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Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - Aug 2009

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This month we go from the serious to the seriously good. On the heavier side, we have a new version of Ibsen’s most scandalous play, a compact biography of Sarah Kane and the most rigorous study of English drama you might ever encounter, by the late drama historian Allardyce Nicoll. On the lighter side, we're featuring That's Another Story, Julie Walters' wise-crackingly funny and refreshingly candid autobiography, which is now out in paperback, and an energetic take on Euripides’ Helen.

We’ve also included two books for drama groups: David Carter's Plays... and How to Produce Them, taking the beginner through every step of putting on a production (not forgetting the after-show party); and a collection of four scripts by the award-winning Neil Duffield that enthusiasts might like to try out.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


That's Another Story: the Autobiography by Julie Walters
Phoenix, £7.99

Finally out in paperback after its hardcover release last September, Walters tracks the highs and lows of her private and professional life with characteristic verve. Growing up in Fifties Birmingham, she reveals that she was ashamed of her working-class background, before she found a way to recover her confidence by becoming a 'cheeky clown' at school. Her sex education begins during her brief nursing career aged 18 - and she's not afraid to divulge details. Then it's on to her acting work. After auditioning to study drama at Manchester Polytechnic, where she read a monologue with no idea it was a man's part, Walters' CV glitters with memorable performances: Educating Rita, Acorn Antiques, Harry Potter and Mamma Mia! This is a plucky, colourful and instinctively intelligent autobiography.


About Kane: the Playwright and the Work by Graham Saunders
Faber, £9.99

One of the most talented and innovative playwrights of recent times, Kane shocked audiences with her violent debut, Blasted, when it was first staged in 1995 at the Royal Court. Four years and four plays later, she committed suicide, aged just 28. Saunders, a lecturer at Reading university, published an in-depth study of Kane's work called Love Me or Kill Me in 2002. His new book is less a biography and more an overview comprised mostly of interview extracts with the playwright. Looking at Kane's life, Saunders often skims periods; her time at Birmingham University "was generally not a happy experience", he says, failing to say why. Yet his judicious selection of press material is more enlightening than any speculation. Kane's response to the Daily Mail's condemnation of Blasted as a "disgusting piece of filth" is fascinating.


Jerusalem by Jez Butterworth
Nick Hern, £8.99

Johnny 'Rooster' Byron, a washed-up, alcoholic drug-dealer, lives in a caravan in a Wiltshire wood telling you'll-never-believe-it stories about being kidnapped by traffic wardens and doling out rebellious advice to his six-year-old son ("Lie, cheat, steal"), until one day the authorities threaten to move him on. Butterworth's brashly comic and disturbing new play, on at the Royal Court until 22 August with Mark Rylance as Byron and Mackenzie Crook as a hanger-on, explores the dystopia of rural England, and challenges the meaning and benefit of conformity. The performance is three hours long, but the pacy script, at just over 100 pages in a slim paperback, makes for a blushingly funny read. Expect lots of shameless vernacular language.

Euripides' Helen by Frank McGuinness
Faber, £9.99

On at the Globe until 23 August, this lively new version of the ancient Greek romcom now comes in a neat, clearly laid out and non-threatening paperback, making it ideal for a last-minute brush up on the plot or for slightly deeper study after seeing the performance. Seven years after the Trojan War, Menelaus, the King of Sparta and the husband of Helen, spies a woman who appears to be his wife outside a royal palace in Egypt, undermining the whole reason Greece went into battle. It's a down-to-earth, muscular translation, with entertaining insults. Why be overly polite when you can tell the King of Sparta to "hop it"? McGuinness was also behind the run of Oedipus last winter at the National.

The Black Album by Hanif Kureishi
Faber, £9.99

It's been described as "an embarrassing flop", "twee", "clunking" and even "absolutely dismal". Critics say Kureishi's adaptation of his fearsomely vibrant second novel, which is on at the National until 7 October before it goes on a nationwide tour, fails to capture the rich texture of his prose. Yet the story of The Black Album, which came out in its original form in 1993, is so timely that for those who prefer dialogue to description this script is not to be missed. Set in the late 80s, Shahid, a young British-Asian, is torn between liberalism with its hedonistic mix of sex, drugs and rock 'n' roll, and fundamentalist Islam, represented by a group of Muslims who are campaigning against Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. Kureishi is an acclaimed writer, and The Black Album portrays a powerfully unnerving conflict.

Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts, or Those Who Return by Rebecca Lenkiewicz
Faber, £9.99

Last month the must-see Ibsen play was A Doll's House; this month it's Ghosts, or Those Who Return, which is on at the Arcola Theatre in East London until August 22. Lambasted as indecent when it was first performed in the late 19th century, the domestic drama can be seen as exposing the sexual hypocrisy of Victorian society - or read as illustrating the difficulties of protecting those we love. It's an intriguing set up: in Norway, in 1881, a son returns home to his mother after many years abroad. He's come for a celebration, while she has an uncomfortable secret to divulge. The script does over-clarify things a little, making it rather flat in places, but its current run has received some warm reviews. In 2000, Lenkiewicz won a Fringe First at Edinburgh for her debut play, Soho, set in a table-dancing club, and she was given a Critics' Circle Award in 2004 for Most Promising Playwright.

Plays for Youth Theatres and Large Casts by Neil Duffield
Aurora Metro, £12.99

This collection of four imagination-bubbling scripts by the prolific regional playwright Neil Duffield will be handy for teachers and community leaders looking for fantastical plays taken over by demons, dragons, gods and martyrs. Cast sizes range from four in the Joan of Arc inspired Talking With Angels, to as many children as you can manage in the prize-winning Small Fry. This anthology also includes The Minotaur, which combines adventure and classical myths by interweaving the stories of Theseus and Daedalus; and the futuristic Twice Upon a Time, which was performed for the first time last month in Dundee. There's plenty of punchy dialogue to sink your teeth into. Suitable for seven to 18 year-olds.


Plays... and How to Produce Them by David Carter
Creative Essentials, £12.99

Getting the pitch right for a beginners' guide is almost impossible: what one person will see as obvious, another may well have missed. This book, however, is a comprehensive and clear checklist for anyone putting on their first play, and it's a useful work to dip into for the slightly more experienced producer who feels less confident in technical areas. The diverse range of topics includes sorting out finance, choosing a play, learning lines and even organising an after-show party. I particularly liked the illustrations of types of lighting, though the extra material on the internet was disappointing. Having a ready-to-use sheet on costume measurements and a rehearsal schedule ready to download and fill in is a fabulous idea, but they looked a little pedestrian. Overall, though, this is a great comfort title.

What is Scenography? by Pamela Howard
Routledge, £21.99

"Scenography is the tangible material of dreams," offers Spanish set and costume designer Ramon Ivars with a romantic flourish in this exploration of how sight and sound help put the page on the stage. Comprehensive and accessible, this ambitious guide includes a walk-in-wardrobe-full of insights and personal accounts from the production designer of the recent Afghanistan plays at the Tricycle. There are some informative and creative insights on the metaphoric meaning of furniture (not as crazy as it appears); and Howard takes a wonderfully integrative approach to scripts, looking at the physical shape of words. The book's production is similarly innovative, with sections in brown, purple text - a lively idea, though I began to think the text was changing colour as I read it. A little off-putting. Still, this is a rigorous and significant contribution. Invaluable for practitioners, students and the serious enthusiast.


The Pocket Guide to Plays and Playwrights by Maureen Hughes
Pen and Sword, £12.99

If you're going to a pub quiz, read this guide the night before and play your joker on the performing arts round. After whizzing through the history of theatre, Hughes presents the handiest of tables summarising the main works of playwrights from Alan Ayckbourn to Tennessee Williams, and whittling down the key points of their lives. There's a section devoted to Shakespeare - with some neat facts: more than 1,700 words in common use today can be attributed directly to the Bard. Hughes even lists 100, with their sources in his plays. This is an immensely user-friendly semi-dictionary of a book. Totally absorbing.

A History of English Drama V (1660-1900): Part 1 and 2 by Allardyce Nicoll
Cambridge University Press, £60

Now that you've won the pub quiz (see above) and are preparing for Mastermind, you might like to invest in one of the most authoritative and scholarly compendiums documenting the history of English drama. Published initially as six volumes, with the first one coming out in 1923, the set has now been re-issued. Volume V focuses on 1850 to 1900. Part 1 tracks the influence of Boucicault, Robertson, Wilde, Shaw, and more. Part 2 is the appendix, at quadruple the former's size. Nicoll was Professor of Drama at Yale in the 30s. These are detailed reference books rather than page-to-page reads, but snippets are fascinating and it will look impressive on your shelf. What's more, this comment from Nicoll's obituary, in The Times in 1976, may well still apply: "These volumes deservedly won the gratitude of the ordinary student, who was spared the drudgery of reading a very large number of very poor plays." Not all the plays mentioned are that dull. Students and academics might like to see for themselves.


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