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

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With the election just weeks away, we're focusing on issue-fuelled writing this month, and there’s fierce competition among our contenders.

Tackling the issue of gun culture, we have the young Nigerian playwright Bola Agbaje, with her second play Off the Endz, recently on at the Royal Court. Agbaje is under 30 and won an Olivier award for her debut, Gone too Far!

Taking on the BNP, we have Anders Lustgarten with A Day at the Racists, which has just been staged at the Finborough Theatre, while Arthur Schnitzler examines relationships and morality in Sweet Nothings, recently in David Harrower's new version at the Young Vic.

And just as there could be a coalition government, we have our own dramatic collaboration. Agbaje also makes an appearance in the recently published Methuen Drama Book of Twenty-First Century British Plays, together with Conservative critics Joe Penhall and Kwame Kwei-Armah.

The election, of course, is not all about who the candidates are or even what they say. According to some, it's just as much to do with PR. Guess what! We have a radical book that deals with this, too. Nicholas Vazsonyi's Richard Wagner, subtitled Self-Promotion and the Making of a Brand, reveals the composer to be a master of the art - and we're not talking opera.

Now for the manifestos, I mean reviews...

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer

Biographies and History

Richard Wagner by Nicholas Vazsonyi Cambridge University Press, £55
In what he claims is a first, Vazsonyi looks at Wagner's efforts to craft a persona and package his works not as evidence of megalomania, but as a deliberate and unique marketing strategy to establish his image as the most German composer around and the true successor of Beethoven. Unlike other great masters, Wagner pioneered, rather than just participated in, his own merchandising, writing entire treatises to defend and promote his work. He presented his operas as so revolutionary that they required new words to describe them, and he even built a theatre where they were to be performed exclusively. At the same time, the nineteenth-century composer denounced the modern view of artwork as commodities for speculation and profit – the approach he relied upon. Vazsonyi's rigorous study is marvellously enlightening, even if it doesn't make Wagner the man a great deal more likeable.

The Half: Photographs of Actors Preparing for the Stage by Simon Annand Faber & Faber, £30
In the half hour before an actor appears on stage he sheds his skin and gets into character. Simon Annand's black-and-white shots capture this transformation beautifully. Having photographed actors in their dressing rooms for 25 years, Annand aims to get to the heart of the actors' relationships with themselves: showing them as workers preparing for their roles. The 300 pages of this coffee-table book are packed with names, including Antony Sher, Daniel Radcliffe, Joanna Lumley and Jane Horrocks. What do actors do in the final few minutes before going on stage? In Annand's pictures, Jodie Whittaker stretches her jaw to master an accent, Eric Sykes puffs on a cigar, Tim Pigott-Smith does his mascara and Derek Jacobi sensibly has a snooze.

Shakespeare and Youth Culture by Jennifer Hulbert et al. Palgrave Macmillan, £20
You wonder what Shakespeare would have made of it. Would he have condemned Baz Luhrmann's Romeo & Juliet movie, out in 1996, as a travesty? Or welcomed it as modern popularisation? What would he have thought of 10 Things I Hate About You, hung loosely on The Taming of the Shrew? Or the Return to the Forbidden Planet, based on The Tempest? This compelling study sets out to explore how Shakespeare has been absorbed into contemporary American society. The titles of the chapters are a little strained – Smells like Teen Shakespirit, Are You Shakespearienced? and The Amazing Adventures of Superbard, but the content is always fascinating. Shakespeare might have little comeback, considering how many of his plots were reworkings of ancient stories; purists might take a different line.


Off the Endz by Bola Agbaje Methuen, £9.99
The young Nigerian writer followed up her Olivier award-winning debut drama, Gone Too Far!, with this offering at the Royal Court last month. With its forthright opinions and crisp language, Off the Endz makes a gripping, bullet-speed read. David, Kojo and Sharon, now in their mid-20s, grew up on a council estate. Kojo has become a businessman, and Sharon a nurse. Together they are planning a family and looking for a mortgage. David, meanwhile, has just got out of jail and is set on drug dealing. Will the couple be lured into his world? Identity is the key issue, says Agbaje, who was also brought up on an estate. “So many people I know don’t know who they are or what they want to achieve. Partly it really is a lack of role models. The reason why so many kids on estates look up to drug dealers or rappers is because drug dealers and rappers often come from the same place as them.” But what kind of role models are they? Read and find out...

A Day at the Racists by Anders Lustgarten Methuen, £9.99
Set in Barking, the constituency that BNP leader Nick Griffin is standing in for the General Election, Lustgarten's punchy new drama explores the rise of the BNP, suggesting New Labour's betrayal of the working class has increased its attraction. Lustgarten uses the character of Pete Case as his mouthpiece, making him former Labour Party organiser struggling to get by as a decorator. Immigrants are undercutting pay, his son can’t get on the housing list and his Labour MP doesn't care. Pete, a white man in his fifties, then finds hope in Gina, a mixed-race candidate for the BNP. Lustgarten sharply exposes the contrast between the BNP's emollient tactics and its extremist views, and examines tendency to shift its stance depending on its audience. A Day at the Racists premiered at the Finborough Theatre last month, and will be transfer to the Broadway Theatre, Barking for a one-off performance on 16 April.

Sweet Nothings by Arthur Schnitzler Faber, £9.99
When it was first staged in Vienna in 1895 under its original title Liebelie, Schniztler's tale shocked audiences more for presenting adulterous love affairs across social classes than for suggesting that promiscuity was rife within respectable Viennese society. Not that the latter idea would have been exactly embraced on its own. Max Burckhard, director of the Austrian national theatre, the Burgtheater, condemned the play as a ‘dangerous’ work, while the emperor Franz-Josef branded it ‘immoral’. This new version by David Harrower, whose adaptations have included Ivanov at the National, is devastatingly fresh and direct, imbuing Schniztler's tragi-farce of romance, despair and the death of youth with both playfulness and seriousness. Having just been on at the Young Vic, where it received acclaimed reviews, the script alone makes a totally absorbing, speedy read.

The Methuen Drama Book of Twenty-First Century British Plays, edited by Aleks Sierz Methuen, £14.99
This issue-driven collection of five contemporary plays demonstrates the latest trends in writing. “They offer a snapshot of a nation obsessed with themes of broken families, absent fathers, masculine rivalry, the lure of transgression and the loneliness of existence,” says Sierz, a visiting research fellow at Rose Bruford College.

First up on the reading list is Joe Penhall's Olivier Award-winning Blue/Orange, about Thatcher's legacy: the Tory policy of care in the community that led to hospital beds being rationed for the mentally disturbed, and the mentally ill discharged. Also on the agenda is Elmina's Kitchen by Kwame Kwei-Armah, who became the first black Briton to have a play staged at the West End when his drama about why young people of West Indian heritage are drawn to gun crime transferred to the Garrick in 2005.

The other offerings are Anthony Neilson's provocative comedy Realism, Pornography by Simon Stephens, which has no specified characters, and Gone Too Far! by Bola Agbaje, whose second play has just been on at the Royal Court (see above). Invaluable and portable – well, just about.


Theatre and Performance Design , edited by Jane Collins and Andrew Nisbet Routledge, £22.99
When contemplating theatre design, Plato, Bertrand Russell and Roland Barthes might not be the first figures you'd turn to, but Collins and Nisbet argue convincingly that the philosophers make valuable contributions. Gathering essays on cultural theory, fine art, philosophy and the social sciences, the two academics have placed scenography – the term for a more integrated reading of performance – in a wider context.

Before each main section – Looking, Space and Place, The Designer, Bodies in Space and Making Meaning – they make clear cases for their choices: Plato and Russell, for example, examined the difference between appearance and reality, challenging what we see around us. And preceding each five-to-ten page chapter reproducing the theorist's work, there are useful one-paragraph summaries of their argument to make the work less foreboding. The 52 essays include Arnold Aronson's Postmodern Design, Lois Tyson's Semiotics and Antonin Artaud's Theatre and Cruelty. An eclectic and enlightening mix.


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