Theatre is a living art, experienced most vividly in the moment of its performance. But it lives on – away from the stage – on the page, first of all in playtexts, but also in accounts that recall the theatre of the past and record contemporary theatre for the future. It is these accounts that the Theatre Book Prize has celebrated annually since it was first awarded in 1997 to mark the jubilee of the Society for Theatre Research.

Six titles published in 2005 were shortlisted for this year’s award and the winner – 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro - was selected by the judging panel of Ruth Leon, Jan McDonald and Yvonne Brewster and announced at a ceremony held on 5 April 2006 at the Theatre Museum in Covent Garden. We review it and the other nominated books below.


1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare
by James Shapiro (Faber and Faber, £20)

With the new century approaching, 1599 was a particularly fruitful time for Shakespeare. He wrote As You Like It, Julius Caesar and Henry V, and drafted Hamlet – while also overseeing the re-building of the Globe. Shapiro, a New York professor who teaches at Columbia, provides a fascinating historical reconstruction of a year in the life and times of the world's greatest-ever playwright.

*

Peter Brook: A Biography
by Michael Kustow (Bloomsbury, £25)

To the theatrical outsider, the director's craft is one of the most mysterious of all: what exactly do they do? In Kustow's vivid appreciation of the life and work of his long-time friend Peter Brook, arguably Britain's greatest living theatre director, we get beneath the skin of the man as well as his art as never before. While Brook, whose life “has been a never-ending quest for meaning”, always finds more questions to ask, this book provides an eloquent answer to the enduring riddle of why, at the height of his success, Brook left Britain in 1970 to establish himself in France instead.

*

The Coming of Godot
by Jonathan Croall (Oberon Books, £9.99)

This slim but remarkable paperback follows Samuel Beckett’s modern masterpiece Waiting for Godot from its first English production under the direction of Peter Hall in London 51 years ago to its revival in Bath by the same director last year. Croall’s diary of the making of the new staging provides a unique insight, particularly given Hall’s history with the play. Godot’s revival at this month’s Beckett Centenary Festival at the Barbican ironically denied Hall’s Bath production a further life, but this book provides a more lasting memorial to its creation.

*

Fanny Kemble: A Reluctant Celebrity
by Rebecca Jenkins (Simon and Schuster, £18.99)

An instant celebrity when she joined the family “firm” at 19 in 1929, actress Fanny Kemble found herself public property in every sense: fans collected her pictures, mimicked her hairstyles and followed details of her private life in newspaper columns on both sides of the Atlantic. She found an escape from such unwelcome attention by leaving behind her career and country to marry for love in the US. There she acquired a different kind of notoriety, challenging the slavery on which her husband’s fortune was built and publishing Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, which scandalised American society. This weighty book pays Kemble the ultimate respect that she so craved.

*

Sir Henry Irving: A Victorian Actor and His World
by Jeffrey Richards (published by Hambledon and London, £25)

Britain’s first actor to receive a knighthood, Sir Henry Irving was “one of the heroes of the Victorian age”, according to Richards, who published this to mark the centenary of Irving’s death last year. The biography of the man is also a social history of his times and where he fits within the broader span of Victorian culture: one in which Oscar Wilde was one of his greatest fans and leading composers (including Sir Arthur Sullivan) and painters of the day collaborated on his productions. Irving’s London theatrical residence from 1878 to 1902 was the Lyceum, now home of The Lion King – this book does much to complete that theatre’s “circle of life”.

*

Greek Tragedy and the British Theatre, 1660-1914
by Edith Hall and Fiona Macintosh (published by Oxford University Press, £60)

According to the authors, Greek tragedy is now being performed on British stages “with greater frequency than at any point since classical antiquity.” Indeed, at times during the past decade, “more plays by Euripides or Sophocles were available to the London theatregoer than works by any other author, including Shakespeare”. In this scholarly text, Hall and Macintosh seek to trace the genealogy of our enduring fascination. At the start of the period under examination, very few Greek dramas had been performed in Britain except in Latin; just over 100 years later, the majority of the Sophoclean and Euripidean plays had been rewritten for performance in English.