Dominic Dromgoole's book on Shakespeare is ten years old. At nearly three hundred pages it is baggy but nonetheless fizzes with interest. But it has gained itself an unexpected topicality.

The Globe was theatre's news story of the second part of the year, if not the one that gained the most coverage of any event of 2016. Its coverage characterised the hopelessness of today's writing on the Arts, enough to perhaps warrant an article in its own right. “Will and me” is about “Me” but it is also potently about Shakespeare. The actual playwright and his theatre barely featured in the press brouhaha over trouble at t'Globe.

“Will and Me” comprises two parts. The bulk is autobiography, the life intermingled with the experiencing of Shakespeare. The last eighty pages, the record of a walk from Stratford to the South Bank, are less successful. Travel writing looks easy and is not. The main interest comes via insights from Dromgoole's companion-in-walking. Thomas Kemp apparently morris-danced his way from Norwich to London. He wrote his venture up with regular swipes at Shakespeare and his fellow actors. The walkers of today debate whether theatre has moral purpose. The tangle of nature around them prompts Dromgoole to believe “Art is not about giving meaning to mess. It's about reflecting mess.”

So little is known about Shakespeare. In a Britain utterly split his father was a covert Catholic, carrying out a Protestant public office, while receiving mass in secret. His cousins were executed, their heads on poles at London Bridge at the time of the playwright's own arrival in the city. His father fell from professional grace for reasons unknown. Dromgoole likens him to Dickens, Chekhov, Ibsen and Miller who “all had fathers whose heady ambitions led to bankruptcy and disgrace.”

Dromgoole's long time at the Bush and his deep contact with writers illuminate his interpretation of Shakespeare. “In ten years of working with over fifty playwrights, I have never met a single good one who knew what they were setting out to achieve when they began to write a play. They take a story or an image or an emotional sense and let it rip. Shakespeare was of that ilk.”

Dromgoole is also a Cambridge man and he has done the critics. Of the university itself “the standard of education at Cambridge was poor, the standard of its application calamitous”. He knows his Harold Bloom and his Jonathan Bate. He is not overly polite. “A funny collection of men called Mr Knights and Mr Dover Wilson and Mr Wilson Knight all wrote with a ferociously excited prose about the grand play of imagery. Their names were suspiciously similar.” For the director who actually makes the plays work his Will has “been lost as a writer of plays to the academics who have transformed him into someone strangely like themselves.”

Life corrects the education. At the Bush- “an alchemical little crucible”- “everything I had learned at university, all the Brecht and Stanislavsky and Artaud, I had to throw overboard.” As in his former book he is also a spiky observer of theatre itself. Stephen Unwin is here, his devotees including the young Tilda Swinton and Simon Russell Beale. Max Stafford-Clark is reported as saying “Every time I read a good review for another director, my heart sinks.” Pinter is spotted at a political love-in “with his heavy shades looking like a Stasi agent about to arrest everyone.” Dromgoole is awed at the National Theatre. “As Lear, he spent a lot of time still being Lambert le Roux...as Antony he spent a lot of time still being Lear.” That was Anthony Hopkins. In praise of Michael Bryant he is limitless.

Most of all Dromgoole encounters his subject as an individual even though so little is known about him. He allies him with the likes of Verdi or Titian for whom the passing of the years is spur to new heights of accomplishment. “Countless writers from Wordsworth down forgo the radicalism and enthusiasms of their youth for a settled position from which they can sternly teach....many artists, as the dark approaches, build walls of certainty around themselves; Shakespeare, as with his protagonist Lear, sends himself out into the dark and wet night to see what life throws up. We don't buy into what he knows, we buy into his desire to know”.

To read “Will and Me” is to give new and sharp contouring to the Globe of 2016. Dromgoole can direct but his book comes with another advantage. Of Peter Hall- “like a cartoon superhero, Peter has a special, self-telescoping gift. He can be any size he wishes to .” Dominic Dromgoole can also write.

Directing

ISBN:
£

Penguin

published:
12 December 2016

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Closely Observed Theatre- Jonathan Croall

Closely Observed Theatre” is a collection of fifty-eight pieces in two hundred and twenty pages written over nearly twenty years. Their subjects are London’s biggest theatres. Jonathan Croall was editor of the National Theatre’s magazine “Stagewrite” and editor of the Old Vic’s programmes for five years. He was observer at rehearsals of Robert Altman doing Miller, Peter Hall on Shaw, Howard Davies with O’Neill. They were written as occasional pieces and some are light. But there are observations of interest across the constituent arts of theatre.

He is present for a day’s rehearsing of Eve Best and Kevin Spacey in “A Moon for the Misbegotten”. He acutely discerns Spacey’s method for inhabiting drunkenness as “a deft combination of off-key movements, an unsteady stance and a look that is alternately sharply focused and far away.” In combination they avoid cliché. In interview Spacey reveals a depth of knowledge of chronic alcoholism.

Among the directors Peter Gill is at work on “Gaslight.” Setting his production in 1880 he has his cast speak the poetry of Tennyson, Kipling and Arnold. Katie Mitchell is using improvisation heavily to build up density of character in “Women of Troy.” Ken Campbell is in a basement at RADA teaching teenagers the skills of comedy. “You seem not to have listened to anything I have told you in the last few days” he tells a member of his group. “You’ve decided to experiment by doing the exact opposite of what I’ve said and you’ve given a real plughole of a performance.”

Croall leaves London on occasion. Peter Terson is at work on a community play in a secondary school in Bradford-on-Avon. Sam Walters is eloquent on theatre-in-the- round. The fancy that an audience’s first characteristic is passivity is now holy writ- Walters espouses the exact opposite. His small venue is about audience empowerment. Croall adds a note from history. The world’s first theatre-in-the-round was created by producer Margo Jones. Her place was Dallas, the year 1947. Stephen Joseph saw it and made Britain’s first, in the Mahatma Gandhi Hall in London’s Fitzroy Square.

In 2002 Croall is with Peter Hall in Epidauros for “the Bacchae.” The capacity of the theatre is fourteen thousand, “its harmony and elegance are breathtaking, its acoustics astonishing”. Most of all it has the impact of history. It is theatre’s paradox that each production, self-terminating in its own right, becomes part of a deep seam of tradition. It does not have to be that far away. The power of place is just as potent in London. Eileen Atkins in the Old Vic says “You always felt the ghosts all around, but I was never intimidated, just inspired by it.”

Directors delve in the past for present meaning. Trevor Nunn sees in “Richard II” “vital questions about our country, our traditions and institutions.” Tellingly it was largely unperformed, rediscovered at the time of the abdication crisis in 1936. A huge group of schoolchildren in an education project look at the English going to war in “Henry V”. “You’ve got to look after your own kind” says Billy Rice “No use leaving it to the Government for them to hand out to a lot of bleeders who haven’t got the gumption to do anything for themselves.” That is theatre’s potency. John Osborne writing in 1957 knew of the Britain of 23rd June.

Croall touches occasionally on money. He cites the cost of relatively small items of design for the massive Olivier. “It’s always a battle with the figures” says Annie Gosney. But a hit can be big. “A Little Night Music” runs to two hundred and twelve performances. Croall is witness too to one of the less exciting trends in theatre, the quest for product from cinema and television. In his case it is Almadovar. “All About My Mother” great on screen, diminished in adaptation. Sometimes it works- “Billy Elliot”- and sometimes it is dismal, “Sideways” an example turning out just flat.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Robson Books

published:
07 July 2016

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Pain in the Arts- John Tusa

John Tusa was a guest critic on “Front Row” this month. His voice had a familiarity for those of long memory. He was an authoritative presenter for the first days of “Newsnight” before departing for the Barbican and then the Clore Leadership Programme. “Pain in the Arts” is two years old but books written from the inside on the politics and funding of the arts and culture are few. Tusa and Robert Hewison are the topic’s two best witnesses. “Pain in the Arts” has both breadth and punch.

Tusa is first and foremost a participant and combatant. He is there to witness a New Labour Culture Secretary in the cold month of January 2009. “Some people may not like it” says the minister “but the arts [sic] has to live in the real world.” Every director’s memoir or diary of recent times has its tales of faithless landlords, hostile local authorities, building and engineering problems, simmering industrial relations strife. Tusa only adds of Andy Burnham: “the thought that the arts did not live in a real world of artistic and commercial risk seemed not to occur to him.”

Tusa is frank on his third page. It takes bravery to stand up to power. “Doing so involves personal as well as institutional courage.” His context is 2013 and the ministerial ejection of Liz Forgan from the Arts Council of England. But a quiet timidity in the Tusa view misreads the nature of the game. “The real lesson from Whitehall is that bureaucrats and policy makers only respect those who resist and fight back…the weak and frightened are pursued and mauled; the strong are respected and accommodated. Ask any retired Whitehall veteran and they confirm that this is the prevailing mindset.”

Tusa’s advice in his chapter “the War of the Words: Language Matters” is indispensable reading in itself. He notices the removal of specific categories like “listener”, “viewer”, “traveller”, “patient”. Their replacement by “the one size fits all, dehumanising “customer” is harbinger of downward spiral “to the point where it produced inferior service.”

The chapter “the Dos and Don’ts of Running the Arts” has a subsection “What Price Metrics?” Most organisations, public and private, have lost touch with the great founders of Total Quality Management who used numerical tools like SPC (Statistical Process Control) both sparely and specifically. If numbers predominate then policy will follow. “To create an artistic policy driven by numbers as a priority inevitably skews the policy itself.” Tusa cites a Whitehall meeting. A corporate leader states that four objectives are easily enough for his people. The Minister is discomfited; his Department has drawn up thirty-eight objectives.

“Pain in the Arts” tackles the economics. Statistical declaration has had a kicking this season and rightly. Anish Kapoor declares “the arts are the second biggest sector after banking.” It sounds fake- bigger than grocery? The fact of the multiplier effect of the arts is obvious, its scale far less so. Tusa puts forward a factor of six. He cites a piece of research (no reference) that within the City Of London, only a square mile, arts and culture add £225 million and sustain 6700 fulltime jobs. Nesta’s figures for 2103 are that the creative economy employs 2.5m and accounts for 9.7% of Britain’s Gross Value Added.

“Britain does not do dialectic” declared Richard Parry this month midway on the eighty day journey of the Coleridge in Wales venture. Britain does not do complexity. Public and private, Tusa reinforces emphatically, are symbiotic. Eighty-seven percent of those in commercial theatre learnt a part of their craft in a subsidised setting. As former CEO of a venue of great complexity Tusa does not shy away from the rigour of management. He has five pages headed “the nine functions of management.” They are as good as any. The first requirement for management in the arts: “enjoy and appreciate.”

A book on the arts will embrace words of artists. The making of art is an activity as elusive in its end as any endeavour of science and Tusa enrols Harrison Birtwhistle on the waywardness of composition. The antagonists of art are not necessarily libertarian think-tanks or public sector financiers. They may well have the look of allies. Raising awareness of a social ill is far from the aspiration to seize and hold the viewer’s imaginative sensibilities. Mark Ravenhill is cited here: “we belittle art when we make it into information.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Intellect Books

published:
22 June 2016

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Joy Ride- John Lahr

John Lahr is a heavyweight author of theatre, among the very best and certainly the most prolific. His biography of Tennessee Williams, reviewed November 2105, is a monument. “Joy Ride” is made up of profiles and essays over twenty-five years, often for the demanding editorial standards of “the New Yorker.” It is grouped thematically around twelve playwrights, twelve productions and four directors. At five hundred and seventy pages it might easily have been split into two books. Published in 2015 its notional cover price has dropped hugely; it is of exceptional value and quality.

The fifty pages on August Wilson are definitive. They are also timely in that a whole new audience has had opportunity to see Dominic Cooke’s award-scooping revival of “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.” The description of Wilson’s Pittsburgh schooldays as the only black student in a Christian Brothers institution is remorseless. Lahr’s essay is taken from personal encounter. The writer’s mission is harsh “the African-American reclamation of “moral personality- of taking responsibility for one’s actions.”

Wilson made his cycle of ten plays for theatre. He avoided the influence of other media by a simple means. He avoided television and, relates Lahr, between 1980 and 1991 saw only two films “Raging Bull” and “Cape Fear.” If Wilson’s achievement has been to place himself as an epicentre of North American theatre Lahr homes in on a sniffy critical comment. “The Oxford Companion to American Theatre” declares the plays to “lack a sense of tone and a legitimate, sustained dramatic thrust.” The use of that “legitimate” is curious.

If August Wilson is firmly in the canon for revival Tony Kushner is part of theatre’s history. But whether “Angels in America” will ever be re-seen live is a question. The turning-point in Kushner’s experience occurred at the age of sixteen. Of his father “As I got older he figured it out. He finally said “I think you’re a homosexual, and I want you not to be a homosexual. I want you to go to a therapist and fix it.” Lahr’s three pages on the epic two-part “Angels in America” are simultaneously complete and compact. Kushner gives his character, the AIDS-stricken Prior Walter, the final lines, back in 1990: “We will be citizens. The time has come.”

Lahr dips back in time to Clifford Odets. Alfred Kazin called the language “brilliantly authentic, like no other theatre speech on Broadway,” Odets own words were “I will reveal America to itself by revealing myself to myself.” A generation on Lahr is with David Rabe. The playwright writes ot war “the poison was not so much that we did what we did as the way we denied that we were doing what we could see ourselves doing on television.”

Lahr’s subjects are mainly American although he gets to meet Pinter at home in 1993. “The Homecoming” changed my life” says Lahr “Before the play I thought words were vessels of meaning; after it, I saw them as weapons of defence.” Back in the US he furrows into David Mamet’s distinct family background. He digs into the sixty-six pages of Arthur Miller’s notebook for “Death of a Salesman.”

Lahr is a consistently superlative phrase-maker. Of Wallace Shawn: “Shawn’s prose, like his persona, hides its seriousness behind a kind of semantic shuffling that disarms and attacks at the same time.” Neil Labute is “a subtle storyteller, and his furtive heart reveals itself through cunning, powerful indirection.” The early plays of Sam Shepard, the period of 1964-71, “act out both the spiritual dislocation and the protean survival instinct of traumatic times.” Cumulatively Lahr’s profiles and essays reveal the playwright first as chronicler of the decades gone by but also as moral conscience of complex and never easy tough-mindedness.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Bloomsbury

published:
21 June 2016

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Conversations with Miller- Mel Gussow

"Conversations with Miller” comprises the transcripts of thirteen conversations between dramatist and critic. Running to two hundred and twenty-two pages the earliest took place on 24th October 1963, the last on 23rd July 2001. For the reissue Nick Hern Books has added an introduction from Richard Eyre, originally a talk for Radio 3 from 15th August this last summer. He notes Miller's ambition “to make theatre matter”. For this most committed of writers to public issues Eyre notes too the baseline. The work is rooted in individuals, “all seeking” says Eyre “some sort of salvation in asserting a singularity.”

As in the plays Miller spins many a compelling line in conversation. On the maker's commitment- “for an artist to put his soul into a work of art, he can't act. It has to be for real.” On the crafting of the base material, the words themselves, he says “When I tried to write prose, it was the dialogue that became the most persuasive, and the descriptive parts the most laboured. I was aware of that, too. I think that's essentially why I became a playwright.” But the lines are only as good as their realisation. He remembers “the most single magical moment of my life in the theatre.” Lee J Cobb is grappling with Willy Loman. The process is gradual. “Kazan kept saying “he's finding it.”

The life is saturated in the turbulence of the times. “Back in the 1920s, Ann Arbor was the place where all the radicals who were thrown out of other universities ended up, from Harvard, Yale, Princeton.” It was not necessarily even politics that upset the Ivy League. Harvard shed itself of a scholar who advocated birth control. Miller was at the era-defining 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago where outside the Hall “the cops were hitting the kids”. Miller's latter career saw much success in Britain and he has a view of cultural difference. “I think of England, where more probably they're dealing with more public issues, and more extrovert art.”

Playwright and critic inevitably touch on theatre's own history. Gussow himself is observer in 1963 at a rehearsal directed by Elia Kazan. The cast includes Jason Robards, Faye Dunaway and Hal Holbrook. Miller recalls the lustre of Michael Blakemore reviving “All My Sons” with Rosemary Harris and Colin Blakely as Kate and Joe Keller. He has observations on Pinter, Mirren and Gambon, an actor he prefers to Olivier.

Close-up he sees a line-up of different Willy Lomans. Of Dustin Hoffman he “has great internal life on stage...He can deal with more than one feeling at the same time...That kind of feisty quickness that I always associated with Willy.” He is different from Lee J Cobb or Thomas Mitchell or George C Scott. As for a revival of greatness in Britain “Warren Mitchell was extraordinary.”

Theatre to be itself is theatre. It's not community activism or politics but sometimes, just sometimes, it spills over into a real-world impact. John Galsworthy changed the prison code with a play. Bernard Gimbel, department store magnate. came out of a Philadelphia theatre and wrote a memo to all managers. No staff, he decreed, were to be dismissed on grounds of age.

The making of art rarely comes without a price. “I came to the edge of life a number of times” Miller confesses “once with the House Un-American Activities Committee.” As for the achievement Gussow asks: Do you want your epitaph to be: “He gave good parts to actors”? Miller: “I wouldn't mind. There are lesser things you can do with your life.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
22 January 2016

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About Friel: the Playwright and the Work- Tony Coult

Tony Coulter's book was first published in 2003. Nonetheless, Brian Friel had by then been active in theatre for four decades. Four or more of the plays look set to enter the canon. Two of them, “Translations” and “Aristocrats”, were both reviewed on this site in 2013.

Tony Coulter's book,neither biography nor pure critical study, is divided in two parts. The first part encompasses “Friel's Roots” and “Friel's Life and Work”. The second, almost 100 pages, is called “Voices and Documents”. The result is a rich compendium of voices and perspectives. Its undercurrent is a meditative study on the relationship of author, nation and theatre.

The tone for the last two is set with a quotation from W B Yeats . The Abbey Theatre was founded “to speak the deeper thoughts and emotions of Ireland. We do not desire propagandist plays, nor plays written mainly to serve some obvious moral purpose.” “The Freedom of the City” was an intensely political play but Coult adds the critical proviso. “Friel's fruitful quandary as a writer is that his instinct is frequently to explore personal dilemmas, the consequences personal choices, and the degree to which men and women frequently know their own weaknesses. On the other hand, he lives in a society whose past and present history insist, often bloodily, more often poignantly, on his sense of justice. The playwright as artist and the playwright as citizen have to find common ground.”

The extracts from the personal writings of Friel include a tribute to actors. It ends with the line “They bestow eloquence on us.” Coult also draws on Friel's diaries at the time of writing. The plays soon assume an autonomy outside their maker. Facing the part-formed “Aristocrats” he writes 25th May 1977 of “a persistent feeling that I should leave the play aside until it finds its own body and substance. Stop hounding it. Crouch down. Wait. Listen. In its own time it may call out.”

Things are better four months on. 10 September 1977: “I have a sense that everyone (i.e. all the characters) is ready in the wings, waiting to move on stage; but somehow something isn't quite right on the set.” But the optimism is premature. 26 September: “The play has stopped; has thwarted me. I still work at it. But it sulks. And yet- and yet I sense its power.”

In the second half “About Friel: the Playwright and the Work” draws on a range of voices from across theatre. Actor Rosaleen Linehan: “He writes magnificently for women, he writes so tremendously for women that sometimes, as a woman, you have to stop and think “How did he know that?”...he writes with such grace and such ease about love.” Niall Buggy: “The thing is that, with this precision, there is for the actor an enormous liberation and freedom. Enormous. You never get it again. It's incredible that liberation and freedom that he gives you because of his precision.”

A quartet of directors feature. Joe Dowling: “Friel is always clear in both meaning and form. He writes to communicate with the audience rather than alienating them and holding them at bay. Few playwrights working in the contemporary theatre can match the elegance of his language, the breadth of his vision, and the remarkable understanding of the emotional power of the theatre which he brings to each character he creates.” Conall Morrison: “His understanding of the rhythm of a line, of a speech, of an act, of a play is absolutely crystalline, absolutely superb. And indeed the effect on the audience, wonderfully, ironically, is that it just seems effortless.”

Mark Lambert: “Brian is very good with characters of energy...They're not self-aware characters. There's a naivety about them as well, which is also a point of Brian's greatness as well. He can write naïve characters, which for a sophisticated intelligent man is actually not that easy. He can do both- create the articulation of an intelligence like “Faith Healer” and yet create those characters who aren't aware of themselves. Or they only show touches of awareness, which is very poignant.”

Patrick Mason: “He also has this extraordinary capacity, which is very demanding, to nuance a line quite perfectly. By which I mean not just of meaning but of emotion, nuance of character. And these nuances are extremely fine, strangely accurate inflections of emotion and character which are carried in the syntax and vocabulary of a line, in the rhythm of a line, in the placing of a line.”

As for the legacy there are two voices from different parts of theatre. The director Mark Lambert writes “So he's given Irish theatre prestige and an international name, and he's given actors huge opportunities. At one point single-handedly. Nobody else was doing that.” Frank McGuinness at the time of presenting an award said that Friel's accomplishment was “a liberation, a celebration and a censure for the country in which he lives.”

A review of a book about a writer should end with its subject's own words. The last page reproduces an item from a Friel Festival that took place in 1999. It tells a folk-tale from Russia about a town called Kitezh. When marauders approached, ran the story, the town enveloped itself within a mist. But the church bells, like the bells of Cantre Gwaelod, continued to ring.

“I suppose like all folk tales”, wrote Friel, “it can be interpreted in whatever way your needs require. But for me the true gift of theatre, the benediction of all art, is the ringing bell which reverberates quietly and persistently in the head long after the curtain has gone down and the audience has gone home. Because until the marauders withdraw and the fog lifts, that sacred song is the only momentary stay we have against confusion.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
15 December 2015

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The Blue Touch Paper- David Hare

David Hare and I go back a long way. Or rather there were two of them, two Davids. When I was readying for adult life, in my own way, the two Davids were there. Edgar and Hare seemed to speak of the world as it seemed to me. In particular, the television film “Licking Hitler” was broadcast in a winter when my own life was dull. Its message, the heinousness of public school men, felt right. My own experience had been that public school men were a lordly caste, seeped in self-entitlement. Nuance and a greater tolerance were to come later.

Hare from the public biography was one of them, a Lancing man gone surely, in the eyes of his class, to the other side. The first surprise, and one that persists throughout “the Blue Touch Paper”, is how wrong was that judgement. Hare was just the local Sussex boy who scraped in and liked it little. The food comprised “a great many curried eggs, slimy fish roes, soggy toast with margarine, cold sardines and twisted slabs of rank haddock. Everything came with a crust, a skin.”

W H Auden said that he understood the totalitarian states of the 1930s- public school had been his tutor. At Hare's Lancing “fags were known as underschools and lavatories were groves. Everything was in code, and the code had to be learnt. Some of the rules seemed to defy explanation. Maybe that was the point.” The apposition of the bright boy within the classroom and the socially lost one without left its mark for life. Graham Greene, he says, made his unpleasant characters Lancing alumni. It stood for “a particular sort of aspiring public school that produced a young man full of facile sociability and doubtful morals.” Those doubtful morals fuelled the drama for a half-century to come.

Hare was precociously successful in theatre. Becoming the Royal Court's literary manager at the age of twenty-one did not seem in any way remarkable or precocious. “No-one else wanted the job.” The three-day a week job paid £7.50. He met collaborators early. Snoo Wilson: “an eccentric and highly charged student...Snoo had a shock of unruly brown hair as if someone had just given him fifty volts”. In the era that Portable Theatre was formed it was one of “more than seven hundred theatre companies formed all over the UK- as if small-scale plays- confrontational, angry, direct- might somehow reach a gap in an audience's concerns that nothing else was filling.”

It is a truism of Hare that the state has been of kindness to the author who stridently dislikes it so much. The Arts Council of England, under master-fixer Lord Goodman, was generous towards Joint Stock. Simon Callow wrote of “Fanshen” that the production “had changed everybody's lives in almost every way.” In Hare's account, absorbing as it is, “Fanshen” lacks the close-up conclusion of Simon Callow. Beneath the ferment, the discussion, the participation, what the company did was what the directors wanted to do.

Memoir merges inner and outer world. A play of Snoo Wilson's required a goat. It lived in the Hare garden and each night for six weeks it was pushed into the back of a Citreon 2CV to go the theatre. The Theatre Upstairs at then Royal Court was up a flight of seventy stairs.

Hare's politics were set for life by 3rd May 1979. On a single day an entire population passed from solidarity and collectivism to its venal opposite. The book reveals that Hare had not been in Britain in the time before. He had been in New York City. He had been back just four weeks so the Conservative victory “made no sense to us.” It never has. Into the 1980s' Hare surveys the hedonism of the time before AIDS. Of New York's most notorious location for orgies he writes “the likely drawback was that the first person you would meet would be a British theatre director.”

The book does end in somewhat of a rush. The Adelaide Festival in 1982 was responsible for “A Map of the World”. At the time it felt thrilling to see, more so than the cartoonish “Pravda.” The critical high-points, the Eyre trilogy of the 90's and “Skylight” get hardly a mention. Right to the end the pain of the father absent to the child is constant. The last line reads “Almost a hundred years ago my father stole walnuts under the spreading tree in Chigwell. Today I walk the hills and dream new ideas.”

The most striking revelation about the inner life is the vulnerability. On page 2 he writes that “the very over-sensitivity that equips you to be a writer also makes being a writer agony.” Like Callow's memorable description in his memoir of self-finding in acting Hare writes memorably on writing. “Only when I became a creative writer could I rid myself of self-consciousness, and of worldly ambition.” The paradox of creativity is once again reprised, that fulfillment of self entails an unselfing. “The page fills or it doesn't. You're powerless.”

Hare describes a literary equivalent to what is known in theology as kenosis. “You can't force it. If you did try to force it, if you wrote words which did not convince you, a strange feeling, rather like an elephant sitting on your chest, would begin to oppress you. Far from frightening me, this revelation of powerlessness set me free. Because I was no longer in command, I was able to stop worrying about the effect of what I was doing.”

The cost that writing demands passes into illness. The physical toll on the young man is revelatory. Hypertension stalks. Once during technical rehearsals an actor says “oh, if it's seven o'clock, you'll usually find David being sick in the Gents”. He reports a terrible pain while walking up Sixth Avenue. The prevailing over-sensitivity of the writer is contrasted by a conversation with Lord Goodman (1913- 1995). “Let's get this clear from the start” he informs the artist “I'm not worried about anything. If I worried, I wouldn't sleep at night."

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
08 December 2015

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Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh- John Lahr

“The Glass Menagerie” tours Newport to Pwllheli, and all points between, in the first quarter of 2016. Theatr Pena’s production gives the reading of John Lahr’s magisterial study of Tennessee Williams- born Thomas Lanier Williams III- an extra timeliness. Lahr is theatre’s most prolific writer over the last thirty years. In addition to his depth of knowledge of theatre’s inner being he is also a prose stylist of distinctiveness and acuity. The New Yorker has famously the most demanding of editorial regimes; Lahr served for twenty-one years as its drama critic.

Marlon Brando is the most-hailed of actors in film history. Lahr’s bold description runs “he was a beautiful specimen: mercurial, brooding and rampant… Brando's acting style was the performing equivalent of jazz. The notes were there but Brando played them in a way that was uniquely personal to him.” Williams’ family and upbringing were the shadow that darkened the whole of the playwright’s life. Of his mother Lahr writes “Edwina wasn't just a talker: she was a narrative event, a torrent of vivid, cadenced, florid and confounding speech that could not be denied. Eloquence was a show of power amid her powerlessness...Edwina's wall of words was intended to keep the world at attention and at bay.”

The Lahr acuity is as dependably good on the work as the life. Blanche Dubois is possessed of “a strung-out sense of collapse and neediness that the character shared with her author.” Of Serafina in “the Rose Tattoo” “her abiding passion, it turns out, is a passion for ignorance. Instead of making love, Serafina makes scenes.” Of the play that made the best film “Suddenly Last Summer” was a sort of autobiographical exorcism that worked through Williams’s grief and guilt over his sister Rose.”

Lahr, the writer of theatre, opens with a dramatic flourish. Whereas conventionally ordered biographies commence with origins and antecedents “Tennessee Williams” plunges straight into the drama of an opening night. The date is 31st March 1945, the location the Playhouse Theatre on New York City’s Forty-eight Street. The writing has a vividness of detail that sets the tone for the six hundred and two pages of text that follow.

Interleaved between the wealth of detail on life and work there is material here to educate the writer for theatre. The early artistic goal was to combine lyricism with realism. When Williams resolved in his early twenties to become a playwright his experience of theatre was scant. He had “not seen more than two or three professional productions: touring companies that passed through the South and Middle West”. When he was professionally produced he confessed “Probably no man has ever written for the theatre with less foreknowledge of it.”

But his instincts and approach, if formally untutored, were correct. “I begin with a character in a situation- a vague one. If I have a problem I invent people in parallel circumstances, create parallel tensions.” That is drama, the devising of overt, and more importantly covert, tensions. In an age where some commentary distrusts, even often dislikes, a script Williams knew that words were just platform for image. “I see each scene, in fact every movement and inflection, as vividly as if it were happening right in front of me” he is quoted in a letter to David Selznick
the Boston Globe commenting “the play gives the audience the sensation of having been dumped in mire”. But praise for “the Night of the Iguana” is universal.

The director link is critical. Tim Price has written of his crucial indebtedness to Hamish Pirie for the making-real of his own work. Elia Kazan had worked with Miller, Wilder and Steinbeck but it was with Tennessee Williams that he meshed best. “It was a mysterious harmony; by all visible signs we were as different as two humans could be” said Kazan “Our union, immediate on first encounter, was close but unarticulated. It lasted the rest of his life.”

Lahr, unlike the last undignified biographer of Richard Burton, is not fixated on numbers or money but both drop into the text intermittently. Williams accrued considerable wealth very fast. His relationship with film was patchy. Of “the Glass Menagerie” the New York Times wrote “it comes perilously close to sheer buffoonery in some of its most fragile scenes.” But, after the small uproar that surrounded “Baby Doll”, MGM offered him a flat half million dollars.

However, the most telling numbers are those of the productions. Other American playwrights feature in the book. In Britain Clifford Odets is revived occasionally. Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town” is impressive and attracted Alan Alda to London but William Inge is unknown to a new generation.

In 2000 there were two hundred and forty-six productions of the Williams plays worldwide. In 2011 the number had risen to three hundred and nine. Lahr is clear why. “Williams made characters so large they became part of American folklore. Blanche, Stanley, Big Daddy, Brick, Amanda and Laura transcend their stories.” When he faltered, as in “Orpheus Descending” it was because, said the New Yorker, “the people in it aren’t really terribly interesting.” There is a moral for new writers- watch theatre, enjoy film but do not be led by it, write big, be big.

The book and the life swirl with people. Montgomery Cliff, Jessica Tandy and Kim Hunter invade the writer’s apartment after first success. On the first trip to Europe his hotel room in Paris sees visits by Garbo, Cocteau, Barrault. In the nineteen-sixties the counter-culture is prominent: Betty Friedan, Kate Millett, Abbie Hoffman, William Kunstler, Jerry Rubin, David Dellinger are all here.

But the intimate life was disordered and inconstant, social relationships often instrumental. “I’m gregarious and like to be around people, but almost anybody will do” says Williams “I prefer people who can help me in some way or another.”

Lahr as a theatre writer embraces the whole of theatre’s ecology. He knows the producer unhappy at seeing his audience who arrives for the night soaking wet. He knows that a drenched audience is likely to be an unhappy audience. Lahr makes his own judgments but cites the critics of the time economically. The first play had the Boston Globe commenting “the play gives the audience the sensation of having been dumped in mire”. But praise for “the Night of the Iguana” is universal.

No playwright can survive critically decade on decade. Come the era of Grotowski, the Living Theatre, Ionescu and Life Magazine is writing “Williams is looking into the rearview mirror. Other playwrights have progressed: Williams has suffered an infantile regression.” In 1972 the same paper publishes an article on gay writers in concealment. Williams responds in the pages of the Village Voice: “I’ve nothing to conceal. Homosexuality isn’t the theme of my plays. They’re about all human relationships. I’ve never faked it.” Lahr adds that if Williams’ early goal was “the emancipation of desire and the celebration of the wild at heart” then the world of theatre had caught up with its trailblazer.

The book is a weighty seven hundred and sixty-six pages after chronology, notes and index. Twelve years in the making many of those in the acknowledgments- Sidney Lumet, Arthur Miller, Herman Arrow- are no more. The paperback edition of 2015 is a thick small brick not easy to hold. The price of the hardback edition of 2104 has now dropped to the same price as the paperback and is the better option.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Bloomsbury

published:
26 November 2015

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The Actors' Crucible- Angela V John

Modesty in accomplishment is an appealing characteristic. Many a Premier has been a writer of reputation in their time. Disraeli did fiction, Balfour philosophy, Churchill history. John Major’s political memoir of 2000 received a warm reception; retrospective self-justification and score-settling were not on its agenda. “My Old Man” has similar virtues, industry, undecorativeness and personal sincerity. It is an uncommon mixture, a study of an artistic genre that is also family exploration and personal tribute.

“My Old Man” is a labour of love, intended literally. The acknowledgement speaks of “early-morning writing, late-night writing, lost weekends and lost holidays.” Its first sentence reads: “In March 1962, I sat with an old man as he lay dying.” Major returns to the same scene for the book’s final paragraph. The text in-between is an attempt to capture the origins, the rise, the spread, and the decline of music hall. “Telling…of story…has been my overall priority.” It may be an introduction to its subject but “My Old Man” is succinct and comprehensive.

Major illustrates just how deep and wide music hall dug itself into the culture. James Callaghan, Prime Minister, is here singing “There I was, waiting at the church” to a meeting of the TUC congress. Thackeray is in an early audience. T S Eliot pens a tribute to Marie Lloyd on her death. Little Tich is inspiration for a string quartet movement by Stravinsky. Harry Lauder’s friendships took in not just Charlie Chaplin but Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford.

The Duke of Windsor, later Prince of Wales, is another friend, just one of the line of aristocrats who make their appearance. The personal wealth that accrued to the stars, not far off comparable sums of today, had the effect of dissolving social difference.
Vesta Tilley may have started as Matilda Alice Powles. She ended as Lady De Frece, wife to a conservative MP, and living an opulent retirement in Monte Carlo. Socially upward marriage was regular. May Gates married into Norwegian aristocracy. Sylvia Storey married Earl Poulett. Gertie Millar became Countess of Dudley, Denise Orme Duchess of Leinster.

Music Hall became big money indeed. As Barnum was finding across the Atlantic “Every crowd has a silver lining”. In Major’s eloquent phrasing music hall moved “from back-room tavern to sumptuous palace, from working class to middle class, from foundry, pit and dock to drawing room, salon and theatre.”

Impresarios and entrepreneurs like Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss gave their names to eponymous theatre-owning companies. Lucasfilm’s development of merchandising that out-sells the show is nothing new. Dan Leno sold mugs, jugs and comics by the hundreds of thousands. His house in Clapham came with cook, housemaids, conservatories and stables.

Major traces the line of descent to these booming, pre-cinema years. Starting with supper clubs and the free and easies, he picks out an older London archaeology of entertainment. The Cyder Cellars, the Coal Hole, the Yorkshire Stingo, the Mogul Saloon, the Six Cans and Punchbowl graduate to John Nevil Maskelyne taking on the lease for Piccadilly’s grandiose Egyptian Hall.

The theatres of Frank Matcham are now revered. Major details his architectural innovations; the use of steel in place of pillars to improve sightlines, more seats, a feature to his clients’ liking. Matcham developed the push-bar exit lock, a desirable improvement in a period of endemic fire. The Surrey in Blackfriars was destroyed in 1865, the Royal Standard in Pimlico 1866, the South London Palace 1869. The Oxford burned down in 1869, was rebuilt and burnt down again in 1872. At Edinburgh’s Empire an exploding light resulted in the deaths of eleven performers. All were eclipsed by the fire at Exeter's Theatre Royal, where one hundred and eighty six died.

Music Hall spills over into the other arts. Major laments the loss of so many buildings, post-war planners being as much responsible as wartime bombers. The book reproduces Sickert’s sublime “Noctes Ambrosianae” and “Katie Lawrence.” Major traces the survival of songs; some are taken up by the Monkees and the Muppets. He attributes “I’m Henery the Eighth I am” to Manfred Mann in 1965 “one of their biggest hits.” It does not sound like the funky Manfreds- it was the sappy Herman’s Hermits. Music hall is still visible in a few Youtube tributes. A character is called John in order that Rita Hayworth may be a memorable pearly queen and sing “Poor John” for “Cover Girl” in 1944. Harry Champion’s “Any Old Iron” becomes the title for Anthony Burgess’ 1988 novel.

There are occasional phrasings that do not work: “music hall was, first and last, an intimate medium, in which performers and audience were locked in an intimate embrace.” Intimate is the tiny sixty-seat fringe venue. Music Hall was raucous, irreverent, drunken, a magnet for sexual services. Interestingly, the particular gifts of Frenchman Joseph Pujol did not transfer well. It is a little wince-making to read of “ladies of the night.”

Biography and family connection haunt this book. A good writer makes imaginative connection: "The flops, the let-downs, the days without work, the lash of critical opinion," Major writes of his parents. "It was not until years later, with the political critics poised, invective flowing and the national audience restive, that I fully understood all the emotions that had been so familiar to them."

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Parthian Books

published:
13 November 2015

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Year of the Fat Knight- Anthony Sher

Antony Sher’s Richard III has become a part of theatre’s history. The multi-talented fireball that is Antony Sher made it into a memorable journal-book “the Year of the King”. The cover for this successor comes adorned with press praise for his RSC Falstaff, the Fat Knight of the title: “Tremendous” from Times, “magnificent, magnetic” from Guardian.

The journal, intermittent from 11th February 2013 to 23rd April 2014, is low on ego, high in detail of description, and a potent reminder of the colossal effort that the making of a piece of theatre entails. It also comes with forty-two of Sher’s own drawings. The eight in full-page colour include pictures of Laughton, Brando, Streep, and Freud, as well as the author with Greg Doran against a Turneresque sea and sky.

The drawings, Sher reveals early on, date back to 1996 when art therapy was part of the regime at a clinic for cocaine dependency. It is the reverse, he says, of psychotherapy, giving the image primacy over the word as the route to self-expression. As for Sir John, his is the Shakespearean role that is a paradox, a star role that many a star avoids. Sher cites Oliver’s waspish comment on his reasoning for not taking on Falstaff. His own first reaction is severe. “Me as Falstaff? Short. Jewish, gay, South African me as Shakespeare’s gigantically big, rudely hetero, quintessentially English, Fat Knight? It made no sense.”

He is of course nudged into acceptance. Sher’s Richard III had big muscular arms and twisted knees. Tamberlaine went from athleticism in youth to obesity in older age. “You’re a shape-shifter” says Doran in the course of an Almeida lunch. In the Hobbit film studio in New Zealand he continues to talk it over with Gandalf. Sir Ian recalls his inspired tutoring at Cambridge in Shakespearean language and acting from John Barton.

At this time, mid-2013, Sher is engaged with “Hysteria” and the journal addresses the conundrum of playing the mature Freud in Terry Johnson’s scenes of high-speed farce. By September 10th the job of Falstaff has begun in earnest. “To an actor, dialogue is like food. You hold it in your mouth, you taste it. If it’s good dialogue the taste will be distinctive. If it’s Shakespeare dialogue, the taste will be Michelin-starred.”

He has already read and researched much. Falstaff is regular with his drink and Sher reads Olivia Laing’s study of alcohol and art “the Trip to Echo Spring.” He jots down notes from Harold Bloom’s “Shakespeare: the Invention of the Human.” Falstaff is “one of the lords of language…the monarch of language”…his is “the festival of language.” Simon Callow views him as a “mighty pagan creature” and “ a great escapologist…the world always seems a larger place when Falstaff speaks.” Doran recommends Tynan on Sir Ralph Richardson’s Falstaff in 1945. Sher reads of Richardson’s last scene and muses “it may be worth stealing.”

The serious making of theatre begins on a chilly 30th December, the rehearsal space in Clapham High Street a shock after the annual winter stay in South Africa. 8th January is the first fitting of the fat suit. “With big sagging moobs, and an even bigger belly (both of these sections weighted) the overall impression is that it’s feasible…I ask for a larger butt.” He makes comparison with photographs of Robert Stephens in the role.

His detail of enquiry looks into the drink that has fattened Sir John. After consulting different authorities he decides that sack is most likely a dry white wine sweetened with sugar. An archery teacher comes in to talk about longbows. On a field trip to the Museum of London the company is allowed to touch and feel a range of Elizabethan-era clothes and artefacts. The selection extends to a tiny, delicately carved implement for the removal of ear-wax.

Week eleven and Sher and Doran are in the theatre’s Upper Circle. They look down on “the set going up…an army of stage crew with hard hats and radio controls.” The preview audience against all expectation is disarmingly unresponsive. The actor relaxes at this taut time with Peter Brook’s book “the Quality of Mercy.” And of course it all comes right. The entry for 8th April is rapturous. The audience is “packed to the rafters and wild with enthusiasm.” He is so exhilarated he has a kind a out-of-body experience “and all the more f***ing marvellous for it.”

“The Year of the Fat Knight” is a warm, generous, incisive read. It is also a part-record of a year in the life. Sher sees Henry Goodman in “Arturo Ui” and remembers Leonard Rossiter. He observes the lightness of Peter Jackson directing Ian McKellen for the fifth time. In New York a speech by Greg Doran is reminder that Julius Nyerere was the translator of “Julius Caesar” into Swahili. A Collected Shakespeare circulated in Robben Island disguised as a Hindu prayer book. Nelson Mandela’s favourite speech was Caesar’s “Cowards die many times before their death/ The valiant never taste of death more than once.” That kind of breadth of detail gives to “Year of the Fat Knight”, like the figure of Sir John himself, a dimension of weight and gravity.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
22 July 2015

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Great Moments in the Theatre- Benedict Nightingale

Theatre publishers run the gamut of independents to goliaths. Nick Hern Books has marked up its first quarter century while Bloomsbury-Methuen Drama is a part of two billion Euro a year turnover Random House which has roots going back in 1927. In the way of the world the feisty independent publisher engages in a warm and enthusiastic exchange with a seasonal reviewer some way off. A reviewer’s enquiries to Behemoth go unnoticed. Oberon with eight hundred titles in its catalogue is three years the senior of Nick Hern Books. With eighty new titles a year “Great Moments in the Theatre”, published in 2012, passed me by. Benedict Nightingale’s one hundred and five Great Moments are well worth catching up with.

His selection spans two and a half millennia of theatre, 458 BC- April, to be precise- to “Jerusalem” in July 2009. The productions run the span of Athens, Paris, St Petersburg, Moscow, Copenhagen, Vienna, Salzburg, Berlin, Dublin, Wexford, New York. London, Manchester, Newcastle, Dorchester, Glasgow, Cardiff. The author was at Cardiff’s New Theatre 26th March 1965. “First there a clatter of seats as the audience flounced out” runs his sprightly first sentence.

The book lives by its title “In the Theatre”. Theatre never started inside buildings and in recent years it has gleefully jumped outside. “Great Moments in the Theatre” is not Ontroeren Goed or You Me Bum Bum Train. But it repeatedly, over the centuries, homes in on the history of performance- private perception experienced communally- reaching out to the status of public event. You Me etc by contrast is private experience repeated, but thinly shared, because a decree of secrecy hangs over it. This places it cheek by jowl next to “the Mousetrap” but also makes it not easily impacting the public sphere. Indeed the most enlivened, and bitter, debate has been over remuneration policies across the members who make possible the events.

Theatre of now has to jostle for attention in a culture of profusion that overwhelms. It does not get public attention in the way that did “the Marriage of Figaro”, Nightingale reminds us, in 1783. A performance due at the Chateau de Gennevilliers was stopped by royal decree two hours before its time of opening. The thwarted audience fell back on expressions of “oppression” and “tyranny.” If theatre and its critics experience their tetchy moments in 2015, look back to Paris in February 1669. Moliere, trumpeted an opponent, was “the most notably impious creature and libertine who has ever lived throughout the centuries”. This was followed by the demand that the author be burnt at the stake.

Britain’s Home Secretary was present in London’s Duke of York’s Theatre 21st February 1910. The play was John Galsworthy’s “Justice” and the Home Secretary was moved- “moved enough to push through several reforms, including one that would eventually end the practice of putting convicts into solitary confinement at the beginning of their sentences.” If theatre does not change the law it can still cause a stir. The Royal Shakespeare Company can provoke tabloid outrage with “Days of Significance” (reviewed this site November 2009). The Royal Court can cause official Embassy complaint with “Sizwe Banzi is Dead”. A row of Harvard professors, instead of applauding, stood and booed at the end of a first night performance. That was in Cambridge, Mass, the subject of their excoriation David Mamet and his “Oleanna.”

“Great Moments in the Theatre” comes with a bracing internationalism. Arthur Miller tells the author that an audience member came to him after a performance of “the Crucible” in Shanghai in 1980. With a daughter murdered by the Red Guards she tells Miller she “couldn’t believe it was written by a non-Chinese.” Nightingale evokes “the silence of the tomb” that accompanied the falling of the first-act curtain for “the Seagull” in Moscow December 1898.

Many an actor of greatness is recalled. Among the names from history are Garrick in November 1742 who had a special “fright wig” made for Hamlet and his encounter with his father. Kean with his piercing black eyes mesmerises as Shylock in January 1814. A visitor from England sees William Mcready as Macbeth in May 1849 and compares the actor to Niagara “a whirlpool, a tornado, a cataract of illimitable rage.” Nearer our own time the late Philip Seymour Hoffmann is remembered as Jamie in a great “Long Day’s Journey into Night.”

Nightingale, critic of high eminence, rarely looks to other critics. He cites G H Lewes on “Phedre”: “Nothing I have ever seen surpassed this picture of a soul torn by the conflicts of incestuous passion and struggling conscience.” Nightingale moves to Arthur Symons on Bernhardt in the same role and then to his own memories of Barbara Jefford, Diana Rigg and Helen Mirren. Kenneth Tynan appears with his own production. Somewhat of a fallen angel Nightingale remembers him as “the wittiest of theatre critics…he left behind a reputation for sleaziness.”

Few lives are one of ease, least of all that of the playwright. R C Sherriff after his second wounding wrote “the doctor took fifty-two pieces of concrete out of me.” As for the sheer serendipity of the playwright’s life look only to Nightingale on Ariel Dorfman. “Death and the Maiden” ended as a Broadway production and a Polanski film. It started in Chile as “a poorly received workshop production” and progressed to a reading in London. One member of the audience heard that the Royal Court planned a season of international political theatre but was having difficulty finding enough good work. That audience member recommended “Death and the Maiden” to the directors. The name of the enthusiast who had been at that first reading? One H. Pinter.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Methuen

published:
29 June 2015

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The Complete Brecht Toolkit- Stephen Unwin

Stephen Unwin makes reference at one point to his book as a sketch. He does himself a disservice. A book of two hundred and twelve pages may be taut, compressed and filed with sense. Just as equally it can be baggy, hollow, bulked out with padding. This toolkit, a companion to the same publisher’s Stanislavsky toolkit, is very much of the Nick Hern stable. It is authored by a seasoned theatre-maker, it is compact and nimbly edited, it is surefooted in knowledge of its audience. Both theatre professionals and theatre-goers, those who look to a guide to Brecht through the adumbrations of myth, legend and ideologically grounded wrong-headedness to the art’s centre, will benefit from its reading.

As a toolkit it is comprised of five sections. “In Context” tackles the life and the influences, intellectual and aesthetic. Unwin deflates the notion of his subject as ideologue on his first page. “A man with one theory is lost. He must have several, four, many!” declares Brecht. The influences on the voraciously reading young writer are manifold. His enthusiasm for Shakespeare is as great and as genuine as that for popular culture. Among the classics of the German theatre his preference goes to Kleist. Unwin links Azdak back to the corrupt Judge Adam of “the Broken Jug.”

Brecht read Karl May and Jack London. Like Picasso, Joyce and Stravinsky, says Unwin, he was “drawn to the cabaret and circus in search for a unique kind of modern energy." Brecht loved the satire of Kraus, Tucholsky and Mehring. He himself appeared on stage with Karl Valentin.

Unwin looks to Walter Benjamin for an early understanding of the Brechtian theatre. “Epic theatre...advances by fits and starts, like the images on a film strip.” The film analogy links Brecht to his contemporaries. The radically anti-classical Expressionists were located in Munich, the city adjacent to Brecht’s native Augsburg. Doeblin of “Berlin Alexanderplatz” was among his Berlin circle. John Heartfield, a few years his senior, was similarly to meld political purpose to innovative form.

Unwin is a director and devotes three pages to his own directing of “die Massnahme” for the Almeida, timed ominously for the night of 1987’s General Election. As a maker he recognises “Brecht’s theatre- and his theory- is exceptionally eclectic”. The corollary of this eclecticism is that “we'd best approach Brecht's theoretical writings with some caution.” He admits that the very concept of alienation is misleading in English. It is a lousy translation of the word “Entfremdung”. If the word were recirculated in its true sense of “enstranging”, admittedly a neologism, it would get Brecht off that pedestal of chill, dogma and uniqueness. All art of consequence carries within it a distancing, the shock of the new.

The legacy of Brechtian encrustation carries an unhelpful weight of baggage. Like so many established dichotomies the one set up between Brecht and Aristotle does not stand up to much testing. French classical drama travels rarely to Britain and rarely successfully. It is questionable whether a Racinean protagonist invites empathy and the whole issue of empathy or otherwise is in any case located within the domain of cognitive psychology. Theatre commentators, rather than creators, are liable to make occasional declaration as to what is occurring inside the collective mind of the audience. Since the consciousness of a stranger is unknowable such declarations are ignorant and impertinent.

Similar difficulties with notions of character arise as to whether indeed personhood is “the result of social conditions and not the other way round “ Look to the under-appreciated George Herbert Mead and the Social Interactionists and it is questionable how much essence remains in character that is not expressed via social relation. “The Complete Brecht Toolkit” comes with the great advantage of an author who is a person of the theatre.

Makers of theatre have to know language. In his chapter “In Practice” Unwin looks, and cites in full, four different translations into English of the opening of “Mother Courage”. The translators are John Willett, Michael Hoffmann, Eric Bentley and Unwin himself. He concludes on the scale of variation that “the exceptionally rich texture of Brecht’s language is hard to render into actable English.”

Unwin’s six pages on the approach to acting Brecht look exemplary. Given that the term that Brecht himself used was “Versuche” or “attempts” “this sense of the provisional is fundamental to Brechtian acting”. Avoid solemn, says Unwin, “an inner optimism is the key.”

The last quarter of the book is given to exercises, fifty created by Julian Jones of Rose Bruford College. The approach to “gestus” starts with Grandmother’s Footsteps. Other exercises are called “the Hand Tower”, “the Baton of Truth”, “Jekyll and Hyde” and “A Hat Full of Archetypes”.

Unwin approaches Brecht as artist rather than seer or ideologue. If consistency is indeed the last refuge of the imaginative Unwin hails “the unique mixture of radical innovation and classical restraint, scepticism and hope, deep seriousness and anarchic wit.” This is a book to be highly recommended.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
18 June 2015

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Bertolt Brecht- Stephen Parker

Stephen Parker is Professor of German at Manchester University. His biography of Brecht, 596 pages of text and 94 pages of notes, references and index, is subtitled “A Literary Life”. Parker’s subject was as much as poet as dramatist. The author’s background, literary rather than theatrical, means that he writes with authority on Brecht’s place within Germany in both its literary and political dimensions.

Parker traces Brecht’s early reactions to his dramatic predecessors. He favours Wedekind but views the still active Gerhart Hauptmann as of small relevance. He and Thomas Mann disagree and he lashes out at Rilke and all that the poet stands for. He clashes with Walter Benjamin over his interpretation of Kafka, denouncing it for “obscurantism”. Parker’s translation for Brecht’s view of Gottfried Benn after his political apostasy is “slimeball.”

Parker touches on Brechtian theory lightly but succinctly. He points out that Piscator preceded Brecht in the view that political theatre should discourage identification with character. The book’s richness of biographical detail shows that the forging of artistic originality is a process both gradual and multiple. In the 1920s Brecht is writing poetry virtually ever day. He is immersing himself in Kipling,Melville and Robert Louis Stevenson; although Parker does not mention it the same authors were crucial for the young Jorge Luis Borges, a continent away in distance but just a year apart in date of birth.

As for the making of the art Brecht critiques Kaiser’s “Von Morgen zu Mitternacht” adding the comment “I'm starting to turn classic”. It takes a German scholar to link an affinity with Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Like Lichtenberg “Brecht delights in paradox and in mixing the abstract and the material, the serious and the humorous, the cerebral and the carnal”. For Parker form is the Brechtian route to the expression of feeling.

The arc of the life across continents in a book of this length is mapped out in fascinating detail. In the First World War Brecht is treating wounds with iodine, giving enemas and blood transfusions. When he acquires a car Georg Grosz comments on the speed and recklessness of his driving. Success comes early. After the premiere of “Drums in the Night” Herbert Ihering writes “Bert Brecht has brought to our age a new voice, a new sound and a new vision”. “The Threepenny Opera” over the years 1929-1933 has ten thousand performances with the royalties going for judicious safekeeping in Switzerland.

In these fragile but free days of Weimar Brecht is already subject to denunciation by Alfred Rosenberg. Parker traces the background lightly, describing the KPD’s grotesque policy of treating Social Democracy rather than Nazism as its primary enemy. Political writers, he shows, have as little insight of the future as anyone else. On 8th August Brecht buys a heavily borrowed house on the Ammersee. Six months later, the day after the burning of the Reichstag, he is on the train to Prague and the life of exile. On 10th May his books are up for public burning.

These years are hard. In October 1934 he is in London. After a Germany of kachelofen-warmed homes the houses of London are under-heated and freezing and “the English eat leather and grass”. Elsewhere, exile is perilous with German artists being caught up in the Moscow Trials that begin in 1936. Even Piscator, reveals Parker, is advised by no less than Wilhelm Pieck, KPD Chair, to better stay in Paris.

Bela Kun, the only politician Brecht knows well is under arrest. Brecht's own NKVD file declares him a Trotskyist. Brecht’s own escape to the USA has the utmost luck in its timing. The five-week sea journey out of Vladivostok starts two weeks before the invasion of Russia. In the same month the USA stops issuing visas to anyone connected to Germany.

The life in California has sparse joys. There is the mixing with the circle of emigres, the odd game of chess with Oscar Homolka but there is little money. A project with Billy Wilder fails to take off. For all the rancour over its credits for “Hangmen Also Die” the film’s royalties are worth ten thousand dollars and allow the move to a proper house and the purchase of a second-hand Buick. On 19th Jan 1944 Brecht is added to the FBI’s list for surveillance.

A high point of the years in America is the premiere of “Life of Galileo” to an audience that includes Chaplin, Frank Lloyd Wright and Gene Kelly. But the relations with Orson Welles are more characteristic. In a letter to Charles Laughton Welles writes “Brecht was very, very tiresome today”.

Parker’s last hundred pages record the years of artistic triumph and acclaim. The setting is the cauldron of cultural politics of East Berlin, both ferocious and relentless. The battle against Formalism becomes all-out war. The ruling SED disapproves of meddling with classics and denies “Coriolanus” a performance. The premiere of “Caucasian Chalk Circle” receives, in Parker’s telling, a staggering fifty-six curtain calls. It is subject to a total media black-out in the city of its performance.

Parker’s literary criticism is both light and deep. He quotes the Latvian actress and director Asja Lacis on her observations on Brecht as a director “that was the beginning of gestural speech.” He reports that Brecht had read “Wallenstein” in adolescence and that “Mother Courage”- written at the time of Poland’s dismemberment- was principally a riposte to Schillerian idealism.

Parker interprets the period in the DDR via Brecht’s philosophical underpinning. Brecht’s dialectic is Hegelian rather than Marxist. Dialectical Idealism lacking Marxist chiliasm can explain that a reactionary bureaucracy may be a short-term necessity but a temporary state of affairs. But then Brecht was an artist, not a party member and never a Johannes R Becher. Again and again he returns, Parker relates, to Lucretius and classical notions of ataraxia. Chinese theatre is a seam of influence that runs through the work and Tao is as silently powerful in the man as Marx. Parker, making reference to Kafka and Brecht’s own physique writes “Brecht was a hunger artist of a very particular kind, a contrarian full of contradiction and paradox, whom not even the most perceptive observer could properly fathom.” Indeed, in Nietzschean terms, to be fruitful is to be rich in contradiction.

New sources of information on Brecht are unlikely to appear. Parker’s writing style is lucid and undogmatic. This book is set to be a standard.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Bloomsbury

published:
17 June 2015

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The Theatre of David Greig- Clare Wallace

Rhodri Morgan, at the time of his stepping down, enjoyed the highest popularity rating ever recorded for a democratic leader. Everything comes back, he said in his farewell lecture at the Wales Political Archive, to the facts of geography, the arc of population around the rural heart of the Cambrians and Powys. For politics it carries the overhead of so many local authorities- “nine councils within a twenty-minute drive..?” wonders the CEO of the only Welsh company in the FTSE 100 with a shake of the head in bemusement. But for culture it is no bad thing. It means diversity and vitality. But it is not good for new writing.

New writing for theatre is an urban thing. If theatre, outside pantomime and Andrew L-W, is a minority taste new writing is a minority’s minority. It needs the urban scale to provide the audience of persistence and regularity. Wales, as is increasingly apparent, is not Scotland and “the Theatre of David Greig” is a reminder. Hardly a theatre company exists north of the Tay- a review of Stornoway’s company features on this site October 2007- but the urban concentration is good for new writing.

A late section of “the Theatre of David Greig” comprises eighteen pages of transcribed conversation between Greig and Clare Wallace. He touches on the geography of his audience. The Central Belt has a population larger than that of the whole of Wales yet the writer says of his audience “there is a group”, the number probably closer to the hundreds than the thousands. His “Dunsinane”, with all the profile of a RSC production, was seen by just eight hundred Scots. And the venues of Scotland do not have competition in the form of a nearby Bristol or Bath or day trips even to Barbican or Royal Court.

This setting of Greig’s place of work is not to undervalue the achievement or artistry. The fifty plus productions over twenty years outnumber any other writer working in Britain. Those that have played in Wales, and feature on this site, include “the Events” (March 2014), “Yellow Moon” (June 2008) and “the Speculator” (March 2009). Clare Wallace addresses this huge corpus of work by grouping it into five chapters “Suspect Culture”, “Lesson Plays”, “Scotland”, “Globalisation” and “East-West.”

The most salient aspect of Grieg’s achievement is its breadth. “Midsummer” (reviewed here January 2011) is a hymn of love to his own city while “Damascus” (reviewed here August 2007) was unique as a contemporary play that toured six Arab countries. Its director Philip Howard features in the book and recalls that in Cairo it was a huge hit with “queues of audiences and rapturous reception.”

The book’s title is “the Theatre of David Greig” rather than “the Plays of David Greig”. The trajectory of the career begins with the founding of a company “Suspect Culture” with Graham Eatough in 1992. Three years’ graft follow before public funding in 1995. In 1997 Greig is a vocal contributor at David Edgar’s Birmingham Theatre Conference. “Victoria” in 2000 is an RSC production set over three time periods- 1936, 1974 and 1996- and comprising seventy-two scenes. In the Middle East he works with George Ibrahim at Ramalla’s al Kasaba Theatre along with British director Rufus Norris. (The sparky adaptation of “Adventures of Tintin” as a Barbican Christmas show does not get mention but then there is simply too much to cover.)

Outside Clare Wallace’s core narrative “the Theatre of David Greig” has a section “Perspectives” with two additional essays and contributions from collaborators. David Pattie in “Who's Scotland?” looks to the links with predecessors Sir David Lyndsay, John Byrne, Chris Hannan, John Clifford and Liz Lochhead. Philip Howard cites his fondest memory “sitting in the cafe of a three star Damascene hotel negotiating amendments to the play...including the scene in the play where Paul sits in a the cafe of a three star Damascene hotel negotiating amendments to his education textbook.”

Vicky Featherstone and Guy Hollands, Artistic Director of the Citizens 2006-11, both feature. “David is a harvester. He harvests stories, experiences, people, moments”. “David's writing seems to me as much a provocation or opening out of ideas as an instruction.” Wils Wilson, collaborator on “Gobbo” and “the Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”, homes in on the musicality of the language. “His work also has a musical or rhythmic awareness in terms of form. It's one of the things that enables him to be very bold in the structure of how he tells stories.”

“The Theatre of David Greig” is not the definitive assessment of David Greig, partly because he is still in full creative flow. The author is Associate Professor at Charles University, Prague. That entails nods to Adorno and Lehmann (Hans-Thies naturally rather than the brilliant author of “the Sweet Smell of Success.”) The use of alarming vocabulary is rare although “Yellow Moon” is possessed of a “heterodiegetic narrative commentary.”

There is the odd jarring piece of language as in a play described as “an ecologically calibrated epic”. It is the wrong verb. A commentary on “Casanova” sees “insistence on the never-ending pursuit of pleasure for its own sake constitutes a kind of radical “nowness” that is in obvious tension with traditional constructions of identity”. As a view it marries a hazy neologism and a clunkiness of construction with a weakness of argument. “Identities are always plural” opines a commentator. True, that “s” at the end is a giveaway.

The quality of the proof-reading is much better than average for the publishing industry of our century. Nonetheless that a publisher like Bloomsbury can print “principle trajectories” on page three says it all. The source book for “the Speculator” was written by the admirable James Buchan. James Buchanan by contrast was the United States’ fifteenth president.

Greig makes mention of “A Pie, A Pint and a Play” as “brilliant for a writer.” Returning to the environment in Wales these last six months have hit a high. Not just a new venue but “Violence and Son” and “T eh Internet is Serious Business” have received universal acclaim, even from London’s most expected sourpusses of reviewers. These achievements owe more to sheer personal indomitability and conviction of the playwrights than to an orderly and stable funded new writing scene at home.

The Investment Review may have hard and unpalatable choices to make. Suffice to say that new writing matters. If there has to be heritage theatre then the Tourist Board should cough up the budget. Cardiff as of 2015 has the venue and the production team. An author of Wales at the Royal Court ought to be more than an occasional welcome surprise.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Methuen

published:
16 June 2015

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Contemporary Welsh Plays- Edited Tim Price & Kate Wasserberg

Collections of plays from Wales are not frequent. Parthian published a trio of Hijinx-produced scripts by Sharon Morgan, Greg Cullen and Lewis Davies in 2006. Before that Parthian published a trio of Made in Wales scripts but that was in the last century. This new collection is different. Bloomsbury, in recognition of the polity of the United Kingdom of our century, has published collections from all four of the constituent nations. That from Wales differs from the other three in two intriguing respects.

The first is the number of contributors, not the playwrights but the authors of forewords and introductions. Ireland, Scotland and England have one each while “Contemporary Welsh Plays” has four. One reason is practical- Tim Price features as both editor and selected dramatist. Whereas the Introduction to Scotland is written by Trish Reid of Kingston University and England by the fiery and dependable Aleks Sierz “Contemporary Welsh Plays” is principally in the hands of theatre-makers.

This has an effect on style. Qualifiers like “incredibly” and “fantastically” are deployed too loosely to hyperbolic rather than descriptive effect. “Llywth” inevitably is one of the editors’ selections and Arwel Gruffydd is the most accomplished writer. He had a pivotal role in the making of the boundary-breaking production beyond that of director. An article on this site (14 July 2012) cites Dafydd James at the time “struggling to know what to write about”. The Sherman provided the key.

Gruffydd provides more detail on “Llwyth” on its first tour. Local choirs were recruited “fusing popular Welsh music with gay anthems”. He chooses some nice phrasing for the author, admiring “the ambition, vivacity and naughtiness of his creative mind”.

David Ian Rabey in his Foreword places these plays in a context of cultural continuity. Crucially he pinpoints the presence of Ed Thomas now a generation back. Thomas “avoids portrayals of linguistic restriction and enclosure” and Rabey makes the contrast with the Bond of “Saved”. Certainly the characters in all these works are rarely marked by a Mike Leigh-like taciturnity.

The most revealing difference in approach to the Wales volume is the sense of common cause. The introduction to “Contemporary English Plays” is all about a polity under stress with a record of racially motivated murder, ASBOS, the BNP and Vicky Pollard. Aleks Sierz picks out the plays that are about a nation in struggle to make sense of what it has become. Plays like “Testing the Echo”, “England People Very Nice”, “Jerusalem” and “Statement of Regret” all circle around fracture. This makes “The Westbridge” a natural candidate for selection.

The contrast with the Wales book is considerable. In part it is the role that Dirty Protest has played, to the extent of staging a prize-winner that bizarrely the award-givers were unable to stage themselves. Try to imagine the Bruntwood handing out cheques along with a “not wanted here” notice. Tim Price writes of his relation to other writers: “it is a collegiate movement…where playwrights help each other by reading, dramaturging, producing and acting in each other's work. There is no room for rivalry or competition only encouragement and support.”

Each of the four volumes has three pages entitled “Chronology”. Scotland lists every election this century. The Wales “Chronology” does rugby but does not do elections. This is an irony in that the politics of devolution have been crucial in the definition of theatre. The Coalition seven years ago was author of the National Theatre and the National Theatre has not just been galvanic in itself in its first years but its influence has felt itself across the spectrum of theatre.

The “Chronology” in the Wales collection has slipped into print without benefit of a proof-reader. Verbs oscillate between past and present. Punctuation is all over the place with intrusive commas and hyphens gone astray. “Submarine” as title for a film is not placed in italics. The 1999 Act did not give the Assembly “the power to decide how the government budget for Wales is spent”. The devolved powers are selective. When independent Scotland of 2020 kicks out its submarines Cardiff will have small say in their putative redeployment to Milford.

The inaugural year of the National Theatre is awkwardly described as “the company produces thirteen plays in a map of Wales”. The phrase is “across Wales”. The productions were not “digitally enabled”. “Better Call Saul” is digitally enabled; theatre is live. The great production over Easter 2011 was not entitled “Passion Play”. That is the title of Peter Nichols’ most enduring play. It did not “perform the Gospel story” as the Gospels are about God made Man. The production was a humanist variation recreated by Owen Sheers.

Kate Wasserberg rightly sees “confidence and authenticity” in these plays. But she also writes of “Bruised” that it “barrels towards a heart-breaking revelation that would only be possible on a stage.” To read these plays is to be reminded that they were not created for tablet or paper but to be enacted as sound, light and movement.

Thus “Tonypandemonium” is inseparable from the brio and high energy of its Lopez-ian treatment. Matthew Trevannion’s heart-stopping climax revolves around a phrase “This stops tonight” and it is repeated seven times. The author also slips in a visual trick, a borrowing from “the Sixth Sense”, that is purely and only theatre.

David Ian Rabey makes mention of scene thirty of “The Radicalisation of Bradley Manning” In book form it is a bald few pages and a world from the way in which director John McGrath used his cast in his school hall space. Nor can the script in itself make mention of how it feels for audience members to be handed their seats by an impossibly young-looking Gwawr Loader in combat fatigues and battle helmet.

This is an exhilarating compendium and reminder of recent years. Audiences of 2015 have the opportunity to see one of the works this season. Lora Davies directs Brad Birch’s “Gardening for the Unfulfilled and Alienated” at Theatr Clwyd 24th April.

collected plays

ISBN:
£

Bloomsbury

published:
09 February 2015

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What Do I Know?- Richard Eyre

“What Do I Know?” comprises fifty-two occasional pieces. They include eulogies, programme notes, introductions to plays and diary selections. Richard Eyre is a unique figure. He recorded his years of stewardship of London’s National Theatre, years of great accomplishment, in “National Service.” Eleven years on the book still reads very well. As revealed in this new collection he has also worked creditably in film and television. A diary piece follows the wayward process- erratic would be a euphemism- by which a film lurches haphazardly towards that elusive “go” green light. The film under discussion is “Iris.” Less is said about “Notes for a Scandal” a significantly greater film with a lot of emotional punch to it.

The longest piece, forty pages, is the diary that accompanied the filming of the television series “Changing Stages.” Eyre has a view on diaries. “Whatever their merits, all diaries are self-vindicating, full of evasions, self-justifications and self-recriminations.” It is an exhilarating journey with a theatre practitioner blessed with a seemingly Olympian view. Eyre has been everywhere. If the subject is Arthur Miller he has walked with him in the shadow of the pillars of the Brooklyn Bridge. He is with Peter Brook at the Bouffes du Nord in Paris and in New York to see Liam Neeson who is richly knowledgeable and fluent on the theatre of Ireland. Eyre’s next stop is William Dafoe and the Wooster Group. He even gets to visit the last Comptroller to the Lord Chamberlain or, more bluntly, theatre’s censor. The holder reveals that the office was one of Koko-esque baroquerie. While the holder was principally engaged in the management of royal events the extensive and prolonged bargaining over the number of “firks” in a script was a peculiar addition that the job entailed.

Eyre’s journey through the twentieth century includes many a moment of illumination. Harley Granville Barker’s determination to bring actor and audience closer together involved the removal of footlights and the building of an apron over the orchestra pit. Bernard Shaw was there to see the result and declare “To the imagination it looks as if he had invented a new heaven and a new earth.” Eyre’s description of the impact caused by the arrival of the Berliner Ensemble in London in 1956 is definitive.  
    
As to be expected from the previous books Eyre brings an unfailing freshness to his prose. “He wrote theatre-poetry with a grammar that asked for gauzes to spill the action seamlessly from interior to exterior, complex lighting, slashes of iridescent colour, projections, and a vocabulary that included cries in the night, distant marimbas, the tinkling of a music box, the thrashing tail of an iguana.” The last gives away the playwright who is his subject.

Arthur Miller famously had more sustained applause, and productions, on this side of the Atlantic and Eyre supplies a possible reason. “Miller use sinewy and passionate language with unembarrassed enthusiasm, which is always attractive to British actors and audiences weaned on Shakespeare.” Tony Harrison is “metrically unnervingly constant.” In the essay “Cultural Apartheid” Eyre issues eleven paragraphs that amount to a personal statement of artistic belief. “It’s a way of knowing the world, of giving meaning and form to things that seem formless.”

Eyre is firstly a director and a contribution to “the Cambridge Companion to David Hare” captures the nature of that art. Directors “are not divine creators but “negotiators, diplomats, mediators, suspended between the writer’s need to impel the play forward and the actor’s desire to stand still and create a character, obliged to interpret the blueprint, not to redraw it. They are the builders, not the architects.”

He also knows actors. The tribute to Ian Charleson was written, he confesses, with tears dropping on the keyboard. Eight years earlier as an indelible Sky Masterson Charleson had been “an actor of charm, of wit, of skill, with a kind of engaging melancholy of the Mastroianni variety, which he could dispel with a sardonic and self-mocking wit.” It is not so far from Brando who at his peak “was mercurial, feline, melancholy, witty and, like all great actors, androgynous.”

Eyre comes across many an illuminating quotation in his rovings. The reaction of Paul Scofield, when asked to give a lecture on his art, was “I have found that an actor’s work has life and interest only in its execution. It seems to wither away in discussion, and become emptily theoretical and insubstantial.” Howard Brenton has achieved an unanticipated longevity, the onetime author of “the Education of Skinny Spew” becoming the late sympathetic dramatist of Harold McMillan. “Knowing when to speak” says this great survivor “and when to shut up is nine-tenths of being a playwright in the theatre.”  In an age with a touch of hyper-ventilated speculation about audiences a craftsmen knows how it works. “If the audience are [sic] with you for the first half” says David Hare “you have ten minutes for free at the beginning of the second.”

Eyre ends with personal memories. The long illness of decline of a parent has featured in his previous writing. Mary Soames proved a tireless Chair for the National Theatre. In an obituary article of June this year Eyre recalls a night taxi ride through Parliament Square. “Night, night papa” says daughter to the great looming Churchill statue.  The topsy-turvy nature of a life in the theatre haunts. A 2004 piece on Patrick Marber ends “I’ve no doubt…that his best work lies ahead of him.”

In his introduction Eyre states that, the diaries apart, he writes when he is asked to write. “What Do I Know?” is divided into three sections and an epilogue. The shortest is entitled “politics” and is the least convincing. It is not that the writing lacks edge or sharpness of observation but it is not that of a practitioner who writes from the inside. A piece for “Vogue” makes note that the skin of its subject is  “like a white peach.” But that is the nature of the journal.

Richard Eyre may be an occasional writer but “What Do I Know?” is the best collection of essays on theatre of 2014.

historical surveys

ISBN:978 1 84842 418 0
££20:00

Nick Hern Books

published:
01 December 2014

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Plays 1- Tim Price

Political theatre is a genre of elastic definition. The national theatre hosted a spontaneous discussion day on political theatre as a bonus to its galvanic opening year. John McGrath in his introduction put forward a punchy four-way taxonomy. A paradox of theatre is that it is least interested in politics when it is most stridently declarative that it is. “Arturo Ui”: forget it. David Edgar is still out there scrutinising the process with “the Shape of the Table” in a current revival. His play does what Harley Granville Barker did with brilliance in “Waste”. It shows us politics in action.

There is a more common kind of anti-politics that Christopher Hart encountered when he saw “Posh”: ”the political sensibilities strike you not so much as right or wrong, but as seriously lacking in complexity, maturity and breadth; emerging from a tiny, tiny little world where everybody thinks exactly the same, agrees with each other ardently and credulously reads the same newspaper. It is not a good recipe for political theatre.” Theatre in Wales does many things but it does not do political theatre, at least not too often.

It does not do satire either. It is ten years since “Franco’s Bastard” caused rage. Women of power of the likes of Hutt or Hart have no mirror in fiction. A local politician fell from grace in “Two Princes” but that too was a good few years ago. And there is Tim Price. He is not a political writer in that he gets onto a stage a dialectic where differing voices are given credible persuasiveness. He is not James Graham but he is different and formally bolder. He is also Welsh theatre’s most interesting voice to have emerged this century.

“Plays: 1” fascinates and for three primary reasons. Firstly, the fact of being a playwright from Wales means that the productions will most likely have been geographically dispersed. It is a rare theatre-goer who will have managed to see all in this collection. Publication fills that gap. Secondly, the introduction allows the playwright to reveal background, context and motive. Thirdly, it reveals a dramatist in genesis. In Tim Price’s case there is in addition the intriguing knowledge that these plays precede one that is not there. Publication has come after the latest production. And “Teh Internet is Serious Business” dwarfs all new work to be seen in a theatre within Wales in 2014.

There is no obvious template for the career of a dramatist. It is debatable whether the term “career” is even applicable. But there are plays and there are productions. There are writers, not many, who have sustained a life beyond a short burst of glory. For those who have lasted a partnership with a director that endures seems a feature in common. Tim Price has it in Hamish Pirie. His introduction does honour to Pirie for his “faith and tenacity... his commitment to writers, and new writing, is unshakable and this author owes him an eternal debt of gratitude.”

Price keeps his introduction crisp and to the point. It is thus filled with moments of sharp interest. But then he is an unreconstructed Aristotelian. Plot is indeed the first principle. A piece of paper on his wall reads “Make story your God.” He is acute on the craft. “Deifying story is something I try when I find I am enjoying writing too much.” He has learned to beware “the over-articulated emotion.” In a climate with an over-tendency toward a neo-Romantic notion of art as self-located and artistic identity as self-declarative, Price asserts the distance that is necessary between subject and object. “I am the vehicle for story, not the other way round. I take pride in my discipline and little else.”

He starts his short description of the writing life in 2010. Modestly he omits the fact that he was once on one of those lists that prove either prophetic or embarrassing in later years. His name was on a Royal Court list of fifty promising theatre voices. It was a result of the early apprentice work, the first struggling writing that went back and forth between Aberdare and the wise dramaturgs at Sgript Cymru. As part-author his name makes first appearance on this site in a review of September 1st 2007.

To make anything that matters is to encounter pain. Price recounts rawly the authorial crisis that “Protest Song” brought about. The dilemma is genuine in that even a one-actor performance needs its dialectical heart. When the dramatist at last grasps his solution he has become the larger writer for it.

Not all the introduction convinces. The motive source that he identifies might be better understood as a class than a national factor. “We are a generation that understands visual grammar far better than text” demands a refutation that begins with physiology, but that belongs to another place.

The coverage of the plays includes the odd comment from the critics. “Salt, Root and Roe” is “a piercing account of sisterly love and the agonies of Alzheimer's” But the same play also invites the Telegraph: “its mixture of the whimsical and shocking, windy Welsh garrulousness and sudden moments of intense feeling, is undoubtedly distinctive.”

Lastly, there is the paradox of plays on paper. The pages of print are Plato’s shadow in the cave; the real thing is elsewhere. Scene thirty from the National Theatre of Wales’ production of April 2012 is four pages long. It is less than a couple of hundred words and is indeed evocative. But its realisation at the hands of director John McGrath fused it into an image to last a lifetime for those who were there to see it. That is what performance is for.

The three hundred and seventy-three pages of “Plays:1” comprise “For Once”, “Salt, Root and Roe”, “the Radicalisation of Bradley Manning”, “I'm with the Band”, “Protest Song” and “Under the Sofa.” The last is a nine- page monologue, a part of a Paines Plough's season “Later” held at the Trafalgar Studios.

collected plays

ISBN:
£

Bloomsbury

published:
07 November 2014

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Covering Shakespeare- David Weston

“Covering Shakespeare” is a successor to the author’s “Covering McKellen” which won the 2011 Theatre Book Prize. David Weston’s opening line speaks of “a mishmash of facts and reminiscences.” That may be. But one person’s mishmash is another’s rich and varied peregrination through personal, theatre and occasionally national history.

Benedict Nightingale, in his foreword, declared himself at a loss when seeking an adjective to capture Weston’s earlier book.  “Covering Shakespeare” similarly eludes genre. Among the actors and directors who parade by the score through Weston’s career high and low is Michael Simkins. Like Simkins Weston is an actor with a second gift for writing. 2014 will not have produced a wider, more spirited, or simply more enjoyable theatre book. To borrow a line from “Measure for Measure” “he that hath made you hath made you fair hath made you good”.  

Weston divides his address to the thirty-seven plays in two parts. The second, and chunkier, part is the author’s own experience, a journey of the ups and downs, reversals, joys and jolts of sixty years of a life in acting. The first, which he calls “tattle”, is a digest of information on the texts. Thus, “Titus Andronicus” was a significant success for Shakespeare in his own time but went unperformed for three hundred years. In 1955 a young and bold Peter Brook directed it with the Olivier-Leigh partnership.

Weston’s amiable treatment of the plays encompasses historical arcana and selected critical barnacles. Germaine Greer surprisingly sees ” the Taming of the Shrew” as “not a knockabout farce of wife-battering but the cunning adaptation of a folk-motif to show the forging of a partnership between equals.” That was certainly a perspective that Terry Hands took to his mesmeric 2011 production for Theatr Clwyd Cymru.

In his summary of the rehabilitation of the reviled “Titus Andronicus” he cites with caution Michael Billington. One of the most gore-soaked texts in theatre’s history becomes a Billingtonian “prolonged lament for the suffering imposed by an imperialistic society.” Weston approves whole-heartedly of the Guardian’s critic but, unusually for a theatre member, cares less for its politics. His survey of eight critics, some now retired, includes “arguably the dullest theatre critic in the history of the world.” The book also reprints some of the unpleasantnesses of Tynan, the personal cruelty to actors both unnecessary and demeaning.  

Weston looks overall upon the critical coterie with a similar actorly eye to Michael Simkins who was offered a serious job as theatre critic for a serious publication. “I don’t honestly know how they stand going to a play every night and still retain their enthusiasm. They spend more evenings with each other than with their wives.” Husbands also, perhaps? Weston signs off his short critical digression with a characteristic “I don’t expect another notice in my life, so nobody can accuse me of buttering the buggers up.”  

An actor looks to actors. Sean Connery is remembered as a very Scots Hotspur. Richard Byers did his “Hamlet” at such a speed that the climax was taken by an unfamiliar audience to be the interval. Harry H Corbett did a Richard II as had never been seen before, or since. Robert Stephens did a Regents Park “Othello” on a summer’s night so hot as to have his make-up coming off in streams of sweat. When Mark Rylance takes the part of Olivia Weston thinks him rightly “a trifle greedy; there are too few female parts in the canon without them being purloined by the leading actors.” In Richard Burton he sees how his “cold detachment and Celtic fury fitted “Coriolanus” like a glove.”  

Weston’s index of actors is compendious. He sees some actors who rise, some who disappear and some who are lured away. An advertisement for television for a fast food chain offers £20,000 at a time when the Young Vic is paying £95 a week. Weston is third name in a war film after Kirk Douglas and Richard Harris. And then the film work simply fades away.  

The “tattle” sections roam across theatre history. “A Midsummer Night's Dream” is  made into an opera by Purcell but drops out of performance for nearly three centuries. Only in 1968, with the abolition of theatre censorship, is the full text of “Troilus and Cressida” permitted on a British stage. Nineteen sixties television broadcasts thirty hours of historical Shakespeare called “the Age of Kings”, under the direction of Peter Dews. The audience is never less than five million and the whole lot is performed and broadcast live. Weston prefers them to the expensive productions of the Olympiad year- “dull and humourless.”  

The book is interwoven with biography. Weston is with the National Youth Theatre at the time of its 1956 inception. Early fellow-actors include the teenage Simon Ward and Colin Farrell. Stratford is still a market town where live sheep are delivered to the main street’s butcher. By the sixties Weston himself is to be seen in silk scarf and patent leather Chelsea boots at the wheel of a bright red Mini-de-luxe. At a career low point he descends to driving a shabby Ford Zodiac as a mini-cab. One of his passengers turns out to be Sir John Gielgud. They have played together in the big-budget film “Becket”. Sir John has no memory of his fellow actor.

“Covering Shakespeare” has many a personal touch to it. On “Love's Labour Lost” “I thought Cole Porter's songs were the best thing in Kenneth Branagh's film.” Tony Richardson has “Othello” coming on stage with a pair of Great Danes. They require the construction of a special dressing room and the most junior props ASM is blamed for the dogs’ onstage farting and howling.

The main text of “Covering Shakespeare” is bookended between a brief memoir of school days and synopses of the plays. Line summaries scene by scene reveal  that Iago has eleven hundred and seventeen lines to Othello's eight hundred and eighty-eight.

There are as many epitaphs to an actor's life as there are actors. George Cooke, a great Richard III of the nineteenth century, fell into poverty and alcoholism. His skull found eventual use as a prop in a New York production of “Hamlet.” But Weston is in a production of “the Merry Wives of Windsor.” Arundel Castle is a superb stand-in for Windsor. The production has music, twinkling tapers, children playing the fairies, Dora Bryan as Mistress Quickly and an audience in “rapt enchantment.” “That night” says Weston “it was wonderful to be an actor.”  

Acting

ISBN:978-1-78319-064-5
£14.99

Oberon Books

published:
01 October 2014

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Being an Actor- Simon Callow

Thirty years, a generation in the lives of humans, is for a book, or a play, an eternity. The bulk that pours out is huge and the vast majority are both forgotten and deserving to be so. Simon Callow's book of 1984 met an immediate audience. It was published by Methuen and went the following year to Penguin, was twice reprinted and the same again happened in 1986. My copy is from 1987. The glue is cracking, the pages loosening but the book's content remains vital.

It starts off a long time ago. A room in 1970 in Primrose Hill costs £5 12s 6d a week. The names that Callow encounters are also from long past: actor Michael MacLiammoir, dramatists C P Taylor, Martin Sherman, Snoo Wilson, directors Bernard Miles, Mike Ockrent. He is frank about all his deficiencies of sureness and certainty as a young man. The ascent had in retrospect its elements of fortune and opportunity but Callow plays down those of determination, application and sheer hard work.

There is an early involvement in the amateur stage but the life in theatre kicks off properly with a letter of request to Sir Laurence Olivier. That results in a stint at the National Theatre box office. Callow never meets the people who make the theatre but he steps once alone onto the stage. He pronounces “To be or not to be” and is shocked by the power that his voice contains.

He applies to the Drama Centre. After study he joins a production of Carl Sternheim's “Bürger Schippel” which goes to Edinburgh. The production has a great lead which makes it stand out. Callow writes that it is sheer good fortune that Charles Marowitz is on hand to see it at the Traverse. He takes it to the Open Space theatre in London. Callow has some fiddly stuff with a moustache which he throws off on stage. The critic Irving Wardle calls him one of the finest young characters on a British stage. The next day the agent he has set his heart on is on the phone.

At the Mermaid he faces the actor's ultimate humiliation. At a matinee in a bubbling dressing room he fails to hear a cue. “It can happen to anyone” say his fellow cast members. Gay Sweatshop follows and the Bush, Joint Stock, the Abbey in Dublin. He is in David Edgar's dramatisation from R D Laing of “Mary Barnes”. For Arturo Ui he is nominated by the Times for best performance of the year. At the National Theatre he encounters the rigours of working with John Dexter. “Galileo” and “Amadeus” follow and the first part of his book ends with Shakespeare's “Sonnets” and 320 performances of “the Beastly Beatitudes of Balthasar B”.

This first part of the book contains hardly an anecdote or funny tale of the theatre memoir genre. That may explain its commercial success at the time and since. The Callow of now is an established author, substantial biographer and fecund reviewer. The actor-author in 1984 already had a probing cerebral intelligence into the art to which he had chosen to give his life. Ironically he describes early on being young among veterans. They recount japes and gags but “never ever, is there any mention of inspiration, audacity, originality, intensity of feeling. These are not thought to be the ingredients of theatre. What one goes to see are accomplishment, adroitness, cleverness. The satisfaction is in seeing the time-honoured craft being put through its paces by well-known faces.”

Callow by contrast is both a sharp-eyed observer and a serious inquisitor. The rehearsal description with John Dexter- “the best play-mechanic in the world”- has a detail and vividness of flavour that asks to be read in full. He puts the question “what then is the function of the director?” His own answer is “the director's skill is a distinct commodity, like the designer's or the actor's. It should be at the service of the company, realising the group's understanding of the play and its needs.”

By the end of his book's first part he is not wholly satisfied with the state of things. His conclusion on the National is harsh. “The company, as such, barely exists...the involvement of the company in decisions is non-existent...It is in these subsidised theatres that the directocracy is at its most unqualified. The waste of actors' intelligence and passion...”

Earlier Callow has written a definitive account of being in Joint Stock. He concludes of “Fanshen” that the production “had changed everybody's lives in almost every way.” The company seethes with discussion and debate. Character, avers Bill Gaskill, was a bourgeois concept. The members' politics are varied, “a source of division rather than unity.” The stances are “libertarian, anarchist, Marxist, Maoist, parliamentary democratic, IRA. We even had a full-blown anarcho-syndicalist.”

Then it changes. “The play arrived and the discussions stopped.” Three weeks remain out of eight. “Rehearsals were excruciating.” The penny drops. The actors have nothing much in common. “Joint Stock stood for the taste of its directors. The Joint Stock style was the Bill Gaskill style, the Max Stafford-Clark style. This style didn't stem from a political position or even an aesthetic theory. It was just their taste, what they liked to see.”

At thirty years of age “Being an Actor” is holding up. The second part of Callow's book is a substantial piece of writing in itself and is deserving of a separate review.

The first part of Simon Callow's book of thirty years' vintage is the biography. In the complementary second part he delves into quite what acting is. He calls it the worm's eye view. “what day by day, hour by hour even, how it feels to be an actor.” For the viewer who sees the acting but with hardly any idea what it is or, more importantly, how it is, his writing is absorbing.

The writing hums. Unemployment is “the primeval slime from which actors emerge and to which they return.” It comes with a rider “as for anyone else, it's castrating.” Its last result is desperation for anything; a couple of lines, a commercial, anything is better than nothing. Callow's descriptions are exact, the tone wry and bitter-sweet. At auditions “the air is thick with smoke and raucous laughter.” The aisle is full of..."thirty coffee cups with cigarette butts lying in an inch of coffee.”

“It's understandable that actors, being for the most part powerless and passive in relation to their careers, should look for a big brother to look out for their interests.” That is the role of the agent. Callow pins down the ambivalence of the relationship. Actors “stalk around town, darkly”, convinced that a change of agent is the golden key to a career surge. Rehearsal rooms are uniform: “worn parquet floors, iron bars at the window, primitive plumbing, no air in the summer, no heat in the winter.”

The best anatomy of the rehearsal process is in John Caird's “Theatre Craft” (2011). Callow follows the process from the actor's perspective. “For a period, the rehearsal needs to be completely indulgent. You wade into the swamp and wallow, indulging, tasting, gorging on the character's sensations.” For Verlaine in “Total Eclipse” Callow in rehearsal ate three packets of chocolate biscuits. He expanded to over fifteen stone in three weeks. As for the first night audience “all of the various sections of it have some ulterior attitude to the performance. No-one is there simply to see the play. It's a self-conscious audience.”

The actor is all we, the audience, see. The paradox of the art is that actor is both superior to, but subordinate, to director and author. Callow is depthless in his admiration for Edward Bond yet the actual working relationship is fraught with tension. “My relationship with the man was stormily enjoyable...the actor, I think, he views with distrust and suspicion.” From Callow's side “What Edward never understood, though, was that in order to play the character the actor must experience the life within him, must let that life fill his consciousness.”

The blockage between actor and author-director crystallises in “He also refused to accept that the act of embodying another human being is a complex and unnerving business.” Callow elaborates on the director role in looking back on his time with John Dexter. He likens the script to a musical score but differentiates. A play is not a set of specific notes to be played as written. “A play needs to be discovered, uncovered one might almost say, liberated.”

For Callow acting is rooted in character. In rehearsal with Bill Gaskill he recalls “the misery I experienced as an actor until I had a firm grasp on who I was in the play.” It is not helped by the directorial view “that character was a bourgeois concept based on identification.” This encounter is prefigured in a bravura piece of description from drama school time. “Giving in was the essential experience.” “Leave yourself alone” they'd been saying to us since the day we arrived. Now suddenly I was.”

The writing ascends to bounce and relish. “It wasn't to be seen. It wasn't to impress. It was to do it, to revel in this newly discovered joy, to romp around in the adventure playground that I myself had become.” He writes of “the happy accident of hitting my own centre...The circle was now complete. The intellectual understanding fused with the sensation. Not only was I doing the right thing, I knew what it was, so I could it again. It was mine.”

He has found the joy that is mastery.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Penguin

published:
06 July 2014

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Journal of the Plague Year- Max Stafford-Clark

Cognitive dissonance. These are the emotions of discomfort that are engendered when the mind has to reconcile things that are impossibly incompatible. “Journal of the Plague Year” is in the main, but not wholly, a record, unedited, of letters between Max Stafford-Clark and his Relationship Manager at Arts Council of England, a pseudonomised “Frank Endwright.” As in all dialogue the communication between Director and Official contains elements that are overt and some that are implicit. That which goes unspoken is invariably the more revealing. “Journal of the Plague Year” is a distressing book, a unique instance of a book on theatre that I sincerely wish had never come my way.

A position to declare; I have never met an Officer or employee of the Arts Council of England (ACE), never read a position paper or strategy document, the 2008 McMaster Report excepted. To my knowledge ACE has never reached those levels of toxicity which Scotland’s abusive money-men created with its makers of theatre. A yearning towards Germany is a constant among the recipients of arts funding. From the view of a spectator, a visit to London in July is to encounter a culture of efflorescent surfeit. Across the wealthiest parts of Europe the theatres are padlocked all summer; everyone is on salaried holiday. The garden in Britain from the audience’s perspective really does feel glorious.

The author entered my life around the time of Thomas Kilroy’s transposition of Chekhov to a decaying Irish estate, an instance of theatrical daring where genuine illumination accompanied innovation. Ron Hutchison’s “The Rat in the Skull” told me more about Ulster than any television or film treatment. It was a subject followed a quarter century on with the richly detailed “the Big Fellah” (reviewed on this site 13th November 2010). On that last occasion the Director, with the all too familiar signs of a stroke patient, took to the stage afterwards to host indefatigably, albeit with Blanche McIntytre’s support, a question and answer session with his audience.

“Testing the Echo”, (reviewed here 17 June 2008), has the heading “Contender for Best Play of the Year.” For theatre-goers who do not get to London, Out of Joint’s tours are the best of new plays, all the more reason for the disappointment that Funder and Director between them in 2012 felt obliged to abandon the company’s strategic mission.

The journal in good hands is a fascinating form. Simon Gray’s 1982 “An Unnatural Pursuit”, following a piece of theatre-making from auditions to critics, is a classic. I wrote last year about a re-reading of Richard Eyre’s now twenty-year old “National Service” filled with detail and emotion. Here the Director’s opening line of the Preface is a disclaimer that is not a journal at all. Indeed, he cites the estimable publisher who tells his author that he is writing three books. Formally, the book comprises occasional chunks of biography, commentary on the tour of “Our Country’s Good” and the letters. Four appendices add the company’s budget, a letter from Polly Teale, some post-it notes audience on feedback and a reprint of some two- year old newspaper bloggery. The bloggery had a feel of familiarity; upon checking I found that I had pitched in at the time, to the effect of declaring the inanity of its premise.

ACE’s “Frank Endwright” is author of thirteen letters. It is in this reader’s view a bad precedent set by Arts Council of England. The Duty of Care has now become a curious instrument, invoked by the powerful to cast a cloak of darkness over suspensions and dismissals. But a staff member may expect that his letters to a client company not be made public property. If they are to be more than a bit of chit chat, then the integrity and then the quality of those letters will deteriorate. On the evidence of these letters they have been a dubious expense of organisational time and money in any case.

This relationship between Director and “Relationship Manager” may be representative or it may be particular. The audience member cannot know. It is polite, respectful, but not close. In its distance it comes over as very English, very men. Director is a public school man and it shows. I would not mind betting that Frank is one also. Frank attends a rehearsal and finds it “interesting and informative as always.” He follows up with a bizarre line to the effect that “Firstly, though, I would like to thank you for continuing to engage with us.” This baby language between patron and client reads bizarrely. Arts funding is not exactly an open market.

Frank gives the impression he is far from any executive role. He has to wait for policy on “cold spots” to emerge from others. “Until I’ve seen that guidance, I’m loath to make suggestions and comments.” When a suggestion of a Richard Bean script comes with a cast of nineteen- clearly unfeasible for the time- he dodges any comment at all and passes it on to a colleague. His managerial assistance to the Director on the evidence of these selected letters can be stated as being null.

Out of Joint has a particular element to its operations, and costs, in that the company incurs high rehearsal and development time. Frank might offer benchmark comment, as to how other companies compare. What the Director receives is advice that “the business plan needs to be effective- at, amongst other things, marshalling resources, expending them and generating income.” To this reader it comes over as, “You’re on your own. You won’t get any help from me.” If the R-M is so little prepared to enter a relationship, with grit and substance to it, the reader is left wondering what all this travel cost is really for.

A relationship is created by two sides. It may well be that the distance between the capital-allocating institution and the recipient should be formal and distant. But if that is so it should be consistent. Frank’s matey tone jars. Frank is clearly a nice man, recommending as he does Youtube videos that have been recommended him by his three year old.

Out of Joint has been the creator of marvellous work. But the letters leave three primary impressions. First, it conveys the impression that the company has a pliant board- interestingly the website makes no reference of the board at all. It is an unwise Chair that sanctions a fifty thousand pound personal loan to its Director. Even if not ultra vires, which it probably is, and may well imperil charitable status it does not look good at all.

This first aspect of the company reinforces the second impression, that the decision-making is narrow. An idea is hatched to charge for attending rehearsals. Predictably, and entirely understandably, the actors detest it. In fact the book happily reports an actor’s stating that the Director did not even have the grace of consulting his cast. The practice subverts the rehearsal process.

Secondly, a large amount of company effort is devoted to promoting the Director’s spouse as a writer. Maybe the promotion of friends and family is so widespread that no-one now notices- see the 2015 election candidate for Rossendale. Director rejects the comments of Michael Billington on a work of his wife’s, which are similar to those of Frank. He makes small comment on Timberlake Wertenbaker’s reasonable objection that she has had no play commissioned since 1995. She should perhaps have stuck to her guns and declined the rights to the too reliable “Our Country’s Good.” Either way the promotion of family interest is fine in a family company but it is hardly surprising that ACE may take a view. Again the invisibility of the board speaks blaringly. Whiter-than-white governance is not just a moral stance but is a wise political stance too.

Director sends long letters to Frank with amounts of detail, like the proceeds from the sale of books at an event, that cannot be part of ACE’s reporting requirements. It reads as though these two organisations have never established the nature of the relationship. In fact Director gives small idea that he has any real knowledge of his funder. Early on he organises the distribution and collection of feedback cards to be then surprised that ACE has no interest in reading them, which elicits more testy comment.

His company is one of seven hundred recipients. ACE is an organisation with five hundred staff and hundreds of millions of pounds running through it. Like all organisations it has a capital-allocation activity. Fin Kennedy has done the hard work of sifting the whole lot and reported on the shift against the playwright. In a zero-sum climate or worse that means You Me Bum Bum-ery can only grow at the expense of others’ shrinking. In this settlement it has meant the likes of Out of Joint and Shared Experience.

Operationally Out of Joint appears to have missed a trick. The many partners and collaborators include the RSC, Bristol Old Vic and National Theatre of Wales on “Wearing the Raven”, a dramatisation about Gareth Thomas. But this assistance is all non-monetised. Instead of passing through the accounts for record as a donation account it is all left floating.

There is rage expressed at the size of ACE’s reserves. They are entered as a balance sheet item of £114m. Director gives the impression that he believes this to be a pile of hoarded cash. It is just a book entry that balances ACE’s ownership of a substantial art collection. The collection, running to over seven and a half thousand items, has a valuation of £114m. Judging from the waffley response by Frank it appears he too is equally clueless. For the record it takes about ninety seconds to verify this on ACE’s public documents. .

There are moments of interest, memories of a Royal Court production that sold just five tickets at one performance. Even Juliet Stevenson and Jim Broadbent were young unknowns once. Aberystwyth is a constant cause for worry- but it all comes good in the end with a thousand tickets sold.

There is scope for a hard-grind coalface journal of what it takes to make and tour theatre. There is a place for a powerful aesthetic polemic in defence of drama, as a moral crucible against a theatre of chainsaws, stilts and arsing about. It is not that either. A memoir would be fascinating, but the small chunks of biography fit with awkwardness. This is a sad and disheartening book in which neither side comes out well. On the one hand a large organisation where niceness seems to be its primary cultural manifestation. On the other hand a driven creative organisation lacking executive balance, proportion and self-knowledge.

But a funding regime is judged by its fruits. I suspect it is akin to the old adage about democracy. The process is filled with holes and flaws but works better than any alternative. The Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs will lap this book up in reinforcement of their every prejudice.  

Directing

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
19 February 2014

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Then What Happens?- Mike Alfreds

“Then What Happens?” is a heavyweight book, four hundred and thirty-two pages, from a heavyweight author. Mike Alfreds has two hundred productions to his name, with thirteen years as founder of Shared Experience. His book divides in two; the first third is called “Thoughtshops for Storytelling”, the larger second part “Workshops for Storytelling.” His first part contains cross-references to the appropriate workshops. The second part for practitioners is structured, for simplicity of reference, into fifteen Sets containing sixty sections.

Shared Experience has had few rivals in its particular strand of theatre, Cheek by Jowl probably its nearest equal. The workshop part of “Then What Happens” is a rigorous, testing set of principles and practices that any young director should find useful and illuminating.

Alfreds gives an example, from “Bleak House”, of a detailed method for transcription from source prose to stage action. The process may tend toward transformation. James Elroy’s “the Black Dahlia” has a complex back-story that is wholly re-shaped in adaptation. “Demons and Dybbuks” is built upon a cluster of Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories.

The workshops begin with a single actor telling a story. The process is then subject to nineteen analytical questions. Five pages are devoted to the use of props and the hazard of their too early introduction. Eight pages are devoted to hands. An exercise on pitch is comprised of eight parts.  

“Then What Happens?” is underpinned unsurprisingly by a powerfully individual aesthetic. “The purest space from which to tell a story is an empty one.” On design Alfreds is clear that “any technology or design that is decided upon should only occur after rigorous questioning proves its necessity.” The importance of interaction is stressed, albeit in a manner where it is an extension of the actor’s art and responsibility. Alfreds writes a page on the subject of  “audience autonomy”, essential reading for any theatre-makers minded to treat their audience as a plaything. Alfreds’ audience is there for a most basic of reasons, enjoyment- “ the deeper their sense of fulfilment, the fuller by far their pleasure.”

Adaptation, as evidenced by “Bring Up the Bodies” currently, is big in theatre. Alfreds does not make mention of this, but like eighty or more percent of new products it comes with an advantage of being heavily pre-branded. “Then What Happens?” leaves a genuine and impassioned impression that it is theatre taking on the acme of narrative art. Shared Experience favoured stories over rather than plays for an unusual reason. “I felt that plays might trap us in existing patterns of work. With their structures- strictures- plays can be something of a straitjacket.” Besides theatre is manifold and “survives by a magpie existence, helping itself from other arts, crafts and disciplines to whatever seems useful to its purposes.”

Certainly the book exudes reverence towards the masters of stories and their depth and inventiveness of language. He cites Dickens’ use of antithesis and Faulkner’s compressed use of sensual imagery. Alfreds’ range of reference takes in “the Nibelungenlied” and “the Bridge of San Luis Rey”, Robert Altman’s “Nashville” and  “On Chesil Beach”.  

This last is cited as an example of narratorial power but it also highlights the gulf between the art of prose and its realisation on stage. Ian McEwan artfully creates a counterpoint, the view ricocheting between the perspectives of his two new-weds. Stage writing is about what is happening between characters, with the omitted having as much value as the overt. Alfreds devotes some space and characteristic rigour to the role of the third-person narrator from outside the action. This can be the most misunderstood and dulling of stage presences when misused. Alfreds typically gives it a typically lucid and full treatment. Workshop eighteen is titled “Justifying Narrative Interruptions During a Scene.”  

“Then What Happens?” never deviates from its focus, the creating of stage action that moves in both senses. He is rightly harsh on the use of symbols that clump heavily. He looks at the language of film and the way that fadeouts and dissolves work their effect.

Narration is in a constant state of re-invention. The eighty-year old novelist E L Doctorow has delivered a firecracker of a radical novel this month. Alfreds addresses the fact that “a lot of contemporary art has removed itself from narrative and linear logic.” The argument is that it is reflector of life’s uncertainty itself. But human cognition is elementally a sense-making mechanism, which will make conclusion with or without evidence. The Alfred-ian view is clear. “But without the form created by plot, theatre and storytelling merely echo our confusions and uncertainties rather than searching for a sense to them.”

Directing

ISBN:978-1-84842-270-4
££14.99

Nick Hern Books

published:
20 January 2014

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Stage Blood- Michael Blakemore

The National Theatre had a good, even a great, fiftieth birthday. Box office outside the South Bank is rolling in, the percentage of subsidy is down, two hours of documentary history were broadcast across Britain, and a Sunday evening hosted a gala performance that was also broadcast.

But every party has its spoilers. Jonathan Miller stayed away. And then there is “Stage Blood.”

The climax of “Stage Blood” is a management meeting that took place in London forty years ago. A manager confronts his boss. It ought to be arcane but in fact it grips. It grips offstage in the way that Harley Granville Barker’s “Waste” grips onstage. The subject matter may be antique but the way in which the process unfolds is riveting.

The meeting itself takes up ten pages. It is the tale of a defeat, or less a defeat than a rout, an Agincourt or Cannae of an encounter. Blakemore’s rout unfolds for the simplest of reasons. Even the member of the humblest committee of a local amenity society knows that it is all in the preparation. It is the sounding out of potential allies, the identifying of adversaries, the gauging of fence-sitters. It is all there, with brilliance, in the first series of “the Killing”, when the rebellious yes-men try to rise up against Troels Hartmann. Blakemore possesses the gifts to mount the large-scale comedy hits of Frayn and Peter Nichols with their requirements of the most complex cues and timing. As a political operator his confession is an honest picture of a stumbling barely-starter.

“Stage Blood” is history with a lot of history running through it. Names like Jocelyn Herbert, Bill Gaskell, Frank Dunlop, John Dexter, Kenneth Tynan, Bill Bryden are history now for a new generation of theatre-makers. Jonathan Miller is still active and in Wales in 2014 for “Carmen” for Mid-Wales Opera. Blakemore warms instantly to “his gift of intimacy, chatting with unguarded candour about the ups and downs of both his professional and personal life.”

Much of the detail is sharp and illuminating. In Peter Nichols he identifies the lethal temptation in writing for theatre. It is “the dichotomy between on the one hand a dramatist who breathes life into his characters and then gets out of the way, and the pundit who cannot resist using his characters to tell us what’s what.” The latter, overly common on stages in Welsh, can be a tedious persona. Blakemore likens it to “as if Chekhov were guiding the pen in his right hand and Bernard Shaw the one in his left.”

“Stage Blood” is not just record of productions and the machinations behind productions. It is an intermittent record of the directorial experience. Tom Stoppard’s “Jumpers” proves to be a technical nightmare. A few seconds of a Tarzan swinging across the stage emitting his yodel takes hours to get right. Michael Hordern has to master enormously long speeches of philosophical content. If the first half of “Stage Blood” is a hymn of homage to Olivier it also catches the actor at an ebb of vulnerability. They have four hours ahead of Eugene O’Neill at his most intense. At the technical rehearsal the first few lines are spoken and Olivier dries. “That’s funny. I’ve got stage fright” he says.

The politics of theatre as depicted here are unedifying. “Directors” in the Blakemorean view “are unforgiving people and rarely acknowledge merit in the work of their peers.” Like Stephen Sondheim he puts in print a deep dislike for one critic. Robert Brustein is “an accomplished and persuasive essayist, but…too oracular and incurious to be a good critic”. As the critic holds a professorship at Yale the practitioner views him as “what he seemed to expect from a visit to the theatre was a validation of his own doctrines.”

The first reviewers of “Stage Blood” homed in on Blakemore’s treatment of the National Theatre’s second artistic director. The accusation is simple. The life is extravagant with mansions for a home, a Barbican flat, endless transatlantic flights and a stream of marriages and divorces to finance. The management of Britain’s then only national theatre assumes a single purpose, the extraction of maximum personal wealth. As the “Diaries” reveal the personal vote was cast in the crucial 1979 election against the soggy post-war consensus. In Blakemore’s view this most public of theatres was turned into another 1980’s institution slotting in nicely alongside train leasing companies and power generators.

This manifests itself in several ways. There are the prolonged absences, anything up to five months, from the job as if running Britain’s largest theatre were not an executive function. The emphasis on pay is constant. Employees are represented by agents; those clients represented by the director’s agent get preferential pay. An opera directed elsewhere is revived for the National’s stage.

Blakemore dips into the “Diaries”- “in this remarkable volume he manages both to come clean about himself and to cover his tracks.” Commercial transfer is the ever-present lure. “Can I have my cake and eat it” say the “Diaries..” “I think I must.” An attempt is made to give a short Cottesloe run to a play by, of all playwrights, William Douglas-Home, before a lucrative transfer. It is scuppered by protest from London’s commercial managers. “Amadeus” gets to Broadway and the pay-outs, according to Blakemore, are four or five percent of the gross and five percent of the profits. These are for the director. The National Theatre receives nothing. As a picture of an era of artistic governance it is as remote as the time of Nero.

Michael Blakemore is already author of a memoir and a novel and he can write. To him the director is “the fat boy at the children’s party, who, when offered a slice of cake, takes the cake and leaves the slice.” On a point of dissent with Olivier he observes the “smile on his lips that was razor-blade thin.” He observes actors responding to a coughing audience with too much activity. But then they hit a key scene and “the play began to uncoil. The actors were now in charge and like horses on the homeward journey they knew it.” At work on a Ben Travers farce he describes “Working on the first half of the play was rather like attending a funeral where all the mourners have been disinherited.”

Blakemore has a noble view of theatre in general and national theatre in particular: “to bring to the stage productions of such accomplishment and concentrated intent that anyone who saw them would remember them for the rest of their lives”. “Stage Blood” is about drama and it is composed as drama. At the very heart of the experience of making art Blakemore discerns a dichotomy. On the one hand “ego-driven feuds about art” are set against “the quiet perseverance, swinging between belief and doubt, that brings art into existence in the first place.”

Directing

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
08 January 2014

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A Life in the Theatre- Ira Nadel

Theatr Clwyd mounted to acclaim a production of “Glengarry Glen Ross” this autumn. Critical plaudits were handed out equally for Max Jones' design, Kate Wasserberg's direction and the cast that included Christian Patterson and Simon Holland Roberts. The play holds an unusual place in American drama. It is set in an amoral bear-pit of commercial life that is utterly of the USA yet was premiered in London's Cottesloe. (As an aside, a school friend of mine saw that first run and, knowing little of company life, wondered whether my own workplace was filled with men shouting “leads, leads, give me the f***ing leads.”)

Ira Nadel's book is five years old but Mamet's theatrical career has not changed in the interim. As Nadel reports he has been involved principally in film for a couple of decades. “A Life in the Theatre” is a workable 250 pages. A definitive biography of Bigsby-style weight may one day be forthcoming. For the moment, with a good index and notes, it does what it sets out to do economically and admirably.

The title is taken from Mamet's two-hander play about two actors of different generations. In London its premiere was memorably played by Denholm Elliott and a young Samuel West. The life begins in Chicago and so far ends in Vermont. Nadel recounts the intense interest Mamet assumed in middle age in Judaism. He also records the early rapid ascent in theatre. At age 24 Mamet had done drama student, stage hand, lighting technician, actor, drama teacher, and was his own writer-director with a production in Chicago.

Two years later he strides into Chicago's premier theatre, a manuscript under his arm and announces: “Something for your next season”. “I'll read it over the weekend” says the director. “You don't need to read it” says Mamet “Just do it.” The theatre reads it and does it. That was “American Buffalo”.

Mamet has always done men, rougher than those of Neil Labute, less self-wondering than Miller. Richard Bean attributes his own drama career to his time in a Humberside industrial bakery. “I worked in so many parts of the city” Mamet is quoted here. “I sold real estate. I worked with carpets, I washed windows. I was a busboy and a waiter, I did retail sales, inventory. I worked in a truck factory, a canning factory.”

In Vermont on a first visit he enjoys the hunting ethos. “Mamet writes well about guns” writes Nadel. Stretching the analogy somewhat he continues “finding their precision and detail reflect his own concern with exactness and accuracy.” It is not just the gun. “Guns and knives mark for Mamet an entry into the world of men, and he is unabashed in his pleasure in their company, especially those who shoot, hunt, gamble or box.”

Mamet has written taut, almost terse books on how to act. His prescriptions work, at least for plays written by David Mamet. William B Macy, an early collaborator, describes the tough rehearsal method as “it takes it from being truthful to being very beautiful.” Mamet's aesthetics are captured by Nadel from different directions. Lindsey Crouse says “he's a very fine cutter. He knows what to cut and where.” Stanislavsky inspires: “generality is the enemy of all art. If your action is in general then everything you do on stage will be in general.”

Mamet pithily compares the theatre of Chicago with New York City. In the windy city it is “Who wants what from whom? What happens if they don't get it? Why now?” Over in NYC it is “what does life mean?”

Mamet summarises the difference between play and screenplay. In film “you're trying to show what the characters did and in a play they're trying to convey what they want. The only tool they have in a play is what they're trying to say. What might be wretched playwriting...may be good screenwriting.” In the film world Danny deVito who is director for “Hoffa” “comments “I got David to finish his sentences”

Nadel quotes a Time magazine interview to the effect that Mamet knows “the cadences of loneliness and fear behind their bluntness and he also knows how to make bluntness very funny”. That was 1977 and says it well for this unique theatre presence.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Methuen

published:
26 November 2013

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100 Great Plays for Women- Lucy Kerbel

“100 Great Plays for Women” is a labour of love, three years in its making reveals Lucy Kerbel in her acknowledgements. Any list, she also says, is likely to be argued-over. Her book marries depth and application with a stamp of individuality.  

The title is not strictly accurate. After her selection of a hundred, roaming over centuries and continents, she adds a bonus of ten plays written for solo performance. This essay format lives or dies by sharpness of description, and Lucy Kerbel delivers it. “Three Tall Women” has the “mixture of quirkiness, quiet brutality and steely wit” to be expected from Edward Albee.  “August: Osage County” is a “blend of family discord, crumbling veneers, abandoned dreams and gasp-inducing revelations.” “Whale Music”, Anthony Minghella’s 1980 fledgling piece, is “a richly complicated and determinedly non-sentimental analysis of some of the most complex and emotionally contentious of all aspects of human existence.”  

A book with a format like “100 Great Plays for Women” might easily have a feel of search-engine-trawl-and-compile to it, interesting enough but rarely surprising. It is not. Lucy Kerbel takes her reader on a vaulting journey through a selection based on personal judgment rather than a checklist tick-off.  Pam Gems, Charlotte Keatley, Sharman McDonald, Wendy Kesselman or Beth Henley could have featured but do not. Shelagh Stephenson is represented by “Five Kinds of Silence” instead of the better known “Memory of Water” and Rona Munro by “Iron” rather than “Bold Girls.”  Kerbel reveals many a surprise, “the Beau Defeated” by Mary Pix premiered in 1700, “Just to Get Married” by Cicely Mary Hamilton premiered 1910 and “Nine to Six” by Aimee and Philip Stuart premiered 1930.

If the choice is generous in reaching back into theatre’s history it is equally as eclectic and far-reaching in geographical spread. The USA is an obvious destination. Alan Ball is known for “American Beauty” and “Six Feet Under” but is also author of “Five Women Wearing the Same Dress” with a cast of five women to one man. French-speaking Canada is represented by Michel Tremblay and Cuba by Maria Irene Fornes. Australia features with Ray Lawler with his 1955 “Summer of the Seventeenth Doll and New Zealand with “the Woman in the Window” by Alma de Groen.  Continental Europe supplies Fermin Cabal (Spain), Victoria Benedictsson (Sweden), Odon von Horvath (Austro-Hungary historically) and Marta Tikkanen (Finland).

A roving guide like this is bound to alight on many an interesting episode in theatre’s history. We see Tennessee Williams walking out of a first private screening of “Suddenly Last Summer.” He objects to the ending- incidentally a compelling piece of cinema- for its favouring of literal depiction over allegorical treatment.  
That extraordinary figure, Clare Booth Luce, author of “the Women” with its forty-four women characters, moves on to become US ambassador in Italy. Early retirement is enforced due to arsenic poisoning from chips of paint falling from a ceiling. Ena Lamont Stewart, author of “Men Should Weep,” sees a theatre performance in the early 1940’s and in her own words “came home in a mood of red-hot revolt against cocktail time, glamour gowns….I asked myself what I wanted to see on stage and the answer was life. Real life.”

“100 Great Plays for Women” in its cumulative reading feels like an alternative and complementary writing of theatre’s history. There is material here a-plenty for any prospective Edinburgh company in search of a production choice to stand out. For a performer seeking a one-woman show or an audition piece that is different “100 Great Plays for Women” is a cornucopia of riches. Lucy Kerbel, and by extension editor and publisher, have done theatre writing great service with this book of significance.  

historical surveys

ISBN:978-1-84842-185-1
££10.99

Nick Hern Books

published:
14 November 2013

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The Quality of Mercy. Reflections on Shakespeare- Peter Brook

“The Quality of Mercy” ends with a chronology of the Shakespeare productions directed by Peter Brook. The number is twenty-two, the time span runs from 1945 to 2002 and the locations, beginning with the Birmingham Rep, include Stratford, London, Paris, Moscow, New York and a World Tour. It is a slim collection, nine essays, an epilogue and an index, but it is slim in the way that Julian Barnes’ “Sense of an Ending” is slim. Bulk and depth do not necessarily correlate. Peter Brook’s book is packed with eloquence, insight and interest.

He writes from the stance of a practitioner. “Theatre lives and breathes in the present…In theatre today, yesterday, anywhere in the world, the author is present as a living human being.” He homes in on how one particular actor, Irene Worth in 1962, interprets the role of Goneril in a brilliant new light. He describes Vivien Leigh in that most daunting of Shakespeare’s plays, “Titus Andronicus”, and sees a kinship in the acts of cruelty found in Kabuki legends.  

The arts beyond theatre flow through Brook’s approach. Working in opera spurs his understanding of how to stage Shakespeare. The notes in the music make “a world of infinitely tiny details.” That leads him to conceive “a play of Shakespeare’s must be played as one great sinuous phrase.”

For a production of “Love’s Labour’s Lost” he looks deep into canvases of Watteau and then “imposed him on a reluctant designer.” In Watteau’s Arcadian scenes he takes note of the enigmatic figure often watching from the side. This leads him to recognise “the intuition of the young Shakespeare that lightness needs the shadow of darkness to make it real.”

Brook learns from Peter Weiss and Richard Rodgers. He asks the composer if he has “a stash of melodies waiting to be used.”  “Of course not!” is the reply “I need the words.” Brook advises speakers of verse and singers to listen to Piaf and Billie Holiday “where the passion, the feeling, the intonation, the tempo all arise from the word.”  

All theatre-makers carry within them a brace of aesthetic convictions, even if implicit. An initial powerful picture drives a Brook production. Bosch and Brueghel illuminate a “Measure for Measure.” But interpretation can lead to a too swift design “no longer in harmony with the new forms arising in rehearsal through the work of the actors.” He is impatient with the notion that concept has pre-eminence. “A cook has a concept, but it becomes real during the cooking.” He is not impressed by “the visual arts, “concept” now replaces all the qualities of hard-earned skills of execution and development.” In theatre “a concept is a result and comes at the end.”  

A lighter essay pursues the question of Shakespeare’s identity. A scholar in Sicily has unearthed a family who fled the Inquisition from Palermo to England. The family name is Crollolancia, literally “shake spear”. Max Beerbohm in a later century sets out to prove that the works of Tennyson were in fact authored by Queen Victoria. He trawls through “In Memoriam” and, sure enough, finds a line that is an anagram for “Alf didn’t write this I did Vic.”  

Shakespeare is infinitely elastic. For Brook, the work has a centre. It is “the question of order and chaos, chaos and order.” As humans “we are within chaos” and respond with “a profound, and sometimes despairing, need for order.” Plays and players, verse and staging run richly through “the Quality of Mercy”. The title essay is the last, its subject the last play. It is indispensable reading before any view of “the Tempest”.  

Nick Hern has produced “the Quality of Mercy” as a slim, elegantly handsomely hardback. As a physical product the pleasure of holding it is akin to the pleasure and stimulus to be had in its reading.

critical comment

ISBN:
££12.99

Nick Hern Books

published:
17 October 2013

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My First Play- Compiled Nick Hern

Nick Hern has been his own publisher of books on theatre for twenty-five years. In celebration he has invited authors whom he has published to submit a piece entitled “My First Play”. No other criterion or qualification has been asked for. Nick Hern’s own essay goes back to the year 1960. A schoolboy with a pantomime job at the now Churchill Theatre he trains a spotlight on a lead singing “Moon River.” That woman on stage and that ballad make “the moment I fell irretrievably in love with theatre”.

“My First Play” inevitably hits many points of theatre history. The chronology at the end of the book is itself a journey through history from the first book “Mrs Klein” to the first app release in 2013. Although not stated Steven Jeffreys’ “Valued Friends”, theatre’s best play on the razzy 1980’s, had a cast that included the young Jane Horrocks, Martin Clunes, Tim McInnerny and Peter Capaldi.

Nick Hern himself is at the Royal Court to see John Dexter directing a Wesker premiere. Dominic Cooke directs Louise Page’s “Tissue” in a university chaplaincy with a student Ruth Jones. The writers give testimony to theatre’s sheer power of presence. Ella Hickson sees a production of Ron Hutchison’s explosive “Rat in the Skull”. At age thirteen she has had small idea of the cast. A search a couple of decades on reveals Roche to have been played by an actor with a handful of a name, a young Benedict Cumberbatch.

Mike Alfreds is knocked out by “Oh! What a Lovely War”. Birmingham teenager Kevin Elyot is in Stratford to see David Warner’s sixties “Hamlet”- “long-haired and lanky…swathed in a long woollen scarf.” In Scotland “the Cheviot, the Stag, the Cheviot and the Black, Black Oil” does the same for Chris Hannan and John Byrne’s “the Slab Boys” for Liz Lochhead. Theatre from Wales does not appear.

Theatre is live event. Ali Taylor is at “the Weir” on the day of the death of Sarah Kane and the director steps on stage to impart the news. Vivienne Franzman is “floored by a production of “Bent” in my late teens. I found it unberarably moving.” I have read, but not seen, Martin Sherman’s scene with the two prisoners tied to stakes. I have heard it described as it is on stage, and the reading is nothing.  

Amanda Whittington discovers the catalyst to her own writing in Sheila Delaney. Jack Thorne writes his first work because a forty-five pound royalty for a script is too great a sum to afford.

Intriguing bits of autobiography pop up throughout. That austere figure David Edgar becomes a four-year reduced to wailing terror at a performance of “Beauty and the Beast”. Jonathan Lichtenstein’s description of his drift from childhood to farm labourer in the area of the River Ithon is extraordinary. There are hints of the pre-tech age. Stephen Jeffreys’ description of physically producing fifteen copies of a sixty-page script has to be read in its original to appreciate “playwriting as an act of faith.”
Andrew Bovell writes a moving account about his father, how “the writer of the play was not the son my father knew.” The words his father eventually comes out with are “I think you might have something…with this writing caper.”

The roll of names is awesome- Brenton, Callow, Churchill onward. Sixty-six authors- playwrights, directors, actors- provide contributions to this sparkle of a rattlebag.  All royalties are to be donated to the Theatre Section of the Writers’ Guild. A better, more cheering winter-blues-dispeller cannot be imagined.

historical surveys

ISBN:
££9.99

Nick Hern Books

published:
10 October 2013

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Writing a Play- Steve Gooch

BBC2’s “Culture Show” on 28th August devoted its entirety to Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre and its fiftieth birthday celebration. It brought together Jim Haynes and Richard Demarco in a reunion on the spot where they first met on the city’s Royal Mile. It followed the founders into the theatre’s numerous former homes, charted the steady growth, the move from censorship-proof theatre club to fully formed company.

Tim Price featured in rehearsal for the co-production with the Wales Millennium Centre along with a string of historic artistic directors. Rage, rancour and dispute, regulars in all human affairs, were absent from the programme. If it had a feel-good flavour the Traverse has plenty to feel good about. The moral that came over was get the software right before splurging out on the hardware. When the time came for the move to the posh home in Cambridge Street, the audience was already there, as was the band of pulsating writers unequalled elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

A twenty-five year old book found in a garage sale on a summer’s night in Ciliau Aeron ought by rights to have dated. Everything has changed in the last quarter-century in theatre. Scary shows with chain saws were undreamed of. Max Stafford-Clark, who featured in the Traverse film, has a track record of distinction in new writing and Out of Joint’s reward has been an Arts Council of England cut of a quarter.

Steve Gooch has many an interesting thing to say and unsurprisingly his 1988 book has had re-prints in 2001 and 2004. A track record in writing for performance is not a prerequisite for a commission in Wales, but “Writing a Play” in its crisp hundred and ten pages has regular points of value for the aspirant dramatist.

Gooch is good on the principles. The Dylan Thomas bio-film “the Edge of Love” shows again this week. Gooch knows that “simple disagreement does not constitute conflict.” Characters may reveal attitudes but that does not make for action. Gooch gives the dramatist a simple test as to whether it is stage action that is being written.

Every piece of theatre has its own unique start-point. A climax, says Gooch, is as good as any. He employs a musical metaphor to illustrate structure. “Just as striking middle C on a piano brings out the reverberation of all the other C’s on a keyboard, so your central climax will echo back and forward through the other events of the play, and vice versa.”

In terms of structuring the writing he points to the dramatists who get on with it fast. His examples take in “King Lear”, “the Mother” and “the Real Inspector Hound.” On drafting and re-drafting he is clear. Playwriting is play-rewriting. The challenge is to step back from that place of intense absorption in the manner a painter steps back to see the effect of line and tone. “You need to be a kind of foreman to yourself, standing over your own shoulder.” One method is to put the work away for a period. David Storey would shelve a play for a year.

Gooch's description of himself is “playwright, author, script doctor and translator.” The third role has given him experience of fresh scripts. He knows of dialogue that “it tends to flow of its own accord- sometimes too easily.” “A whole script can appear in dialogue form” he writes “and yet never be a play.” He knows all too well the writing where one character feeds another questions “What?” or “What do you mean?” “Weed all this out” he says “It’s the playwright’s equivalent to doodling.” A dramatist should look to Truman Capote: “I’m all for the scissors. I believe more in the scissors than the knife.”

Writing for theatre is craft and it is not the craft required for television. “Your script will be moving bodies around, bodies with their own stage reality.” At the time of his writing his view is that “the consequences of television writing on stage writing have been mainly disastrous.” He does not care for the focus on heightened naturalism that goes hand in hand with a snippety, bitty use of time and place. An early writer should learn the discipline. Constructing an action that requires a single set and elapses over no more than a few days is how to do it.

Gooch belongs to theatre rather than the creative writing movement. He has some sympathy with theatre companies, the slowness with which new scripts are read and addressed. If there is not a literary manager on the payroll it is one more task. “Script-reading is therefore fitted in around an already overloaded schedule.”

He knows that the playwright has a calling soaked in potential dismay. Even success can mislead. A first play in production and “the impression of having arrived can be illusory for a playwright.” Of the playwright flushed with hope who gives up the day job, only to find his next play rejected, Gooch observes simply “nothing is sadder.”

Even commissions can end up as tormenting deadlines and a reminder that “the happy combination of money and the freedom to write are short-lived.” But Gooch is good on where it all originates, “the quality of a dynamic pressure behind the words” and “the inner burning to write.” Everything has changed in the last quarter-century. But there are nuggets of truth a-plenty still in this book.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

A & C Black

published:
02 September 2013

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The Rules of Acting- Michael Simkins

The passing of the August Bank Holiday Weekend is a moment of truth for the cluster of newly graduated actors. Twenty-two drama schools, writes Michael Simkins, “are recognised by the government as fit and proper places in which to train” and they make for several hundred new aspirants. That end-of-second-year show in an Edinburgh basement, an intoxicating triumph at the time, now feels a long way back. Its only trace is a paragraph of a review, hard to locate, and in any case written by a fellow student.

The end-of-third-year summer showcase is ten weeks back. They are, in the Simkins view, “horrid, frightening, sphincter-tightening, occasions at which it’s all too easy to feel like a total loser.” “The Rules of Acting” blends an unblinking realism with an unquenchable optimism and an unfailing chirpiness. But then Michael Simkins is an actor.

A veteran of thirty-eight years, since first timorously entering drama school, he has been everywhere. His earlier book, the indispensable “What’s My Motivation?” featured this year on a Radio Four afternoon book programme. The convenor declared, with some superiority, the name of the author to be one that had never quite made it. By this he no doubt meant that the actor had never been a brand-name copper, dissected endless corpses or hailed from the Planet Gallifrey. Simkins has worked, and worked, and worked.

He has also written. He even reveals that a major newspaper offered him their vacancy as a drama critic. Partner was all for it, as the job came with regular work, expenses, even enrolment in a corporate pension scheme. Simkins turns it down for the only reason that counts. A friend tells him he’ll dine on the best of food and wine, and he will lose all his mates. Critics don’t have friends.

He has been everywhere. He knows the grades of disdain that the infinite hierarchies of Hollywood can dish out to the newcomer. He knows of that Edinburgh gig, bound to be a profit-share, “the first rule of doing fringe. There’s never any profit to share.”

In all likelihood the first paid job for the new graduates is going to be a Christmas show. It is the late November to first-week February season that pays the bills for all that civic-owned, Lottery-over-endowed bricks and concrete. In pantomime actors work. “Cash-strapped managements will squeeze as many performances out of you as they can” he writes. That can be twice a day, six days a week, including “the most exquisite form of torture ever devised for a hung-over actor; the notorious “shoppers matinee.” That is a performance at ten o’clock. In the morning.

Simkins has on occasion been in as outlandish a corner as the profession can offer. The opening scene for his book, for a film set in colonial Peru is not repeatable on a U-certified website. He has worked a lot and, even so, done workshops for a sewage firm, compered trade shows at a theme park, even smashed crates in a car plant. Touring, he declares, can be dismal in the wrong place and in the wrong season. But he has been charmed to excess by Llandudno, and has had a season of joy as Petruchio at Ludlow’s castle. Of the days spent playing tennis and cycling, the warm evenings, the big moon and the rapt audiences, he says simply “Life really doesn’t get much better…”

Simkins, like Andy Nyman in “the Golden Rules of Acting”, has useful and insightful things to say about auditions. Counter-intuitive as it may be, he advises “Don’t over-prepare.” He narrates in detail his encounter with a tax inspector, the moral being that an elastic over-inclusion of not-quite-related professional expenses is just not worth it. He is a rare author to evoke the admirable world that is radio rep. He is clear on why directors are not easily going to be your pals- “unlike actors, they are essentially solitary creatures, moving quietly in the shadows…rarely meeting others of their species.”

A lot has changed, he concedes, over his decades as an actor. Working life for millions of other people has nudged more towards the conditions of the acting profession, without their having the actor’s necessary versatility. High Definition, with its image far distant from anything created via the eye, subjects the actor’s face to a cruelty of scrutiny it was never intended for. The number of teaching establishments with the word “drama” in the title now numbers fourteen hundred, missions statements aglow “to prepare the aspiring student for a life in the theatre”. If the goal is to act professionally, says Simkins, “all but a handful are unfit for the purpose.”

But for all the changes- he mentions a calamity of an audiobook reading for all to see on Youtube- the actor’s life is still “standing on the outside of society, looking in and pulling faces”. A newspaper asks him to write a feature on whatever became of his RADA class of 1978. Timothy Spall is in the profession still, but many have scattered, one a professor, another a lawyer, one in gaol, another succumbed to mortal illness. But much the same might be observed of the many lives, which start in one direction and undergo switchback turns of fate. The life of the actor is unique, but in this cheering chronicle of truth and hilarity, sadness and dismay over life’s course, it is not so far away from the world of many of us.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Faber and Faber

published:
28 August 2013

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Acting Through Song- Paul Harvard

The sub-title to “Acting Through Song” is “Techniques and Exercises for Musical-Theatre Actors”. Paul Harvard addresses the practitioner, but he does it in a style and with a directness and an avoidance of jargon that make it accessible to any enthusiast for musicals. As expected, the editors and designers at Nick Hern have ensured a clear-cut, five-part structure with inset boxes for exercises. A short index would not go amiss; Harvard has much to say of interest on different examples of this most protean of genres.

By coincidence the week of my reading of “Acting through Song” has been one where  the sheer breadth, and the mixed fortunes, of the musical have been on public view. A jukebox  musical has crashed leaving a black hole of five million for the angels to pick up. An old trouper,  “the Pajama Game” from 1954, has delighted the critics at Chichester, while Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” just seems to grow in stature year on year.

Paul Harvard does not write from the position of observer. He has been there from the inside. When young he has been witness to the experienced actress in the rehearsal room with a performance so over-blown “it seemed almost grotesque to me.” In the real packed theatre it makes perfect sense.

His very first subject is self-consciousness. No-one could write the first part of page four without having been there. He identifies what he terms the three blind alleys. To focus on the singing he calls “hiding behind a good voice.” The cost is in the definition of the acting. “Becoming the Character” and “Playing Emotion” are Harvard’s other prime temptations.  

Harvard is no Stanislavsky-ite and, interestingly, he reveals that Stanislavsky was in any case ill served by his first translator into English. Many of the terms embedded in theatre’s bloodstream in the English-speaking world “are now considered by scholars to be inadequate.”

No lively theatre author can escape alighting on items of interest to the general reader. Katie Mitchell is here advising her actors to outline what their characters have been up to in the twenty-four hours prior to their arrival on a stage. Musical production teams from America come quite simply from a culture that is different. Harvard advises his actor-singers that their auditions have to be different-  “be bolder in your use of space and style and acting”.

“Youtube” he writes “is a curse for the modern actor.” On the one hand a performance from the past casts too great a shadow on the present. On the other the internet is a simulacrum of a performance. What you see is not how it was. He is quite right. For the actor preparing, for example, “the Drowsy Chaperone” Summer Strallen doing “Show Off” on Youtube may be irresistibly tempting but is of small advantage.

Harvard’s exercises are illuminating for the non-performer. “Walking the Punctuation” sharpens awareness of the precision of vocal timing.  He has a nice metaphor of the audience as a dancing partner.  Some of his insights are applicable across the arts. “Concentration destroys attention” he writes, acknowledging a debt to Declan Donnellan. This is akin to the painter who steps back over and over to gauge the effect from afar that the strokes of the brush have made close up.

Harvard explains that a tilted thyroid cartilage thins the vocal folds in the larynx. The result is a sweeter sound. The example he cites sent me to listen to Mandy Patinkin. I heard “Beautiful” from “Sunday in the Park with George” again, but in a way that was better.

When he moves from rehearsal to performance Harvard uses Tevye from “Fiddler on the Roof” as an example. His complex paragraph, knitting together character and God, performer and viewer, evokes the heights that the musical is capable of reaching. “This book is a love letter” Harvard writes “to an art form I have a complex relationship with”. It reads that way. It knows wisely that love is not adoration, that  objectivity and critique are not love's antithesis but its completion.  

Acting

ISBN:978-1-84842-229-2
££12.99

Nick Hern Books

published:
01 May 2013

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Look, I Made a Hat- Stephen Sondheim

“Look I Made a Hat “ is the sequel to 2010’s “Finishing the Hat”. The two books combined make for something that is unlike any other piece of theatre writing. The subtitle is “Collected Lyrics, with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes”. Sondheim’s writing leans in tone towards the wry and self-deprecating but he includes moments of the most acerbic artistic self-critique ever committed to print. Like the prism of glass that reveals the constituent colours in the light spectrum “Look I Made a Hat” displays the maker of musical theatre as craftsman, chronicler, commentator and critic.

Look, I Made a Hat” covers the years 1981-2011. The period has a lesser number of staged shows but includes the great “Into the Woods” and “Passion.” It rounds out the career with occasional pieces, unrealised productions, and the work for television and film. When the first volume was published it was the criticism of other songwriters that drew the most attention from reviewers. Sondheim’s judgements on Alan Jay Lerner, Lorenz Hart, Anthony Burgess, Truman Capote, even his mentor Oscar Hammerstein, were severe. His compensating enthusiasm for Frank Loesser, Dorothy Fields and Yip Harburg tended to go unnoticed.

Certainly his view is the piercing gaze from the inside. He picks at the lyrical sins of mis-stressed pronunciation, twisted syntax and verbal padding. He happily goes to war against “flamboyant cleverness, ostentatious imagery, decorative elaboration and rhythmically repetitive lists like this one.”  

In the second volume the lyricist-as-critic steps is less prominent. The new generation of composers, and that beyond America, is spared the Sondheimian scalpel. Michael John LaChiusa and Steven Sater, Tim Rice and Elton John may whisper quiet prayers of relief. He turns his attention instead to ten songwriters who had only occasional careers in musical theatre.

Thus the lyrics of DuBose Heyward are “the most genuinely poetic and deeply felt in the history of musical theatre.” Those by Richard Wilbur for “Candide” are “unequalled for their combination of wit and skill.” Carolyn Leigh “is the most brilliant technician of them all with the possible exception of Cole Porter.” In addition she comes with “more irony and less camp.” “Rock Island” Meredith Wilson’s opener for “The Music Man” is “surely one of the most startling and galvanic openings ever devised.” Quite right.    

Sondheim as craftsman is possessed of the technical insight of a lifetime’s practice. In a chorus number from “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” he can see that writer Leo Robin  “employs a rhyme scheme where each line ends in a three-syllable rhyme that consists of two identities followed by a masculine rhyme instead of the universal opposite, a masculine rhyme followed by two identities.”

He is unforgiving on his own work. “God is in the Details” is one of his three artistic precepts. He deplores a line that misuses a single vowel sound.  The word “aeroplane” has to be sung as “aer-oh-plane” rather than “aer-uh-plane.” The opening for the workshop version of “Wise Guys” is “flaccid and familiar.” In “A Little Night Music” “penchant” may be rhymed with “trenchant” for Broadway. But when the show moves to London the lyric needs to be rewritten.

The word “half-assed” appears in “Wise Guys” which is set in the1890’s. It is wrong not because it is historically inaccurate but because it sounds anachronistic. In “Move On” which ends “Sunday in the Park with George” he has to make do with “usually” when he intends “eventually” which, alas, comes with a syllable too many.  “Inevitably” is even worse. He frets over the excessive exposition in “Wise Guys” first outing. The number “Addison’s Trip” is “the show-stopper that isn’t” and “left, I suspect, something of a hole in Nathan Lane’s heart.”

But then he is able to celebrate those times when a lyric works absolutely rightly. A change of a single small word can intensify the emotional tone. In  “Losing My Mind” he makes a single syllable change to “I go to sleep/And think about you”. “To” takes the place of “and” to hugely greater effect.  

The lyrical master writes many a line of equally pointed prose. Awards are a-plenty and “have three things to offer: cash, confidence and bric-a-brac.” The English language is richly latinated but he is wary of those “words ending in “ition, “action” and “estion” – not only easy to rhyme but give off a sheen of erudition, as well as articulation, precision, the perfection of expression- I think I’ve made my point. I usually avoid this huge family of words because the effect invariably glitters with glibness.”

Theatre is collaboration and Sondheim is generous and revealing towards his collaborators. Admiration for writer James Lapine runs deep: “I came up with plots, while he came up with images…James was also the first (and only) writer I’ve worked with who thinks like a director”. He describes Richard Jones’ 1990 premiere in London of  “Into the Woods”. It features a giant eyeball and a twenty-foot long finger: “Unlike revivals which are hybrids of the original source, and the director’s additions, this one was a complete reinvention.” When Declan Donnellan does “Sweeney Todd” for the National Theatre he gives it a new “whispered intensity.”  

But there is a downside. The chapter on “Wise Guys: The Workshop” shows theatre’s collaboration fraying. The actors become reluctant to accept changes. The director takes the part of his cast. The producer is caught in the middle. The book’s reproductions of newspaper articles report the legal actions and injunctions that follow. Musical theatre is made in the making. Sondheim, the unstinting self-critic, knows that “Without constant attention, while it is taking shape, it doesn’t take many performances before it becomes so efficient that what’s bad becomes accepted.”  

There is one group in theatre, or on its borders, with whom Sondheim has never quite made his peace. In a dense two pages he draws the distinction between reviewers and critics, although “one thing that unites theatre critics and reviewers is that most of them have little knowledge of the craft as it is practised.” Artists, no different from any other human group, seek praise. “Every group of compliments about my work that started me preening soon” he finds “was peppered with potshots that unpreened me, and for every piece of thoughtful observation about other people’s work, there was a piece of mean-spirited snottiness.”

Criticism is ripe with error and retrospective critical self-flagellation, as with Sarah Kane, is popular. Sondheim makes mention of a “Lexicon of Musical Invective”. Its author, Nicolas Slominsky, describes the disdain that was first handed out to the likes of Brahms and Ravel.  

Some of the book’s autobiographical aspect is given over to aging. Technical facility may get easier but the capacity for invention does not. He does not cook but he reads cooking articles avidly. The challenges that face the chef are, in his view, those that face the songwriter. It is all about “timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it.”

“Look, I Made a Hat” is a tribute to word and wordcraft. “Comedy Tonight” was written over a weekend. With “Wise Guys” “the tinkering took ten years, three directors, two out-of-town tryouts, a rotation of six actors in the leading roles, the writing of more than a dozen news song, the discarding of more than two dozen, and we never did open on Broadway.”

A physical book is an aesthetic object in itself. Many a publishing firm has raised its game in response to digital rivalry. Virgin Books is an imprint of Ebury Books, itself a subsidiary of the mighty Random House. At a thirty-five pound list price it does not match the quality of books on pictorial art. Maybe the editorial intent has been to give precedence to the word. The photographs are muddy and the captioning inconsistent.

A picture from “Road Show” features six actors of whom just one is named.  The five soldiers playing pool in “Passion” are labelled as “Scene Eight”. Seven British actors in Regents Park are labelled as “Negotiating with the Giant.” The picture of the cast of nineteen is a poor relation of the brilliant colour of the original picture. The double page spread given to the set of “Into the Woods” looks marvellous but no acknowledgement is given to the designer- it is the work of Soutra Gilmore. “God is in the Details” may be Sondheim’s artistic credo, but it is not obviously shared by the designers at Random House.

“Look I Made a Hat” follows its predecessor in not passing over the grind, the dismay, the occasional strokes of sheer serendipity, that accompany a life in art’s making. But then too there is the joy when, somehow, it all works. As the Roman slave Pseudolus sings in the opening song of Sondheim’s first independent success “Something dramatic, something erratic, something for everyone...”  

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Virgin Books

published:
21 December 2012

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My Old Man- John Major

Modesty in accomplishment is an appealing characteristic. Many a Premier has been a writer of reputation in their time. Disraeli did fiction, Balfour philosophy, Churchill history. John Major’s political memoir of 2000 received a warm reception; retrospective self-justification and score-settling were not on its agenda. “My Old Man” has similar virtues, industry, undecorativeness and personal sincerity. It is an uncommon mixture, a study of an artistic genre that is also family exploration and personal tribute.

“My Old Man” is a labour of love, intended literally. The acknowledgement speaks of “early-morning writing, late-night writing, lost weekends and lost holidays.” Its first sentence reads: “In March 1962, I sat with an old man as he lay dying.” Major returns to the same scene for the book’s final paragraph. The text in-between is an attempt to capture the origins, the rise, the spread, and the decline of music hall. “Telling…of story…has been my overall priority.” It may be an introduction to its subject but “My Old Man” is succinct and comprehensive.

Major illustrates just how deep and wide music hall dug itself into the culture. James Callaghan, Prime Minister, is here singing “There I was, waiting at the church” to a meeting of the TUC congress. Thackeray is in an early audience. T S Eliot pens a tribute to Marie Lloyd on her death. Little Tich is inspiration for a string quartet movement by Stravinsky. Harry Lauder’s friendships took in not just Charlie Chaplin but Andrew Carnegie and Henry Ford.

The Duke of Windsor, later Prince of Wales, is another friend, just one of the line of aristocrats who make their appearance. The personal wealth that accrued to the stars, not far off comparable sums of today, had the effect of dissolving social difference.
Vesta Tilley may have started as Matilda Alice Powles. She ended as Lady De Frece, wife to a conservative MP, and living an opulent retirement in Monte Carlo. Socially upward marriage was regular. May Gates married into Norwegian aristocracy. Sylvia Storey married Earl Poulett. Gertie Millar became Countess of Dudley, Denise Orme Duchess of Leinster.

Music Hall became big money indeed. As Barnum was finding across the Atlantic “Every crowd has a silver lining”. In Major’s eloquent phrasing music hall moved “from back-room tavern to sumptuous palace, from working class to middle class, from foundry, pit and dock to drawing room, salon and theatre.”

Impresarios and entrepreneurs like Oswald Stoll and Edward Moss gave their names to eponymous theatre-owning companies. Lucasfilm’s development of merchandising that out-sells the show is nothing new. Dan Leno sold mugs, jugs and comics by the hundreds of thousands. His house in Clapham came with cook, housemaids, conservatories and stables.

Major traces the line of descent to these booming, pre-cinema years. Starting with supper clubs and the free and easies, he picks out an older London archaeology of entertainment. The Cyder Cellars, the Coal Hole, the Yorkshire Stingo, the Mogul Saloon, the Six Cans and Punchbowl graduate to John Nevil Maskelyne taking on the lease for Piccadilly’s grandiose Egyptian Hall.

The theatres of Frank Matcham are now revered. Major details his architectural innovations; the use of steel in place of pillars to improve sightlines, more seats, a feature to his clients’ liking. Matcham developed the push-bar exit lock, a desirable improvement in a period of endemic fire. The Surrey in Blackfriars was destroyed in 1865, the Royal Standard in Pimlico 1866, the South London Palace 1869. The Oxford burned down in 1869, was rebuilt and burnt down again in 1872. At Edinburgh’s Empire an exploding light resulted in the deaths of eleven performers. All were eclipsed by the fire at Exeter's Theatre Royal, where one hundred and eighty six died.

Music Hall spills over into the other arts. Major laments the loss of so many buildings, post-war planners being as much responsible as wartime bombers. The book reproduces Sickert’s sublime “Noctes Ambrosianae” and “Katie Lawrence.” Major traces the survival of songs; some are taken up by the Monkees and the Muppets. He attributes “I’m Henery the Eighth I am” to Manfred Mann in 1965 “one of their biggest hits.” It does not sound like the funky Manfreds- it was the sappy Herman’s Hermits. Music hall is still visible in a few Youtube tributes. A character is called John in order that Rita Hayworth may be a memorable pearly queen and sing “Poor John” for “Cover Girl” in 1944. Harry Champion’s “Any Old Iron” becomes the title for Anthony Burgess’ 1988 novel.

There are occasional phrasings that do not work: “music hall was, first and last, an intimate medium, in which performers and audience were locked in an intimate embrace.” Intimate is the tiny sixty-seat fringe venue. Music Hall was raucous, irreverent, drunken, a magnet for sexual services. Interestingly, the particular gifts of Frenchman Joseph Pujol did not transfer well. It is a little wince-making to read of “ladies of the night.”

Biography and family connection haunt this book. A good writer makes imaginative connection: "The flops, the let-downs, the days without work, the lash of critical opinion," Major writes of his parents. "It was not until years later, with the political critics poised, invective flowing and the national audience restive, that I fully understood all the emotions that had been so familiar to them."

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Jonathan Cape

published:
10 December 2012

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How Musicals Work- Julian Woolford

No-one is better suited than Julian Woolford to write this book. His experience marries the role of practitioner and explicator. His adaptation as a musical of “the Railway Children” has played in forty countries. He teaches at Goldsmiths College on
Britain’s only degree course in the writing of musicals. “How Musicals Work” combines musical and lyrical analysis, dramatic theory, some exercises, a guide to legal and copyright matters and a rich selection of tales, both admiring and cautionary, from the industry.

The musicals are above all the art of collaboration. Musical brilliance is not necessarily a prerequisite. Irving Berlin wrote almost everything in F sharp and had use of a specially adapted piano for transposition to other keys. Lionel Bart could neither read nor write music. He sang to his own guitar. As to whether the music should precede the lyric or vice versa Richard Rodgers in collaboration with Lorenz Hart wrote the music first., With Oscar Hammerstein the lyrics came first. Kander and Ebb wrote music and lyrics together in the same place.

There are principles in musicals but few rules. Most are adaptations but some- “A Chorus Line”, “Company”- are not. “Follies” had its inspiration in a single photograph, that of Gloria Swanson amidst the ruins of a Broadway theatre. Previews on a tight budget are usually a few nights, but can last a month. “Spiderman” entered theatre history with its six months between first preview and press night. After “Mama Mia” the jukebox musical- a compilation of hits- looks an easy sell to  producers. Woolford reveals “a heap of musical crashes…shoehorning the songs of the Beach Boys, Rod Stewart, Blondie and Elvis into generally witless books.”

Woolford is strong on craft. Fifty-eight pages on the topic of structure begins with the sentence “At the heart of every musical is a great book.” “Mack and Mabel”, “the Beautiful Game” and “Anyone Can Whistle” have wonderful songs but lack the book that binds it all together. That is true. “With So Little to Be Sure Of” from the last is sublime.

Woolford goes back to the beginning, Aristotle’s six elements. He has a good sentence on lyric-writing “rhyme with reason”. Rhyme for the sake of rhyme and the composer loses sense and character. Sondheim in “Finishing the Hat” is fierce on “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Why the age of seven or eight, instead of nine or ten? Because “eight” rhymes with “hate” is not good enough. The message is take care with a rhyme plucked from the air    

He has the advice of experience. If you have a draft it is an uncommon actor who will give you an unvarnished opinion. Harrison Ford is not the norm with his comment to George Lucas’ work on “Star Wars” “George, you can type this shit, but you sure as hell can’t say it.”

“How Musicals Work”contains forty pages plus of tables in which the building blocks of the art are laid out with real examples. The mentor figure is a common character. He lists, among others, Colonel Pickering, the Engineer (“Miss Saigon”) and the Mother Abbess (“the Sound of Music”). Thirteen lyrics from “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina” to “Over the Rainbow” are analysed by interval, semitone number and whether a particular phrase rises or falls. He makes mention of a mis-scanned lyric where the stress in singing falls on “York” in “New York”. (Welsh spoofers replaced it with  “Newport”. The parody did not survive the music company’s annoyance and Youtube removed it.)

But then, like Robert McKee on film structure, these are tools that he offers, not a substitute for flair and originality. “Company” has the loosest of structures and “Cats” virtually does without.  

Lastly, Woolford delivers plenty of practical advice. The Performance Rights Society has no jurisdiction over music that is used dramatically. Perfect Pitch is a not-for-profit group whose mission is the furthering of musicals. Unsolicited scripts are welcome. Mercury Musical Developments is a writers’ organisation. He advises just when it may be a good time to offer a royalty waiver. The amateur market is large and lucrative but the companies seek evidence of a hit.

The language is non-technical. “Diegetic” is as complicated as it gets. But he explains how “Somewhere”, as in “…over the Rainbow” is set on an octave leap, endowing it with a feeling of yearning.

“How Musicals Work” does not have the astringent depth of critique that Sondheim puts into the two volumes of his work. The aspirant musical writer should have sight of the insert boxes in “Finishing the Hat” and it successor. Otherwise, Julian Woolford will tell the new composer-lyricist-book-writer all they need to know. After that it is determination. As an old hand tells him “ You never finish a musical. You just stop working on it.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
10 November 2012

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Getting Directions- Russ Hope

Three virtues run through this book. They are the attentiveness of the close-up view, the enthusiasm and the sense of authorial modesty. Russ Hope opens in 2005. He is crouching in a university lighting gantry. Peter Brook is visiting and rehearsing, near incomprehensibly, far below with a single actor. It is a nice start for this study, subtitled “A Fly-on-the-Wall Guide for Emerging Theatre Directors.”  

Hope steps down from his gantry to witness eight pieces of theatre in the making. The companies range from the well-established- the Globe and Young Vic- to the small and feisty in the form of Bristol’s Action Hero.

Hope captures the principles that underlie directors’ work. Matthew Dunster sends a note to his “Troilus and Cressida” cast: “My rules on approaching anything are simple: CLARITY-STORY-DRAMATIC EFFECTIVENESS. I want it to be clear and exciting.”  By six pm on the rehearsal’s first day the company knows how the production looks and feels. Nikolai Foster has learnt it is best to absorb the script thoroughly before rehearsal: “I want to be intuitive and open to what’s going on….observing and working in the moment.” Joe Hill-Gibbins works with his designer before rehearsal “building up and tearing down sets from whatever objects are nearby”.

Fight director Kevin McCurdy starts by teaching baby steps for the use of swords on stage. “Go slower, slower; slower is better” is his mantra. There is all the difference in the world between a character storming out of a door that is three feet away and one that is twenty feet away. Early blocking is ill-advised. Directing, says Joe Hill-Gibbons, is “really about getting actors to move and explore ways of expressing thoughts and feelings.” Poetry, says Matthew Dunster, takes care of itself when the meaning is clear to the speaker. It is all in the text , not in historical context or biographical detail.  

The directors are constantly attentive to the world they serve. Steve Marmion listens hard to his audience. A pun on Rodgers and Hammerstein- “Salmon-chanting evening- dies on stage. Dominic Dromgoole says it is the nature of the Globe that it needs “big lungs, big action, big thoughts.” Hope’s epilogue includes a paragraph headed “Intelligent isn’t enough” Matthew Dunster: “there is only one kind of director to aspire to be, which is an audience’s director.”

“Getting Directions” runs down slightly towards its end. OperaUpClose became resident company at Islington’s King’s Head in 2010. The venue has achieved a remarkable re-invention as an alternative opera venue- it was host to Dic Edwards’ “Manifest Destiny”. The short chapter on “Don Giovanni” lacks the confidence of earlier chapters. It is a debatable view that “opera is widely considered ossified”. Should the author take the Euston to Newtown train any September he would see the opposite. His slight discomfort can be seen in a sentence like “Opera is hard going on the voice (infamously so.”) In place of the attentive eye and ear he tells us he us he is wearing jeans and t-shirt and holding a glass of beer.

This is the first book by Russ Hope and he would have benefited from a stronger editor. An index would be useful. It is admittedly addressed to the emergent director but the odd piece of jargon like “god mic” would be better offloaded to attract the general reader. OperaUpClose is declared to be “unfunded”. No, it is funded by someone. The invoices have to be paid.    

Stylistically, the writing has a habit of “putting” redundant inverted commas around  normal language; thus “unhinge” the whole aesthetic, a production has a “big idea”, the audience sees Pip “lose” Estella, opera is contrasted with “straight theatre”. One sentence piles up an indigestible seventy-three words.“For he” grates. “Enormity” is used wrongly on several occasions. Although it is acquiring undertones of size its meaning is wickedness. Simon Stephens’ contribution to a pantomime is called an examination with “forensic detail.” No, a playwright does not apply forensics to his craft.

These are irregularities in a book with a distinctive content. It is not the last word on directing but complements the different approaches in the recent books of John Caird and Katie Mitchell. Hope has seen the director, not profiled here, who knows he is the smartest person in the room. He has seen a production with no centre from a director who is fearful of his players. These are not the artists he observes in “Getting Directions”.

They work in a profession where there are not enough jobs. There is never enough money. “Unless you need to go into theatre, don’t” says Steve Marmion “because you will wonder why you didn’t choose to lose your mind for something else.” Hope closes with a beautiful metaphor of the nickel of theatre beneath the gold. “But either you fall in love with the nickel underneath, or you do something else. That is the difference between infatuation and love.” His last words “Now go make something.”

Directing

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
06 November 2012

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And God created Burton- Tom Rubython

“Of all the men that have ever walked the planet, it is probably true to say that Richard Burton between the years of 1948 and 1962, was the most attractive.” Author Tom Rubython’s monster of a biography has a flavour of hyperbole that is all its own. In these critical days a book's physical appearance is likely to be weighed up against the sameness of the e-book. “And God Created Burton” is a heavyweight. Seven centimetres thick it comes in at eight hundred pages. The publisher has not stinted on illustrations; one hundred and ninety-eight pictures follow the life from birth certificate to coffin.

Attitudes of biographers to their subjects vary. That curious writer Roger Lewis took on Anthony Burgess in 2002, despite having neither admiration nor affection for his subject. Tom Rubython adores Richard Burton. Or at least he adores one aspect. His book gives small hint of the Burton that Gwynne Edwards staged in 2010, the man whose most exalted moments were spent quietly at home in Celigny with his extensive library.

Previous biographers have done aspects of the life, such as acting. “And God Created Burton” does sex, and in detail. With one wife we learn that sex was over too quickly although the upside of the marriage is that she “added a great deal of value to him”. There is an unattributed tale of an act of infidelity on a wedding day- the book lacks any notes or sources. The author's laconic comment is “It was just how it was.”

Burton, along with Stanley Baker in early days, was no doubt a hell-raiser. In Rubython’s view “He could…use the ruthlessness of any a red-blooded male with absolutely no discrimination and zero emotion.” But this is speculation. No evidence is given as to whether he did or did not possess zero emotion.

“And God Created Burton” is a hymn to rampaging heterosexuality. “The 20-year flung herself into the arms of her 33-year-old lover. As she pressed her lips against his, Burton had no choice but to respond in kind.” No choice is to be had with all this sexy pulchritude on offer. One wife is “a very striking woman, who always made a brilliant first impression, particularly for those men who appreciated willowy, small-breasted blondes.” First wife Sybil meanwhile has a secret. “She was a very down-to-earth housewife in the best Welsh tradition.”

If the author stands to one side unmoralistically in the face of this sexual rampage he is not quite at home with gayness. The pre-eminent theatre producer of Burton’s first acting days is quickly sketched “a bisexual, his style was high camp…his personality was ideally suited to get on well with theatrical types”. Moss Hart, who married and had children, becomes “complicated.” Charles Dyer’s play “Staircase” (1966), a tale of two gays in middle-age, was of some significance in its time. Rubython selects a quotation from Rex Harrison damning the film. But he omits Burton's own view “This was one film I cared about...I loved its caustic wit.”

Rubython does not do sexual ambivalence and his characterisations do not do complicated. In Wales father is “a relatively worthless individual”, later “a 68-year old sozzled excuse for a man”. An early teacher is “a mediocre instructor who simply did his job and went home to his wife.” In Oxford Neville Coghill is “a very talented man”. In the jungle of the film world the poor director of “Sea Wife” is a “non-entity.” One producer is “a real duffer when it came to scheduling and logistics.” Walter Wagner, a number one Hollywood player, here is “absolutely hopeless and clueless.” Bond producer Harry Saltzman is Rubython’s kind of guy- “a rough and ready, shoot-first-aim-later Canadian.”

Rubython came to Burton via his 2010 biography of James Hunt with whom Burton shared third wife Suzy. The racing world is the author’s thing. “And God Created Burton” does not read as if he is much at home with theatre. “Look Back in Anger” is set in the Midlands but Jimmy Porter here is “heavily cockney-accented.” Theatre, a prelude to the film life, is for “culture-imbibers”. Christopher Fry gets a half-sentence. A young Joan Collins seeing “the Lady’s Not for Burning” gets paragraphs on end.

The dramatic virtues of Peter Shaffer's “Equus” can be debated. Here, it gets a single adjective “gruelling” and the narrative races on. Lee Strasberg gets a mention by virtue of being Susan’s father. But “where acting was concerned, the Strasbergs knew what they were about.” Angelo in “Measure for Measure” is “complicated [again] but the part was made for Burton who shared some of his characteristics- notably his sex drive!”

The research is prodigious and the details of childhood are treated at a length that no previous biographer has attempted. But there is small evidence that Rubython has seen a play or film. The judgements on the acting are cut-and-paste jobs from critics and former biographers. Just where the reader expects the authorial presence, there is a void.

Rubython was once publisher of a business magazine and his book follows the money. When Burton’s career runs into a lull he realises he will “run out of money in 10 years at his current rate of burn.” Previous biographers have passed on the list price of a convertible Morris Minor in 1956 or the cost of a hotel room in Toronto. It is here in grinding detail.

A fee expressed in dollars gets not just the exchange rate at the time but the tax rate, so the reader knows exactly the net figure. The detail extends to a government grant (£200) to help with the first house in Lyndhurst Road. “When told he had earned $1m in 2 years” we learn “his ears pricked up and he smiled widely.” No evidence is given. But then this is acting. “The scorecard” after all “in his profession, at the end of the day, was always money”.

There is a magnificent flatulence to the writing. On meals in childhood “Mother fed them an English [sic] diet consisting of sausages, faggots, pies, boiled ham and real cuts of meat; all invariably eaten with boiled potatoes and bread along with leeks and vegetables.” An assistant cannot simply hurry to Switzerland but “checked in at Los Angeles airport ready to take the late evening flight direct to London and then on to Geneva. The time difference meant that Douglas landed early in the morning and caught the first British airways flight to Geneva.” No plane, and there are many, comes without its status and brand name being recorded.

This sprawl of an editorial touch sends the narrative all over the place. A mere mention that a film is to made in Cinemascope leads to the statistics of cinema closures in the USA. The appearance of director Robert Rossen leads to an aside on HUAC and the Hollywood 10 “imprisoned for being un-American.” Not really; the crime was Contempt. An older Port Talbot features but nevertheless it is to be “irretrievably scarred by the M40 [sic] motorway.” Elizabeth Taylor is to be seen in a hotel room “watching an old film called How Green Was My Valley- a Welsh film made in 1941.”

Some of the asides are arresting, but the reader wonders as to their accuracy. Alcohol coats a spine in crystals that need to be scraped off. As for Wales’ quality of public administration “Birth certificates in South Wales were notoriously inaccurate in that period due to most of the registry staff being notorious alcoholics.” The rules of the Revenue in 1983 reportedly had it that a body repatriated to Britain affected an estate’s inheritance tax status.

Rubython makes a sly aside, apropos of nothing, about the 1945 Attlee government. At war's end it does not instantly abolish rationing “for reasons best known to itself”. Well, no, the reasons were clear. Forty years later, Britain enthusiastically re-welcomes the overthrow of socialism and envy politics.

As for the proof-reading, mentor Philip Burton, “a creative genius”, is “the svengali who literally manufactured Burton.” Less Svengali than Baron Frankenstein. Paul Scofield becomes Schofield, and back again in succeeding sentences. Family member Rhianon Trowell loses an “l” and T S Eliot gains one. Selznick is “Selzncik.” A “had” disappears from a pluperfect. A string of commas vanishes to be replaced by semi-colons. “If he was” is replaced for “if he were”, to comic effect. “To embark” becomes transitive. “Ensconced” is used twice in successive sentences. Elder brother Ifor is Ivor throughout. This behemoth of English prose contains two short sentences in Welsh. One makes it through correctly.

Rubython quotes previous biographers frequently, Melvin Bragg forty-seven times. A paragraph from Bragg is not a good idea. It shows a writer at work. Rubython goes for the five word paragraph and the galloping cliché. In January 1944 London’s West End was “known as the most exciting place on earth”. That was not how my mother described it to me. On arrival in Oxford “Burton looked around him and wondered at his great opportunity.” To play Prince Hal “was a dream come true.” With global fame “the rollercoaster had started and there would be no getting off.” An anonymous arrival in a city is in vain- “the word was out and press was on the case.”

And yet. There is something rather heroic about a venture so gigantic, done with such ferocity of effort in so short a time period, but where the author is so little at home, where copyright holders are so unhelpful. In an unorthodox authorial preface Professor Alan Miller of Cardiff University “is a wonderfully open man” but the archive at Swansea University is cursed for a lack of co-operation.

“And God Created Burton” is a great, exhausting, dubiously reliable wallow in a life. Michael Munn’s book (reviewed here December 2009) is a cool dry martini by comparison. But I expect Mr Rubython takes Burton’s advice. “Forget critics. If they’re good about you, they’re not good enough. If they’re bad about you, they’ll only upset you. So don’t read them on either count.”

Acting

ISBN:
£

Myrtle Books

published:
24 October 2012

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The Golden Rules of Acting - Andy Nyman

Andy Nyman is twenty-five years out of Guildhall. He has driven vans and lorries, entertained at children’s parties, worked in retail and done magic. And he has acted. His lean honed guide has the authenticity of being written from the frontline. For any actor numbed by the technical rehearsal there is no need to feel guilty. They “are always” says Nyman “slow, soul-destroying and miserable.” Hard partying, alcohol and other substances will erode the capacity to learn lines after age fifty. If you are working, savour every moment of the job. You will never know how far away is the next one.

His gaze at the profession is enraptured but hard-headed. Sixty-nine percent polled for an Equity survey in 2010 earned less than three thousand pounds. The drop-out rate is scary but sticking power pays off. The role of Tracy Turnblad in Aberystwyth this summer attracted four hundred applicants. The roles for fifty-year olds play to a far smaller field. Nyman cites Morgan Freeman as a late flourisher.    

He gives some succinct tips on acting as a business. “Despite what many actors say, your agent doesn’t work for you; you are a team”. He gives the subject of auditions fourteen paragraphs and they hit it right on. He is un-snobbish about advertising work. It is nice that it pays by word count ten thousand times that of a Shakespeare speech. But they also “teach you to work fast and be technical without being precious.”

There are many guides to the art of acting and he is sparing with his comments. If a line is losing a laugh, the trick is not to try harder. It is to do less and go back to the truth behind the moment. The page entitled “Your job in rehearsals” comprises one sentence. It is a very good one.

“The Golden Rules of Acting” is wryly humourous. Good reviews can be as damaging as the bad. He wishes he could resist reading them but he can’t. He repeats an old joke that is dismissive of reviews in “the Stage”. The incontinent sprawl of internet comment he calls “the Coward’s Playground.”  

Parts of his book would be practical for any walk of life. Make a record of the people you meet. Mix outside acting. His list of Survival Tips is headed by “be nice to work with.” From personal experience a consultancy I once worked with used actors for primary research. One actor exhibited not just enthusiasm for the work but genuine curiosity as to what the business was all about. The next time I saw him was on the big screen. It was Sigourney Weaver’s film but he had the number two character part. Maybe the two were related. Nyman himself is scornful of the view that anyone ever had it easy.    

Books on the life of acting are not so many. Michael Simpkins “What’s My Motivation?” is read by many with affection for its description of a life of reward, grit and occasional happenstance. “The Golden Rules of Acting” is smaller, shorter, pithier. It has pictures and big print- page seventeen has only twenty-four words but they are indeed “acting in a nutshell”. It is priced at the level of a London latte and muffin. If you know an actor low in spirits, or indeed any actor at all, do them a favour and slip them a copy.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
10 September 2012

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The Rehearsal- Edited Anna Fenemore

Rehearsal has an intrinsic fascination. John Caird devotes forty-eight pages to it in his “Theatre Craft”. Simon Gray in “An Unnatural Pursuit” captures the author’s view in all its excruciation. Once a year a theatre company allows me to sit in on a performance in the making. I watch for the fifteen or twenty minutes that are sufficient reminder that every production is a small miracle of painstaking, collaborative creation.

“The Rehearsal” is title of a theatre trilogy by Pigeon Theatre. The works play with the concept of rehearsal, the actors in character as actors. The trilogy’s subject is one of gravity, the preparations, speculations and practices around death. The texts, which were performed in Manchester in 2007, account for half the book. The remainder is given over to four critical essays. The theatre pieces read as superior by some degree to their commentary.

The pieces for theatre depended on audience engagement. As a result the bare scripts give only an indicator of the theatre experience. That indicator, however, suggests an experience that is thematically important and formally innovative. There is a shade too much knowingness. A character cites Bertrand Russell, another talks of “a proper theatre, not this site-specific nonsense.” But a speech about the death of a fellow school pupil has the ring of authenticity to it.

Of the essays that by Carol Komaromy is succinct and properly written. In tackling the sociology of death she centres on Erving Goffman, draws on some scholarly work, and applies it to one particular instance.

The other essays in “the Rehearsal” are less convincing. The essay that forms the book’s second chapter fails for two reasons that are transparent. Firstly the language has a habit of putting aside normal rules of grammar. This hinders expressiveness and makes the reading quite difficult.

“Majority” and “each” are followed by a plural verb. Parentheses are wrongly used.
The essay’s title contains a (word) in brackets. Inverted commas, instead of being used to denote quotation, are deployed loosely, by the dozen, to “wrap around” metaphors that are commonplace. This gives the writing a feeling of evasiveness and lack of commitment.

Metaphors are selected with small discrimination. An animal that has an adaptive behaviour of mimicking death is claimed to be indulging in “theatre”- the inverted commas are the author’s. As a metaphor it lacks conviction. The writing is plump with redundancy as “I want to emphasise, to underline as it were”, “as I discuss further below”.

The second shortcoming is the reliance on assertion over evidence. Thus it is asserted that human beings imagined the act of dying two million years ago. This may or may not be the case. However, it was the period of Homo Habilis not, as stated, Homo Eerctus. The process of death by epidemic is reported as being prolonged. As Don Taylor’s play “Roses of Eyam” shows death by plague occurs within days. It is the deaths of the post-infection age- cancer, cardiac disease and dementias- that are protracted.

The concept of awareness in psychological terms is one of some complexity. It is asserted “Awareness of death is common among certain insects and fish.” That some within a species are possessed of a higher cognitive function is potentially fascinating. That it comes without reference or elaboration is both authorial and editorial slackness. Poetry says it better: Auden’s “Happy the hare at morning, for she cannot read/ The hunter's waking thoughts." A sentence “It makes good sense to understand death if you want to live longer” has a clumping feel to it. The quality of the writing is a pity because the author has manifestly read deeply in a subject that is important.

The last essay is titled “Death Becomes Us” and has a similar cavalier approach to language’s expressiveness. Common words acquire hyphens and brackets as “Pub (lic)” and “inter-act-ion”. The ghosts of greater writers haunt sentences like “The real (reel?) of anxiety is allayed by the field of language” and “A lack that structures me because I must encounter this lack to in order to ask the question, to ask the question of an other…”

The approach to cognitive issues is amateurish and lackadaisical. “I don’t know if animals have the capacity to spin a yarn, except in the literal sense, I suspect they don’t.” If a writer wishes to comment on mental life in species other than humanity read the literature on the subject. The writer’s attitude to enquiry is revealed in a line like “the origins of the Universe are an almost obsessive trope [sic] in the physical sciences.” Actually, it is known as curiosity to seek to understand the world outside introspective musings. The head of CERN this year attracted an enthralled sell-out audience at the Hay Festival.

He muses that mind might be a function between individuals rather than an atomistic possession of a single human being. He gives no evidence of being read in the psychological literature. The notion of the social nature of cognition goes back at least to the social interactionists; their founder, G H Mead, died in 1931.

The author engages in some speculative art criticism. In just two paragraphs on a visit to Naples he turns “Via” into “via”, follows the verb “was conceived” with “of”, uses commas repeatedly in place of a full stop, uses “base” as an adjective in a nonsensical manner. The word “extimate” does not appear in the dictionary. “”With downcast eyes the illusion…” is a grammatical howler of the misplaced qualifier.

The school of criticism to which this essay belongs suffers from a basic fallacy. It believes art to be principally an embodiment of Idea rather than an actualisation of hard-earned craft and endeavour. This elevation of Idea permits the critic to move, undirected, to other ideas, in place of giving to the work the closeness of attention that it warrants.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Intellect Books

published:
06 September 2012

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Composed Theatre- Edited David Roesner & Matthias Rebstock

Mid-Wales Chamber Orchestra performed “The Soldier’s Tale” in Brecon and Aberystwyth this March. By timely coincidence that memorable production coincides with Intellect Books’ weighty survey of the genre to which Stravinsky’s masterly 1918 work belongs.

Matthias Rebstock of Hildesheim University succinctly places in it in context as a historical milestone in repudiation of the concept of the Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. Instead of all the elements of opera focusing on the figure of the singer, Stravinsky’s narrator, actors and musicians occupy separate but equal parts of the stage. The Wagnerian through-composed form is replaced with single numbers that are free-standing. “The Soldier’s Tale” prefigures the Weill and Brecht collaborations of the decade to come.

“Composed Theatre: Aesthetics, Practices, Processes” is a dense exploration of a strand of theatre not greatly known in Britain. Although sparked by Exeter University’s Drama Department it leans heavily towards Germany. Ten out of the fourteen contributors are German. The objects of its study, Schoenberg and John Cage apart, are not overly familiar names to a British audience. The 367 page book is handsomely produced by Scots company Bell and Bain. The pictures range from illustrative music scores, to canvases by Kandinsky and Malevich, to numerous stage sets and actions as examples that complement the text.

The book comprises five parts: context and criticism of the genre as an entity, seven contributions from artists themselves, individual critical pieces, transcription of two twelve-party discussions and a concluding summary.

The first chapter provides a stimulating description of the genre’s roots from the generation of Schlemmer, Moholy-Nagy and Hugo Ball to Boulez and Artaud. Some of the defining works are given precise description. John Cage is to be seen up a ladder reading from Meister Eckhardt while a Robert Rauschenberg hangs from the ceiling. In 1956 Stockhausen is placing groups of loudspeakers around the audience which permit sound’s migration across the space. Georges Aperghis in “Zeugen” uses hand puppets by Klee to texts by Robert Walser.

This range of contributors is inevitably going to include material that is ripe for debate. Semiotics is akin to theology. It brings a rich and deep perspective but is better a starting point for aesthetic judgement than a culmination in itself. “The composition of a picture starts with the establishing of a point of focus away from the centre, leading to the counterbalancing focus on the other side.” This is asserted without evidence, and assertion cannot be the true stuff of scholarship. “Within a picture” says one contributor “there are elements of reference that do not reach to the outside.” This is not so; all elements are available to the observing eye.

Art is here elevated as a spur to action. Its contemplation “gives us a glimpse of the world as it is should be, perhaps emboldening us to resume the task of ordering things and to take control of our lives.” Out of the myriad cultures that span the globe this could only originate from protestant Europe. Aesthetic pleasure is aesthetic pleasure. Art does not need to be a guilty extension of the self-help industry. But then arts commentary, like all statement, is rooted in culture. The current differences on the Euro between Berlin and London are a restatement of Hegel and Schelling versus Hume and Locke.

Arts commentary has a tendency to get in a muddle over metaphor. The metaphor of “the fourth wall” in theatre is regularly reified and then finds itself extrapolated as a ground for shallow musings. Erwin Strauss is cited “In seeing we detect the skeleton of things, in hearing them the pulse.” The commentator writes that Strauss has “formulated this precisely.” Not so; he has employed an imaginative, evocative and communicative figure of speech.

The muddle of the metaphors pops up again in a rambling sentence that seeks, without success, to argue that the difference between conventional theatre and Composed Theatre is in rhythmic variation. But rhythm in an Ibsen play is a figure of speech that seeks to explain the director’s intervention. But these debates do not matter; the function of criticism is to be less judgement than to open up scope for discussion..

“Trust the tale, not the teller” was a maxim of D H Lawrence. The statements from artists on their own work cover a broad span of insight. Odin Teatret’s Eugenio Barba is quoted on improvisations “I did not worry about meaning. I wanted to arrange a dance of sensory stimuli which had an effect on my nervous system”. That is as close to performance’s aesthetic heart as any.

The Academy has always historically tended towards critical orthodoxy. There is here the familiar over-concern with classification. If a critic’s description of the individual work is close-up and rich, that in itself will generate correspondences that are meaningful. Sentences in the writing have a tendency to grow and grow. When a noun-clause separates from its verb by a long distance, it is not just the reader who is lost but I suspect the writer too. George Orwell found some fine examples for his essay “Politics and the English Language”. He wrote it in 1946 and it is just as relevant today. One sixty-five word behemoth of a sentence loses all point.

There is a curious swing between assertion, in the absence of evidence, and a timidity of personal view. An expression like “I would suggest” should be struck out by the editor in the way that my A level teacher struck out mine. This school of commentary likes to appropriate its audience and tell us how the listener or viewer experiences the work. Thus, one “rhyzomatic work…is only be perceived…in relationship to the process that gave it so.” Not so; a work is not contained within the intention of the maker. It will be perceived as it will be perceived.

This book is distinctively German with that great culture’s reverence for Idea. Thus the concepts of a composer alone will “lead to an experience of self that is diametrically opposed to the dissipating, desensitising tendency of public passages.” I do not know which public passages these are but it over-values the effect of pure idea. When a composer opts to write about himself Kant is invoked to justify “the means by which a discipline examines the grounds of its own possibility.” This is bogus anthropomorphisation. Criticism is undertaken by humans, singly or in collaboration. To write about yourself is to write about yourself. The solipsistic posture is epistemologically bound to be inferior to a view from outside.

For all the critical variation and the odd linguistic lapse- the word “symptom” is wrongly used by an author when he intends to mean “characteristics”- this is a significant, stimulating introduction to a strand of theatre that is bound to move more centre-field.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Intellect Books

published:
06 June 2012

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Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Plays- Edited Martin Middeke, Peter Paul Schnierer and Al

“The Methuen Drama Guide to Contemporary British Playwrights” discusses the work of twenty-five dramatists. The age range covers a generation from Kevin Elyot, born 1951, to David Eldridge, born 1973. The format for each writer is an introduction, a discussion of the plays, one hundred and thirty-three in total, and a summary essay. The writing is, for the most part, clear and comprehensive. The indexes of references to background books and articles are unequalled. For those venues, like Sheffield’s Crucible, which specialise in revivals it is an invaluable resource for re-evaluation.      

The work is the thing but a few of the twenty-five contributors slip in snippets of illuminating biography. Philip Ridley has a childhood experience similar to many writers. Illness, in his case asthma, dictates long periods of isolation. Roy Williams leaves school at sixteen and manages to make it to the Cockpit Youth Theatre after work in McDonalds, Safeway and various warehouses. Gregory Burke is dishwasher, hospital porter, factory employee before sending “Gagarin Way” to the Traverse.

By contrast, Anthony Neilson’s father is a director and actor and directs his own son’s “The Censor” in 2002. Mark Ravenhill goes straight from Bristol University to administration at Soho Theatre. Like plain “Tony” who would be revealed as “Anthony Charles Lynton” on election night, Jez Butterworth starts as Jeremy Penfold Butterworth of St Albans. His contemporaries at Cambridge include a future Times editor.

Words from the authors themselves are few but acute. “More than acceptance, everybody in my plays wants understanding…”says Joe Penhall “…one of the key components to characterisation is paradox.” David Eldridge’s early life is divided between a prep school and weekends on a shoe stall in Romford market. “This weird double life...largely informs the person I am and the plays I write.” Mark Ravenhill: “I’ve always written against moral relativism…to stage something that makes an audience say “That is wrong”- that is definitely something I’ve delighted in doing.”

The plays span the years 1981 to 2010. Theatre’s array of themes and subjects impress; AIDS in Africa (debbie tucker green) prison (Simon Stephens), gated “communities” (April de Angelis).  It is not just public policy that comes under scrutiny (Iraq, Care in the Community) but dramatists catch deeper intellectual currents. The characters in Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Statement of Regret” clash over DuGruy’s notion of Post-Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. Shelagh Stephenson’s “the Memory of Water” uses the Benveniste-Sheldrake notion of morphic resonance for its central metaphor. Beneath its visual and verbal bravura Terry Johnson’s subject in “Hysteria” is Jeffrey Masson’s assault on the core of the Freudian belief system.  

A reviewer of a performance has it easy compared with the critic trying to construct an essay after the event. There is colour, sound, movement to write about. One challenge is theatre’s sheer lability. “Days of Significance” changes hugely over its two versions. “Playhouse Creatures”, says Rebecca D’Monte, comes in at least three different versions.

Critics have a drive to classify. As culture is not susceptible to nature’s speciation this often runs into difficulty. Thus, “Terry Johnson is a difficult man to classify”, Jim Cartwright “ “difficult to place”, Penhall “a difficult dramatist to classify.” At the extreme, comparisons with Beckett are invoked too over-freely and on occasion stretched to the fanciful.

The writing regularly hits its subject spot on.  Dan Rebellato sees in “Pitchfork Disney” “a ferociously funny and unsettling vision of a 1990’s culture shot through with uncertainty, absence and loss.” Christina Wald rightly sees that “Elyot’s dramatic oeuvre is “not chiefly the depiction of gay life, but a melancholic obsession with the past.”  Aleks Sierz calls Jez Butterworth “the master of the tall tale and the narrative monologue. His obsession is male experience and the narrative monologue.”

David Pattie ends his essay on Gregory Burke with a summary of three national narratives that apply to Scotland. They apply equally, and as pertinently, to Wales. Peter Paul Schnierer’s summary of Jonathan Harvey feels right; he closes with a tribute “to have kept faith with that commitment for two decades, with no sign of a let-up, is no mean achievement.”

Theatre’s audience, and output, is dwarfed by television and film. Yet it has a habit of jumping outside its boundaries, and quite rightly. When the Daily Mail shouts “treason” at the RSC, the company must be doing something good. Eckart Voigts-Virchow reports how a platform discussion of “England People Very Nice” was invaded by critics accusing the writer of racism.
  
Debate legitimises theatre and the work here provides material rich for debate. Janelle Reinelt passes over some of the interesting aspects of David Greig’s “Damascus”. But then not many in the audience have been, like the play’s lead character Paul, a sales rep in Syria. But theatre’s capacity to raise argument is a testament to its richness.  

Ken Urban in six paragraphs distills the critical discussion that Sarah Kane has left in her wake. Michelene Wandor’s early view gets short shrift-“dismissive and inaccurate.” Dominic Dromgoole’s mix of essay and memoir in 2000 still reads very well. But then it is a personal preference that a practising director may be closer to theatre than a disciple of Lacan. But it is the debate that matters.    

Some of the contributors do inhabit something of a Platonic world. The work is what has been performed. There are no lost commissions, no literary managers, no chop and change of artistic policies, no rancour, no caprice. If a writer drifts to television work it must be for artistic reasons. The fact that the money is seven times greater does not apply. Sometimes in the arts the poor creator simply drops out of fashion. The supply of work is a thousand times greater than the companies to stage it or the galleries to exhibit it.  

In this critical world, the fact that a play may require doubling is grounded in aesthetics. “Far from being a way of restricting the actors”, seeing the same face again makes the audience grow in Brechtian distancing. Maybe so: but it doesn’t half cut a company’s wage bill, shorten the audition process, tighten up rehearsals. Money pervades the making of theatre but not its commentary.  

Actors and directors get but a rare mention. A magisterial production by Peter Stein is the exception. If an actor appears naked it is to enhance the play’s theme of voyeurism. The audience too becomes complicit. It is a rare play that makes it to the West End. I was there in Shaftesbury Avenue. The actor was blonde, fresh from a Bond film, and the audience was definitely not made up of Royal Court or Bush regulars.  

Over five hundred and twenty pages the odd inelegant word or phrasing is bound to slip in. Richard Bean apparently suffers the disadvantage of coming from “less than glamorous” Hull. This sounds like the writer saying “I ain’t been there and I sure ain’t going.” Spurn Head is possessed of a quite distinctive lonely beauty. Beverley and Bishop Burton are Gloucestershire without the Ferraris. Coming from Hull does not make Bean “an odd man out among successful British playwrights.” As a performed playwright John Gcdber comes second only to Ayckbourn. But then, like Frank Vickery, no-one is ever going to write about John Godber.  

Metaphors from marketing have become endemic. When confronted by a BBC investigation into dodgy dealings in higher education, a Welsh Vice-Chancellor’s first response in interview is “Wales needs strong brands.” It is disheartening to read that an uncompromising writer “has moved ahead developing her own brand.” One contributor prefers the verb “privilege” over “choose.” “Substantiate a writer’s standing” grates. “With growing temporal distance” sounds like a translation.

A Methuen Guide is for the general reader. The enthusiast for theatre might well be spared “perspectival lacuna”, “stichomythic verbal duels”, “teleological narratives” or “synecdoches of the mediatised city”. That is Martin Crimp. The essay on Crimp has phrases that convey no meaning to this reader- “carefully crafted receptional blanks”, frescoes of the skull”,  “ “satirical categorisation…seems self-reflexively broken”. The author likes his “self-reflexive” as it also turns up in the next sentence. One grim sentence manages to pile up fourteen Latinate words of three or more syllables.  

Some readers may think neologisms like [dis]ease and [auto]biographical come with a fine Derridean swagger to them. Others may consider them anti-literate. Commentary is servant to the art. The Arts deserve better in their commentators.    

Scotland is represented by four playwrights, Wales and Ireland none. Ed Thomas was knocking on the door to be playwright number twenty-six. Wales-based critics are represented. Stephen Lacey of the University of Glamorgan writes succinctly and insightfully on Terry Johnson.  David Ian Rabey and Steve Blandford are both cited in the essay on Jez Butterworth.  Rabey also writes that “the Wonderful World of Dissocia” “lays out a confrontational, insistent and socially contradictory physicality.”  

I savoured this book over two weeks, a couple of dramatists a day. It does not have the sweep of Aleks Sierz's two books on new writing. It does not have the pith and particularity of Dominic Dromgoole’s “the Full Room”. But it is full of good writing and good writing breathes enthusiasm.  It made me wish I had seen a Sarah Daniels play. It reminded me why theatre grips. Philip Ridley has a nice metaphor “I like putting people on a ghost train, but I guide them safely through the other end.” Cardiff’s Waking Exploits should get their copy soon. They will find riches a-plenty to assist the selection for their 2013 tour.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Methuen

published:
10 April 2012

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Words into Action- William Gaskill

William Gaskill brought “Saved” to the stage and went on to be a co-founder of Joint Stock. He has a place of honour in theatre’s history, which he described in print in “A Sense of Direction” (1988). “Words into Action”, one hundred and sixty pages in length, is composed of twenty essays. Coming from a director of his pedigree, it is bound to be filled with incidents of interest. He has a view and an artistic credo but as a book it does not cohere into a whole that is greater than the parts. It has comment a-plenty but does not fuse into a sustained argument.

Enlightening illustrations are taken from his own work. He describes why N F Simpson’s “A Resounding Tinkle” (1957) works even if the author’s notions of stagecraft are scanty. An early Joint Stock production, “Speakers”(1974), has Heathcote Williams staging Hyde Park’s Speakers Corner. He presents “Macbeth” paradoxically in brilliant white light. In 1984 he directs a magisterial “Way of the World.” Nearly a whole page is devoted to the stresses for a particular speech to be spoken by Maggie Smith as Millament.

He describes in fascinating detail the walk that is used in Noh theatre. It leads on to the role of silence. It is the element of theatricality where the recorded media are most ill at ease. Its use vaulted last year’s production of “Roots” to its five star critical rating. Jill Greenhalgh’s most recent performance piece was even entitled “the Threat of Silence.”

Inevitably, the book refers to the author's glory days. The first arrival of the Berliner Ensemble in Britain with “Mother Courage” is here. Tony Richardson is busily making cuts to Osborne's work. David Storey's work owes much to Lindsay Anderson. The plays of Arnold Wesker “could not have been realised without the brilliant stagecraft of John Dexter.”

Gaskill is the foremost director of Edward Bond and a kind of Bond-ian aesthetic is detectable. He makes a waspish reference to Stephen Daldry's rejuvenation of Priestley's old talking-piece. That is fair enough. But there is a veiled reference to Trevor Nunn. Nothing wrong in making comment on another artist but better to come out and say it straight.

What makes it less obviously recommendable to a general theatre readership is that it more or less stops short of the theatre of this century. The most recent plays are Sarah Kane's “4:48 Psychosis” (1999) and Caryl Churchill's “A Number” (2002). The youngest performer to be mentioned is Kathryn Hunter, born nineteen-fifties. The index carries many an illustrious name but they tend to the vintage of Elsie Fogerty, Miles Malleson, Tyrone Guthrie, Shelagh Delaney and Ann Jellicoe

So a chapter “Words and Music” makes reference to Verdi, Britten, Strauss & Hoffmansthal , Brecht & Weill, Rodgers and Hart. That is about it. It is fine not to like the musical genre much, and modern lyric-making has a penchant for declamatory doggerel. But opera is not just culture for fat cats. Music Theatre Wales last year picked up their Outstanding Achievement award for staging Stephen Berkoff. Michael John LaChiusa took “the Wild Party”, a 1928 narrative poem, and turned it into a blistering piece of performance. There is a lot more going on than the author gives credit to.

A couple of directors have published valuable books recently. If an actor wants to know about stress and metre John Caird delivers a weighty twenty pages in “Theatre Craft.” There is lot of reference to Shakespeare but it is not quite a book on Shakespeare. While true that the number of new plays has exploded in the last twenty years it is a tad lordly to state “now it is unusual for a play by a young writer of talent not to find a home.” The obverse must be that if you are not performed then you must be lacking the talent. In truth, if you live outside a metropolitan area, by force of circumstance or needing to earn an income, your chances of performance will sink.

He criticises the artificial distinction that divides theatre from physical theatre. Language is the fuel of ideas and ideas are the motor for all art. Companies like Handspring, Horse and Bamboo or the late Trestle may eschew language but their work has no lack of form or feeling.

“Words into Action” is an interesting book, but not an indispensable one, from a notable director. It has just one mention of the dodging and ducking that subsidised work entails and that is by Christopher Hampton in his foreword. In “A Sense of Direction” Gaskill recalled a question as to the policy of the Royal Court. “Policy” runs the reply “is the people you work with.” The joy to be had in collaboration is a seam that runs through “Words into Action.” The best work comes from collective endeavour. To be with a writer is to embark on a journey of exploration. He links the overweening artist to society’s atomisation. “We live in an individualistic, competitive word, but does it have to dominate our work?”

Directing

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
14 January 2012

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Finishing the Hat - Stephen Sondheim

Finishing the Hat” was published for Christmas 2010. Daniel Evans’ revival of “Company” in Sheffield and RWCMD’s “Merrily We Roll Along” prompts a re-reading. A second reading leaves one over-riding impression. It is the intensity of concentration, on words and the way that they work, singly, in conjunction, when applied to music. The book’s first reviewers tended to pick up on Sondheim’s critiques of his fellow lyricists. “Finishing the Hat” is part manifesto, part master class, part chronicle of an artistic education. But it is also one of the most rigorous self-critiques ever put to print.

An early song from “Saturday Night” (1954) spurns the word “airplane” in favour of the archaic “aeroplane.” But then it is stressed to be sung as aer-oh-plane” rather than “aer-uh-plane.” “Mix”, written for, but cut, from “West Side Story”, contains too many uses of the letters “s” and “n”. The result makes “the Jets sound more like a radiator than a gang on the warpath.” In “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” the writer commits “the error of bring witty instead of comic.” “America” contains some lines that are “respectably sharp and crisp but some melt in the mouth as gracelessly as peanut butter and are impossible to comprehend.”

Formally, “Finishing the Hat” covers the first thirteen works, preceded by an essay that analyses poetry versus the lyric that is intended for singing. He explains exactly why great writers like Anthony Burgess, Truman Capote or Langston Hughes fall short. “Their lyrics convey the aura of a royal visit; they announce the presence of the writer.” Auden and Kallman’s words for Stravinsky’s “Rake’s Progress” may read gracefully but “sing unintelligibly.” On the other hand Oscar Hammerstein’s use of language is compared to that of Eugene O’Neill. A melody, of Jerome Kern is “symphonic in its granite-like simplicity.”

A preface declares three precepts for his art. One- “Less is More”- is cited too by Edmund de Waal in his surprise best-seller “The Hare with Amber Eyes”. The wrangling with words never ends. “Finding appropriate rhymes that haven’t been used before is one of the few pleasures of lyric writing, an occupation that consists mainly of tedious list-making and frustration.”

In “America” a line with the wrong consonants turn “small fee” into “smafee” when sung. Period language is difficult, particularly for one who confesses to being a “lazy reader.” Nonetheless a single phrase “Attend the tale”, from “Sweeney Todd”, is subjected to three hundred words of analysis. In the US “penchant” can be rhymed with “trenchant.” But when “A Little Night Music” moves to London the lyric needs a re-write. But then too he is able to celebrate moments of absolute rightness. A change of a single small word can intensify the emotional tone. In “Losing My Mind” “I go to sleep/To think about you”, the “to” works to hugely greater effect than “and”.

The best of critical writing leaves two things in its wake. It awakens the urge to experience the work again. But, also, the senses feel sharpened, the eye and the ear seeing and hearing in a bigger way. Sondheim demonstrates how accents, dialects, a character with a cold even, allow for the changing of rhymes. Frank Loesser can rhyme “picture” with “hitcha”, for “hit you.” Lorenz Hart in the right dramatic locale can rhyme “spoil” and “goil.” A Maine location for “Carousel” allows Oscar Hammerstein to rhyme “stickler” and “pertickler”. But differences can erupt between composer and lyricist. To Leonard Bernstein, from Massachusetts, “dawn”, “lawn”, “gone” and “on” all rhyme in a manner alien to the New Yorker.

“Finishing the Hat” is not a show business autobiography, but as a chronicle of the making of musicals, it does not escape some rich anecdote. An aside of Hermione Gingold in audition is unforgettable. Music that does not make it into “West Side Story” is re-used by Bernstein for his “Chichester Psalms.” A diva, unhappy with a fellow actor, ends up with “Look, you don’t react to my lines. I don’t react to yours.”

A song ends with an expletive unprecedented in theatre. One argument for changing it is that the recording will not be shippable across state lines, not good for any album’s sales. “Gee Officer Krupke” is amended to the unique last line of “Krup you!” A show is failing on its try-out run and Jerome Robbins is called in. A musical needs an opener. The result “Comedy Tonight”, written over a weekend, is one of the most joyous opening numbers ever.

Theatre’s array of collaborators all make their appearance in “Finishing the Hat”. Producers are variously nervy and imperious. Choreographers emerge as monsters of insensitivity. The vain measure their billboard credits, just to check they are of the size that the contract stipulates. Critics are wrong-headed, under-informed, cloth-eared. Those are the sins of omission. “Musicals continue to be the only art form, popular or otherwise, that is criticised by illiterates.” Not so, I think, this side of the Atlantic. Nonetheless, the gracelessness of one Peter G Davis is remarkable. Sondheim is kind on the least lionised of musicals’ creators. The songwriter excels when in service of a good book. The dramatist is the most forgotten of creators.

Show business books are pitched on revelation. There are emotions a-plenty on display here, pride and dismay, irritation and hurt, but nothing histrionic. When not at the piano he writes on a couch, falling asleep when encountering difficulties “which is often.” He does not cook but reads cooking articles avidly. The challenges, surprisingly, for the cook are the same as for the songwriter: “timing, balance, form, surface versus substance, and all the rest of it.” For no particular reason “Anyone Can Whistle” has been interpreted as a piece of autobiography ever since its first singing at a benefit concert in 1973. That is just a muddle, “ascribing the character of the art to the character of the artist.”

As might be expected from a writer of the chiselled lyric the prose is precise and evocative. “The presence of music can not only supply what’s unwritten but resonate beyond it.” In praise of “Summertime” he makes the distinction between simple and simplistic. A work of art may be simple and dense but “there is a thin dividing line between economy of means and penury of ideas.” “Pacific Overtures” ends with a song “Next!” described as “an onomatopoeic blast if there ever was one.”

Sondheim as critic is the writer from the inside. Lyrics that mis-stress the usual habits of pronunciation, tormented syntax, rhyme that distorts meaning, adjectival padding, they are all detailed. He views with disfavour “flamboyant cleverness, ostentatious imagery, decorative elaboration and rhythmically repetitive lists like this one.” The term “through-composed” is used by critic and composer alike to dignify work that may have no compositional plan whatsoever.

He is eloquent in his enthusiasms. Robert Browning is marked as a personal hero. The lyrics of Frank Loesser and Dorothy Fields stand out for their “unforced conversational energy.” A line from Yip Harburg is quoted. “Even the rabbits/ Inhabit their habits/ On Sunday in Cicero Falls.”

Publishers are fighting back against the Kindle’s sheer sameness. “Finishing the Hat” is a handsome physical production, eleven inches high, eight inches wide. Illustrations are frequent. It is a pity that in the double page spreads the performers go uncredited. However lustrous a production team, not a ticket sells without the players. An illustration for “Sweeney Todd” misattributes the 1980 London production as the 1993 National Theatre revival. But “Finishing the Hat” brims with fascination, on the grind, the dismay, the occasional strokes of sheer serendipity, that accompany a life in art’s making. “Something dramatic, something erratic, something for everyone...” Very true.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Virgin Books

published:
07 December 2011

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Theatre Craft- John Caird

Many a director has written many a book. They come in three types. There is the evening-of-career valediction. Manifesto-style, it states what is good in theatre and what is killing it. These books come in at a crisp one hundred and fifty pages. The typeface is large. Footnotes are absent. It is written from the heart.

A second genre is the book that has arisen from a sabbatical break in the busy life of a director. It is written from the head. The prose makes tribute to the continental tradition- “specularisation”, for instance, “involves the commodification of experience.” Index and footnotes make reference to Baudrillard and Levinas.

The third genre, and the one to excite publishers, is the how-to manual. The late Don Taylor’s “Directing Plays” went through many editions. Katie Mitchell’s “The Director’s Craft” (2009) comes with a recommendation from Nicholas Hytner. Its two hundred and forty pages follow the chronology of a production, the whole lot from first private reading to how to read the reviews. It is an excellent work- Elen Bowman is among the many to whom the author gives thanks- that uses “the Seagull” as a practical example.

John Caird is a Fellow of the Royal Welsh College and a director for Welsh National Opera. The Caird Studio has seen many a well-known acting name give a first student performance. His “Theatre Craft” is eight hundred pages long, two and three-quarters inches thick, and comes with an on-cover endorsement from Dame Judi. “Written with such humour and common sense I may have to carry it around with me all the time.”

Its form is alphabetical, from “abstraction” to “work-through.” It is low on theoretical anxiety, high on sharp observation from the inside. The reader meets an array of theatre personalities. There is the director who becomes “the clingy parent, who cannot bear to see the actors happy and independent.” Reviving a play can mean taking on “an ignorant band of lawyers and self-aggrandising executors from a writer’s estate.” No part of theatre is left out. After a sketch of the good stage doorman Caird describes the bad, the one who “sits in a surly nicotine silence gawping at a tiny television, occasionally grunting...rudely refusing access to anyone who isn’t on one of his lists.”

The book is addressed throughout to the young director. The advice runs from audition and casting to the show up and running. His perspective towards the audience is intriguing. “One of your most important functions as a director is that you represent the audience's interest in a play...thus, when your first audience walks into the theatre, they replace you.” If they react “in a way that you cannot approve or understand, you mustn't blame them.” The reader may wonder how many directors are quite so philosophical as to be able to say to themselves “you have simply imagined them incorrectly.”

The most important entries have the scale of a full-blown essay. The six entries on different aspects of rehearsal span fifty pages. Fifteen pages are given to actors, an entry that ends on a note of warning, with a touch of melancholy to it. “Though you may have many actor friends, some of them intimate friends, you will always remain on the outskirts of their fraternity.”

“Theatre Craft” may be addressed to the young professional but there is much of interest to theatre’s audience and enthusiasts. It is rich in the physical texture of theatre. On acoustics it is the nature of wood as a material that it “has the capacity to absorb and reflect sound at the same time as reverberating with it and is deeply sympathetic to the harmonic complexity of the human voice.” Contact lenses apparently dry out under the heat of stage lighting. Other cast members may be reduced to not much more than a blur to a myopic actor. In mega-musicals a quasi-police force monitors the movements of the singers. Step outside your numbered grid position and your name goes on a blacklist.

There is new vocabulary for the outsider to encounter- the iron, scrim, spike, park and bark, gobos, nubbing and stridulent. The pitfalls of performance are limitless. Facial hair tickles the mouth and nose, falls off or gets stuck to another person’s face. The strain suffered by performers who seek emotion that eludes them is described in near clinical terms. “The strain usually starts in the voice but soon transmits to other parts of the actor’s frame, resulting in a performance that rasps the vocal cords, bulges the neck and twists the body into dehumanising contortions.”

Theatre is collaboration. Caird writes with warmth of his fellow craftsmen. Dramatists are people “whose companionship in the dressing room has provided me with some of my happiest insights.” Fight directors are “usually the gentlest people in the world but their business is violence. They dote on it.” On actors “an actor’s mind comprises his humanity. If the theatre is to reflect an audience’s true nature back to itself, only a whole actor can create a whole human image.”

But it is not a world that is all roses. “All theatres have their malcontents and mischief-makers. Do not give them credence by encouraging them or conspiring with them.” Bullies are broken down into four categories. The role of the director is equivocal. The thirty-seven descriptive terms applied to the director include “irritant” “irrelevance” and “bastard”. Like any walk of life “the theatre world is full of unhappy directors or directors who are only happy from time to time.” It is not so uncommon. Four-fifths percent of partners in City law firms hate their lives. That unhappy chasm between the original motivation, the actual work and the cash is not just a feature of a life in the arts.

The prose of “Theatre Craft” is practical and un-showy. But in the distinct authorial voice that pervades, it is not unlike the art of the director itself. “Rehearsals are largely about finding order and meaning in an imagined world” even if you have cast members “who prefer the theorising over a scene rather than getting on and doing it.”
Theatres in the USA deliver playbills that are “badly designed, sparsely worded and deadly dull.” He exudes sympathy for the actor who gets to play Fortinbras. The audience has “no stake whatever in his kingship” or “patience left for any further dramatic gestures from anyone.” Quite true. Particularly apposite for a performance culture more at ease with aesthetic exploration than modernity, Caird makes the observation “the more you work in the theatre the more careful you have to be to stay in touch with life as it really is.”

The entry on surtitles is largely restricted to opera. In a bilingual performance culture there is a lot more to be said. A second edition could usefully expand and take in issues of perception and cognitive speed. But the range of topics is impressive. His must be the first text to anatomise exactly who sits in the balcony and why they deserve the director’s attention. Critics are subject to a similar generous analysis. He pins down exactly the three-way nexus of commentator, viewer and reader. “Believe in your own choices” and anyway “b***er the critics… the play’s the thing.”

Caird’s description of the dress rehearsal is a classic, just too good to be quoted selectively. Like all media, publishing thrives on surfeit. There are too many books on everything. That includes theatre, but “Theatre Craft” is a good one.

Directing

ISBN:
£

Faber and Faber

published:
26 November 2011

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Theatre's Strangest Acts- Sheridan Morley

The algorithms in the book-malls of the cyberworld throw up their suggestions and recommendations. They rarely surprise for the very fact of their algorithmic foundation. Life is a different matter as it is complex, combining predictability and randomness. The best of travel too is serendipitous. So is it with eight days in the valley of the Tyne. I have made a visit to Live Theatre on Newcastle's river shore which was of immense interest. But my mornings are my own, my travelling companions at this stage not wanting to know much of the day prior to mid-day.

Thus do the market stalls next to Hexham's Abbey yield up serendipitous books and DVDs. In normal circumstances Sheridan Morley, the biographer of Noel Coward, with a book title of this kind, would have not attracted attention. But then holidays are a time for altering usual patterns. In fact the book's title is a misnomer. It has its name to fit the publisher's previous twenty-six titles, the genres as various as boxing and gambling, science and politics. In actuality Sheridan Morley has picked out seventy moments of theatre history and written them up in a couple of pages of easy prose apiece.

The locations are overwhelmingly London with an occasional foray to Europe and the USA. The names are many and come from a recognisable canon. Beerbohm Tree, Bates, Burton, Dench, du Maurier, Eyre, Hare, Helpmann, Horrocks, Mac Liammóir, Mendes, Orton, O'Toole, various Redgraves, Sher, Wanamaker: they are all remembered. If the compendium is not theatre criticism it is significantly higher than gossip.

Morley starts with an evocation of where it all began or at least where the human record exists. In Athens twenty thousand, the entire male population, pack a stadium built for fourteen thousand. Sophocles is an acclaimed and award-winning author. But he is less successful as an actor with audience complaint that his voice is thin and reedy.

Vaulting the centuries Christopher Marlowe's offences against the mores of the zeitgeist are multiple. That he survives until the age of twenty-nine may have been helped in part by the fact that his lovers included the brother of Walsingham, Elizabeth's spy-master. Another monarch in a later era meets a family member at the theatre. At Drury Lane George III lets fly at his son and knocks the Prince of Wales to the ground. This is all visibly done in public.

Honours for those in the arts is now a commonplace but it was not always thus. The first actor to be knighted was Henry Irving in 1895. “The whole of London society was scandalised” writes Morley. He adds telling details to the tale of Wilde's downfall. The playwright brazenly wears a green carnation, a well-recognised indicator. The Marquess of Queensberry had already lost his elder son, Lord Drumlanrig, in an ostensible shooting accident. Rumour swirled that a scandal involving the Prime Minister had been about to erupt.

The occasional tale leaves the stage door far behind. Morley captures Ivor Novello in all his colossal fame and celebrity. Novello has an interest in meeting the equally successful writer Edgar Wallace. It fails to happen. On a train out of New York Novello has his pet dog with him. He joins him in the guard's luggage wagon and sits on a box covered with a black blanket. When the guard finds him he is somewhat discomforted, the container being in fact a coffin. Novello asks and the guard replies “It's going to London, sir. And on the same liner as you. He was a theatrical gentleman too. His name was Edgar Wallace.”

Morley discovers different childhoods of theatre greats. J M Barrie had an elder brother who died aged thirteen leaving his mother broken. “James Barrie tried to act, talk, and even dress like his deceased brother, to convince her that her elder son was still alive.” Cecil Day-Lewis, the Poet Laureate, was ill for seven years before his death in 1972. Daniel, in Morley's description, was “an introverted and sad boy...become a withdrawn and private man.” The actor “has written...of his own frequent melancholy and sense of decay.”

By contrast Morley describes a boy on a visit to the Vaudeville Theatre in 1954. It is the day of his eighth birthday, the treat a gift of an aunt. The show is “Salad Days” and “the little boy was entranced.” His dress for the West End is kilt with all the trimmings, lace shirt and sporran. He has a name that is as Scottish as is the outfit. The boy who meets the musical is called Cameron Mackintosh.

Undeniably a pot-pourri these not so strange tales nonetheless make an illuminating theatre book.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Robson Books

published:
20 August 2011

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The Reluctant Escapologist- Mike Bradwell

The Bush Theatre in Shepherds Bush, London is currently putting online its badge of pride. With the support of the Jerwood Foundation the productions of two hundred and fifty plus playwrights are being publicly archived. One Artistic Director from the theatre has already put his experiences into print. Dominic Dromgoole in “the Full Room” in 2000 chose the form of crisp, incisive portraits of one hundred and twelve dramatists.

Mike Bradwell has opted for autobiography, or rather a partial one. “This book tells the tale of the two theatre companies I have run” he writes. “Hull Truck from 1971 to 1982 and the Bush Theatre from 1996 to 2007.” The private life, if any, is hardly touched on but as a theatre narrative “The Reluctant Escapologist” is as riotous, exuberant and rambunctious as they come.

In his very first paragraph Bradwell records hearing “Interstellar Overdrive” and “See Emily Play”. This is Pink Floyd live, in their real incarnation as headed by Sid Barrett. It is a truism of the nineteen-sixties that many of the rainbow memories they left behind were in fact made in the climate of the grey nineteen-seventies. The spirit of the book, and it would seem the life as well, is soaked in the sixties.

Bradwell is there in 1966 in Sheffield City Hall to hear Dylan's mould-breaking electric tour. He is among the eighty thousand at the Grosvenor Square anti-Vietnam rally where an elderly woman spits at him and tells him to get his “f***ing hair cut.” He says that he smashes the window of a police van with his fist.

While crossing Charing Cross Road he bumps into a couple who turn out to be John and Yoko. Ken Kesey takes over the Albert Hall for a Happening. Bradwell maps out the beginning of “bagism” from “Le Petit Prince”. His is an intoxicating account of an era- “It certainly beat doing panto in Scunthorpe.”

Charles Marowitz presents Hamlet as a tearful clown swinging on a rope. “I despise Hamlet” he says “..a slob, a talker, an analyser.” The book’s editor has in truth given the author a lot of leeway. Asides on Woodstock, the Chicago Eight and a history of the Living Theatre are not strictly relevant to the narrative. The effect of these formative years lives on. Twenty-five years later, Gary Owen’s “The Drowned World” gets a mention only because its last day coincides with the great Hyde Park rally against Iraq.

Before the tumultuous sixties there is the childhood. Guided by his farmer father he sees Tony Hancock, George Formby, Jimmy Clitheroe live on stage. A shy, terrified nineteen-year old, he arrives at East 15 Acting School where an early “inhibition-busting” exercise is termed “The Wanking Donkey.” As an acting exercise what the students hear is what they have to do.

The book is ripe with tales. Mike Leigh is to be found in the unlikely environment of Bermuda, directing a “Galileo” with a cast largely comprised of gin and yachting expatriate amateurs. The Minister for the Arts visits the Bush Theatre the night that a sozzled Bulgarian climbs in via the fire escape and threatens all and sundry with a broken bottle.

Joan Littlewood wants nothing to do with the “calcified turds”, who inhabit the repertory and West End theatres. Later, in receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Award, she is refused entry to her own party at the Waldorf. The doorman mistakes her for a cleaner. In Birmingham, David Edgar is to be seen in frock coat and top hat on top of a table singing “I am the man, the very fat man who watered the workers' beer.” (It sounds as though the venue, the Gun Barrels pub, has been moved several miles East.) A young Michael Billington is encountered in the reported role of Publicity Manager at Lincoln Theatre Royal.

An artistic credo unfolds amidst the rolicking. Grotowski is depicted as an autocrat, in whose rehearsals none may speak. Artaud and the Living Theatre's Becks are treated with respect, but Bradwell diverges in inclination. “I wanted to make theatre with words and three-dimensional characters and argument and metaphor and story-telling and jokes and life and laughter.”

He confesses he is no great fan of workshop culture per se. Too much time gets wasted on plays that theatres have small intention of producing. Workshops are there to help the author to make the work better. The description of the way in which an impassioned literary manager can help a theatre's success has probably never been bettered. He gives a close description of the making of Richard Cameron's “the Glee Club.” Not that the record is perfect. During a short, none too comfortable spell at the Royal Court he admits to being the directorial hand behind one of the silliest scripts- my words, not his- ever put on by that great theatre.

Beside the art is the practicality. “The Reluctant Escapologist” seethes with rage, rancour and the spirit of confrontation. The Bush itself occupies a small corner of a large pub premises. It is liable to flood. The cause on one occasion is identified as a drain blocked by a pair of underpants that belong to a member of the bar staff. The building itself becomes part of the great property shuffle that marked British capitalism's finest hour. Long, slowly nurtured plans collapse overnight as the building is sold on from owner to owner. In a comic irony, a likeable, genuine Irish-flavoured pub goes through makeover after makeover to become a completely reinvented, synthetic…Irish-themed pub.

In the background the Arts Council lowers, in a relationship of largely bilious confrontation. A consultant is to be foisted on the theatre for which the Council has no intention of paying itself. An instruction is issued to identify the ethnicity of those behind the fifteen hundred scripts that arrive in the mail each year. “How exactly?” asks Bradwell. “By surname?” is the suggestion. “And what would that say about the name of a writer like Roy Williams” enquires Bradwell. The instruction to send every playwright a form is refused.

The relationship is not helped by the Council's official count of the audience being wrong by a cool hundred thousand. According to Bradwell, but this is hard to believe, seventy thousand pounds are taken away from theatres so that the funder can effect a name change that removes the word “of” and replaces it with a comma.

There isn 't a theatre book quite like “the Reluctant Escapologist.” Its language is inelegant. “Cool as f***”, “We didn’t sell shit” “and “get off their tits on acid” have all passed by the editor. Mike Leigh writes a foreword that describes Bradwell as “tough as an old scrotum.” Do they toughen with age? As an autobiography Bradwell omits personal attachment so that it reads like a life consumed by theatre

And messages for theatre-makers in the Wales of 2011? Beware the burgeoning overhead. At her artistic peak Joan Littlewood has an administrative team of three. At the time of his writing her theatre's full and part-time staff number eighty-six. That is before a penny has been spent on a theatre creator.

As for what a new writing endeavour should be John Godber appears on the Terry Wogan show. “What sort of plays does Hull Truck perform?” he is asked.

“I just wanted to do plays me Mam and Dad would like.” replies Godber. “I never went back.” writes Bradwell.

Directing

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
04 August 2011

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GOOD LUCK EVERYBODY: LONE TWIN – JOURNEYS, PERFORM- Edited by David Williams and Carl Lavery

This is the first book-length collection to focus on the performance and theatre work of Lone Twin - Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters - a duo recognised
internationally as one of the UK's most inventive performance collaborations of the past decade. They have made over thirty projects located at the cusp of live art, theatre, and performance writing, travelling the world with theatre shows, collaborative public projects, durational events, and a six-year cycle of performances about bodies, water, journeys, and chance encounters.

The book contextualises, documents and analyses Lone Twin's work. It explores their interest in live performance, journeys, places, language,
narrative and image, and includes original interviews, essays, performance texts and photographs. It has been designed to engage creatively and critically with the duo’s evolving concerns and diverse modes of practice by adopting a range of theoretical and interdisciplinary perspectives. The collection locates Lone Twin within a contemporary landscape of experimental performance making, and seeks to pay homage, in deliberately playful manner, to the participatory and optimistic energies that characterise the duo’s creative work.

critical comment

ISBN:
£33.50

Centre for Performance Research

published:
01 June 2011

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Arthur Miller- Christopher Bigsby

At the opening of Christopher Bigsby’s second volume of biography of Arthur Miller the playwright is forty-six. Twenty years of drama are behind him. Two motifs run through the book. The first is the playwright as public monument. Carlos Fuentes even remarks that in profile Miller resembles one of the monumental carvings on Mount Rushmore. The place for the remark is the Arc de Triomphe, the month May 1991, the event the inauguration of President Mitterand. Miller is with William Styron and Elie Wiesel. Pablo Neruda and Hortensia Allende are not far off.

Over four decades this is a chronicle of the writer who is everywhere. He is invited to the White House to witness the signing into law of a piece of arts legislation. At the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention he is there, speaking against Vietnam. He is in Chicago’s Hilton Hotel after it has been smashed and invaded, the guests attacked by the city’s police gone wild. Terry Southern, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg are all present, even Jean Genet.

Not the least of the pleasures of this elegantly written biography is the journey through four decades of cultural and political history. His wife, Inge Morath, takes him to visit the concentration camp at Mauthausen. He attends the trial of twenty-two former Auschwitz guards and administrators in Frankfurt. In a Moscow hotel room he and a guest communicate via written pieces of paper. A meeting in Prague 1969 with president-to-be Havel is carried out under surveillance. In Turkey he and Harold Pinter meet a score of persecuted artists and outrage diplomatic niceties. There are testimonies before Congress, alongside Susan Sontag and John Irving.

This trajectory of the writer to fame is reminiscent of the lives of other writers. In the second part of Anthony Burgess’ autobiography he has foregone the times of struggle, financial, emotional, artistic. Travel, conferences, collective letters of protest make for an easier narrative than the solitary interior life of sitting at a desk. “In retrospect” Bigsby writes, “what is surprising is the sheer time and energy Miller devoted to the public world.” The private papers are filled with drafts and polemics on current issues; the engagement is constant.

The second motif is the critical ire, centred in Miller’s native USA. Theatre, and new work, is ever-present even if intermittent. The plays of the second half of his life are subject to withering blasts of criticism. In 2003 the Mayor of Jerusalem makes a public speech declaring that Miller reached his artistic peak fifty years before. At the first night of “After the Fall” James Baldwin walks out. Noel Coward calls him “adolescent and sodden with self-pity.” Susan Sontag attacks the conflation of marital stress with public persecution. “Intellectual weak-mindedness… belaboured” she complains, “trite…wretched.”

Time Magazine calls “The Price” “a museum piece…slack, jangled and flat.” The playwright himself, in a later article, is declared “obsolete.” Martin Gottfried agrees. “The playwright has had his day.” On “Clara” and “I Can’t Remember Anything”, the pair of one-acters that constitute 1987’s “Danger: Memory”, Frank Rich writes they are “gray”, the writing “studied and ponderous.”

If one aspect of Miller’s theatre experience dominates, it is the split between his European and American reception. “Broken Glass” (1994) is critically savaged when it plays in New York- “the world’s most over-rated playwright”. In Britain it becomes “one of the great creations of the American theatre.” With its theme of paralysis “the idea of being paralysed in the face of overwhelming forces we do not understand is the mark of our time.”

Andre Breton wrote about the value in art in capturing “reflections of the future.” If the mark of the great writer is to grasp the subterranean currents that most of us miss, then “the Last Yankee” (1991) has much that is haunting. Businessman Frick is discomforted by artisan Leroy. Leroy is a carpenter. Twenty years on a best-selling book in the US urges the acquisition of craft skills that cannot be deleted at a stroke like white-collar activities.

At the premiere of “the Last Yankee”, characteristically in London, a fifth character lies inert. She is a third depression victim in the play. Presciently, the World Health Organisation is now predicting depression to become the world’s most prevalent illness by the end of the decade. This character, Bigsby reports, was struck out when the play was performed in America.

The book is filled with sharp vignettes. Mario Vargas Llosa writes sagely about the use of language on his entry into the politics of Peru. President Nixon is there calling students “bums.” Bigsby himself takes Miller to see Mamet’s “Glen Garry Glen Ross.” The master playwright’s response? “He’s got a lot to learn” he said “throwing the programme in the trashcan.”

Accompanying photographs show Miller alongside Mandelstam and Brodsky,
Elia Kazan and Tennessee Williams. The last comparison is illuminating. Miller’s dramas are filled with policemen and judges. The plays resonate with the claim for justice. Private acts necessarily spill over into the area of public discourse. In a speech at Yale in 1998 Miller says “ultimately everything is political. Everything ends up being part of the way we govern ourselves”

Bigsby sees across the work one animating idea, “the necessity to create the values by which one lives and to take responsibility for them.” In an age where confession is held in high regard, it is a corrective authorial voice that says, as in “Incident at Vichy”, “It’s not your guilt I want, it’s your responsibility.” As Sheikhs and Presidents aim machine guns and artillery on their citizens, Manama, Misrata and Dera’a today, Minsk or Riyadh tomorrow, it is bracing to hear a character from “the Price” speak “And it finally makes you stupid; power can do that. You get to think because you can frighten people they love you. Even that you love them.”

Orhan Pamuk was host to Miller on his visit to Turkey in March 1985. In his collection “Other Colours” Pamuk writes of America and the West that “writers like Harold Pinter and Arthur Miler are its pride.” The playwright who conceives of performance as a fierce moral cockpit; we could do with more of his kind.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
11 May 2011

Looking for theatre books? Try the Internet Theatre Bookshop first


Rewriting the Nation- Aleks Sierz

Recently the ever indefatigable David Edgar reported that he had made enquiry of the Arts Council of England as to the number of new plays produced. A first axiom of quality management is “make the important measurable, not the measurable important”. No count or record is made, replied ACE.

The best writers on the arts and humanities are good on description; the less good rely on assertion. Providing a quantitative context is less common. Among his strengths as a critic Alex Sierz is good on the numbers In this follow-up to his “In-Yer-Face Theatre” (Methuen 2001) he gives the number of productions of new plays in the century’s first decade as three thousand. New plays in the noughties were double those produced in the nineties. Three hundred playwrights had a debut production during the decade.

So, from the start the ambition of this book sets out to do the impossible. No one person can ever know quite what made up new theatre as a whole. A run-through of the index shows that three hundred and fifty-three plays are cited. Even so every reader is likely to have her own cavil as to what gets in or out. In Scotland Zinnie Harris gets three mentions while the intriguing D C Jackson- eleven productions to date- gets none. In Wales Catherine Tregenna’s “Art and Guff” is in. Jonathan Lichtenstein’s “Memory”, which made it to New York, is out.

Nonetheless the two books together, five hundred pages of text, fifty pages of bibliography, as much again of notes and references are about the best we have, or probably ever likely to have. From the opening he confesses it is a metrocentric perspective, that the view from elsewhere, “whether Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, to name but five- is different. ” London is famously a villagey city. Here the admirable Tricycle Theatre, which was host to “Deep Cut”, is described as not in the “centre of town.” I made the trip on a January night and it could not be more than a couple of miles or so distant from Hyde Park. Geography is all in the mind.

But then Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland come in for a commendation that is as uncommon as it is surprising. “But while the three nations seemed to be moving, England often felt as if it was immobile, stuck in a rut of old ideas.”

As a critic the author has several virtues. At the level of pure description the writing has a sharp conciseness. “Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco” is “a striking picture, all acid-glow colours and purple-shadow effects, of dead end life.” Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Statement of Regret” is described, quite rightly, as “packed full of ideas, and buzzes with appealing characters and provocative theories”.

The personality is evident. He enthuses over Martin Crimp. Sarah Kane is “the most outstanding playwright of the previous decade.” The word “thrilling” shows a critic whose stance goes beyond that of cool appraisal. One recipient is Gregory Burke. David Edgar’s “Testing the Echo” and Roy Williams “Days of Significance” are described in the same way. It is a word I like.

Sierz seems to have been everywhere and spoken to everyone. What is a theatre looking for amidst the weekly flood of new scripts? RSC literary manager Jeanie O’Hare is here on the attributes of a good theatre writer: “instinctive rawness, linguistic invention and concern with ideas”. The view of the director? Jenny Topper, in a comment on debbie tucker green, lists her essential elements. “She is concerned with ideas, she is concerned with form, and she has the courage to stay true to her intuition and let her own linguistic invention come through.”

Writers get their say. The power of drama, says David Greig, is “resisting the management of the imagination by global capitalism.” The adjective “under-rated”- Winsome Pinnock and others- is an indicator of Sierz’s personal engagement. But in trying to throw his lasso around the vast protean entity that goes under the title of new writing he is sometimes dependent on others. For “Stone City Blue” in Mold he cites David Rabey at length. For “The Drowned World” he has to rely on director Vicky Featherstone.

He never loses sight of the fact of performance. “Theatre is all about location, location, location.” It is an event that happens, that leaves its imprint on the memory of those who were there, both artists and audience. For them it may be forever a cherished, perpetual present. A play is never only its text.

So David Hare's “Stuff Happens” may be three hours of valuable forensic examination that attracted huge publicity. (No wonder the Bin Sauds and Assads of our this world are stupefied by our culture. Not only are Cabinet Ministers put on display for scrutiny, by actors, but the public purse gets to pay for it.) “Stuff Happens”, he says, reads very well but “visually, it has a claim to being one of the decade's dullest, if also one of the worthiest, theatre experiences.”

Similarly, Charlotte Jones in “Humble Boy” may have made her character Felix a father-haunted, wounded soul. For all the metaphors of bees and hives and astrophysics what matters theatrically, and hilariously, are the ashes that are mistaken for pepper and freely poured on the gazpacho at the al fresco lunch. Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” flies. But it is not because anyone knows, or much cares, what is mark-to-market accounting. It was those fearsome raptors in the cellar that made it.

“In-Yer-Face Theatre” was structured to include chapters on the most prominent nineties playwrights. “Rewriting the Nation” attempts to corral its seething subject matter into five thematic groupings. No collection of human artefacts ever fitted a tidy taxonomy. A Linnaean-style speciation may well define the natural world but human beings are just too creative.

There is also an underlying question as to how much theatre is mirror to the world. A play like Ayub Khan-Din’s fascinating hybrid “Rafta Rafta”, already revived, is not mentioned; perhaps because it overturns all genre expectation. “In most asylum plays”, he writes “Britain is not a friendly place: it is an unwelcoming fortress nation.” That is true, but if it weren't true, no-one would touch it as subject for theatre. Theatre is more or less about human fissure. Happiness can feature but only after a struggle. That was why “Beautiful Thing” was adored.

The first grouping by theme is titled “Global Roaming”. The chapter lists every headline hazard from Ebola onward. But is it true that “the idea of extreme risk grew into a new bogeyman”? Most of us are still going to experience what Scott McPherson dramatised in “Marvin’s Room.” That is, a doctor is going to clear his throat, and say “it” has come back positive. That has been the stuff of memorable memoir, with John Diamond and Justine Picardie in the lead, but rarely made it to the recent stage.

But without a doubt writers did a good job in getting foreign policy distemper up and out on stage. It was not just Gregory Burke and Roy Williams- although to be the denounced by the Daily Mail as writing something with “the bitter taste of treason” in it must be a sign that theatre is doing something right.

Sierz goes through “Justifying War”, “Called to Account”, “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, “Talking to Terrorists,” “Baghdad Wedding”. Mike Bartlett’s “Artefacts” gets a lengthy write-up, although another critic wrote of it “the Iraqis are humourless, preachy and quite unrecognisable. It’s the sort of play that ought to issue its departing audience with little whips, so they can go home and flagellate themselves before bedtime.”

From this line of plays last word should go to Wasim, the Syrian scholar-administrator in David Greig’s “Damascus” “You know nothing about the world I live in…You know nothing of its complexities and conflicts.” If artists are supposed to be our source of symbolic prescience “Damascus” hits home with true accuracy.

If writers flay cross-cultural idiocy and document racial, marital and class bile Sierz ends with what got left out. “No major fictional New Labourites” – not true, a Lord Levy clone was the main character in David Hare’s “Gethsemane”- “no memorable politicians, investment bankers, newspaper owners, estate agents or credit-card managers.” I might add a few more. In an age of technological and genetic triumph is there a molecular biologist, a chemist, a software engineer, a chip designer to be seen? Like Charlotte Jones, Joe Penhall in “Landscape with Weapon” did get to feature a rare scientist.

The top twenty thousand job-holders who hold sway over the other twenty million of us have got off lightly. Skewered as they were, the Skilling-Lay-Fastow trio at “Enron” may have been movers in planting wind farms across the Cambrians but they were hardly relevant to Britain as were the inner circles of HBOS and RBS.

But then Sierz writes about the money. It is the same pay for the playwright whether the play is a piece of close-to-the-heart autobiography or one in need of considerable research. “Jerusalem” is as fizzing a script as there is, but an anarchist campsite is easier to capture than what goes on within a hermetic tower of steel and glass. Getting under the skin there requires time, insight and guile. It is noticeable that theatre’s only call centre play is set in Chennai rather than Cardiff or East Kilbride.

From the opening Sierz admits to the struggle with classification. He cites an academic worried that “the idea of English drama is that it has been consumed by the notion of British drama.” When a notion starts consuming an idea writers are in trouble. But “Englishness needs redefining” indicates a need for classification above simply describing aesthetic perception.

“Rewriting the Nation” “ has brought some of the blogerati out in high dudgeon. If small in number they are large in protest and have certainly seen a lot of plays. Some of the book's critics reject the premise that collectively new writing speaks for a fragmenting of Britain. “I'm not even sure there is such a thing as "nation" anymore” opines one. Try telling, say, a Tibetan, a Uighur or a Kurd that the concept of nation is defunct.

Others pillory the language. “In a passage of pure semantic nonsense “the History Boys” is described as “simply not contemporary”, despite being newly written for 2004” writes one. Far from semantic nonsense Sierz is dead accurate. His book is called a “tragedy.” “Tragedy” now follows “iconic” and “passionate” as one more word ripe for gutting and devaluation.

The detail in “Rewriting the Nation” is prodigious. A reader may regret exclusions but it flows over with information. Here are the self-help new writing organisations New Writing North, Script, Menagerie, New Writing South, Pier Playwrights. Dirty Protest should write in and get a listing alongside the Apathists, Minimalists, Dry Write and Antelopes.

As for the sheer quantity of theatre, in 2009 alone there were three verbatim plays about the Stockwell Tube shooting. On four occasions I have seen a Terry Johnson script send actors on stage naked, for not a lot of reason. I did not know that in “Piano/ Forte” he features dildo-sporting aerial artists.

Nor does the book gloss over the rough side. Looking for a smooth career progression? Even Mark Ravenhill says, forget it. Theatres over-commission. Scene-by-scene breakdowns are asked for. The requirement for television-style pitches is creeping in. The whole framework is metropolitan, unplanned, mercurial, free of nepotism. It is all very British, in its way even ironically mirroring the market liberalism that separates Britain from mainland Europe. But then visit Vienna or Munich in the summer and July onwards every theatre is locked. The whole lot of them have gone on holiday.

The sheer profusion that Sierz describes, its scale, its irreverence, its probing fearlessness left me cheered and not a little awed. A culture that can bubble with so much disordered exuberance must have a lot to be said for it.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Methuen

published:
06 April 2011

Looking for theatre books? Try the Internet Theatre Bookshop first


Rewriting the Nation- Aleks Sierz

Recently the ever indefatigable David Edgar reported that he had made enquiry of the Arts Council of England as to the number of new plays produced. A first axiom of quality management is “make the important measurable, not the measurable important”. No count or record is made, replied ACE.

The best writers on the arts and humanities are good on description; the less good rely on assertion. Providing a quantitative context is less common. Among his strengths as a critic Alex Sierz is good on the numbers In this follow-up to his “In-Yer-Face Theatre” (Methuen 2001) he gives the number of productions of new plays in the century’s first decade as three thousand. New plays in the noughties were double those produced in the nineties. Three hundred playwrights had a debut production during the decade.

So, from the start the ambition of this book sets out to do the impossible. No one person can ever know quite what made up new theatre as a whole. A run-through of the index shows that three hundred and fifty-three plays are cited. Even so every reader is likely to have her own cavil as to what gets in or out. In Scotland Zinnie Harris gets three mentions while the intriguing D C Jackson- eleven productions to date- gets none. In Wales Catherine Tregenna’s “Art and Guff” is in. Jonathan Lichtenstein’s “Memory”, which made it to New York, is out.

Nonetheless the two books together, five hundred pages of text, fifty pages of bibliography, as much again of notes and references are about the best we have, or probably ever likely to have. From the opening he confesses it is a metrocentric perspective, that the view from elsewhere, “whether Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast, Birmingham, to name but five- is different. ” London is famously a villagey city. Here the admirable Tricycle Theatre, which was host to “Deep Cut”, is described as not in the “centre of town.” I made the trip on a January night and it could not be more than a couple of miles or so distant from Hyde Park. Geography is all in the mind.

But then Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland come in for a commendation that is as uncommon as it is surprising. “But while the three nations seemed to be moving, England often felt as if it was immobile, stuck in a rut of old ideas.”

As a critic the author has several virtues. At the level of pure description the writing has a sharp conciseness. “Crazy Gary’s Mobile Disco” is “a striking picture, all acid-glow colours and purple-shadow effects, of dead end life.” Kwame Kwei-Armah’s “Statement of Regret” is described, quite rightly, as “packed full of ideas, and buzzes with appealing characters and provocative theories”.

The personality is evident. He enthuses over Martin Crimp. Sarah Kane is “the most outstanding playwright of the previous decade.” The word “thrilling” shows a critic whose stance goes beyond that of cool appraisal. One recipient is Gregory Burke. David Edgar’s “Testing the Echo” and Roy Williams “Days of Significance” are described in the same way. It is a word I like.

Sierz seems to have been everywhere and spoken to everyone. What is a theatre looking for amidst the weekly flood of new scripts? RSC literary manager Jeanie O’Hare is here on the attributes of a good theatre writer: “instinctive rawness, linguistic invention and concern with ideas”. The view of the director? Jenny Topper, in a comment on debbie tucker green, lists her essential elements. “She is concerned with ideas, she is concerned with form, and she has the courage to stay true to her intuition and let her own linguistic invention come through.”

Writers get their say. The power of drama, says David Greig, is “resisting the management of the imagination by global capitalism.” The adjective “under-rated”- Winsome Pinnock and others- is an indicator of Sierz’s personal engagement. But in trying to throw his lasso around the vast protean entity that goes under the title of new writing he is sometimes dependent on others. For “Stone City Blue” in Mold he cites David Rabey at length. For “The Drowned World” he has to rely on director Vicky Featherstone.

He never loses sight of the fact of performance. “Theatre is all about location, location, location.” It is an event that happens, that leaves its imprint on the memory of those who were there, both artists and audience. For them it may be forever a cherished, perpetual present. A play is never only its text.

So David Hare's “Stuff Happens” may be three hours of valuable forensic examination that attracted huge publicity. (No wonder the Bin Sauds and Assads of our this world are stupefied by our culture. Not only are Cabinet Ministers put on display for scrutiny, by actors, but the public purse gets to pay for it.) “Stuff Happens”, he says, reads very well but “visually, it has a claim to being one of the decade's dullest, if also one of the worthiest, theatre experiences.”

Similarly, Charlotte Jones in “Humble Boy” may have made her character Felix a father-haunted, wounded soul. For all the metaphors of bees and hives and astrophysics what matters theatrically, and hilariously, are the ashes that are mistaken for pepper and freely poured on the gazpacho at the al fresco lunch. Lucy Prebble’s “Enron” flies. But it is not because anyone knows, or much cares, what is mark-to-market accounting. It was those fearsome raptors in the cellar that made it.

“In-Yer-Face Theatre” was structured to include chapters on the most prominent nineties playwrights. “Rewriting the Nation” attempts to corral its seething subject matter into five thematic groupings. No collection of human artefacts ever fitted a tidy taxonomy. A Linnaean-style speciation may well define the natural world but human beings are just too creative.

There is also an underlying question as to how much theatre is mirror to the world. A play like Ayub Khan-Din’s fascinating hybrid “Rafta Rafta”, already revived, is not mentioned; perhaps because it overturns all genre expectation. “In most asylum plays”, he writes “Britain is not a friendly place: it is an unwelcoming fortress nation.” That is true, but if it weren't true, no-one would touch it as subject for theatre. Theatre is more or less about human fissure. Happiness can feature but only after a struggle. That was why “Beautiful Thing” was adored.

Sierz structures his book thematically. The first grouping by theme is titled “Global Roaming”. The chapter lists every headline hazard from Ebola onward. But is it true that “the idea of extreme risk grew into a new bogeyman”? Most of us are still going to experience what Scott McPherson dramatised in “Marvin’s Room.” That is, a doctor is going to clear his throat, and say “it” has come back positive. That has been the stuff of memorable memoir, with John Diamond and Justine Picardie in the lead, but rarely made it to the recent stage.

But without a doubt writers did a good job in getting foreign policy distemper up and out on stage. It was not just Gregory Burke and Roy Williams- although to be the denounced by the Daily Mail as writing something with “the bitter taste of treason” in it must be a sign that theatre is doing something right.

Sierz goes through “Justifying War”, “Called to Account”, “My Name is Rachel Corrie”, “Talking to Terrorists,” “Baghdad Wedding”. Mike Bartlett’s “Artefacts” gets a lengthy write-up, although another critic wrote of it “the Iraqis are humourless, preachy and quite unrecognisable. It’s the sort of play that ought to issue its departing audience with little whips, so they can go home and flagellate themselves before bedtime.”

From this line of plays last word should go to Wasim, the Syrian scholar-administrator in David Greig’s “Damascus” “You know nothing about the world I live in…You know nothing of its complexities and conflicts.” If artists are supposed to be our source of symbolic prescience “Damascus” hits home with true accuracy.

If writers flay cross-cultural idiocy and document racial, marital and class bile Sierz ends with what got left out. “No major fictional New Labourites” – not true, a Lord Levy clone was the main character in David Hare’s “Gethsemane”- “no memorable politicians, investment bankers, newspaper owners, estate agents or credit-card managers.” I might add a few more. In an age of technological and genetic triumph is there a molecular biologist, a chemist, a software engineer, a chip designer to be seen? Like Charlotte Jones, Joe Penhall in “Landscape with Weapon” did get to feature a rare scientist.

The top twenty thousand job-holders who hold sway over the other twenty million of us have got off lightly. Skewered as they were, the Skilling-Lay-Fastow trio at “Enron” may have been movers in planting wind farms across the Cambrians but they were hardly relevant to Britain as were the inner circles of HBOS and RBS.

But then Sierz writes about the money. It is the same pay for the playwright whether the play is a piece of close-to-the-heart autobiography or one in need of considerable research. “Jerusalem” is as fizzing a script as there is, but an anarchist campsite is easier to capture than what goes on within a hermetic tower of steel and glass. Getting under the skin there requires time, insight and guile. It is noticeable that theatre’s only call centre play is set in Chennai rather than Cardiff or East Kilbride.

From the opening Sierz admits to the struggle with classification. He cites an academic worried that “the idea of English drama is that it has been consumed by the notion of British drama.” When a notion starts consuming an idea writers are in trouble. But “Englishness needs redefining” indicates a need for classification above simply describing aesthetic perception.

“Rewriting the Nation” “ has brought some of the blogerati out in high dudgeon. If small in number they are large in protest and have certainly seen a lot of plays. Some of the book's critics reject the premise that collectively new writing speaks for a fragmenting of Britain. “I'm not even sure there is such a thing as "nation" anymore” opines one. Try telling, say, a Tibetan, a Uighur or a Kurd that the concept of nation is defunct.

Others pillory the language. “In a passage of pure semantic nonsense “the History Boys” is described as “simply not contemporary”, despite being newly written for 2004” writes one. Far from semantic nonsense Sierz is dead accurate. His book is called a “tragedy.” “Tragedy” now follows “iconic” and “passionate” as one more word ripe for gutting and devaluation.

The detail in “Rewriting the Nation” is prodigious. A reader may regret exclusions but it flows over with information. Here are the self-help new writing organisations New Writing North, Script, Menagerie, New Writing South, Pier Playwrights. Dirty Protest should write in and get a listing alongside the Apathists, Minimalists, Dry Write and Antelopes.

As for the sheer quantity of theatre, in 2009 alone there were three verbatim plays about the Stockwell Tube shooting. On four occasions I have seen a Terry Johnson script send actors on stage naked, for not a lot of reason. I did not know that in “Piano/ Forte” he features dildo-sporting aerial artists.

Nor does the book gloss over the rough side. Looking for a smooth career progression? Even Mark Ravenhill says, forget it. Theatres over-commission. Scene-by-scene breakdowns are asked for. The requirement for television-style pitches is creeping in. The whole framework is metropolitan, unplanned, mercurial, free of nepotism. It is all very British, in its way even ironically mirroring the market liberalism that separates Britain from mainland Europe. But then visit Vienna or Munich in the summer and July onwards every theatre is locked. The whole lot of them have gone on holiday.

The sheer profusion that Sierz describes, its scale, its irreverence, its probing fearlessness left me cheered and not a little awed. A culture that can bubble with so much disordered exuberance must have a lot to be said for it.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Methuen

published:
06 April 2011

Looking for theatre books? Try the Internet Theatre Bookshop first


An Introduction to 50 Modern British Plays (2)- Benedict Nightingale

Benedict Nightingale's eight page introduction to his “Introduction...” marries a lightness of step to a weighty sense of responsibility. The book was taken on easily, the true nature of the task's scale and challenge coming later. “The sheer fun of making a list appealed to me” he writes on first reaction. “If so, I was duly punished for my infantilism, because what followed was hard work and, of course, anxiety.”

Lists comprise two categories. The “outs” can be as glaring as the “ins”. So, to the not-included: “Out of these and other agonies a compromise list eventually emerged.” Those from a first selection which were to go included Henry Arthur Jones, Rodney Ackland, Emlyn Williams, Auden and Isherwood, Joan Littlewood, David Mercer, Charles Wood, Heathcote Williams. If the book does anything it is reminder of a theatre culture of abundance. Pinero, Hankin, St John Ervine, Simon Gray, Peter Shaffer all knocked for entry to be among the 50.

Of course Ireland dominates. No Shaw, Synge, O'Casey, Joyce, Behan, Beckett and the book, in the view of its author, would not be worth writing. Nightingale's introduction also sketches the shifts of the century preceding. In 1828, after the New Brunswick Theatre collapsed with lethal effect, a sermon could be preached against the iniquities of the whole activity. By 1895 Irving was in receipt of a knighthood.

As for theatre's subject matter H A Jones in 1885 observed “by humble deference to everybody's prejudice we have banished from the stage all treatment of grave subjects, but what is commonplace and cursory and conventional.” He called for “perfect freedom of choice of subject, persons, place and mode of treatment.” Seven years later “Widowers' Houses” was on the stage, William Archer its collaborator and critical champion against theatre's insipidity.

But it was a halting process. Of this selection just five come from the two decades 1930-1950 and Bridie, Eliot and Fry are not beacons of modernity. Tastes change. Or rather: “Perspectives shift; judgements of contemporary work are notoriously unreliable; and posterity will, of course, have its own interests, biases and axes to grind. Thirty years ago, Ustinov, MacDougal and Ronald Duncan would probably have been in this book.”

Nightingale's critical approach stretches in the direction of generosity. The earliest play is J M Barrie's “the Admirable Crichton” of 1905. It is unlikely to be ever seen again. Its virtue, in the Nightingale view, is that “it offers us different horizons and reminds us of possible alternatives.” The last play is “Comedians” of 1975, which might be seen again, although more likely the nature of the jokes will inhibit it. Its purpose is humour itself. “It wants us to ask ourselves what we are laughing at, and why.”

The comedies are fewer in number than the dramas in the pages that precede “Comedians.” Comedy is bonded by logic. By the time “Hobson's Choice” (1916) has been critically dismantled it does not emerge too well. “Rookery Nook” (1926) comes off better. “The voice of Ben Travers: spirited, mischievous, funny.” There is a vault through the decades until Joe Orton. Along with the dramatists he is tussling with the Lord High Chamberlain in his last years of censorship. Nightingale sees the limitations in “Loot” to be “not a lot more than a display of clever prankishness, entertaining mischief, very characteristic of the youthful decade to which it belonged.”

By contrast “Jumpers”, a play of frantic rewrites throughout rehearsal, has a theme of Stoppardian seriousness. It wonders whether “social morality is simply a conditioned response to history and environment or whether moral sanctions obey an absolute, intuitive God-given law.” Murder and acrobatics help the seriousness of theme along considerably.

Around 15 or so of the 50 are firmly lodged in the canon and likely to be seen afresh by new audiences. Many of the plays here by former names of lustre are likely to stay on the page. The verdicts are kind. Of “The Lady's Not for Burning” “today it may be most interesting as a poetic experiment and a period romance; but it contains moments when that light does glitter, that dance allure.” John Whiting's “Saint's Day” was bitterly attacked in 1951. Nightingale still views it as akin to Pinter. “It gives shape to suspicions, fears, and horrors likely to be found in many more subconsciousnesses than that of its author.”

So much in theatre has changed. David Storey's “the Contractor” was a high water-mark of naturalism. It prompts a rare occasion for writerly musing over critical judgement. “Isn't all human achievement transitory anyway? The situation is ambiguous, and to insist on any single interpretation would, as Storey himself suggests, be to shrink a play that is moving, funny, humane and resonant.

“Humane and resonant”- not bad adjectives for a book replete in experience and wisdom. There is a lot in these 455 pages which come with an excellent index and eight page bibliography.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Pan Books

published:
29 December 2010

Looking for theatre books? Try the Internet Theatre Bookshop first


An Introduction to 50 Modern British Plays - Benedict Nightingale

Benedict Nightingale was one of the critics who made the trip to Cardiff last winter to the New Critics Programme. His knowledge was deep, his advice unprescriptive, his personal warmth considerable. The depth of that knowledge, allied to a linguistic fluency, is on show in this book from his earlier career.

It also has a personal connection. Its end comes where my own experience of theatre began. On page 394 a play features that I was taken to on tour. I was probably just old enough for “Saved”, which came with a whack of impact. 20 pages further is another that I was also taken to. The genre was wholly different but its theatricality at the time was total. That was Stoppard and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern...”

Almost at the end is “Jumpers”. Murder, acrobatics and logical positivism, at Bristol's Old Vic, made for a wild and hedonistic combination. The very last entry “Comedians” coincided with my first months of working life. From the others in Nightingale's selection I have seen 15; among the remainder many are familiar, “the Silver Tassie” for instance. Some, like “Tobias and the Angel”, are not.

The fifty plays are spread across 34 playwrights. The format is that each receives a biographical and critical summary. The text outside the plays themselves would make a snappy book in their own right. Nightingale's summaries separate into three broad areas of discussion. The first recalls chapters in the history of theatre itself.

Somerset Maugham in 1908 has four plays running concurrently in London. That probably out-does Ayckbourn at his most popular. In Dublin riot ensues over “the Plough and the Stars.” An ageing W B Yeats steps on stage to ask the disrupters whether they were “to be an ever-recurring celebration of the arrival of Irish genius.”

As a teenager I saw a performance of “A Collier's Friday Night” with no idea that the establishment of Lawrence as a figure in drama was set by Peter Gill. Lawrence's dramatic prowess did not sustain itself. Nightingale critiques Gill's production of “the Merry Go Round.” James Bridie, pen name of a Glasgow physician Dr Osborne Mavor, wrote 42 plays. When Samuel Beckett was subject of a weighty biography he, in character, “did nothing to assist and nothing to impede.”

Bad criticism over-fixates on biography, as if every element in art were an item to be decoded from the life. Nonetheless, Nightingale is revealing on Shaw's background. “His mother was a remarkably cold woman.” His father had the ability to laugh irrespective of circumstance. When his wholesale corn business failed his reaction was “to retreat hastily from the office to an empty corner of the warehouse and laugh until he was exhausted.”

J B Priestley, before Stephen Daldry set to work, had the image of avuncularity. It is a surprise to read that he wrote of a war that “sliced my generation into sausage-meat held above a swill bucket.” The background of Trevor Griffiths is a now rare reminder of a Britain of heavy industry. His father earned a pittance for “clearing out great acid vats the size of a theatre and feeding moving hoppers with sulphur on a shovel the size of a railway track.”

The beliefs of writers tend to be over-valued; they are creatures of their era. Still Shaw on the Cheka in Russia has an implacable cruelty of distance to it. Synge, in Nightingale's reading, is writing of a shallowly religious Ireland. “Isolation, loneliness, is a constant dread. These people invoke the Christian totems incessantly but more from custom than deep-seated belief.”

Joyce by contrast wrote that the playwright “stands a mediator in awful truth before the veiled face of God” with “deathless passions, human verities.” Nightingale finds two authorities to help unlock Beckett. Geulincx: “Ubi nihil vales, ibi nihil veles.” “Where you are worth nothing, you should want nothing.” Democritus: “Nothing is more real than nothing.”

Quotations from authoritative sources are good but critics live, and die, by their own words. So Brendan Behan in contrast with O'Casey: “Behan's sense of pain is much less acute, his attitudes towards the mess and chaos far less critical, and, not least, his characterisation considerably less discriminating.” John Arden sagged until “the Island of the Mighty”, a play that “displays the imaginative abundance, the intellectual distinction, the love of irony, ambiguity, paradox of the early works.”

Most playwrights vanish into time's vortex. Christopher Fry was once lauded and is not now. “Many of Fry's verbal effects are merely frolicsome. He delights in puns, archaic insults, wordplay, not always in appropriate contexts.” Osborne survives, “the Entertainer” the most durable of his plays. But the oeuvre has a weakness. “He displays no sympathy for any but a gifted, or supposedly gifted, minority of characters.” Wesker is great but deteriorates to “affected language, sententiousness, a tendency to idealise without good reason, and to move prematurely from the specific to the general.”

As for Synge the language is extravagant. Nightingale reads it as “the logical expression of minds who find it difficult or painful to synchronise with objective truth. To escape into rhetoric is the imagination's protest against reality and its means of negotiating it. It is the way of investing the world with wonder and somehow surviving in it.”

These are judgements among many that sparkle in a book which illuminates continuously.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Pan Books

published:
27 December 2010

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One Night Stands (1980s)- Michael Billington

“The British theatre was out of its sickbed and capering nimbly up and down the wards.” That was Michael Billington in 1978 after Britain had hauled itself out of energy crisis, inflation and recession. Nobody likes the 1980s. But history being paradoxical it was the decade of a social mobility on a scale not seen before or since. The toughness of public funding, as recorded here with precision, had also not been seen before.

There is always a smugness for us now in reading the predictions made by them then. “My guess” writes the critic who had at the time more knowledge of the sector than anyone “is that theatre will shrink in size over the next decade but increase in intensity.” It was not just the subsidised sector. “One West End manager told me that he doubts if there will be any serious plays left in the commercial theatre in five or six years time.” There were and there are. “New writing is in a state of crisis.” That was May 1991.

The present is contained within the past. This autumn one Michael B, a director, has been playing a gleeful trick or two with “A Servant of Two Masters.” In May 1978 another Michael B, a critic, is in Stratford to see “the Taming of the Shrew.” An argument starts between a member of the audience and a staff member in the front stalls. “I'm not having any bloody woman telling me what to do” shouts the audience member. “He then scrambles drunkenly on to the Stratford stage” describes Billington “pulling down bannisters and toppling pillars like some berserk Samson. Lights explode; the stage fills with harassed backstage staff; and gullible patrons start making for the exit to call the police.”

The whole thing has been staged by Michael Bogdanov. Bogdanov is as Bogdanov was.

Criticism is writing and writing is craft. It is getting the right words. When “Company” arrived there had not been a piece of musical theatre like it. “Its surface exuberance seems to conceal a great sadness” he writes”...it has the whiplash precision of the best shows plus a great deal of intellectual resonance.” At “Comedians” “not only does it annex new territory by putting a class for apprentice comedians on to the stage, but it has the same muscle, dialectical fairness and suppressed pain that characterised Griffiths's “the Party”.

From the particular the good critic extrapolates the general. He sees the “Norman Conquests”. “Like all first-rate comedy, the plays are only funny because they're about serious issues.” “A Short, Sharp Shock” is supposed to be a riposte to the government and is flat. “They offer images and rhetoric rather than fact and argument.” “The Romans in Britain” has “a hollow prodigality.” And he has always enjoyed the odd bit of wordplay. He is not keen on “Godspell”. “God, as I muttered wanly as I emerged, is not rocked.” With a descant on Baldwin “Power without accountancy is the prerogative of the journalist down the ages.”

One element that emerges is that Billington is not the critic as analyst. At least he is analyst but also markedly a human being. He sees a revival of “Inadmissible Evidence”. “Judged by slide-rule methods of dramatic criticism, John Osborne's “Inadmissible Evidence” has plenty of flaws: it's static, a bit unwieldy in places and doesn't allow much breathing space to the subsidiary characters. But so much for the slide-rule. All I can say is that seeing the play again at the Court for the first time in fourteen years, I found it an overwhelming experience in which the sense of private pain, paranoia and anguish is deeply moving.”

It is a regular motif. “In my whole theatregoing lifetime I have never seen a production as achingly beautiful as Yukio Ninagawa's “Macbeth”. At Michael Blakemore's “Uncle Vanya” his first paragraph goes straight to it. “I found myself watching the end through a mist of tears.” At “Sunday in the Park with George” he sees and hears the great song “Colour and Light”. “This is one point” he responds “at which Mr Pimlott's production induces tears.” This is all reassuring and heartening.

The counterpoint is “Authority wants art to be constructive; yet it has to recognise that great drama is built out of conflict, dialectic and criticism.” Strains of the future are discernible. “I also dislike the tendency to sectionalise and compartmentalise the theatre.” As for accountability “I would make manifest attendance figures for the productions so that the public could see for themselves what was popular and what was not.” Political theatre too often misses the mark. “One of the oldest rules of dialectical drama is that you give the strongest articles to the other side.”

Billington is also clear-eyed on the critic as public figure. He writes open letters to Peter Hall and Terry Hands. The book publishes their responses. He puts the case for criticism and its place. “Criticism” he says “is not the last word: simply part of a permanent debate about the nature of the ideal theatre.” “Criticism does, however, have a vital secondary function: to deal, as Tynan said, to deal with what is not happening as well as what is.”

As for theatre “it is a public service to be interpreted, evaluated, and fought for with whatever critical passion one can muster.” And the writer himself? “Critics are haunted, solitary theatre-nuts who cannot be willed into existence by editorial magic.”

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
01 December 2010

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My Life in Pieces- Simon Callow

The best new theatre book to come my way was Simon Callow’s “My Life in Pieces”. The whole book flows over with enthusiasm for everything in theatre, with one exception- (see end).

Its first virtue is that reports from the inside on acting are relatively few in number. Timothy West and Harriet Walter have both written good things. Michael Simkins’ “What’s My Motivation” should be mandatory reading for drama students for its mix of passion, comedy and sheer career happenstance.

Simon Callow is about an eloquent as can be on an art that is about as elusive as can be. In structure his book is unusual, if not unique, in linking a biographical text to the occasional writing- reviews, obituaries, articles- that he has done over decades.

In reviewing a biography of Lee Strasberg he pins down the Method in a way which I might have suspected but would never have been quite able to articulate.

Historically, the book occupies a fascinating time span with its first-hand reports of a generation of departed greats. The great knightly Autumn performances from plays like “Home”, “No Man’s Land” and “the Old Country” are all there.

A contrast between Guinness and Olivier opens “I was initially disappointed by the lack of visceral energy in Guinness’s work...but I soon succumbed. The measured gravity, the detachment, the faint air of whimsicality should all have produced a muted impression, but they were, on the contrary, curiously compelling. The physical transformations in every case were complete, but not conspicuous; they did not draw attention to themselves, which had seemed to me to be the whole fun of the thing when Olivier did it.”

He evokes the galvanic effect of drama school. “You will learn to live with language in all its many forms in way that that the whole temper of the times denies. You will learn how to access and use parts of your body and your brain that you scarcely knew existed. You will discover rhythm and tempo, absent for the most part from daily life. You will learn to look at life with the keen eye of someone who has to reproduce it. You will learn, as Brecht said, to drink a cup of tea in forty different ways….You will have to think about history, about the past, about the present and the future, and you will have to ask why the theatre has been central to the life of society for more than two-and-a-half thousand years.”

But there is a stain in this effervescent world. “Critics. Even as I write the word, a sort of hopelessness spreads over me, an inner voice whispers: "You can't win this one."
At the beginning of one's career (and in some cases, at the beginning, in the middle and at the end), one is so shocked by the whole phenomenon of criticism as it is practiced - the cavalier judgements, the slipshod reporting, the personal animus, the power of life and death over a show or an exhibition or a career - that one's instinct is to fight back, to have a show-down, to scotch the lie.

…When the critic of a Sunday paper devoted a whole paragraph of his vitriolic review of my production of My Fair Lady to my arrogance and lack of psychological insight by re-arranging the order of numbers in the score, I wrote a mild letter pointing out that the sequence was the standard sequence. The critic in question wrote one sentence by way of reply: "I could have cried all night."

…This is particularly true of drama critics, for whom there appears to be no qualification whatever. It is generally assumed that music critics have some training in music, some capacity to perform it or analyse it technically, but this is not the case with drama critics, most of whom have neither acted, nor directed nor even so much as attended a rehearsal.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Penguin

published:
13 November 2010

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One Night Stands (1970s)- Michael Billington

Four critics from London came to Castle Arcade in Cardiff over Saturday and Sunday 20th-21st February. It was a marvellous weekend for the members of the New Critics Programme. The four were all different and all rewarding in their own ways. Of the four Michael Billington was particular in two ways. He laid the most stress on criticism as an art in its own right, its base fine writing. To illustrate he brought with him, and read from, samples of Kenneth Tynan.

In this he was also the visiting critic who expressed the greatest awareness of the heritage of critical writing. This awareness features in this effervescent selection and commentary on twenty years of theatre life. “I am a great collector of dramatic criticism” he writes in the foreword “and it struck me as odd that one could piece together the history of British theatre this century from the collections of Beerbohm, Walkley, Agate, Worsley, Trewin and Tynan, but the record peters out.”

It has petered out as consequence of the digital world. No companion volume for the two decades 1990-2010 will appear. The history of theatre is all there for the clicking but its form is one of dispersal. But from the time prior to the infinite junkyard “One Night Stands” captures two decades of theatre history. It form is a unit of physical material. That unit, an expansive but sharply selected four hundred pages, combines an authority of literary fluency with a flavoursome particularity of individual voice.

Critical eyes and ears that matter rove equally across the specific and the general. Close attention to the art of actors, designers, directors is rendered into finely hued prose. From that the writing broadens to the themes and meanings of productions. The whole thing plays out within an industry. Billington summarises the context of artistic director appointments and movements and a funding background that ever shifts.

Each year is preceded by a page in italics that gives a summary to the Britain of that year. A new generation may read about it, empathise, but cannot know how it felt to be there. Northern Ireland simmered with violence throughout. Energy crisis was followed by recession. The National Theatre reached adulthood and got its grand building. It did not start well. To read about the labour disputes seems a view into an age as remote as that of the medieval guilds. The political nadir was 1979 with the dead unburied but 1974-1975 was the economic depth. Public spending leaped from 31%, to 47% of GDP. In August 1975 inflation was 26.9%. To have known, when young, prices that soared weekly made a mark to leave a stamp for life.

Ironically Billington ends this decade with an observation that “belt-tightening seemed to have quite a tonic effect on the British theatre... exciting things continued to happen on stages.” “England's Ireland” made it to the stage after being rejected by fifty theatres. A multi-authored piece- Brenton, Edgar, Hare, Snoo Wilson- the Royal Court production “sends one out of the theatre even more painfully alert to the Irish tragedy than when one went in.”

At the end of the decade Billington looks back. “A generation of writers had emerged... written some damned good plays: “Comedians”, “Plenty”, “Destiny”, “Brassneck”, “City Sugar”, “Fanshen”, “Knuckle”, “Claw.” It fitted an onward roll. “From the mid-fifties to the late seventies the British theatre had been endlessly productive and continually expanding.” But in a book conceived in 1991 he adds with benefit of hindsight. “By the end of the decade it began to look as if the party might not last that much longer.”

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
29 August 2010

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Theatre Writings- Kenneth Tynan

The New Critics initiative of the National Theatre of Wales sent me to the Hay Festival. The induction had sparked an interest in criticism as a genre. The visit to Hay sent me to the Cinema Bookshop and to a good-as-new copy of a collection of Kenneth Tynan's writings. Its editor is Dominic Shellard of Sheffield University and its foreword is written by Tom Stoppard.

It dates from 2007 and Adam Mars-Jones was a first reviewer. “A critic of the performing arts whose writing lasts is a great paradox, a parasite that outlives its host, an illness that survives the patient.” It is rare and the book resembles “Seasons of Discontent” by Robert Brustein whose time-span of theatre it part-shares. Brustein was sour about Wesker's “Roots” where Tynan enthuses. With both men the quality of writing vaults it out of the realm of quotidian journalism. The collection of 110 pieces makes it a first draft of history as it was lived.

Tynan's posthumous reputation is of a man of unpleasantness. But as a writer he is more sprightly than Brustein. “Separate Tables” is reviewed as a dialogue between Aunt Edna and a Young Perfectionist. Tynan engages in parody where Brustein is ever-severe. But the coverage at moments stretches cleverness to malice. He has a sharpened eye for acting but there is too much relish on display when he writes a line like “She executes all the accepted repertoire of femininity-vapid eye-lash fluttering, mock unconcern, plain silliness- with convulsive effect and yet always with her brows arched in affected boredom.”

Brustein juggled a career between critic and practitioner. Shellard includes an interview, previously unpublished, in which Kathleen Tynan, his second wife, observed. “One of the saddest things about Ken was that he really wanted to be a director than a writer- much more- and although one could argue about why didn't he go to the provinces and learn his craft and do it, he never seemed to make it clear...But he felt after a while very frustrated because he wasn't his own person, he was always advising and always in the background, and, as a very flamboyant personality, I think he suffered because of that.”

When Richard Eyre interviewed Frith Banbury he asked about the influence of Tynan. The veteran director remembered the tussles with Rattigan. “Of course, Tynan always got the better of him in a revolting way, I thought, because it was horrid what he wrote.” On Tynan's personality Banbury said “there was a very obvious bitterness at the back there...Tynan obviously wanted to direct and wanted to act. He tried both with no success at either, but the one thing he could do was write wonderful prose and brilliant invective.”

Notwithstanding the descent into what feels like vindictiveness the collection sparkles with interest. Many a play up for revival is on show here at its first glimpsing. The first sight of Brecht is “Mother Courage” in Paris in January 1955. In June the same year Tynan writes a superb close-up analysis of the Berliner Ensemble doing “the Caucasian Chalk Circle.” “The Entertainer” and “A Taste of Honey” are both received with lavish praise.

Shellard includes Tynan's summary-cum-parody of theatre's staple in what he called“the Loamshire Play”. There is always a schadenfreude of hindsight to be had when those old guys in the past got it wrong. “Is America really peopled with brutalised half-wits?” starts a review which goes on to end “an interminable, an overwhelming, and in the end intolerable bore.” The date is May 31st 1953, the author is Harold Hobson and he is watching that fountain of pure joy “Guys and Dolls.” To give Shellard his due the book also reprints Hobson on “Waiting for Godot” Aug 7th 1955. Tynan sees it later in New York in April 1956 with Bert Lahr in the cast. He includes a mention that the advertising asked for 70000 intellectuals to make the production pay.

Back in London one of his heroes Orson Welles is in London playing Ahab and directing magnificently. As for the background Tynan writes an exhaustive twelve page essay on the now absurdity of theatre censorship. The list of censured subjects would be comic were it not so serious. Gay life can nibble at the edge as long as it is not explicit and comes with a due eventual punishment. “Who is the Lord Chamberlain?” asks Tynan “As I write, he is Cameron Fromanteel, first Baron Cobbold, educated at Eton and Cambridge, and a former Governor of the Bank of England: a cheerful, toothy, soothing chap in his early sixties.”

The collection is filled with snippets to interest. On February 17th 1957 Tynan includes an item of news. “Peter Hall, until recently the director of productions at the Arts Theatre” he records “is going into management and will stage a series of plays under his own banner.” That banner was set to be the grandest of them all.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
01 August 2010

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Talking Theatre (USA Writers)- Richard Eyre

“Talking Theatre” comprises 42 interviews across the spectrum of theatre. That spectrum includes 15 writers. The birth years range from 1915 (Miller) to 1964 (Marber). Cumulatively they make for a rich spread.

He is also in the USA. The two interviewees from musical theatre have much the same to say on the relationship of song within the show. Eyre asks Arthur Laurents. “What is that gives the licence to a character to sing?” The answer is “You can make any character sing so long as that character has some passion. If they don't bleed, they don't sing.”

“So the book always comes first?” asks Eyre. Laurents: “Must, must, must. The book gets all of the blame and none of the credit, but a good score cannot survive a bad book.” Sondheim reinforces the point “the book always comes first in this kind of musical. It has to be the story and the characters that propel both the song aspect and the need for song.”

Every human is born into history in their own way. Arthur Miller is unequalled on the effect of the 1929 Crash. “It destroyed the idea that we had a system, an economic system. It showed that God had not created what we were living in. That it was not something that had sprung up with the forests and the rivers. And this mutability of everything was a shock. The disillusion was simply unbelievable. What it did was objectify everything. I began to see that everything was capable of destruction and was indeed on the verge of destruction. So it's basically a tragic view of existence: we live at the edge of a thread- you just shake that structure and it all comes apart.”

Miller's personal history moves through the Federal Theatre Project, to Odets and the Group to McCarthyism. August Wilson, thirty years Miller's junior, had his first involvement in theatre in 1968. “It was the height of the Black Power movement”, he says “and the idea of theatre being able to communicate ideas is what attracted me to it originally. I started a community theatre in Pittsburgh.” Wilson's experience of schooling was miserable, the public library his salvation.

Eyre inevitably asks as to the influences and the answer is distinctive. “The Blues, as I see that as the best literature that Black Americans have. And rooted inside the Blues is a whole philosophical system at work.” Wilson had no dramatic model when he started. “I just more or less forged ahead with my own sense of what the story should be, or what the play should be.”

Eyre rightly distinguishes that the political is not the polemical. “That's not what I'm about” says Wilson. “I don't want to write a polemical play. I work as an artist and I have something I want to say as an artist. So for me the aesthetic statement is the most important important thing of the work.”

Tony Kushner is 11 years younger again, Miller his first experience of theatre. “I remember the figure of Willy Loman, very, very powerfully.” His own sensibility reads the difference between Miller and Tennessee Williams. Sex in Miller is “really packed down and sort of fifties, square-jaw and clenched...whereas in Williams it's this absolutely inescapable, unavoidable life-force that's beating through everything.”

Kushner's time in history was that of rampaging disease. “I was annihilated by the epidemic, by friends dying, and a politically grounded oppression with a biological disaster of these proportions.” Kushner is soaked in theatre context. “Theatre is inherently dialectical because the illusion/reality paradigm is unavoidable in theatrical experience.”

He is awed by Caryl Churchill and looks back to O'Neill. “He was probably the loneliest playwright in American history.” He cites a letter of O'Neill's “where he writes about these vultures flying from their dark beyond and tormenting him endlessly, and he says now at the end of my life they've given me an exchange for all of this torment, some small germ of a soul.”

Richard Eyre's interviews across the Atlantic are riveting.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
10 December 2009

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Talking Theatre (UK Writers)- Richard Eyre

“Talking Theatre” comprises 42 interviews across the spectrum of theatre. That spectrum includes 10 British writers. Some of the material is familiar. Alan Bennett and Harold Pinter are well-known public figures, their lives and opinions given frequent publicity. But Richard Eyre is an interviewer from theatre's inside and elicits valuable insights.

Writers for theatre are connected to the form and tradition in different ways. Arnold Wesker was engaged in making theatre more accessible. It led to the foundation of Centre 42 in the Roundhouse in Camden. Wesker reveals that it had the support of Rattigan. Peter Gill is vocal on the historic role of D H Lawrence. “He was probably the first English playwright to write truthfully about the working class. Nobody had written like that: making no apology for why you were writing about them. He wrote about these apparently poor people as something he wanted to write about, not something he had to write about. So it's not from a class position: it's from a position of equality.”

As for antecedents Harold Pinter: “I was very, very, very engaged with Shakespeare, and the Elizabethans, and the Jacobeans, from all my teens and all my youth and throughout my twenties. Webster left an enormous impression on me, and I read Shakespeare long before I read Beckett.” Peter Shaffer: “I don't think I had any playwright models at all, other than the great comedies, say of the eighteenth century. Sheridan was a model in a way.”

Tom Stoppard offers different views on two way-breaking pieces. At the Royal Court for “Look Back in Anger” “I thought it was a wonderfully well-written play...I admire the play very much but I don't attach to it enormous significance other than as a social phenomenon.” But Stoppard looks at Stratford East differently. “I was at the first night of “Oh! What a Lovely War”...and next to me was a veteran of that war, a very old man with no teeth. I didn't know him, but in the interval he turned to me weeping and said “I was there. That's what it was like.”

Alan Ayckbourn dispels the idea that Scarborough is a preparation for London. “I do not “try my plays out” in Scarborough: I write for Scarborough. I write for a community. I write for as wide a community as I can possibly manage. I've always said to myself, if I walk down the street to the theatre and someone stops me and says “I'm coming to see your play, will I enjoy it?” and I look at them and say “No”- then I've got something very, very wrong. Whether they're the local doctor or the local plumber, they both should find something in the play, and if they don't then I'm doing it wrong. And that has kept me as wide as I can get.”

Lastly, Alan Bennett reprises in conversation the essence of the Drummer Hodge which he put on stage in “the History Boys.” “When you're reading a book or whatever or seeing a play, and you come across a sentiment or a thought which you think is unique to you and personal to you, and here it is put in the mouth of somebody else, you feel connected. You feel as if somebody's taken your hand.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
07 December 2009

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Richard Burton- Michael Munn

“Richard Burton” is a sprightly, readable 246 pages. It ends with a list in full of the acting career, across stage, film and television. Its subtitle is “Prince of Players” and it is written from a position of respect and affection. The author occupies a particular position. He is described as a writer, actor, director, former journalist and Hollywood publicist. He is also the author of twenty-one books on the film industry. The titles include “Hollywood Rogues: the Off-screen Antics of Hollywood's Hellraisers” and “the Hollywood Connection: the Mafia and the Movie Business- the Explosive Story.”

So Michael Munn is not a Humphrey Carpenter. But his crisp book has the advantage of personal testimony. It is probable that his last role of publicist brought him much incidental material. His list of interviewees is formidable. Fifty-eight in all the roster of names speak for itself: Caine, Coward, Eastwood, Gielgud, Guinness, Hordern, Huston, Manciewicz, Ure. At the end: “Most important of all is Richard Burton who I knew between 1969 and 1984.”

Munn certainly knew his subject. He also inserts himself frequently into his book. His opening line distinguishes that he did not know Burton as a close friend but as a good friend. He is at pains to stress friendship on other occasions. Ava Gardner is also claimed as a friend. He first saw Burton at age sixteen and he was on the set of “Anne of a Thousand Days.” Munn played a policeman as an extra in “Villain” and was an extra in the sorry remake of “Brief Encounter.”

His final page recounts the last time they met. “How are you for cash?” Burton asked him. He always did this and this time handed him a stash of notes. When Munn stepped outside the studio he found they came to £500. The relationship certainly was true and many paragraphs begin “Rich told me..” He is often in the company of his most regular source, and frequent reference, Brook Williams, son of Emlyn.

Munn knows cinema and he is generous in appreciation of the film roles. If he is blisteringly honest about “the Klansman” he applauds “Beckett”, “the Sandpiper”, “the Night of the Iguana” and even “Cleopatra.” The six hour version is a piece of cinema restoration that, if accomplished, will reveal it in its true fullness. He cites the best film critics, Judith Crist and Pauline Kael, economically but always fairly. His is not the view of the uncritical fan. There is an irony in his description of “the Spy Who Came in from the Cold”. Burton was unhappy with the whole approach of director Martin Ritt in what is usually regarded as his most durable film.

The historical aides of interest are numerous. Philip Burton had another protegé in Owen Jones. Jones won a scholarship to RADA and played Shakespeare at the Old Vic. He died in 1943 in service in the RAF. Munn's description of Burton and the Jenkins-to-be-Burton has a tabloid directness to it. “They seemed an unlikely pair. Philip was always very clean and tidy, and Richard was always a mess, with socks that stank of sweat.”

Philip Burton propelled the young actor to Oxford. Munn quotes Nevill Coghill's student record card “This boy is a genius and will be a great actor.” It would not be written this way today but it continues “He is outstandingly handsome and robust, very masculine and with deep inward fire, and extremely reserved.” The last is a surprise after various tales of youthful escapades.

Munn did not see the early theatre performances. He cites Kenneth Tynan on Burton's Prince Hal to Anthony Quayle's Falstaff: “Burton is still a brimming pool, running disturbingly deep; at twenty-five he commands a repose and can make silence garrulous.” Tynan is enrolled again when Burton played Henry as monarch. The role won him the Evening Standard Best Actor award in January 1956. Tynan wrote “within this actor there is always something reserved, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery. Inside those limits he is master.”

In the film industry women feature heavily. Munn is with Burton and Brook Williams in 1978. An affair with Marilyn Monroe is his enquiry. “How the bloody hell did you know about that?” asks Burton followed by “Bloody Ava Gardner! She always knows too much.” Then follows a page of quotation which, if its transcription is accurate, means that a tape recorder must have been present. The friend-reporter role is ambiguous.

The tales from Hollywood make a contrast with the book-lined quiet house in Celigny. Munn reports that Burton had no interest in visual art. In Las Vegas Burton incites Sinatra with mention of some of his friends. But it is counter-posed with an observation from John Huston “there's a kind of spirituality in Richard that is flawed.” Burton,-“he once told me”, says Munn- said “I'm the best bad priest in the business.”

The most revealing aspect of Munn's book is the degree of pain that Burton suffered. It is known that in late life he had to undergo a perilous operation for a spine coated in crystals of alcohol. The alcohol had a cause. It had started, Munn says, when a prank of a laced drink caused the student Burton to fall down a staircase. The event was the cause on and off of pain for the rest of his life and Munn records later effects on stage and film sets.

But this physical pain was corollary to a mental equivalent. His daughter Jessica and the accident that happened to his adored brother Ifor were cause for mental anguish. But Munn takes it a step further. He recounts a car drive- “I was working for Warner Brothers at the time”- after a pub lunch together in Hampshire. Burton asks him to pull over and suffers a kind of seizure. “I sat there cradling him, not knowing what to do.”

Munn extrapolates the scene to Burton admitting a history of attacks. Munn wonders about epilepsy. “Is that what it is, do you think?” says Burton to the twenty-three year old. “I'm too scared to want to know.” Munn says Burton said that he drank for fear of seizures and in the belief that alcohol was a preventative. If the story is genuine it adds an element of fear to an already known life of volatile but haunted brilliance.

Acting

ISBN:
£

Matador

published:
05 December 2009

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Talking Theatre (Directors)- Richard Eyre

“Talking Theatre” comprises 42 interviews across the spectrum of theatre. That spectrum includes nine directors. Richard Eyre focuses in particular on the influence of key figures, Shakespeare, Brecht, Beckett and Edward Gordon Craig. Eyre is an interviewer of skill who invariably brings out an articulateness and high quality of expression from his respondents.

Eyre poses the question. “If Beckett wasn't a pessimist, was Brecht a wilful optimist?”
Peter Brook gets to an essence of Brecht in his response. “Brecht was full of contradictions. Whatever you say about Brecht you can find the opposite. Any good thing you can say about Brecht you can find the opposite. Any good thing you can say about Brecht you'll find something bad: anything bad you say about him you can compensate it with something good. “Wilful optimist” is absolutely right.”

Brook picks out convincingly the factors for the last chapter of the life. “Of course he wanted his theatre. He was very aware of the fact that he was a magnificent director; he didn't want to stay liked in America merely as a writer and a theorist. He knew that to do the directing that he wanted to do, he had to have all the elements. He had to have his actors, his theatre, in his own social surroundings. So, of course, he did everything, against great difficulty, to have this theatre, and, at the same time, he very shrewdly kept a certain distance so that he wasn't officially the person who could be attacked. But he was attacked and had great difficulty all the time.”

Brook is a director and is unequivocal in determining Brecht's principal achievement. “The work was truly of an ensemble of unique richness with an absolute perfection of living stage craft. For me, Brecht was and still is much more fascinating as a great theatre director than as a playwright.”

In interview with Peter Hall Richard Eyre points out that 1955 and 1956 were years of two events. The visit to London of the Berliner Ensemble near-coincided with Hall's directing “Waiting for Godot.” Hall too homes in on Brecht the director. “What Brecht brought to us was passionate advocacy of the fact that what you put on the stage has to be necessary...Brecht made us understand that to put an object on a stage there had to be a reason for it to be there, that decoration was actually irrelevant and misleading.”

William Gaskill, the most Brechtian of British directors, says the same. “I learned most of all the use of space, the sense of the empty stage, that everything on the stage should be essential, and there should be nothing unnecessary, which didn't mean it shouldn't be rich or colourful or vital.”

John McGrath is harsh on the politics but picks out the paradox. “The aesthetics were the aesthetics of a kind of historical epic, which was very exciting on one hand- good narrative qualities, very striking theatrical images- but with curiously little relationship to either his politics or his philosophy as far as I could tell. They seemed to just exist because he had huge theatrical instinct.”

Simon McBurney returns to this and Peter Brook's theme of the ambivalence within Brecht. “Brecht is a very paradoxical figure. Very ambivalent, very dare I say it, twentieth century. With all the lies and games of a twentieth century artist. We don't know exactly where Brecht is telling the truth and where he isn't. And indeed the truth changed for him over the whole of his life. He started working in cabaret, and he ended up with the Berliner Ensemble. The difficulty with Brecht, in a sense, has occurred after the end of his life, because people take what he says as law. And the moment you apply law, something dies, and then you get the Brecht police.”

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
08 October 2009

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Talking Theatre (Directors)- Richard Eyre

Talking Theatre” comprises 42 interviews across the spectrum of theatre. That spectrum includes nine directors. Richard Eyre focuses in particular on the influence of key figures, Shakespeare, Brecht, Beckett and Edward Gordon Craig.

Richard Eyre himself has a talent with words. Encountering Peter Brook in Paris he observes “his self-exile appears to have inoculated him against the infection of self-doubt, the vagaries of fashion, the attrition of parochial sniping, the weariness of careerism, and the mid-life crisis that affects most theatre directors (not always in midlife), which comes from repetition, from constant barter and compromise.”

Peter Brook homes in on Shakespeare. “All his plays, which is what makes them so remarkable, correspond to the ancient Indian definition of good theatre, which is that plays appeal simultaneously to the people who want entertainment, people who want to understand psychology and social reality, and people who really wish to open themselves to the metaphysical secrets of the universe.”

Peter Hall elaborates on this aspect of this plasticity. On the verse he comments “Shakespeare inherited a very formal method of writing with the iambic pentameter and broke all the rules, and therefore made it sound human and flexible and extraordinary.”

“Shakespeare becomes something different to every age. He has this negative capability of becoming anything and anybody. It depends which angle you look at him. You can say that's because he's comprehensive or broad-minded, he's conservative, he's radical, he's revolutionary, he's reactionary, and he's progressive. Any label you choose to set on Shakespeare will in some sense be valid. That's partly because he is so extraordinarily comprehensive in his sympathies and understandings, but mostly because he revels in contradiction.”

Ian McKellen elucidates a range of themes and includes the interests of different ages. The eighteenth century liked the nobility and the Victorians went for the heroics. “Today we are at least as interested in the in the minor characters, who are much closer to our own lives.” Eyre putd to Judi Dench the question “is Shakespeare all-inclusive?” “He tackles things”, she says, “like love, jealousy, envy, greed, meanness of spirit- there's no end to that list, in fact. And he tackles them in such a complete way, in such a contemporary way.”

Eyre asks Deborah Warner “what does Shakespeare do that no other writer does?” She replies “touches on every emotion, every possible human feeling, every possible human story. And a complete love of the theatre, for those reasons.”

Robert Lepage pursues the theme. “The stage seems to be the place of transformation. All of the best plays are about transformation- whether it is Bottom being translated into a donkey, or Medea, after having done her deed, being transformed into another Medea. I think that's probably the basic reason why the audience goes to the theatre- to witness transformation and to identify with that transformation, or try to invite it into their own lives.”

Directing

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
07 October 2009

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Talking Theatre- (Actors) - Richard Eyre

“Talking Theatre” comprises 42 interviews across the spectrum of theatre. That spectrum includes eleven actors. The interviews with John Gielgud, Luise Rainer, Jason Robards and Willem Dafoe go into theatre history from Lilian Baylis to to the Wooster Group. The encounters with actors of Ireland are particularly revealing in their composite observations on language, nation and theatre. Liam Neeson recounts his encounter with Synge at the age of twelve: “something of the music of it did enter my whole body and persona.”

Fiona Shaw is expansive on Yeats and O'Casey, Wilde and Bernard Shaw. She sees in the latter “a sort of fire or fury- I think that anger was a very useful tool for him...He's a phenomenal contradiction- full of generosity and full of fury, full of public-spiritedness and full of private suffering.” Stephen Rea recalls Wilde's elastic nationalism. In front of American Irish he became one of them. But “he was ambivalent about Ireland, he wanted to escape from the narrowness of it.”

Eyre guides his interviewees towards their experiences with directors. Victor Spinetti is enormously revealing on the work that went into “Oh! What a Lovely War.” As for Joan Littlewood, says Spinetti “She watched a lot and listened a lot and used what was coming from us, but she had a framework in which to put that.” The production moved thousands but was made in a spirit of “She'd say “Our job is to entertain. We're seducers.”

Eyre asks Kim Hunter about Elia Kazan. She replies “the best director I ever worked with. He had this capacity and need and way of getting to know his performers very closely- and much of their personal lives- so that when he needed a particular area of your emotional background and being, he would know which button to press to get what he needed out of you. He was ruthless in that way, but also extremely generous and kind, because he would never do it in front of a company if he got that personal; he would do it in person.”

Judi Dench goes to the heart of the relationship of actor to script.”The thing about acting is: you don't play what's on the page. What you play is like that cake called mille-feuille, which is made of thousands of layers of that thin pastry. It's as if the line is the bit of icing on the top. The bit you're playing is the fifty-ninth bit of pastry. So that what you're saying is one thing, what you're meaning is another.”

Eyre asks “is it difficult to talk about acting?” Dame Judi: “I don't think we should talk about acting because there's nothing to talk about, really. It's as if we are blank canvases. It's the play and the author and the author's intention that energise the actor. It's only when you're telling the story that you're doing your job; after you've done that you've done that there's nothing really to talk about.”

Acting

ISBN:
£

Nick Hern Books

published:
05 October 2009

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Theatre of Revolt- Robert Brustein

The reading of Robert Brustein continues after “Seasons of Discontent” at Easter-time. “Theatre of Revolt” is not contemporary criticism but a look-back at drama of the last century. The same spirit, however, of freshness and acuity pertains. Brustein's writings on Ibsen and Strindberg were originally published in “Tulane Drama Review” in 1962. Critically it was another age. French influence was existentialist and no more. Brustein places the dramatists in their age of scientific, religious and political ferment. “The modern drama, in short, rides in on the second wave of Romanticism- not the cheerful optimism of Rousseau with his emphasis on institutional reform, but rather the dark fury of Nietzsche.”

Ibsen is now a mainstay of theatre stages with a reassuring security to him. Brustein finds a spirit of the age far from Biedermeier. Gautier wanted to be “the terror of the sleek, bald-headed bourgeois.” Ibsen raged against “fatted swine-snouts.” Even Chekhov is enrolled by Brustein citing “All I wanted to say was “Have a look at yourselves and see how bad and dreary your lives are.”

In 1869 the forty-one year old Ibsen in Dresden wrote a poem entitled “To My Friend, the Revolutionary Orator.” Previous revolutions had been incomplete. "Your changing pawns is a futile plan” ran a couplet “Make a sweep of the chessboard, and I'm your man.” His friend Georg Brandes called him the most radical man he had ever met. “He is an absolute anarchist” he wrote in 1883 “wants to make a tabula rasa, put a torpedo under the whole Ark...the great task of our age of our age is to blow up all existing institutions.” This was a year before “the Wild Duck” which sheds light on the origin of Gregers Werle.

Brustein lays into a generation of critics who “visualise Ibsen as a bemedalled journeyman-dramatist, equipped with side whiskers, a portly belly, and an impeccable family life, who becomes- after a somewhat unstable youth- one of the most respected and respected members of the Norwegian community.” Mencken in particular is called out for rebuttal.

In particular Brustein highlights the sheer mercurial quality of the persona behind the work. “In “Brand” Ibsen seems both to approve and disapprove the notion that the rebel must be absolutely true to his calling; in “Ghosts” he demonstrates both the importance and futility of advanced opinions; in “Rosmersholm” he expresses both hope and despair over the possibility of mankind's ennoblement from within. In “A Doll's House” he is radical, attacking the marriage built on a lie; in “the Wild Duck” he is conservative, showing that domestic falsehoods, under certain circumstances, are entirely necessary for survival.”

The ambivalence and dualism runs throughout. “If Ibsen is a systematic rebel, then he is particularly evasive one; and anyone seeking philosophical certainty or ideological consistency had better beware.”

Ibsen's output was considerable and productions tend to centre on a top six to eight. Brustein looks at the early “Emperor and Galilean”- “contains many stunning dramatic passages, as well as being an extraordinary anticipation of Nietzsche's later attitudes to Christianity, Dionysus, and the Superman.”

And of course a critic who lasts does so because he can write. “Brand” is constructed like a series of interlocking arches, each ascending higher than the last.” In a similar vein “the dramatic design of “Miss Julie” is like two intersecting lines going in opposite directions.” Digging into “Brand” “like Kierkegaard before him” Ibsen's protagonist “is disposed toward the great saint or the great sinner...he cannot abide the will-less mediocrities who fail to be anything fully.”

“Theatre of Revolt” is consistent, arresting, exhilarating reading.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Little Brown & Company

published:
10 August 2009

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Seasons of Discontent (concluding)- Robert Brustein

The reason for the vividness of ““Seasons of Discontent” is its evocation of the theatre that was utterly of its age. The nineteen-sixties are now variously a time for myth on one hand and damnation on the other. Here they are happening as they unrolled.

Tyrone Guthrie sets up in Minneapolis- “a cultural seed planted by an English gardener in a the rich, untilled soil of the Midwest.” Brustein applauds the quality of the speaking and the design quality of Tanya Moiseiwitsch. Minnesota is superior, he says, to the Old Vic. The Living Theatre does “the Brig” and “the Connection.” The first reaction to Jack Gelber's play is that it employs “the familiar, generally gratuitous techniques of experimental theatre.” But he changes his mind.

“It takes about ten minutes to realise that you are witnessing an extraordinary performance in which everything, including your initial response, has been planned with absolute precision. The acting and direction are so true that it would be some kind of violation to single out individuals for praise.”

It is not so when he comes to that most urbane man of letters of the 60s. Brustein sees Gore Vidal's “the Best Man”. “It is as if the author were sitting cachinnating at his own conceits” he writes “and zealously cheering his own achievement when the curtain fell.” He even terms Vidal's authorship “nominal” ascribing the play's content to “an Audience Survey Tabulator and a frighteningly efficient Univac machine.”

The USA's most treasured authors are up for a critical duffing-up. “The Night of the Iguana” has good things to it. But Tennessee Williams “has explored this territory too many times before.-the play seems tired, unadventurous and self-derivative.” Arthur Miller fares worse. “”After the Fall” is “three and one-half-hour breach of taste, a confessional autobiography of embarrassing explicitness.” In “Incident in Vichy” “Mr Miller has given us not so much a play as another solemn on Human Responsibility. The trouble with Mr Miller's sermons, apart from the fact that they are tedious, glum and badly written, is that they are so uncomplicated.”

Even at the Actors Studio Brustein's sees little beyond decline. The relentless assault does admittedly begin to wear the reader down by the last third of the book's 312 pages. But the good outweighs the savage. Brustein has incisive words about liberalism and satire. “Much of our legitimate culture is manipulated and supported by just such progressive, well-meaning and soupy-headed citizens and this may explain why the stage still shuns satire years after McCarthy descended to his reward.”

Art is diminished in the presence of a generosity and breadth of empathy. “Ever since Plato, it has been obvious that if your major concern is with the community...you will not feel very sympathetic to genuine art unless it supports your social convictions- which art, being highly individualistic, very rarely does.”

The result is “the growing emphasis on community welfare in America has managed to destroy our farce comedy.” Paradox, yes, But then the human world is riddled with contradictions. Art is its attempt at their unravelling and Brustein is its bracing, unsettling anatomist.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Jonathan Cape

published:
06 April 2009

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Seasons of Discontent- Robert Brustein

The reading of “Millennial Stages” (December 2008) acted as a prompt to go further back into the previous writings of Robert Brustein. “Seasons of Discontent” is subtitled “Dramatic Opinions 1959-1965”. The 74 pieces were written in the main for the New Republic with an occasional article for the New York Times, New York Book Review and Theatre Arts.

The bulk of immediate responses to performance and events in theatre in the USA and Britain ages rapidly. In the case of Brustein the writing is so good and the confidence of the author so great that it is a vivid picture of an era. The week on week dabs of his authorial brush assume the form in toto of a completed canvas. His book is the critic as a proto-historian.

The verbal brio is set in the foreword. His country when he started in 1959 “was preparing to waken from that long drugged sleep called the Eisenhower era; in a few months, it would begin to rub away the accumulated rheum of those eight dismal years. The end of our national lethargy was signalled, in most cultural areas, by a rush of radical dissent and artistic ferment; but the theatre, traditionally retrograde, continued to doze in the centre of blandness and mediocrity, impervious to experiment, immune to achievement, hostile to thought.” This is just the foreword. Timidity is not going to be a strong-point with Brustein.

The vividness of these reports from history has several roots. Firstly there is the sighting of familiar names in unfamiliar settings. Emlyn Williams is the Pope in Hochhuth's “the Deputy” The actor is “suitably frozen and fastidious” says Brustein approvingly in a play “which can be classified neither as good history nor as good literature.”

For a generation brought up on yodelling romance in the Tyrol Christopher Plummer was an actor who played Lear. Arthur Penn broke out across the world in 1967 with “Bonnie and Clyde.” Here he is directing Sophie Treadwell's “Machinal”. “He is able to evoke true, unified and meticulously detailed performances without signalling his presence at every turn.” Warren Beatty himself is on stage in a William Inge play “A Loss of Roses”. “Comes through with still another imitation of James Dean” says the critic.

“Seasons of Discontent” contains critical response to work that has entered theatre's mainstream. The difference is that Brustein is seeing it without any pre-apprehension or prepared response. It is being unveiled in a condition that is entirely new. He is there to see the first productions of Max Frisch, and “the Caretaker”. He thinks little of the last, it being too abstract to his taste. “Could be just as effectively performed in Finno-Ugaric” he says.

Even Richard Burton's return to “Hamlet” irks him. “He is all colour, like an Action painting...he sniffs, brays barks too much; and he is more dour and surly than truly melancholy.” Hume Cronyn as Polonius is better- “a cranky, rheumatic, avuncular but forthcoming and sagacious counsellor.”

Brustein likes “Zoo Story” very much, almost more than any other play he covers. Of “Roots” Brustein observes “Arnold Wesker would seem to be another dramatist who has been praised too quickly; compared with Albee, in fact, he looks like a theatrical primitive. For while “the American Dream” is a high-fidelity playback of the latest avant-garde tunes, “Roots” plays as if the author had just stumbled on John Galsworthy.” “Theatrical primitive” is not the nicest of epithets. But then Brustein is a rare critic in deploying scythe as well as scalpel.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Jonathan Cape

published:
05 April 2009

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Millennial Stages- Robert Brustein

Robert Brustein occupies a position between theatre practitioner and commentator. He is founder of the American Repertory Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre but also a critic since 1959. He has a gift for phrasing that is lethally good and his book titles give an indicator of their flavour. They include “Seasons of Discontent”, “Making Scenes” and “Dumbocracy in America.” This latest collection of essays and reviews, mainly reprinted from “the New Republic”, is in character.

The central part of the collection is given to reviews of productions, fifty-five in all. A first task of criticism, far from its only, is evocation. Brustein is in attendance at some remarkable events. Not only is Al Pacino doing Arturo Ui but the company includes Steve Buscemi, Chazz Palminteri, Billy Crudup, Paul Giamatti, Charles Durning, Dominic Chianese and John Goodman. Ui rises in power but in Pacino's performance, says Brustein, “he never loses that sense of sallow, melancholiac penury.”

He is at a strange “Salome”. In Oscar Wilde's reworking Pacino again is Herod. Marisa Tomei is an urban Salome, David Strathairn is Jokanaan and Diane Wiest is Herodias. The acting styles are all odds. “All in all” the critic signs off “this “Salome” is a worthy enterprise by actors committed to the stage and not afraid to look foolish on it. I came away admiring their grit, their courage and their lunacy.”

Critics are enjoyed for their consistency of personality. Brustein's aesthetic preferences are clear-cut but not dominant. Description comes first. He admires Complicite's “Mnemonic”, not least for “its sheer theatrical wizardry. “Instead of separating audiences into an educational caste system, it shows how we can use our minds to explore experiences common to all.”

He makes the contrast with Stoppard. “The Invention of Love”, his play on Housman, has been forged in research in the Bodleian and British Library with a result. “There is not enough plot here for twenty years of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight.” He is not kind on Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet. “While Beale captures the cuttingly ironic and quotidian aspects of the role he never touches its touches its tragic side.” He compares the playing to Addison deWitt in “All about Eve.”

Brustein is an audience member. He records ticket prices, physical discomfort and an excess of length. He is not charmed by six and a half hours of Mnouchkine. “What it lacks is a reasonable aesthetic, a sense of economy and form, an overarching unity. What it needs, in other words, is a dramatist.”

The writing always zings. Of Caryl Churchill she has “emerged as the most plastic English playwright of her generation- more versatile than the minimalist Harold Pinter, more profound than the intellectual skywriter Tom Stoppard, more unpredictable than the locked liberal David Hare.” Critics may be read for opinion but they are not read only for opinion. They are writers and are read for the flair of their writing. The reading of “Millennial Stages” is an unbroken pleasure.

Half of “Millennial Stages” is spent outside the theatre auditorium. The sections are titled “Positions and Polemics” and “People and Places.” The settings change but the spirit of character persists. He sails on a cruise ship through the Dardanelles sponsored by Harvard and recalls that twenty-one of Shakespeare's plays have a Mediterranean location. Since the playwright had no knowledge of the area “this made the geographical aspect of my lectures a bit of a stretch.”

Brustein delivers a keynote address in Australia on the future of art in a democratic society. He describes an era of “greying audiences, defecting actors, declining taste, second-rate theatre criticism, impoverished school arts programmes, inadequate philanthropic support, moral and political correctness- yes, and the cringing assumption that anything arriving from London bears a superior cultural imprint.”

There are valuable journeys to parts of theatre's history. “Hallie Flanagan Davis and the Federal Theatre” is a ten-page summary essay of the one-off Works Progress Administration of the 1930s. It runs into another era. “You are quoting from this Marlowe” says House Representative Joseph Starnes. The Marlowe in question is Christopher of Deptford. “Is he a Communist?” asks the politician-inquisitor.

Brustein visits and applauds the work of American dramatists. “My life is not about race. It's about life” says Suzan-Lori Parks on a public platform. “Why does everyone think white artists make art and black artists make statements? Why doesn't anyone ever ask me about form?” He wades into the unclarity as to authorial right or not to a subject. William Styron is exposed to public abuse for “Confessions of Nat Turner.” The book, records Brustein, is dropped from college reading lists while the essay collection that attacks it is often required reading.

He writes acutely about Primo Levi. In “When Dramaturgs ruled the Earth” he roves over the critical field. Stark Young, Harold Clurman, Mary McCarthy, Eric Bentley, Walter Kerr and Jack Kroll are all included. On Tynan he distinguishes the mastery in one form from the lack of gift for another. As literary manager “almost all of the plays he championed now seem rather shopworn and dog-eared.” He writes a tribute to Richard Gilman. “Writers would arrive at Yale as conventional realists, reliving their family conflicts in imitation of Miller, Williams, and Inge, and leave as fabulists, absurdists, and surrealists.”

In the introduction he declares theatre “a barometer of how people behave and feel at any given moment in history.” In a public address at Columbia University called “Does theatre matter?” he speaks for theatre. He loves movies but knows the difference. “What these competing forms can't provide very often is (1) a sense of community and (2) a penetrating spiritual experience...in short, while movie-going is a solitary activity, theatre-going is a communal one.”

Wide-ranging, acerbic, finely poised prose; who could ask for anything more?

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Yale University Press

published:
05 December 2008

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BRINGING DOWN THE HOUSE- Olivia Turnbull

THE CRISIS IN BRITAIN’S REGIONAL THEATRES

A crisis between 1979 and 1997 saw over a quarter of Britain’s regional theatres closed down. Those that survived found themselves constantly on the brink, forced to radically reduce their programmes and go dark for extended periods of time. Bringing Down the House delves into how and why the crisis occurred, and examines its long-lasting effects on the English theatre industry revealing problems extending beyond the government’s scant regard for the arts, right back to World War II.

By probing into the history of regional theatres from the introduction of state funding after the war, Turnbull unearths a catalogue of re-occurring problems that ensured the fabric of British theatre was historically fragile. Between the foundation of the Arts Council in 1945 and the Conservatives’ election in 1979, unresolved issues about the nature of regional theatre and the basis for allocating funds made it difficult for theatres to successfully adapt to changing times. Turnbull seeks to address why theatres were so ill equipped to deal with Thatcherism and asks what, if anything, was done under Blair to address the situation. An important and timely read for theatre and cultural history scholars alike, Bringing Down the House interrogates the history and politics of regional theatre.

Olivia Turnbull is a Senior Lecturer in Drama Studies at Bath Spa University. Her research interests include contemporary British and American theatre, verbatim, site specific and experimental performance practices.

critical comment

ISBN:9781841502083
£19.95

Intellect Books

published:
01 November 2008

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Stage Directions- Michael Frayn

Curtain Call in Aberystwyth this past spring pulled a smart trick on an old favourite. “Noises Off” requires that the set be reversed between acts. Director Timothy Howe left the set as it was and reversed his audience. Michael Frayn, the most philosophical of playwrights, would have been delighted.

Philosophy and jokery are not so far removed. “Alphabetical Order”, in the author's view, is about the interdependence of order and disorder. Similarly “the actors in “Noises Off” have fixed the world by learning roles and rehearsing their responses. The fear that haunts them is that the unlearned and the unrehearsed...will seep back onto the stage.”

Plays belong to their author but their performance belongs, if that is the right term, to their audience. Nonetheless, Frayn's own views illuminate. On “Copenhagen” for instance: “the epistemology of intention is what the play is about.” “Democracy”: “complexity is what the play is about.” Frayn likes complexity. Since complexity- a very different thing from complicatedness- is the basis of good art-making, his prominence in theatre and the novel, a rare combination, is no surprise.

He likes paradox too and traces it up to the nature of the universe itself. The universe “has vastness only in relation to ourselves and the things around us, has structure only in so far as we give it expression in our perception and language, has objective form only in so far as we conceive it from our single standpoint in space and time.” It is the theme that is central in his big, and good ,“the Human Touch.”

In summary he writes: “So far as I can see, all of these plays are attempts to show something about the world...not to promote any particular idea of it.” In fact it is about the opposite. “What they are all about in one way or another (it seems to me) is the way in which we impose our ideas upon the world upon us.”

The subtitle for “Stage Directions” is “Writing on Theatre 1970-2008”. It covers 262 pages, not a mountain for almost 40 years. Michael Frayn is no David Edgar. This is not intended as impoliteness to Edgar whose offstage writings are essential. “Testing the Echo” is one of the best of the year to date. But dichotomies are always roughly hewn. “Political” is thrown around slackly in both praise and condemnation in theatre argument. Edgar's “the Shape of the Table” is one of the best ever of politics in action. So too is Frayn's “Democracy.”

That play has a thirty-three page essay in this collection. Frayn describes the background and the achievement of Willi Brandt but also homes into the man. His political associates made complaint of “his indecisiveness, his avoidance of confrontation, his uncommunicativeness, his proneness to depression, and his vanity. He made many conquests, but had few real friends. He extended a personal intimacy to a hall full of people but not to many individuals taken on their own.”

There is the paradox in politics and also its theatricality. History is also unknowable in its last degree. The essay on “Copenhagen” covers an exhaustive forty pages. Within it Frayn illustrates the slipperiness of historical verdict. He cites Samuel Goudsmit who wrote at the time of Heisenberg's death in 1976. “He was a very great physicist, a deep thinker, a fine human being, and also a courageous person. He was one of the greatest physicists of our time but he suffered severely under the unwarranted attacks by fanatical colleagues. In some respects he must be considered a victim of the Nazi regime.”

Against which Frayn cites Robert Jungk from 1956 on the paradox. “Under a dictatorship active resistance can only be practised by those who pretend to collaborate with the regime. Anyone speaking out openly against the system thereby indubitably deprives himself of any chance of active resistance.”

There is the nub of why Born and Heisenberg lend themselves to dramatic treatment.

The collection brings together the introductions to the published plays. These divide between the plays of his own authorship and the adaptations from Russia drama. These may be occasional pieces but they are not lightweight “Where a work of fiction features historical characters and historical events”, begins the essay on “Copenhagen”, “it's reasonable to want to know how much of it is fiction and how much of it is history.” There follows forty-five pages of historical, thematic and dramatic exegesis. No more need be said about his brain-box of a play.

Frayn roams across the field of theatre deploying the sharpness of an eye trained in journalism. He mordantly describes how plays fail in London and New York in ways that are utterly different. He does not pass over his own career's lowest point. “Look, Look” was a West End failure on a historic scale. I was there early to see it in its brief spasm of life. I enjoyed it but could guess it was brilliant surface masking a disaster-in-waiting in concept. But wisdom is easy, and cheap, after the event.

Frayn was an early writer but a relatively late entrant to theatre. “Most playwrights start young when they are full of passion and certainty” he says. Uncertainty is of course part and parcel of the philosophical calling. “Often, by the age of thirty-six, which I was when my first play was produced, they have already got it out of their system, and sunk exhausted into obscurity, celebrity, or drink.”

Perhaps it is because he came late but unusually for a playwright he writes as an enthusiast for theatre from the perspective of an audience member. The writing is fulsome and deserves to be quoted in full.

“You sit through all the solemnities and pieties, all the things that ought to stir you to pity or indignation and don't, and you never not know what's going to catch you by the throat. Suddenly the old trick has happened yet again and you're sitting up, entirely alive- more than alive- outside yourself.

"Sometimes it has been sheer theatrical bravura that has kept me on the edge of my seat all evening...the Terry Hands “Cyrano” at the RSC, in Anthony Burgess's amazing translation. But then so has the pure exhilaration of language- in Mamet, for example- and the blaze of plot and language combined, in Racine. So has sheer truthfulness, as in Mike Leigh's organically grown confections, or the David Storey plays, which demonstrated for me the first time that the great world of work in which we all live could be represented on the stage.”

“I sometimes feel that the skill of the audience is not sufficiently recognised” he adds in an uncommon tribute. There are great moments in theatre. “These epiphanies are not isolated events, of course. The charge builds and builds before the lightning strikes; and the particles in which the electricity is stored are the audience.” Simon Callow liked this. “As good an account of what actually happens in a theatre as I have ever read” was his view.

Although the critics did not go for “Afterlife” I was whole-heartedly for it. The essay on the context of the action is both paradoxical and terrible. Frayn's research drew on the notebooks of Max Reinhardt. As a record of a director reading a play it too deserves to be quoted at length.

“Finally you have a complete optical and acoustic vision. You see every gesture, every step, every piece of furniture, the light, you hear every intonation, every rise in emotional temperature, the musicality of the idioms, the pauses, the different tempi. You feel every inward stirring, you know how it is to be concealed and when it is to be revealed. You hear every sob, every intake of breath. The way another character listens, every noise onstage and backstage. The influence of light.”

The last substantial section of “Stage Directions” is given over to the authors whom Frayn he has translated. Frayn learned Russian during his time of national service. He is not an adaptor in the sense of synthesising prior versions. He knows for instance that Russian does not have the definite and indefinite article. So Nina's line in “The Seagull” that declares “I am a seagull” is not that at all. Its translation should be “I am the seagull.” She is referring to the seagull in Trigorin's story. Frayn on Chekhov is a formidable critical force demolishing various drippy interpretations.

When Chekhov writes “like objects, like symptoms, entirely objectively, not attempting either to agree with them or to dispute them ... the artist must not be the judge of his characters and what they are talking about, but merely an impartial witness” it feels like Frayn's position too, evidence of a maturity of artistic sensibility.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
13 August 2008

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Pattern Cutting for Men's Costume - Elizabeth Friendship

This is a practical guide to men's pattern cutting featuring every type of costume from 16th century onward: fashionable costume and ordinary clothes.

Garments are illustrated with drawings and paintings from the period, with introductions to each section explaining the historical developments affecting each costume. Numerous line diagrams show each step of drafting the pattern. alongside useful shortcuts and tips.
Includes detailed chapters on 16th century peasant costume, fashionable costume 1530-1660, fashionable costume 1660-1800 and 17th-19th century non-fashionable costume.

historical surveys

ISBN:9781408100066
£19.99

A&C Black

published:
01 August 2008

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Corsets- Jill Salen

Progressing through almost two centuries of corset-making, this fascinating collection showcases an astonishing range of period pieces, from the 1750 whale-boned corsets, through the invention of the sewing machine and mass-produced corsets of the 1850s



Jill Salen is a freelance costume maker, and is widely employed in the theatrical costume industry. She has made costumes for many clients including the Globe theatre. She is a lecturer in costume on the BA (Hons) theatre design course at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama in Cardiff. Jill lives in Cardiff.

historical surveys

ISBN:9-781-9063-8801-0
£20.00

Anova Books

published:
01 August 2008

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Obedience, Struggle and Revolt- David Hare

“The Vertical Hour” this winter was fascinating but frustrating. The Guardian liked it as a Shavian play of ideas. On the other side were “does the cause of serious drama few favours”, “garrulous”, “dessicated”, “likely to leave many in the audience prone with boredom”, “laboured, join-the-dots preachiness and great waffly chunks of dialogue that go nowhere”, “oppressively argumentative”, “almost entirely lacking in imagination.”

Debate is good. The question lingers as to why the play frustrates. The answer may be there in David Hare's most recent book of prose pieces.

“Obedience, Struggle and Revolt”, subtitled “Lectures on Theatre”, also divided its reviewers. The case for was put by Rafael Behr for the “Guardian.” “He has fought tirelessly to present people with spectacles that might move them with cruel honesty about the world and thereby fight injustice. He has despised theatreland's love of mouldy relics from the classical repertoire propped up with middle-class angst or, worse still, with aristocratic wit. Better outrage than complacency.”

Johan Hari for “the Independent” offers a different reading. Hare delivers a eulogy to John Osborne in the church of St Giles in the Fields. Osborne, says Hare, is “our poet laureate of flopsweat, of lost opportunity, of missed connections and of hidden dread”. Hari takes objection to Hare's sharp bifurcation. “He is furious that, in contemporary accounts of theatrical history, “Samuel Beckett's “Waiting For Godot” has displaced Osborne's “Look Back in Anger” as the turning-point in 20th-century drama. He wants a theatre of Jimmy Porters hacking bile at their audiences, not of bemused tramps asking gently, "We're not starting to mean something, are we?"

“There are a few problems with Hare's attempt to marshal Osborne in this way” says Hari. “Was he in any meaningful sense a political artist? And was he any good anyway? Hare claims Beckett borders on nihilism and offers his audience no vision of positive change, but isn't there far more nihilism in the incoherent and howling rage of Osborne? When Hare tries to outline his hero's political agenda, he descends into (uncharacteristic) banality, saying "in Osborne's values, you find a love of emotion, of high, true, uncensored feeling", and that he offers "a highly romantic gesture of defiance in defence of the individual".

Osborne's key insight is apparently that, "because we are all going to die, it is therefore extremely important what we do now." How is any of this political? Who doubts that it is extremely important what we do before we die?

Hari on Hare raises the temperature. “Hare smothers his texts with so much self-importance that it becomes hard to follow his argument. He persistently presents himself as the tortured victim of dark forces. He says the supposed attempt to undermine political art "borders on an Oliver Stone-style conspiracy", and he is the victim of people who "seek to destroy us with neglect". Yet he then (in direct contradiction) fumes at the decision of a few London critics to fly out to see his new show in Australia: "In this business your enemies will follow you to the end of the earth." Come on, it's hardly the Mafia, is it, David?”

Hare and I have shared the same country but not the same perception. “Nothing is more dangerous in his eyes than the ease with which our society slips back to a default position of supine deference to the establishment” says Behr. The period of our lives is not so far apart. Mine was a Britain- his is always and repetitively England- that took in simmering civil war, riot, strikes and power outages, the whole panoply of the unburied dead in 1979. Gender, sexuality and race relations have been transformed. Not so for Hare for whom “Theatre has changed as little as society.”

The book has a characteristic assembly of quotations. Intriguingly they include Chekhov saying It is not the business of writers to accuse or to prosecute. We have enough accusers, prosecutors and gendarmes without them.” There is in the prose as in the plays too many an aphorism that reduces its subject. “John's subject is essentially failure” is Osborne reduced. But in all drama someone ends up failing in something."Of all British playwrights of the twentieth century, he is the one who risked most.” Eye-catching but true in any way?

The admissions sometimes admit too much. “Playwrights don't get out much” he says in a speech. The key to understanding Hare is that he is a moralist, fiercely and unchangeably. We know thunderingly what he is against but like Orwell writing about Dickens it is not so clear what he is for. He does not like conservative government but he does not like his lot much either. “People are tired of being lectured...that there is no alternative to a cowardly Labour government. They know there is. It's a courageous Labour government.” But we have no idea what his ideas might be for courage in action.

“The Vertical Hour” has a dominant figure in Oliver, the father in passive rural retreat. I thought it “dialectically limp in that Oliver as a character is not a lot more than a collection of wry and caustic attitudes.” A pause for reflection that character and character-maker are not so far apart.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
28 March 2008

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Lovefuries- David Rabey

Lovefuries offers a double bill of performance pieces that explode national and personal pressures to keep silent, and explore the surprising and shocking resurgences of life that break through grief.

In The Contracting Sea, the fiancée of a just-shipwrecked sailor is challenged by a feminine elemental force of catastrophe to throw off the shackles of her common humanity. The second play, The Hanging Judge, explores from the inside an occurrence of sexual abuse in a contemporary Welsh context, and how one survivor finds the courage to discover defiance. This second volume of dramatist-director Rabey’s plays for his own Lurking Truth/Gwir sy’n Llechu theatre company also includes the short two-hander Bite or Suck, completing a collection of innovative drama that restlessly explores what is possible at the extreme boundaries of human language and physicality.

David Ian Rabey is Professor of Drama and Theatre Studies at Aberystwyth University, and Artistic Director of Lurking Truth/Gwir sy’n Llechu theatre company, which he co-founded in 1985.

collected plays

ISBN:9781841501840
£14.95

Intellect Books

published:
01 March 2008

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State of the Nation (1970s)- Michael Billington

The middle decades of this notable book differ from those that have preceded. Michael Billington becomes a part of theatre's ecology. “In October 1971” he writes “I was invited by Peter Preston to become drama critic of the “Guardian” which was the start of a durable professional marriage.” He adds a line to attest to domestic happiness. The role in the seventies was not as it is thirty years on. Along with first nights and travel came presenting arts programmes for radio and television.

The nation of the title is of course England and it is an England of London and Stratford. Chichester pops up as an honorary extension of London. The building of the Royal Exchange is noted, along with its inspirational leadership under Michael Elliott. 7:84 appears only because “the Stag, the Cheviot...” was a stand-out. The only other reference to Scotland is the creation of the Traverse in 1963. It gets a mention in a sentence as precursor to Jim Haynes founding the Arts Lab in a cellar in Drury Lane.

The book's approach is probably right. London does dominate and the sixties were London's time. Its theatre geography is precisely noted. Charles Marowitz and Thelma Holt founded the Open Space “off the Tottenham Court Road.” Ed Berman created the Ambiance Theatre in Baywsater [sic]. These were the years of Monstrous Regiment, Foco Novo, Hull Truck and Black Theatre Co-Operative.

The names of theatre that persist into today make their first appearances. Tom Stoppard enters with a novel in 1966 “Lord Malquist and Mr Moon”, a macabre farce with the funeral of Churchill as its background. Glenda Jackson is on stage in a tight black dress and high heels. Soon she is in a tin bath and naked. Peter Brook is director. Other directors debut in these years, the names including Lindsay Anderson and Trevor Nunn, Hands and Hytner, Bill Bryden and Katie Michell.

The sheer span of theatre is essentially uncatchable. Billington attempts a taxonomy that he admits does not adequately fit. Thus Ayckbourn, Hampton, Pinter and Stoppard are grouped as “Contemporary Classicists” but only “for want of a better term.” The other two categories are “Disturbers of the Peace” and “Anatomists of Albion”. The disturbers are Barnes and Bond, Orton and Wood. The last grouping includes Bennett, Nicholas, Osborne and Storey.

It is a densely packed book in which the criticism moves in on a selection of productions as central. “The Homecoming” naturally is one. “Saved” “Loot”, “Fanshen”, “Company”,“the Oresteia” follow. David Hare received a commercial production at an astonishingly young age with “Knuckle”. That play and “Plenty” receive the indepth critiques.

It was also the time of Roy Jenkins and Alice Bacon at the Home Office. Censorship went although the Lord Chamberlain goes down fighting to the end. “Abelard and Eloise” got huge publicity for the nakedness of its principals. Audiences were never to know if it were the case as the scene was played in near total darkness. It was the period too of “the Romans in Britain”, the only appearance of Michael Bogdanov in the book. Theatre is simply too big to get in its entirety and the Old Vic may well have been a journey too far.

Omissions are inevitable. “Jumpers”, an effervescent mix of logical positivism, acrobatics and murder gets several paragraphs. But Brook's “A Midsummer Night's Dream” gets only the adjectives “magical” and “Meyergoldian.”

The relationship between a book and its reader is particular. The years between fifteen and twenty-five are the ones of greatest receptivity. The tastes for life are set. The small drama gang at my school mounted lunchtime scenes of “Serjeant Musgrave's Dance” and “Early Morning”. (The latter it was let known by a tolerant teacher-hood was a step too far.) Abigail's Party” and “Destiny” were dramatised for television. “Plenty” I saw in the 90s with Cate Blanchett. “Afore Night Come”, “Loot” and “the Philanthropist” I saw in revival, a virtue of “regional theatre.”

I was taken to the first tours of “Saved” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.” “Equus”, “Jumpers”, Knuckle”,“the Old Country”, “the Philanthropist”, “Privates on Parade”, “Comedians”, “Otherwise Engaged”, “Once a Catholic” had among many Edward Fox, Kate Nelligan, Michael Hordern, Felicity Kendall, Alan Bates, Alec Guinness, Dennis Quilley, Alan Bates, Colin Blakely. My first working life was in London and I saw them all.

“State of the Nation” is history but I am not an impartial reader. It is also my biography.

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
17 December 2007

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State of the Nation (Part 2: 1980s Onwards)- Michael Billington

The concluding section continues with Michael Billington's aim of linking theatre to zeitgeist to history. The names that enter are the ones that are revived today. “Road” is central, described as “a poetic evocation of human waste”. “Serious Money” was a display of verve, flamboyance and popular success, with the bizarre effect of luring in droves the very people who were the objects of its attack.

Billington over-values Ayckbourn's “A Small Family Business” which is a wonder of theatre craft. He sees in it “worship of traditional family and sanctification of human greed” and “you can't have it both ways.” In fact you can. Public companies that retain a large family presence on the register are more stable and fruitful. “The Secret Rapture” is also critically over-valued because the root of the conflict between sisters has no empirical sense to it. But the two Davids continued to impress. “The Shape of the Table” was theatre's best evocation of the revolutions in Europe. Hare's “Racing Demon” may prove to be his best although “Skylight” has had successful revivals. Being a two-hander with a fine dialectical surge to it is no disadvantage.

Tony Harrison reached a peak with “The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus”. I was in the front row for the first performance of “Arcadia”. It was a stellar night with Felicity Kendall, Bill Nighy and Harriet Walter but I would never have guessed at the time as to its staying power and popularity.

A welter of new dramatists arrive in the last 100 pages: Timberlake Werthenbaker, Charlotte Keatley, Billy Roche, Mustapha Matura, Winsome Pinnock, Mark Ravenhill, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh. The new companies that take centre stage include Cheek by Jowl, Kick Theatre, Theâtre de Complicité, Renaissance Theatre Company. The new directors are Sam Mendes, Katie Michell, Stephen Daldry, Ian Rickson. Billington picks out the particular class and clout of the Almeida under Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid. Among the stream of productions is “a classy revival of Anouilh's “the Rehearsal” that transferred silkily to the West End.” It is an artful choice of adjective as the production, although not mentioned, was dressed by Jasper Conran.

It was also the period when an ever elastic genre began to embrace documentary. Richard Norton-Taylor wrote the coruscating “the Colour of Justice.” It prefigured a series that included “Bloody Sunday”, “Via Dolorosa”, “Stuff Happens”, “My Name is Rachel Corrie.”

As documentary itself “State of the Nation” is unlikely to be bettered. Historians will pick at the parts of political history and find too much binary separation and demonising. But its narrative of the switchback history of public funding is detailed and exact. As for the personal preferences and aesthetics they are subtly and economically deployed. When he describes “Scenes from an Execution” as “easily his best play” it is probable that he finds much of Howard Barker hard going.

Billington thinks theatre distinctive in one respect over other art forms in one respect. “It is a vehicle of moral enquiry. It has questioned structures, scrutinised attitudes, satirised individuals.” He likes plays and is sceptical of the “directocracy.” He dislikes conservatism in all its forms from blancmange in the West End to productions that do not like drama much. “To create a separate area of theatre that is primarily “visual”, and to endow it with a sanctified purity as many as its apologists do, is simply to create a meaningless ghetto. And it is essentially conservative.”

The book is an exhilarating ride from 1945 with a firm view “The single most important factor that had made British theatre the envy of the world was its continuing ability to produce new writers” Playwrights have been around a long time and they are not going to wither away. “I would gamble on the dramatist outlasting the auteur-like director.”

historical surveys

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
17 December 2007

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State of the Nation- Michael Billington

The subject matter of “State of the Nation” is sixty years of theatre history. It has the weight of detail and personal experience that only Michael Billington could bring to such an undertaking. Its goal is to link theatre to the context of a Britain in historical change and convulsion. It is underpinned by the quality of writing that is able to capture the general, locate the significant and render it in sharp précis of description.

Thus, on Terence Rattigan: “a traditionalist drawn to classical structures and reticent understatement: thematically, he endorsed defiance of convention and society's repressive rules.” Billington alights on the forgotten, gay-coded “Accolade” and writes of Emlyn Williams: “it was Williams' Celtic obsession with doubleness and ambiguity that marked him out as a peculiarly fascinating writer.”

The future is unguessable and Priestley's persistence to twenty-first century GCSE set text would have surprised. Of “An Inspector Calls” he writes “Priestley is less an Edwardian throwback than an early example of a Bertolt Brecht...has the instincts of a social engineer as well as a demolition expert.” These first two decades of the book saw the arrival of Beckett at the Arts Theatre. Peter Hall makes use of silence as it has never been used before. Silence in Beckett is “not just to heighten dramatic tension but as a reminder of cosmic solitude.”

“State of the Nation” follows the directors who made their first impact. Hall first appears as a 22 year old directing John Whiting's “Saints Day”. William Gaskill becomes Brecht's leading director in Britain. Tony Richardson observes of Archie Rice singing a blues song and collapsing as “the single most thrilling moment I've had in theatre”. John Dexter mounts “the Royal Hunt of the Sun” at Chichester. Joan Littlewood takes her company to Paris. The actors transport the sets and costumes as hand luggage and do not have the money for the fare home.

But innovation lives side by side with popular theatre and Billington provides reminders of the plays that continued to bring in the money. Hugh and Margaret Williams are co-authors of the hugely successful “Plaintiff in a Pretty Hat”. Its subject is the financial distress of a Welsh earl who is obliged to rent out his estate and slum it in a Belgavia mews house drinking pink champagne.

The summaries of Britain's political landscape are reinforced with the tiniest slivers of autobiography. Billington is old enough to remember the awfulness of powdered eggs. Every child knew the rationing of sweets. In the unbearable winter of 1947 he remembers his mother “literally begging for a sack of coal.” At eleven he is old enough to remember the Festival of Britain, in particular the Emmett railway. Like every working-class boy with a scholarship he meets an Oxford of others. It is 1958 and populated by “an upper class set who possessed an ease, social assurance and braying lung-power that I both envied and cordially detested.” A paragraph on the sixties has a line on a brief disastrous spell working on a Liverpool newspaper

These first two decades see the formation of institutions, and much politicking, in the RSC and the National. A book is a direct link between writer and reader. Billington's first period takes 160 pages. At that point my reading shifts joltingly. “State of the Nation” ceases to be history and becomes part of my biography.

critical comment

ISBN:
£

Faber & Faber

published:
15 December 2007

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Contemporary Theatre in Education- Roger Wooster

Paperback 230x174mm

Theatre in Education emerged in the mid-sixties as a unique hybrid of performance and child-centred learning. Contemporary Theatre in Education
charts the creation and adaptation of this ‘hybrid’ through the changing political, economic and educational environment. It also takes a ‘snapshot’ of the TIE being created today, considering all the projects being performed
in Wales during a single month. The projects are analysed and every TIE director interviewed about the work and the policies of their companies. It
becomes very clear that that the distinction between TIE and Children’s Theatre is being blurred.

Is it possible for the hybrid to survive? Or have the economics of schools, the post-National Curriculum educational philosophy and the lack of
understanding from a new breed of teachers created an environment that has forced a mutation? Perhaps theatre in education has just evolved, but
perhaps just forty years after it began it is facing extinction.


This book will be of relevance to any who works with TIE or drama in schools as a practitioner or a teacher. It is also an invaluable resource for any school, college or university student studying the application of theatre in a school environment.

‘A most useful, provocative and well-researched theoretical document which I will most certainly have on my essential reading list for students studying theatre in education.’

Charmian Savill, University of Aberystwyth

critical comment

ISBN:9781841501703
£19.95

Intellect Books

published:
01 August 2007

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A Performance Cosmology- Judie Christie, Richard Gough, Daniel Watt

A Performance Cosmology is an adventurous departure for the field of theatre and performance studies.  This book explores the future challenges of performance and theatre through a diverse and fascinating series of interviews, testimonies and perspectives from leading international theatre practitioners and academics.
Contributors Include:
Philip Auslander, Rustom Bharucha, Tim Etchells, Jane Goodall, Guillermo Goméz-Pena, Jon Mckenzie, Claire MacDonald, Susan Melrose, Alphonso Lingus, Freddie Rokem, Richard Schechner, Edward Scheer and Rebecca Schneider.
In A Performance Cosmology the 'Testimony from the Future' is structured as a travelogue through a matrix of strategic, imaginary, interdisciplinary fieldstations.  This innovative framework enables readings that disrupt linearity and afford different forms of thematic engagement, opening new vistas on the old, new, and as yet unimagined worlds of performance.
In 'Evidence of the Past' , CPR's exploratory past and vigorous present is charted through an illustrated chronology of thirty years' extraordinary contribution to the field of theatre and performance studies, whilst speculating on and conjuring up its futures.

critical comment

ISBN:
£29.99

Centre for Performance Research

published:
24 November 2006

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Radioactive Monologues for Women - Marina Caldarone, Marilyn Le Conte (eds)

Over thirty monologues for women drawn from contemporary radio and stage plays. Draws together over thirty extracts from the best contemporary plays for radio and stage. Designed as a resource for actors working in radio, theatre or television, this collection of extracts is suitable for audition and performance work. It also features an essay on the challenges, skills and rewards of radio acting.

collected plays

ISBN:9780413775801
£8.99

A&C Black

published:
01 August 2006

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Radioactive: Duologues For Radio, Stage and Scree- Marina Caldarone, Marilyn Le Conte (eds)

Presents over thirty extracts from the plays for radio and stage. Designed as a resource for actors working in radio, theatre or television, this collection of extracts is helpful for audition and performance work. It is divided into three sections of duologues: male/female; male/male, and female/female, and features introductions to each piece.

collected plays

ISBN:9780413775788
£8.99

A&C Black

published:
01 August 2006

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