Theatre in Wales

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A Big Book that Slipped By: Theatre of Wales Line 1, Page 1

Theatre Critic Book

Michael Billington- the 101 Greatest Plays , Guardian Books/ Faber & Faber , December 2, 2018
Theatre Critic Book by Michael Billington- the 101 Greatest Plays “The 101 Greatest Plays” was published in 2015, the weightiest book of its year. It went unreviewed here at the time, getting a late mention now as part of a big catch-up. Any book with a title like this is going to provoke a first reaction: to go in punching. There will always be objections to choices for inclusion and equally exclusions that are blatantly absurd. The very act of selection provokes.

Joyce Macmillan wrote a reliably punchy review for the “Scotsman.” She ends with “Billington’s enthusiasm remains undimmed; as does the elegance and vigour of his writing, which – backed by his unparalleled banks of theatrical knowledge and wisdom – makes these essays a joy to read, even while we rage and quibble over Billington’s choices, and set about compiling lists of our own.” She has it perfectly.

Before that conclusion Macmillan picks out the factors that underlie. “It is therefore essential”, she writes, “to point out that Billington’s choice has an unsurprising bias towards the English stage, and is almost exclusively focused on the theatre of the western hemisphere. There’s no attempt to include any classic work from the repertoire of Noh theatre or any other eastern tradition; and even within the western canon, it’s clear that a similar list produced by a French or American critic would look very different.”

In fact there is a generosity to Germany with Lessing getting in. Schiller and Kleist both contribute a couple each to the best 101.

Macmillan, a fiery reporter from her own patch, observes: “as for Scotland, it barely features at all; indeed of all the plays created and produced in Scotland since mediaeval times, only Ena Lamont Stewart’s great 1947 drama “Men Should Weep” makes the final list. Nor does the list feature many other women playwrights, although Billington seems to strive.” Her strongest objection is reserved for “it’s astonishing, given his generally left-leaning sympathies, to see nothing here of either John McGrath or Joan Littlewood, the two great pioneers of radical British theatre in the 20th century.”

Surprisingly, the theatre of Wales appears not just on the first page but as the first line. The reason is the form. Being chronological Aeschylus gets first mention. Thus the opening of the book: “We gathered in the Brecon Beacons on a sunny August evening in 2010 to see the oldest surviving play in Western drama. No-one who was there will ever forget Mike Pearson's production.”

The essay that follows is a model for the 100 that follow, a wide-ranging view across four translations and three productions. The scale of the learning is formidable, the range of experience unique. He has simply been there for a length of time without equal. He was on hand to review two radio plays from a new, and not common, name. The titles were “If You're glad, I'll be Frank” and “the Education of Dissolution of Dominic Boot.” The year was 1966.

So the book is to be read for what it is, ever elegant and eloquent, with an underlying aesthetic, and moral, bedrock to it. The approach is clear from the introduction. Billington is no “interrogator”, suspicious of “text.” “The book is not a study of plays on their own. Their experience is inseparable from their enactment. The experience is their enactment.” So, the aesthetic point revealed on Mynydd Epynt is: “what we discovered- or at least I did- was that Aeschylus from the start had unearthed a fundamental principle of drama: that it should contain moral and political ambivalence and that its meaning should vary according to circumstance.” The same point is repeated 343 pages on in the first line on “the Crucible”. “Great plays change their meaning depending on time and circumstance.”

These aesthetics are elaborated in discussing Frank Wedekind. “I hope I've made clear my admiration for naturalism, a movement that turned drama and fiction away from the purple excesses of romanticism and allied them to a Darwinian spirit of scientific enquiry.” Page 335: “by now the basic qualities that I look for in a great play should be fairly clear. I seek the smell of reality, a clearly defined social context, vivacity of phrase, moral ambivalence, a fluctuating tragi-comic mood.” In a stimulating demonstration of contradiction he goes on to select Ionescu who embodies none of these qualities.

The book never lets us forget that theatre is an event with the critic a live presence. “It was one of those nights”, he recalls. “no one who was there will ever forget: 4th July 1997.” Read the book to know the what- as a pointer Ian Rickson was directing. In ranging far and wide across “the Cherry Orchard” he remembers a director who has a branch fall climactically through a window next to the abandoned Firs. That was Peter Stein for the Berliner Schaubuehne in 1989.

Solipsism in online writing on theatre is a default, the intent being to convey authenticity but a category mistake. The realised critic falls back on the word “I” rarely and selectively, but when it is done it is done with a point. Thus: “I can only say that “All That Fall” in its localised richness has a humanity that leaves me more moved than by any other Beckett play.”

To be moved: that is what it is for. Among the quotations Oscar is here. He speaks for a strand of today's theatre in “My play was a complete success. The audience was a failure.” As for the author himself the aesthetics of theatre are stripped down to 9 words that end the essay that opens with Mike Pearson. “Drama is, first and foremost, the art of contradiction.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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