Theatre in Wales

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Winter Theatre Book- A Proper Look at Shakespeare

Theatre Director Book

Dominic Dromgoole , Penguin , December 12, 2016
Theatre Director Book by Dominic Dromgoole There are more obvious theatre books to look to at the end of 2016. Simon Stephens has published a working diary. Joan Littlewood's autobiography has been reissued with a new introduction. That is a reprint from 1994. Dominic Dromgoole's book on Shakespeare is ten years old. At nearly three hundred pages it is baggy but nonetheless fizzes with interest. But it has gained itself an unexpected topicality.

The Globe was theatre's news story of the second part of the year, if not the one that gained the most coverage of any event of 2016. Its coverage characterised the hopelessness of today's writing on the Arts, enough to perhaps warrant an article in its own right. “Will and me” is about “Me” but it is also potently about Shakespeare. The actual playwright and his theatre barely featured in the press brouhaha over trouble at t'Globe.

“Will and Me” comprises two parts. The bulk is autobiography, the life intermingled with the experiencing of Shakespeare. The last eighty pages, the record of a walk from Stratford to the South Bank, are less successful. Travel writing looks easy and is not. The main interest comes via insights from Dromgoole's companion-in-walking. Thomas Kemp apparently morris-danced his way from Norwich to London. He wrote his venture up with regular swipes at Shakespeare and his fellow actors. The walkers of today debate whether theatre has moral purpose. The tangle of nature around them prompts Dromgoole to believe “Art is not about giving meaning to mess. It's about reflecting mess.”

So little is known about Shakespeare. In a Britain utterly split his father was a covert Catholic, carrying out a Protestant public office, while receiving mass in secret. His cousins were executed, their heads on poles at London Bridge at the time of the playwright's own arrival in the city. His father fell from professional grace for reasons unknown. Dromgoole likens him to Dickens, Chekhov, Ibsen and Miller who “all had fathers whose heady ambitions led to bankruptcy and disgrace.”

Dromgoole's long time at the Bush and his deep contact with writers illuminate his interpretation of Shakespeare. “In ten years of working with over fifty playwrights, I have never met a single good one who knew what they were setting out to achieve when they began to write a play. They take a story or an image or an emotional sense and let it rip. Shakespeare was of that ilk.”

Dromgoole is also a Cambridge man and he has done the critics. Of the university itself “the standard of education at Cambridge was poor, the standard of its application calamitous”. He knows his Harold Bloom and his Jonathan Bate. He is not overly polite. “A funny collection of men called Mr Knights and Mr Dover Wilson and Mr Wilson Knight all wrote with a ferociously excited prose about the grand play of imagery. Their names were suspiciously similar.” For the director who actually makes the plays work his Will has “been lost as a writer of plays to the academics who have transformed him into someone strangely like themselves.”

Life corrects the education. At the Bush- “an alchemical little crucible”- “everything I had learned at university, all the Brecht and Stanislavsky and Artaud, I had to throw overboard.” As in his former book he is also a spiky observer of theatre itself. Stephen Unwin is here, his devotees including the young Tilda Swinton and Simon Russell Beale. Max Stafford-Clark is reported as saying “Every time I read a good review for another director, my heart sinks.” Pinter is spotted at a political love-in “with his heavy shades looking like a Stasi agent about to arrest everyone.” Dromgoole is awed at the National Theatre. “As Lear, he spent a lot of time still being Lambert le Roux...as Antony he spent a lot of time still being Lear.” That was Anthony Hopkins. In praise of Michael Bryant he is limitless.

Most of all Dromgoole encounters his subject as an individual even though so little is known about him. He allies him with the likes of Verdi or Titian for whom the passing of the years is spur to new heights of accomplishment. “Countless writers from Wordsworth down forgo the radicalism and enthusiasms of their youth for a settled position from which they can sternly teach....many artists, as the dark approaches, build walls of certainty around themselves; Shakespeare, as with his protagonist Lear, sends himself out into the dark and wet night to see what life throws up. We don't buy into what he knows, we buy into his desire to know”.

To read “Will and Me” is to give new and sharp contouring to the Globe of 2016. Dromgoole can direct but his book comes with another advantage. Of Peter Hall- “like a cartoon superhero, Peter has a special, self-telescoping gift. He can be any size he wishes to .” Dominic Dromgoole can also write.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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