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2104’s Best Collection of Essays on Theatre

Theatre Director Book

Richard Eyre , Nick Hern Books , December 5, 2014
Theatre Director Book by 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 Pooh-Bah-esque breadth. 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 uses 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

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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