Theatre in Wales

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Book Review- Not Quite One Thing or Another

Theatre Director Book

William Gaskill , Nick Hern Publishing , January 14, 2012
Theatre Director Book by 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?”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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