Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Dec 2009Date: 16 December 2009
It’s that time of year again. Whether you’re scrambling for a present for one of the Hard-To-Buy-For clan or wanting an alternative to rowing with the family or playing charades (does anyone still do this?) over Christmas, do we have a book or two for you…
Most festive of all, we have a fondly written biography of the late entertainer David Nixon by fellow members of the Magic Circle Edwin A. Dawes and Stephen Short, and an in-depth look at the colourful life of ballet-favourite Tchaikovsky by Roland John Wiley, although you’ll have to provide your own sugar plum fairy. We also have four scripts, including Ferdinand Bruckner’s Pains of Youth translated by Martin Crimp about restless, debauched students in 1920s Austria and Alan Bennett’s Habit of Art imagining a meeting between WH Auden and Benjamin Britten. Both are on at the National.
And if holidays for you mean – or should mean – study breaks, don’t get too down. Former artistic director of the RSC Adrian Noble reveals the key to understanding and performing Shakespeare as the playwright intended, while the chief examiner and principal moderator of exam board Edexcel explain how to pass the second year of A-level drama and theatre studies in a way to impress the Bard, Alan Bennett… or at least your teacher.
David Nixon: Entertainer with the Magic Touch by Edwin A. Dawes and Stephen Short
One for magic fans, this is a beautifully presented coffee-table size book about the entertainer David Nixon, who died in 1978 from lung cancer aged 58. Fellow members of the Magic Circle Edwin A Dawes and Stephen Short remember Nixon with fondness and admiration, recalling the popularity of his TV magic shows on TV during the 50s, 60s and 70s, and his summer seasons on stage during the Forties, Fifties and Sixties in Scarborough, Brighton and Blackpool. Best of all, to illustrate the immense research about Nixon’s personal and professional life that has gone into this biography, are the wonderfully nostalgic photographs of Nixon with Tommy Cooper, Basil Brush and his family, as well as him sawing guests in half or seemingly suspending them mid-air.
Tchaikovsky by Roland John Wiley
Could The Nutcracker be the nation’s best-loved ballet? It’s certainly a strong contender for the most Christmassy, making this informative biography of the 19th-century Russian an aptly festive present. Combing through historical documents and letters, including previously censored material, and examining the composer’s work in scholarly detail, Wiley considers recent controversies over Tchaikovsky’s marriage, death and sexuality.
The composer appears to have led a double-life. Regarded throughout the world in his day as talented and prolific, he didn’t actually take up music until his 20s, privately despaired about being gay, married one of his students to try to cure himself of his homosexuality and then ran away from them nine weeks later. But was he unhappy enough to have committed suicide, as popular myth would have it, or did he die from cholera? You’ll have to read Wiley’s account to find out.
The Nutcracker, performed by the English National Ballet, is on at the London Coliseum from 16 December to 3 January.
The Habit of Art by Alan Bennett
Gleaming with impish humour and sensitivity, The Habit of Art is trademark Bennett. On at the National until March, it dramatises the rehearsals of another play imagining a meeting between former lovers and collaborators, the dishevelled poet WH Auden (Richard Griffiths) and the fussy composer Benjamin Britten (Alex Jennings) after more than two decades in Auden’s rooms at Oxford in 1972. The play-within-a-play format doesn’t initially make for the easiest of reads, but the lines are so sharp and the situations so funny you’ll find yourself engaged in no time. A clever meditation on desire, death, ageing, biography and talent.
Bruckner’s Pains of Youth by Martin Crimp
The current run of the Austrian playwright’s pessimistic drama about a boarding house of bored medical students hooked on drugs and promiscuity in 1920s Vienna has received mixed reviews. While Dominic Maxwell, of The Times, found it gripping, Charles Spencer, of the Daily Telegraph, warns: ‘Bruckner’s characters are as depressive and depressing a bunch as you are ever likely to encounter.’ Under Katie Mitchell’s experimental direction, the play might indeed be draining, but Martin Crimp’s colloquial translation at least maintains the despair oozing from the original text, first staged in 1926. Read today, the script still shocks in its sexual frankness and piercing exposure of the bleak outlook felt by much of Europe after World War I. This is one for reading or watching – Pains of Youth is on at the National until 21 January – when Christmas joviality gets too much.
Katrina: A Play of New Orleans by Jonathan Holmes
It was one of the most devastating natural disasters and government failures of the decade. In August 2005, Hurricane Katrina savaged New Orleans, flooding 80 per cent of the city. More than 100,000 residents were trapped or chose to remain. Over the next week, the US government failed to deliver enough supplies. Twelve people died from the hurricane; almost 2,000 people perished in the aftermath. A year later, bodies were still being dragged from flattened houses. Even by September 2009, many evacuees were still banned from their homes, and had not received compensation.
Holmes, the founder of experimental theatre company Jericho House and a former lecturer at Royal Holloway, has cleverly shaped testimonies, the reactions of politicians and news reports into a compelling narrative. Katrina tells the story of Beatrice taking her late partner’s body to safety at City Hall, through a ravaged community. First performed at the Bargehouse in the Oxo Tower Wharf in London in September, this script is best imagined with a soundscape to reflect the mood and a setting to illustrate damage and loss in a city known for carnivals and roaming bands. An imaginative and powerful offering.
2nd May 1997 by Jack Thorne
The three acts of this drama take place in separate bedrooms the night before and the morning after the 1997 General Election. In act one, Tory MP Robert fears defeat, while his wife Marie laments how much she has given up for politics. In act two, LibDem Ian finds himself in bed with apolitical party-crasher Sarah. And in act three, A-level students Jake and Will wake up in bed together, with Jake ecstatic over the Labour victory and Will happier about the immediate surroundings. Thorne weaves threads of hope and disappointment into each act to create a tight metaphor for the rise and fall of the Blair government in this thoughtful and enjoyable play that’s more about people than policies.
How to Do Shakespeare by Adrian Noble
In this detailed text and performance guide, the former artistic director and chief executive of the Royal Shakespeare Company (1990-2003) argues with enthusiasm and intellectual rigour that the way to ‘do Shakespeare’ is to treat his plays as primarily audio experiences. Shakespeare, he says, is a ‘language-based artist’. When you go to the theatre, you should hear the play, not just see it.
To learn about Shakespeare, to identify ‘the patterns, rhythms, sounds and surprises’ he used, you have to hear his lines and say them out loud. In tightly focused chapters on aspects of language, including metaphor, metre and wordplay, Noble analyses excerpts from Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets to suggest how a performer – amateur and professional – can get across the emotion of the lines and the colour of the character as Shakespeare might have intended. Noble, who has worked with Kenneth Branagh and Ralph Fiennes, achieves a winning mix of the theoretical and the practical.
A2: Drama and Theatre Studies by Alan Perks and Jacqueline Porteous
In this must-have for Edexcel students, chief examiner Alan Perks and principal moderator Jacqueline Porteous explain the ins and outs of units three and four of this A-level with insight and clarity. The second year can be enjoyable, they write, but expect it to be hard work. ‘There’s no time for a half-hearted response to anything; you must remain focused at all times and keep an eye on deadlines.’ In airily laid out chapters, with frequent side-headings and reader-friendly bullet points, they outline the skills an outstanding student is expected to demonstrate, suggesting activities to focus your research to annotate a script efficiently. This is a companion to help you get the most out of your course and see what examiners are looking for; it is not a revision guide.