Theatre in Wales

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In Memory

John Peter , Theatre Criticism , July 20, 2020
In Memory by John Peter John Peter was the only critic from the London press to travel regularly to Mold. He wrote a first glowing review of Hedydd Dylan on her professional debut. There is only one major record of the series of classics put on by Terry Hands and it is held by the Times, John Peter its author.

John Anthony Peter was born Janos Antal Peter in Budapest 24th August 1938. His father Andras Peter , (1903–1944), was an esteemed art historian. Although a third-generation Catholic this was insufficient in Nazi eyes to offset his Jewish ancestry. Peter's mother Veronica was a former actress.

Janos was six when Andras was capured by the Avo, the Hungarian secret police. He was, in his son's words, “probably tortured, then marched with other undesirables across the Szechenyi Chain Bridge, taken down the steps to the Danube, shot in the back and pished into the river.”

When he was 13 his mother remarried to Gery Prasnovsky and they lived in poverty. Prasnovsky became an alcoholic, Janos and his mother eventually leaving to live with friends in Budapest. Theatre was ignited for him in 1955 with a revolutionary staging of “Richard III” at the National Theatre in Budapest.

In the Hungarian Revolution the 18-year-old was tear-gassed. Years later, in his future life, he was at a performance of the Pip Simmons Group. The group released a substance that smelt and looked like tear gas. A performer held a toy gun to his head.

Asked repeatedly to remove it the actor said “why, what's the matter? What's your problem?”

“My problem is I don't like this”, said Peter. “He insisted, so I finally got up and threw him down the gangway. I don't think this is a funny story but it gives a good picture of what used to be the naďve side of British political theatre. It's done by grown-up adolescents who probably never suffered serious hardship and almost certainly were never at the receiving end of political violence.”

Peter and his mother fled Budapest for Austria. They travelled by train, hitched rides and camped out in a barn. The next morning they spotted an old farmer forking hay into a cart. He said they could hide in it as they approached the Austrian border, but warned that guards might prod at the hay with bayonets. They made it to the border unprodded and waited until dark to cross on foot.

The Red Cross helped them to England and a barracks in Tidworth, Wiltshire. One of 30,000 refugees from Hungary he knew two words in English, “cowboy” and “Times.” After two months they were settled in an East London flat, a converted disused church in Wapping. Peter worked at Forte's Milk Bar and continued to learn English.

He entered Campion Hall at Oxford University, working as a part-time college servant and waiter in return for his fees and expenses. Peter began to review while a post-graduate student at Oxford writing a dissertation on Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. He applied to The Times, was interviewed and asked to submit a few short reviews of university productions which he had been writing in the Oxford student newspapers The Isis Magazine and Cherwell. He was taken on as reporter and editorial assistant for the Times Educational Supplement from 1964 to 1967. The position was a three-year apprenticeship, during which he saw a lot of London theatre and became a freelance theatre critic, submitting reviews more and more frequently to The Times. From 1967 to 1979, Peter was on The Sunday Times editorial staff, contributing theatre reviews regularly. He became the newspaper's assistant arts editor in 1979. In September 1984 Peter became chief drama critic of The Sunday Times and remained so until 2003. He remained a contributing drama critic through to 2010.

Peter reviewed Ian Charleson's Hamlet at the National Theatre in late 1989. Charleson, seriously ill with AIDS, died in January 1990 at the age of 40 eight weeks after his final performance. In November 1990, in memory of Charleson's fine performance, Peter established the annual Ian Charleson Award, to recognise and reward the best classical stage performance by an actor under the age of thirty. As the founding judge of the Ian Charleson Awards, Peter was appointed Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the 2019 Birthday Honours for services to theatre.

In interview he chose Irving Wardle as an ideal critic. “I respect him tremendously for his complete and utter integrity and dedication to his profession. He is one of the very few people who can combine complete seriousness with readability, which is very important.”

He once contrasted the state of criticism in Britain with that in Europe. “British critics don't like being driven by concepts. They are more open, matter-of-fact and outspoken.”

Peter was author of “Vladimir's Carrot” in 1988, a major study of modern drama.

John Peter: August 24th 1938- 3rd July 2020

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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