|The Early Diaries by Simon Gray|
Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Aug 2010
Date: 13 August 2010
Women, Shakespeare and Simon Gray seem to be dominating the recent output of theatre books. There’ll be plenty to keep you occupied with the last – five compilations of Simon Gray plays, as well as The Early Diaries, which chronicles his experience putting on Dog Days and The Common Pursuit. For theatre-related beach reading, go for The Great Lie – a novel about the conflict between Shakespeare and Marlowe by 82-year-old actress Myrrha Stanford-Smith. And when you return to concentration mode, seek out The Routledge Companion to Directors' Shakespeare, which examines and compares approaches from Peter Brooks to Peter Hall.
Laura Silverman Book reviewer
Biographies and History
The Reluctant Escapologist by Mike Bradwell, Nick Hern Books
'Real theatre must be sexy, subversive, dangerous and fun,' says Mike Bradwell in this funny and frank account of his involvement in two fringe theatre companies: Hull Truck, which he established in 1971 and ran for 11 years, and the Bush Theatre, where he was artistic director from 1996 to 2007. From eating fire with Bob Hoskins to becoming an underwater escapologist in the Ken Campbell Roadshow, Bradwell has many a story to tell, which he does here with a brilliant directness. There are some wonderful nostalgic black and white photos, including Bradwell in Mike Leigh's Bleak Moments in 1971 and in performances at Hull Truck later that decade. The only quibble is the text size: it's readable, but small.
Art, Theatre & Women's Suffrage by Irene Cockroft & Susan Croft, Aurora Metro, £7.99
Call to mind a suffragette icon and the Pankhurst sisters are more likely to appear than the Actress Franchise League. Here, two academics set the record straight, looking at how the battle for the vote was won, at least in part, by artists, writers and actresses in the early twentieth century. Founded in 1908 by a group of performers, including Ellen Terry, the AFL organised meetings, sold literature, wrote plays and delivered lectures to support the feminist cause. Cockcroft and Croft give them a decent 30-page chapter, set out mainly as a list of biographies of the influential figures, from the actress Ellen Terry to shop assistant Vera Wentworth. This book ties in with an exhibition curated by the authors at the Museum of Richmond, which runs until Sept 4.
Classic Plays for Women edited and introduced by Susan Croft, Aurora Metro Press, £16.99
This doorstop volume claims to be the first anthology of British and Irish female playwrights to include plays across 400 years. It's outstandingly diverse, starting with an extract from Hrotswitha's Paphnutius, dating back to AD 960, and ending with Marie Jones's Stones in his Pockets, written in 1996. The most recognisable name is Caryl Churchill – Croft includes an act from Top Girls – but this collection really excels in collecting together just as influential, though less well-known, playwrights. These include Elizabeth Cary, the first English Renaissance women to have had an original play published and Aphra Behn, whose play The Rover is one of only two plays by women from the seventeenth and eighteenth century to have been produced by the RSC.
The Early Diaries by Simon Gray, Faber & Faber
Simon Gray's memories are as important to his legacy as his 40 or so plays, providing an acute psychological acumen inaccessible to any biographer and a literary commentary on his output to equal the highest academic. (Admittedly, Gray was also a university lecturer.) The Early Diaries comprises the first two instalments of his diaries: An Unnatural Pursuit and How's That For Telling 'Em Fat Lady?
The former, which runs from November 1983 to August 1984, tells of the London production of The Common Pursuit, and is particularly sharp on Gray's relationship with Harold Pinter, who directed many of his plays. This was more than ten years before their temporary falling out. The second, which records December 1985 to October 1986, describes Gray putting on The Common Pursuit and Dog Days in Los Angeles and New York. With Gray being as scathing about his colleagues as he is self-deprecating, this 470-page tome is both entertaining and marvellously insightful.
Simon Gray: Plays 1-5 by Simon Gray, Faber & Faber, £16.99 each
Get Simon Gray’s ultimate back catalogue with these five weighty compilations of his plays, including The Common Pursuit (volume four) and The Late Middle Classes (volume five).
The Great Lie by M Standford-Smith, Honno
This novel has drawn attention over recent months as the debut work of an 82-year-old. A trained actress, Myrrha Stanford-Smith worked with Sir Tyrone Guthrie in the West End, before moving into teaching and directing. Stanford-Smith, who now lives in Holyhead in North Wales, is still at work, directing a production of Richard III with the Ucheldre Repertory Company this autumn – and now busying herself with writing.
Taking the reader behind the scenes of the Elizabethan stage and court, The Great Lie explores the rivalry between Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe. The first of a planned trilogy, it follows 16-year-old Nick Talbot run away with a troupe of travelling players to London where he comes to Marlowe's attention and gets caught up in espionage and politics. Written with warmth and plenty of colour, this novel is great fun. Watch this space for the follow-ups.
The Routledge Companion to Directors' Shakespeare edited by John Russell Brown, Routledge
Faced with putting on a Shakespeare play, has a director ever protested: 'Hasn't the Bard been done to death?' If so, they should turn to this 550-page book, which that even the zillionth production of Romeo & Juliet? or Othello or The Tempest or Much Ado About Nothing can stand out. Each of the 31 chapters profiles an influential director, from Peter Brooks to Peter Hall, highlighting just how different interpretations and the resulting productions can be.
Declan Donnellan's approach with Cheek by Jowl, for example, is to let the words speak for themselves; his productions have a minimalist set and he lets the actors decide where to go on stage. Whereas Japanese director Ninagawa Yukio takes inspiration from Kabuki and Bunraku, without changing a line of text. In his Macbeth, there were samurais fighting bloody battles using Japanese martial arts; the three witch-like women had spectacularly opulent costumes, as Japanese costumes tend to be; and Banquo's feast took place Eastern-style with the actors sitting on the floor rather than at a table.
Written by leading academics, this is a fascinating reference book for students and for the serious enthusiast. Its style is easily readable, though its size asks for it to be read at a desk, or at least not on a crowded train.
Theatre Buildings: A Design Guide edited by Judith Strong, Routledge
From the shape of the stage to the position of the lights, there are many considerations to be made in designing a theatre. This large hardback seems to cover them all. First produced by the Association of British Theatre Technicians in 1972, this version has several additions, including a section on using video in performance. It also takes into account the economic and social pressures for the theatres to now be as efficient as possible – from saving electricity to using backstage rooms for conferences.
While written in fairly straightforward prose with a glossary for the technical terms, this is a specialist guide. Pages on ventilation, for example, are unlikely to captivate the average reader, but there's enough to interest the serious enthusiast and anyone in the crew of an amateur company. The last part of the book, comprising 28 case studies of theatres worldwide, is particularly good. The Crucible in Sheffield is given four whole pages, including a brief history, architectural details, a colour picture of the main auditorium and diagrams of the stage. Other theatres include the art deco Mahaffey Theatre in Florida and the Roundhouse in London. You'll soon realise there’s more to a theatre than a stage.
For Teachers and Students
A Choreographer's Handbook by Jonathan Burrows, Routledge
Burrows has laid out the categories in his book of thoughts in the order he choreographs a work. The first chapter is a series of ideas about principles, including the innovative use of a quote by scientist Francis Crick, one half of the team that discovered DNA: 'It's true that by blundering about we stumbled on gold, but the fact remains that we were looking for gold.' Burrows goes on to look at material, habits, repetition, research and scores, among other terms, making brief, poignant and sometimes cryptic observations. On audience, for example, he says merely: 'The audience like to have a job to do.'
This unconventional approach guide to dance, aimed at those familiar with choreography, shouldn't, of course, surprise anyone also familiar with Burrows' own pieces, which are known for its intelligence, humour and sometimes lack of lighting, costumes or even music. His work has included a stint as associate director on Peter Handke's The Hour We Knew Nothing of Each Other for the National Theatre in 2008 and the acclaimed piece Both Sitting Duet which premiered in 2002, in which two dancers have a silent conversation with their arms.
- by Laura Silverman