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Deep Observation & Insight into Directors- Summer Theatre Book

Theatre Critic Book

John Lahr , Bloomsbury , June 27, 2016
Theatre Critic Book by John Lahr Jennifer Homans in “Apollo’s Angels”, her superb six hundred page 2010 study of ballet, is melancholy about the art form’s future. Knowledge of ballet is embodied and “with each passing generation ballet loses a part of its past”. John Lahr too strikes a note of dismay. Perhaps disappointment is part of ageing’s inevitability- Lahr was born in 1941. “Theatre criticism is on the decline…obsession with lifestyles and celebrity has hijacked the discussion of the dramatic craft and process.” The editorial rigour at the New Yorker is legendary. “Who is Marlon Brando?” asks a twenty-something fact-checker at the journal.

The second half of “Joy Ride”- at two hundred and thirty pages it could easily be a book on its own- is testament to the New Yorker’s high water-mark. Lahr outlines his method. “My goal is to bring the reader as close to the person and the craft as I can.” Prior to the making of the profile of six to ten thousand words he generates a binder of a thousand pages. The observations and the insights into directing are considerable.

A great director, the late William Gaskill, looked to his art with sombreness. “Directing is a terrible profession. It’s lonely and it’s frustrating. It has no real satisfaction in it.” he wrote. “The first night is like death.” Certainly Lahr’s subjects have suffered. Ingmar Bergman had a vengeful sadist for a parent. Those terrible scenes in “Fanny and Alexander” where the children meet their stepfather in his Episcopal garb are straight from the life. Mike Nichols arrived in the USA from Berlin age seven. He was totally bald ; all his body hair had gone as a reaction to a faulty vaccine. He had seven words of English. The adult looking back said “I was a zero. In every way that mattered I was powerless.” The result, said his friend, Richard Avedon was “He’s on an island…people can only get in with a passport.”

Directors, says Lahr, came late to theatre. “The idea of a stage director- a person exclusively in control of the spectacle and the performance” arrived towards the end of the nineteenth century. When it did start taking root actors did not think much of it. The first occasion where a director’s name appeared above the production title was in 1947. The director was Elia Kazan, the play “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

Lahr declares the role of the director as a “weird alchemy…hard to pin down and sometimes even hard for the actors to understand.” Susan Strohman with two assistants dances every character and in the doing “worked out the landscape of movement and all the scene changes.” Lahr cites Pacino on Nicholls, Arthur Miller on Kazan, Bergman on how he does it. He is present for Hytner and Simon Russell Beale taking on “Timon of Athens”. Hytner is quoted eloquently as to why he is not of his best in film or opera.

Playwrights flourish in tandem with their particular director and Lahr sees close-up how the two can fuse. The relationship between Nicholas Hytner and Alan Bennett, one of particular fruitfulness, is described in detail. The dialogue has spice but Bennett struggles “with structure and spectacle.” Dramatist puts a first draft through his collaborator’s letterbox. The same is returned in the same way with comments. But Hytner is restrained “I don’t fight” he says.

At the other end of the spectrum Mike Nichols saw that David Rabe’s “Hurlyburly” needed cutting. “I won’t do this to the audience” was the director’s view. The play was cut and the production a success. The price was that the relationship between the two was destroyed. Lahr the observer is without sentiment; his book is one of great riches.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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