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Véronique Gens

Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Sep 2010

By • West End
Edinburgh's over. Christmas is months away. What do we have to look forward to? Reality? Wonderful!

Really. September's themed selection on that very topic includes some wonderful books. Some are wonderfully useful, such as the new batch of Pan Macmillan's Theatre &... guides. Some are wonderfully written, as in the case of the six plays selected for Methuen's naturalist anthology, by Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Shaw, Chekhov and Galsworthy. And others are about subjects or times that are wonderfully ripe for drama even if not wonderful to have lived through: the French Revolution, for example, in Howard Brenton's adaptation of Danton's Death by Georg Buchner.

To highlight the theme, we have a book titled Playing for Real, edited by Tom Cantrell and Mary Luckhurst. Here, starry names (real, wonderful actors) reveal what it's like to play figures from history or popular culture (real, if not entirely wonderful people). Read about Elena Roger playing Edith Piaf; David Morrisey on Gordon Brown and Roger Allam on Adolf Hitler.

I'm going to resist the temptation to end with the words 'really wonderful'.

Really.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


Scripts

Danton’s Death by Georg Buchner and Howard Brenton Methuen, £8.99
Howard Brenton first adapted Georg Buchner’s drama set during the French Revolution in 1982. His more recent, pared-down version, which is on at the National until 14 October, has received much acclaim. Set in 1794, in a lull between the first and second terrors, Danton, a leader of the revolution, is haunted by guilt for his part in the killing. His political rival, Robespierre, will decide whether he lives or dies. Buchner, a revolutionary, wrote the original play in 1835, in hiding from the police. Brenton has transformed it into a shrewd character study of Danton, an idealist with a passion for love, sex and wine. This is a fascinating and thrilling read.

The Urban Girl's Guide to Camping and Other Plays by Fin Kennedy Nick Hern, £12.99
Fin Kennedy composed the four plays in this collection with teenagers at the Mulberry School for Girls in mind. He works there as a teacher. As the school is 98 per cent Muslim, with most pupils being second or third generation Bangladeshi, Kennedy has focused the plays on issues relevant to their lives. He's taken three of the works in this volume to the Edinburgh Fringe (2007-2009), while the title play premiered this summer at Southwark Playhouse.

Urban Girl, for five performers, is a comedy about four friends who try to repeat a school trip to Ashdown Forest after university. Mehndi Night, for a cast of ten girls, is a family tale about a traditional Bengali celebration the night before a wedding. Stolen Secrets are a collection of urban fairytales, which can be performed by two to seven performers. And The Unravelling, which has a cast of five characters plus a minimum of two narrators, follows a dying mother in a fabric shop who challenges her daughters to weave her the greatest tale only using cloth. Together, these direct and entertaining scripts provide a fascinating insight into the lives of young girls in the East End.

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell, adapted by Howard Brenton Nick Hern, £8.99
Howard Brenton, best known for writing Brassneck and adapting classic texts, including Goethe’s Faust for the RSC, has turned his attention here to Robert Tressell's early 19th-century novel. First adapted for the stage by Stephen Lowe in 1978, when it ran at the Riverside Studios, Brenton's production was on at the Liverpool Everyman this June and July, and has just closed at the Minerva in Chichester.

A semi-autobiographical work, Tressell's inspiring story centres on a painter and decorator (as he was) called Frank Owen. A socialist, Owen blames capitalism for creating the poverty he sees around him and tries to convince his fellow workers of his view. The 'philanthropists' of the title are the workers who tirelessly put their efforts into the business for a pitiful wage, generating profits for those in charge. At just under 100 pages, this is a speedy but rewarding read made up of passionate social commentary.

Morte d'Arthur by Sir Thomas Malory, adapted by Mike Poulton Nick Hern, £8.99
The original, written in book form by Sir Thomas Malory in 1470, comes in 21 volumes, while Derek Jacobi’s audio CDs, covering half the story, last nine hours. Fortunately, Mike Poulton’s version is encapsulated here in 160 pages – even if his production, which was on in Stratford this summer, was regarded as rather long (it went on for just under four hours). Merlin and Mordred, Gawain and Pendragon, Lancelot and Guenever are all still here, as well as plenty of back-story told by a large ensemble of characters. As it’s a text, of course, you can also read it in chunks.

The Methuen Drama Book of Naturalist Plays, edited by Chris Megson Methuen, £16.99
Pick six core names of naturalist theatre. How about Ibsen, Strindberg, Hauptmann, Shaw, Chekhov and Galsworthy? This collection, edited by Royal Holloway lecturer Chris Megson, gathers six of the movement’s key works, one by each of the above, most popular works (A Doll's House, Miss Julie, The Weavers, Mrs Warren's Profession, Three Sisters, and Strife, respectively). Dr Megson’s introduction gives a useful overview of this late nineteenth/early twentieth-century movement, highlighting its characteristics and examining its lasting significance, making this invaluable as both a study guide (with the introduction) and as entertainment (skipping straight to the scripts).


Backstage

Playing for Real edited by Tom Cantrell and Mary Luckhurst Palgrave Macmillan, £9.99
This collection of 16 question-and-answer style interviews with leading actors gives a fascinating insight into the methods, challenges and rewards of taking on roles of people in the public eye.

In researching Edith Piaf, a role for which she won an Olivier for her performance at the Donmar Warehouse and West End in 2008, Elena Roger reveals how she went to Paris several times, walking down the streets the singer used to walk down, her research changing the script.

David Morrisey made an "astonishing" discovery when rehearsing the role of the former prime minister for Stephen Frears' TV drama The Deal on Channel 4 in 2003. Brown's friends "informed me that he is very funny," he says. "Women who'd met him told me that he is tremendously sexy and a man of great passion." There are further authoritative and personal insights from Simon Callow (who played Dickens in one-man shows in 2000 and 2008, and Mozart in Peter Shaffer's Amadeus in 1979 at the National); and Eileen Atkins (who performed a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own at Girton College, where Woolf herself once spoke, in front of three women who had been to Woolf's original lecture).

The only quibble is the lack of an index. It would have been a bonus to know instantly where to find chapters on certain figures. As it is, the chapters are indicated on the contents page only by actor. Still, the clear page layout makes this an easy book to dip into.


For teachers & students

So You Want to Be a Theatre Producer? by James Seabright Nick Hern, £12.99
Since 2001, James Seabright has produced or managed more than 100 shows, averaging an astounding ten a year. This year's list includes Jihad! The Musical at Jermyn Street Theatre in January, and Hardeep Singh Kohli's The Nearly Naked Chef, which has toured the UK. His handbook, aimed at serious beginners, is admirably comprehensive, covering everything from how to raise funds to how much to pay a lighting designer, with how to book a venue and how to publicise your show in between. Rather than including any examples from personal experience, Seabright has gone for a more generic approach. This makes it no less valuable, but of more interest as a reference book to those actually putting on a show rather than the merely curious observer. At www.producerbook.co.uk, you will also find a companion website with further resources.

Theatre &... Feeling/ Interculturalism/ Nation by Erin Hurley/ Ric Knowles/ Nadine Holdsworth Palgrave Macmillan, £4.99 each
The recent additions to this brilliant series include the titles Feeling, Interculturalism and Nation. Like the previous batch, out last September, these mini paperbacks each give an insightful, focused overview of a key topic. The prose, written by academics citing plenty of sources, is pretty formal, but accessible, with each title covering considerable ground in 80 pages. Theatre & Feeling looks at why theatre moves us; Theatre & Nation examines how playwrights and actors explore engage the nation, nationalism and national identity in their work; while Theatre & Interculturalism considers the tradition of cultural exchange – when one group in society performs a work for another in the same or different country. Forthcoming titles include Theatre & Prison and Theatre & History. Start collecting now and you'll end up with quite a library.


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