Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

The Reluctant Escapologist (part 2)

Theatre Director Book

Mike Bradwell , Nick Hern Books , August 5, 2011
Theatre Director Book by Mike Bradwell “The Reluctant Escapologist” is ripe with tales. Mike Leigh is to be found in the unlikely environment of Bermuda, directing a “Galileo” with a cast largely comprised of gin and yachting expatriate amateurs. The Minister for the Arts visits the Bush Theatre the night that a sozzled Bulgarian climbs in via the fire escape and threatens all and sundry with a broken bottle.

Joan Littlewood wants nothing to do with the “calcified turds”, who inhabit the repertory and West End theatres. Later, in receipt of a Lifetime Achievement Award, she is refused entry to her own party at the Waldorf. The doorman mistakes her for a cleaner. In Birmingham, David Edgar is to be seen in frock coat and top hat on top of a table singing “I am the man, the very fat man who watered the workers' beer.” (It sounds as though the venue, the Gun Barrels pub, has been moved several miles East.) A young Michael Billington is encountered in the reported role of Publicity Manager at Lincoln Theatre Royal.

An artistic credo unfolds amidst the rolicking. Grotowski is depicted as an autocrat, in whose rehearsals none may speak. Artaud and the Living Theatre's Becks are treated with respect, but Bradwell diverges in inclination. “I wanted to make theatre with words and three-dimensional characters and argument and metaphor and story-telling and jokes and life and laughter.”

He confesses he is no great fan of workshop culture per se. Too much time gets wasted on plays that theatres have small intention of producing. Workshops are there to help the author to make the work better. The description of the way in which an impassioned literary manager can help a theatre's success has probably never been bettered. He gives a close description of the making of Richard Cameron's “the Glee Club.” Not that the record is perfect. During a short, none too comfortable spell at the Royal Court he admits to being the directorial hand behind one of the silliest scripts- my words, not his- ever put on by that great theatre.

Beside the art is the practicality. “The Reluctant Escapologist” seethes with rage, rancour and the spirit of confrontation. The Bush itself occupies a small corner of a large pub premises. It is liable to flood. The cause on one occasion is identified as a drain blocked by a pair of underpants that belong to a member of the bar staff. The building itself becomes part of the great property shuffle that marked British capitalism's finest hour. Long, slowly nurtured plans collapse overnight as the building is sold on from owner to owner. In a comic irony, a likeable, genuine Irish-flavoured pub goes through makeover after makeover to become a completely reinvented, synthetic…Irish-themed pub.

In the background the Arts Council lowers, in a relationship of largely bilious confrontation. A consultant is to be foisted on the theatre for which the Council has no intention of paying itself. An instruction is issued to identify the ethnicity of those behind the fifteen hundred scripts that arrive in the mail each year. “How exactly?” asks Bradwell. “By surname?” is the suggestion. “And what would that say about the name of a writer like Roy Williams” enquires Bradwell. The instruction to send every playwright a form is refused.

The relationship is not helped by the Council's official count of the audience being wrong by a cool hundred thousand. According to Bradwell, but this is hard to believe, seventy thousand pounds are taken away from theatres so that the funder can effect a name change that removes the word “of” and replaces it with a comma.

There isn 't a theatre book quite like “the Reluctant Escapologist.” Its language is inelegant. “Cool as f***”, “We didn’t sell shit” “and “get off their tits on acid” have all passed by the editor. Mike Leigh writes a foreword that describes Bradwell as “tough as an old scrotum.” Do they toughen with age? As an autobiography Bradwell omits personal attachment so that it reads like a life consumed by theatre

And messages for theatre-makers in the Wales of 2011? Beware the burgeoning overhead. At her artistic peak Joan Littlewood has an administrative team of three. At the time of his writing her theatre's full and part-time staff number eighty-six. That is before a penny has been spent on a theatre creator.

As for what a new writing endeavour should be John Godber appears on the Terry Wogan show. “What sort of plays does Hull Truck perform?” he is asked.

“I just wanted to do plays me Mam and Dad would like.” replies Godber. “I never went back.” writes Bradwell.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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