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

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With so many alluring names in the casts of classic dramas in the West End at the moment, scripts are the focus of this month's round-up. There's Keira Knightley, of course, in Martin Crimp's sparky update of Moliere's The Misanthrope, now on at the Comedy Theatre, and soon there'll be Frank McGuinness' new translation of Ibsen's Ghosts, directed by Resident Evil actor Iain Glen, at the Duchess. We're giving you warning for this one because it caused a stir when it debuted - dealing with a sexual disease, it was considered an outrage.

In our Memoirs and History section, we take a fresh look at Samuel Beckett, as the Haymarket's Waiting for Godot, with Ian McKellen, returns for an 11-week run this month. 

Are we star struck? I don't think so! We have a couple of gritty intellectual books, without the overtly flashy names, to sink your academic teeth into, too. Carol Martin, of New York University, examines documentary theatre in The Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage, while a collection of academics, including Phillip Zarrilli of the University of Exeter, dig up cultural specimens - from Greek tragedy to English pantomime - in a helpfully updated edition of Theatre Histories.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


The Misanthrope: in a Version by Martin Crimp by Moliere
Faber & Faber, £8.99

You might just have heard that Keira Knightley is making her stage debut in this play at the Comedy Theatre in London, in a run that stretches until 13 March. Isn't that all you need to know? Must I say more?

Martin Crimp's doubly updated English translation of this French satire - his first updated version was on at the Young Vic in 1996 - is big on its punchy rhyming couplets. It's daring and direct, with lines of acerbic wit flying in all directions. It's out with seventeenth-century Paris and in with glitzy modern-day London for Crimp, but Moliere's bugbear, his attack on hypocrisy, is twice as great.

Jennifer (Celemene in the original and here played by Knightley), is a glamorous American film star, who flirts shamelessly with her admirers just as they grovel slavishly towards her. Yet any loyalty is purely for show. Only Alceste, a British playwright, seems prepared to say what he feels about people to their faces, but he is madly in love with Jennifer. Will he compromise his ideals in pursuing her? This is a play to read more for the deliciously sharp put-downs and character observations than, I would say, the plot, but it's thoroughly entertaining all the same.

Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen and Frank McGuinness
Faber & Faber, £9.99

'Ibsen's positively abominable play entitled Ghosts is... an open drain: a loathsome sore unbandaged; a dirty act done publicly,' cried the Daily Telegraph when the drama was first performed in 1882. It was 'gross, almost putrid indecorum,' it continued, 'literary carrion... crapulous stuff'. Written a year earlier by the Norwegian writer of the A Doll's House, Ghosts follows Mrs Alving as she prepares to dedicate an orphanage to her dead husband. So far, so appealing, but Mr Alving was a philanderer and their son has syphillis. At the time when the mere mention of a sexual disease - let alone suggesting it could afflict the morally righteous - was an outrage, Ghosts evidently gave the audience and critics a bit of a fright. Let's hope their modern day incarnations have recovered. A new version by Frank McGuinness, directed by actor Iain Glen, who was in the Resident Evil films, and starring Lesley Sharp, will run at the Duchess Theatre in London from 8 February to 15 May. The script will be published on January 18 - just to warn you.

Terry Pratchett's Nation: A Play by Mark Ravenhill
Corgi, £9.99

The Guardian's Michael Billington admits he had little idea what was happening on stage when he went to see Mark Ravenhill's adaptation of Nation, which is on at the National Theatre until March 28. For Ravenhill, known for his audacity in the explicit, edgy nature of his own plays such as Shopping and F******, has ditched much of Pratchett's original dialogue in the current run to focus on the story's theatricality: aweing his family audience with storms, waves, a foul-mouthed parrot and 'grandfather birds' (whatever they may be). After all, you can't have the immensely imaginative Pratchett, the creator of the Discworld series, in which a fantasy world rests on the backs of four huge elephants who are, in turn, supported by a huge turtle, without the fantastical.

Nation, an apocalyptic drama, is set in a parallel world in 1860. A tsunami destroys a black teenager boy's village and leaves an English girl shipwrecked on his island in the South Pacific. They come from different cultures and speak different languages, but together they rebuild a nation. Reading this script requires quite a bit of mind-creativity to be able to see the scenes, but that shouldn't put you off. If you can't make it to the theatre, a filmed version of one of the National's performances will be shown at cinemas nationwide on January 30.

The Priory by Michael Wynne
Faber & Faber, £9.99

Kate, a writer and teacher, has invited a few close friends to spend new year at a country retreat in an old monk's priory - not the celebrity detox centre/ hangout. In the words of her gay soulmate, Daniel, 'I love it that it's called the Priory. It's like our own little rehab.' It's supposed to be a calm, intimate reunion - no booze, no drugs - but, aside from anything else, that would make dull viewing. Instead, this ensemble comedy consisting of set pieces descends rapidly into farcical chaos. The once-gorgeous Carl, an actor, turns up, unexpectedly, with his wife, Rebecca, a child-obsessed TV executive. Ben, a travel writer, arrives with his beautician fiancee, Laura, whom he met the night before. Even the kindly Daniel, an architect, brings a boy he met on the internet.

Wynne's character-led exploration of a group of lost thirty-somethings, who judge each other by how successful they appear to be, is witty and perceptive. It may not yield any astounding revelations about human nature, but it's enjoyable reading - and viewing - all the same. The Priory, starring Tony-nominated Jessica Hynes, is on at the Royal Court in south-west London until 16 January.

Memoirs and History

Samuel Beckett (New Interpretations of Beckett in the 21st Century) by Seán Kennedy
Palgrave Macmillan, £55

Know the play about the luvvie in the wheelchair and his slave? Or the two clowns passing time 'which would have passed anyway'? The first, in case you missed it in the autumn, was Mark Rylance's take on Endgame, which ran at the Duchess Theatre. The second, more recognisably, was Sean Mathias's Waiting for Godot, starring Ian McKellen, which was the Haymarket's summer sell-out, and which will be returning there from 21 January to 3 April.

Unlike Endgame, this version of Godot was - arguably - a straight interpretation of the text, but there have, of course, been plenty of other readings. It's been heralded as a religious statement and a profession of Beckett's existentialism. Others have claimed that, above all, it demonstrates the symbiosis of relationships. Still others have read it as protest against injustice and tyranny. In 1955, Beckett is said to have remarked: "Why people have to complicate a thing so simple I can't make out."

The ten essays in this collection, edited by Seán Kennedy, an assistant professor at St Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, and Katherine Weiss, an assistant professor at East Tennessee State University in the US, use newly uncovered archive material to argue cogently against the prevailing academic idea that Beckett's work cannot be read historically. Instead, the Irish playwright should be placed firmly in his historical context. Contributors examine the impact of the Holocaust, as well as Ireland's troubled past. A fascinating intellectual read.

Theatre Histories by Gary Jay Williams, Bruce A. McConachie, Carol Fisher Sorgenfrei and Phillip Zarrilli
Routledge, £26.99

From Kathakali dance-drama to Japanese no plays, Theatre Histories, outlines dozens of cultural practices worldwide from medieval times to the present day, using a similarly broad range of interpretative methods, from gender theory to studies in national identity, to examine individual works close up. Encyclopaedic in scope, this is a book for the serious enthusiast or student, rather than an introductory text. Updated, with more illustrations and colour than its previous edition, it has a new chapter on modernism and an improved glossary with fuller definitions. This is a great teaching aid, packed with anthropological observations, written by academics from the UK and the States.


The Dramaturgy of the Real on the World Stage (Studies in International Performance) by Carol Martin
Palgrave Macmillan, £52

Carol Martin, the associate professor of drama at Tisch School of the Arts at New York University, brings together a set of insightful essays, interviews and scripts, many unique to this collection, looking at documentary theatre - drama created from interviews, photos and evidence from history. Contributors pick apart examples from the past, and look at its rise since 9/11. This is a timely, intriguing book.

For Actors

Design and Popular Entertainment edited by Christoper Frayling and Emily King with Harriet Atkinson
Manchester University Press, #45

I can't say that the introduction of electricity to London theatres towards the end of the nineteenth century ever concerned me much, but once I came across the essay in this collection which considers its impact in detail, I was intrigued. Perhaps it's true of every generation, but it's tempting to see changes in technology today in isolation, as if nothing had changed in the past until now. But what about the industrial revolution? And then the invention of radio? And the presence of film? And the development of pop art? And the pervasiveness of TV? (The rise of nternet and mobile technology is left for another time.) How did each affect its predecessors and our way of consuming popular culture?

The nine essays collected here are by former postgraduates on the V&A/Royal College of Art course, so yes, they're academic. But while the topics are sometimes specialist - the second contribution focuses on Norman Bel Geddes, one of America's key industrial designers in the early twentieth century, while another looks at the rise of the title sequence in relation to the emergence of independent film, focusing on Bass, Preminger and Hitchcock (a recognisable name, at least) - they don't presume prior knowledge. They're also neatly set out. Wallace & Gromit even make an appearance in one of the full-page photos.


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