Theatre in Wales

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How It Was: Theatre in the 1980s

Theatre History Book

Michael Billington “One Night Stands” , Nick Hern Books , December 1, 2010
Theatre History Book by Michael Billington “One Night Stands” “The British theatre was out of its sickbed and capering nimbly up and down the wards.” That was Michael Billington in 1978 after Britain had hauled itself out of energy crisis, inflation and recession. Nobody likes the 1980s. But history being paradoxical it was the decade of a social mobility on a scale not seen before or since. The toughness of public funding, as recorded here with precision, had also not been seen before.

There is always a smugness for us now in reading the predictions made by them then. “My guess” writes the critic who had at the time more knowledge of the sector than anyone “is that theatre will shrink in size over the next decade but increase in intensity.” It was not just the subsidised sector. “One West End manager told me that he doubts if there will be any serious plays left in the commercial theatre in five or six years time.” There were and there are. “New writing is in a state of crisis.” That was May 1991.

The present is contained within the past. This autumn one Michael B, a director, has been playing a gleeful trick or two with “A Servant of Two Masters.” In May 1978 another Michael B, a critic, is in Stratford to see “the Taming of the Shrew.” An argument starts between a member of the audience and a staff member in the front stalls. “I'm not having any bloody woman telling me what to do” shouts the audience member. “He then scrambles drunkenly on to the Stratford stage” describes Billington “pulling down bannisters and toppling pillars like some berserk Samson. Lights explode; the stage fills with harassed backstage staff; and gullible patrons start making for the exit to call the police.”

The whole thing has been staged by Michael Bogdanov. Bogdanov is as Bogdanov was.

Criticism is writing and writing is craft. It is getting the right words. When “Company” arrived there had not been a piece of musical theatre like it. “Its surface exuberance seems to conceal a great sadness” he writes”...it has the whiplash precision of the best shows plus a great deal of intellectual resonance.” At “Comedians” “not only does it annex new territory by putting a class for apprentice comedians on to the stage, but it has the same muscle, dialectical fairness and suppressed pain that characterised Griffiths's “the Party”.

From the particular the good critic extrapolates the general. He sees the “Norman Conquests”. “Like all first-rate comedy, the plays are only funny because they're about serious issues.” “A Short, Sharp Shock” is supposed to be a riposte to the government and is flat. “They offer images and rhetoric rather than fact and argument.” “The Romans in Britain” has “a hollow prodigality.” And he has always enjoyed the odd bit of wordplay. He is not keen on “Godspell”. “God, as I muttered wanly as I emerged, is not rocked.” With a descant on Baldwin “Power without accountancy is the prerogative of the journalist down the ages.”

One element that emerges is that Billington is not the critic as analyst. At least he is analyst but also markedly a human being. He sees a revival of “Inadmissible Evidence”. “Judged by slide-rule methods of dramatic criticism, John Osborne's “Inadmissible Evidence” has plenty of flaws: it's static, a bit unwieldy in places and doesn't allow much breathing space to the subsidiary characters. But so much for the slide-rule. All I can say is that seeing the play again at the Court for the first time in fourteen years, I found it an overwhelming experience in which the sense of private pain, paranoia and anguish is deeply moving.”

It is a regular motif. “In my whole theatregoing lifetime I have never seen a production as achingly beautiful as Yukio Ninagawa's “Macbeth”. At Michael Blakemore's “Uncle Vanya” his first paragraph goes straight to it. “I found myself watching the end through a mist of tears.” At “Sunday in the Park with George” he sees and hears the great song “Colour and Light”. “This is one point” he responds “at which Mr Pimlott's production induces tears.” This is all reassuring and heartening.

The counterpoint is “Authority wants art to be constructive; yet it has to recognise that great drama is built out of conflict, dialectic and criticism.” Strains of the future are discernible. “I also dislike the tendency to sectionalise and compartmentalise the theatre.” As for accountability “I would make manifest attendance figures for the productions so that the public could see for themselves what was popular and what was not.” Political theatre too often misses the mark. “One of the oldest rules of dialectical drama is that you give the strongest articles to the other side.”

Billington is also clear-eyed on the critic as public figure. He writes open letters to Peter Hall and Terry Hands. The book publishes their responses. He puts the case for criticism and its place. “Criticism” he says “is not the last word: simply part of a permanent debate about the nature of the ideal theatre.” “Criticism does, however, have a vital secondary function: to deal, as Tynan said, to deal with what is not happening as well as what is.”

As for theatre “it is a public service to be interpreted, evaluated, and fought for with whatever critical passion one can muster.” And the writer himself? “Critics are haunted, solitary theatre-nuts who cannot be willed into existence by editorial magic.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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