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Worth a Read: Theatre Books Round-up - July 2011

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Summer is conventionally a time for fluffy, light-hearted reading, so we've come up with our own theatrical books for the beach. Top of our packing list will be three Shakespeare parodies by American writer Perry Pontac in his Alan Bennett endorsed collection, Codpieces, closely followed by Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan by Andrew Crowther, which, as the title suggests, is a biography of the comic librettist.

Those more sensitive to the light, however, might prefer the shade, so alongside these we're featuring another Shakespeare book: The Quest for Shakespeare's Globe, which tries to reconstruct the original building, and a handbook on Wagner, Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, edited by Arthur Groos for those who like to have deep discussions lying on the sand.

Happy reading!

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer


The Quest for Shakespeare's Globe by John Orrell
Cambridge University Press

No one knows for sure what the original Globe was like: it was demolished in about 1644 after the Puritans closed it down a couple of years earlier. Only guesses can be made from printed panoramas at the time and written accounts by theatregoers. So how was the present one in Southwark constructed (from 1987 to 1997) with any accuracy? The answer lies with the late John Orrell, a theatre historian and English professor at the University of Alberta. Orrell had no training in archaeological or forensic techniques. Instead, he calculated the rough size and seating arrangements of the original using a 17th-century etching, documents at the time and Shakespeare's stage directions. In this book, originally published in 1983, Orrell analyses his sources in detail, coming up with angles and equations. It's a technical text rather than a light-hearted read, but as the former it's pretty impressive.

Codpieces by Perry Pontac

These three light-hearted Shakespeare parodies by American writer Perry Pontac answer those nagging questions: what happened after Hamlet (Hamlet, Part II), what happened before King Lear (Prince Lear) and what if Juliet and Romeo survived (Fatal Loins). The radio plays, which are somewhat shorter than the originals,were previously broadcast on the BBC, where they received considerable praise from Alan Bennett. They have yet to be endorsed by Shakespeare.


Gilbert of Gilbert & Sullivan by Andrew Crowther
History Press

As Andrew Crowther, a playwright and the secretary of the W.S. Gilbert Society, notes in the first line of this impressively detailed and entertaining biography, most people know little about W.S. Gilbert, except that he was the librettist half of Gilbert & Sullivan. They may well have little idea that he was also a cartoonist, dramatist and short story writer. Crowther delves into the archives to retrieve what he can about Gilbert, drawing a particularly detailed character study of a man who was 'generous as well as grasping; good company as well as bad; kind as well as caustic'. The most insightful points relate to Crowther's suggestion that his anger and unhappiness can be traced back to his childhood. The most entertaining parts are the flirtatious reprinted letters to women, including Bram Stoker's wife, Florence. A lively, deeply informative read.

Richard Wagner: Tristan und Isolde, edited by Arthur Groos
Cambridge University Press

You'll love or despise an opera only when you watch it, but reading this handbook will at least provide insight and understanding. The seven essays, written by leading professors mostly of musicology, include examinations of the libretto as a literary text (Wagner called it “eine Handlung”, literally a drama, rather than an opera) and reflections on the innovative composition (the music has been said to inspire and influence classical composers from Mahler to Strauss). Groos, an academic at Cornell University, also includes the first English translation of Wagner's prose synopsis, so you can see what Tristan und Isolde is about according the writer himself. At 200 pages, this book is also a non-threatening size; you could easily carry it around.


The Luminous Darkness: The Theatre of Jon Fosse by Leif Zern

After Simon Stephens' recent production of I am the Wind at the Young Vic, Jon Fosse might – at last – be recognised in Britain. Elsewhere in Europe, from his native Norway to Germany, he is regarded as one of today's star playwrights, on a par with Hare and Stoppard, but his lyrical writing, deep themes and abstract ideas haven't engaged British audiences. Yet. In anticipation that he will soon be on the scene, you might like to prepare. Leif Zern, a Swedish journalist, analyses Fosse's plays and poetry in this clear, manageable guide. Key interest areas for Zern are Fosse's minimalist writing style and the influence of Christian mysticism on his work.


National Theatre Connections 2011 by Samuel Adamson et al
Methuen, £14.99

Children of Killers by Katori Hall, who wrote the Olivier award-winning Mountaintop, is one of the highlights in this tome of an anthology, comprising ten plays for young people commissioned by the National Theatre. Hall's play is about genocide in Rwanda, although there are some lighter offerings, including Douglas Maxwell's comedy about a vocal group entering Britain's Got Talent. Each play comes with brief notes about staging and who to contact for performing rights, should you want to put it on yourself.

Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, adapted by Helen Edmunson
Nick Hern

Edmunson distils Tolstoy's 800-page novel into a 90-page script by boldly and successfully restructuring the story as a conversation between the two romantic heroes/heroines, Levin and Anna. Love affairs and self-destruction are still the ideas at its core, although Edmundson tries to get beyond the 'melodrama and cliché' of the films. This adaptation, first on in 1992, was recently on at the Arcola, and has won a TMA award. Edmundson's War and Peace adaptation was a nominated for a Writers' Guild prize.

The Vampire Trilogy by David Pinner
Oberon, £14.99

Vampire plays, especially compared to the number of vampire films, are rare, but Pinner, over the course of his career, has given us three. Fanghorn was one of the last plays to be banned by Lord Chamberlain. It features a lesbian vampire, who enters the house of Joseph King, the First Secretary to the Minister of Defence. Lucifer's Fair is a Hallowe'en musical play aimed at families and is about a fair run by the devil to snare children, while Edred, the Vampyre, written last year, features a 1,000-year-old bisexual vampire who slept with Shakespeare. Pinner wrote Ritual, the novel upon which the cult film The Wicker Man was based, so expect thrills and horror. The images and scenes are vivid, but the dialogue is often very funny, too.


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