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London Directors, Actors etc Observed- Summer Theatre Book (3)

Theatre Critic Book

Jonathan Croall , Fantom , July-07-16
Theatre Critic Book by 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.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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