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Theatre Critic Book

Benedict Nightingale "Great Moments in the Theatre" , Oberon Books , June-29-15
Theatre Critic Book by 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.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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