Theatre in Wales

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State of the Nation- The Final Two Decades

Theatre History Book

Michael Billington , Faber & Faber , December 17, 2007
Theatre History Book by Michael Billington The concluding section continues with Michael Billington's aim of linking theatre to zeitgeist to history. The names that enter are the ones that are revived today. “Road” is central, described as “a poetic evocation of human waste”. “Serious Money” was a display of verve, flamboyance and popular success, with the bizarre effect of luring in droves the very people who were the objects of its attack.

Billington over-values Ayckbourn's “A Small Family Business” which is a wonder of theatre craft. He sees in it “worship of traditional family and sanctification of human greed” and “you can't have it both ways.” In fact you can. Public companies that retain a large family presence on the register are more stable and fruitful. “The Secret Rapture” is also critically over-valued because the root of the conflict between sisters has no empirical sense to it. But the two Davids continued to impress. “The Shape of the Table” was theatre's best evocation of the revolutions in Europe. Hare's “Racing Demon” may prove to be his best although “Skylight” has had successful revivals. Being a two-hander with a fine dialectical surge to it is no disadvantage.

Tony Harrison reached a peak with “The Trackers of Oxyrhynchus”. I was in the front row for the first performance of “Arcadia”. It was a stellar night with Felicity Kendall, Bill Nighy and Harriet Walter but I would never have guessed at the time as to its staying power and popularity.

A welter of new dramatists arrive in the last 100 pages: Timberlake Werthenbaker, Charlotte Keatley, Billy Roche, Mustapha Matura, Winsome Pinnock, Mark Ravenhill, Conor McPherson, Martin McDonagh. The new companies that take centre stage include Cheek by Jowl, Kick Theatre, Theâtre de Complicité, Renaissance Theatre Company. The new directors are Sam Mendes, Katie Michell, Stephen Daldry, Ian Rickson. Billington picks out the particular class and clout of the Almeida under Jonathan Kent and Ian McDiarmid. Among the stream of productions is “a classy revival of Anouilh's “the Rehearsal” that transferred silkily to the West End.” It is an artful choice of adjective as the production, although not mentioned, was dressed by Jasper Conran.

It was also the period when an ever elastic genre began to embrace documentary. Richard Norton-Taylor wrote the coruscating “the Colour of Justice.” It prefigured a series that included “Bloody Sunday”, “Via Dolorosa”, “Stuff Happens”, “My Name is Rachel Corrie.”

As documentary itself “State of the Nation” is unlikely to be bettered. Historians will pick at the parts of political history and find too much binary separation and demonising. But its narrative of the switchback history of public funding is detailed and exact. As for the personal preferences and aesthetics they are subtly and economically deployed. When he describes “Scenes from an Execution” as “easily his best play” it is probable that he finds much of Howard Barker hard going.

Billington thinks theatre distinctive in one respect over other art forms in one respect. “It is a vehicle of moral enquiry. It has questioned structures, scrutinised attitudes, satirised individuals.” He likes plays and is sceptical of the “directocracy.” He dislikes conservatism in all its forms from blancmange in the West End to productions that do not like drama much. “To create a separate area of theatre that is primarily “visual”, and to endow it with a sanctified purity as many as its apologists do, is simply to create a meaningless ghetto. And it is essentially conservative.”

The book is an exhilarating ride from 1945 with a firm view “The single most important factor that had made British theatre the envy of the world was its continuing ability to produce new writers” Playwrights have been around a long time and they are not going to wither away. “I would gamble on the dramatist outlasting the auteur-like director.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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