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

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Two themes dominate this month's selection. Our historical one is guided by a publisher's decision to release two complementary books on Shakespeare by Oxford fellow Katherine Duncan-Jones. Her biography, Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life, is finally out in paperback after nine years, and is being published alongside a comprehensive collection of the bard's sonnets, which she's prefaced with a 100-page introduction.

The theme of many of the scripts seems coincidental. Holding the Man by Tommy Murphy, Love the Sinner by Drew Pautz and Me, As a Penguin by Tom Wells – plays that have been staged recently – all deal with homosexuality. While they each come to this topic from different angles – one's set in a school in Melbourne in the Seventies, one starts in Africa and involves the Church, and the last compares the gay scene in Hull with a coastal town in East Yorkshire, reading all three yields interesting comparisons.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer

Biographies and History

Shakespeare: An Ungentle Life by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Methuen
Katherine Duncan-Jones is (apparently) Shakespeare's only female biographer. A fellow of Somerville College, Oxford, she is certainly one of the world's leading scholars on the bard, with this book, first published nine years ago as Ungentle Shakespeare, ushering in a new wave of study that took a thematic rather than chronological approach to the writer. By examining the context of Shakespeare's life and looking at his relationship with literary figures such as Ben Jonson, Professor Duncan-Jones argued against the idea that he was 'a provincial hick who couldn't truly have written the works to which his name was attached'.

A stimulation for further exploration rather than a comprehensive work, An Ungentle Life looks at issues throughout Shakespeare's life, including three topics that were formerly taboo in bard biography: social class, sex and money. This is an essential student reads – at least until September 2011, when Professor Duncan-Jones's new book on the development and creation of Shakespeare's literary reputation is due to be published. We hope to be reviewing that nearer the time.

Shakespeare's Sonnets edited by Katherine Duncan-Jones, Methuen
While you're waiting for September 2011, you might like to get hold of this updated compilation by the Oxford professor, first published in 1997. The 100-page scholarly introduction looks at poetic structure, compares Shakespeare's sonnets to traditional forms, asks who he might have addressed the works to and considers whether the bard was a misogynist. Shakespeare's 154 sonnets, plus A Lover's Complaint, are neatly laid out, each accompanied by a glossary and space for inspired notes.

London Stage in the Nineteenth Century by Robert Tanitch, Carnegie Publishing
With more than 220 illustrations, it looks and feels like a coffee table book, but this publication also brims with encyclopaedic detail. Set out in diary format, it records openings, adding who played whom and whether they were considered any good, as well as visits by Queen Victoria to the theatre (once with her own diary impression of the play). Tanitch pays dutiful attention to the era, without getting distracted by other goings on – each year is accompanied by a simple shaded box documenting historical events, from the beginning of the Indian Mutiny (1857) to the building of the Eiffel Tower (1889). London Stage ties in with an exhibition at the National Theatre of programmes and portraits from the 19th century. It runs until 27 June. While you might not be able to take home a rare playbill from your visit, Tanitch's work makes a fascinating substitute – valuable in another sort of way.


Pieces by Hywel John, Nick Hern
Hywel John says his debut play is “a study of grief in some respects, and is funny and unnerving in turn”. It's a domestic drama, set in the Welsh borders, following orphaned twins Jack and Bea and their new unprepared guardian, a thirtysomething woman called Sophie. Hywel wrote Pieces over several years between acting jobs, and is currently playing the Jew in Headlong Theatre's revival of Oscar Wilde's Salome (see below). Pieces has just premiered at Clywd Theatr Cymru in Wales.

Holding the Man by Tommy Murphy, Nick Hern
Adapted from Timothy Conigrave's memoir, this compelling play is the true biographical story of the relationship between two teenage boys when they meet at Melbourne High School in the early Seventies. Tim is secretly gay in an all-male school, with a crush on the captain of the football team. An award-winning Australian writer, Murphy is known for the humour and buoyancy of his work, and this, despite its elements of tragedy, is no exception. Staged initially in 2006 in Sydney, Holding the Man is now on, for the first time in Europe, at the Trafalgar Studios, SW1 until 3 July. This edition of the script finishes with a frank afterward by Murphy on researching and writing the play.

Ruined by Lynn Nottage, Nick Hern
Set in the Democratic Repulic of Congo, Lynn Nottage's harrowing drama, which won her a Pulitzer prize in 2008, looks at how rape and sexual violence on women can destroy a community just as effectively as bullets. Ruined, which has just been on at the Almeida, centres on Mama Nadi, a brothel and bar owner. A modern-day Mother Courage (Nottage's play was partly inspired by the Brechtian classic), Mama, is a deliberately morally complex character. “She does things that audiences are horrified by, that force them to suspend simplistic good-versus-bad judgments,” says Nottage. “But in the end, they understand her, and that she has to do what she does to survive." Purposefully plotted play with sympathetic characters, this is a gripping read. As a bonus, the script includes a small section of songs from the play, with notation for voice and guitar. Nottage wrote the lyrics.

Love the Sinner by Drew Pautz, Nick Hern
Bound to provoke debate among its audience and its readers, Drew Pautz's new play explores the morally thorny topics of IVF, homosexuality and asylum-seeking by following the consequences of married man's close encounter with a porter on a visit to Africa. Drawing parallels between disharmony within the Church and within marriage, the Canadian playwright looks at personal and public sacrifices in his characteristic writing style of broken sentences and overlaps in speech. Love the Sinner is on at the National until 10 July.

Me, As a Penguin by Tom Wells, Nick Hern
Inspired by a story about a trip to the zoo and a knitting magazine, Tom Wells' debut, which was at the West Yorkshire Playhouse earlier this month, after opening at the Arcola in London in April, is a tightly written absurdist comedy following Stitch, a young man from a small seaside town, who goes to stay with his preganant sister and her husband in Hull to sample the gay scene. Stitch has stolen a baby penguin from an aquarium. Wells, who, like Stitch, grew up in a small seaside town in East Yorkshire, says: “It's quite heartfelt. I'm a bit of a people watcher so it'd be hard not to put things in that I've seen or I've noticed. The play is not directly true but it's from a world that I recognise, with the odd bit of Tom Wells in maybe.”

Salome by Oscar Wilde, Nick Hern
Forget The Importance of Being Earnest and An Ideal Husband. This is a very different kind of Oscar Wilde. Dazzling and shocking, it's short and tragic; its setting is unrealistic and its language heightened. Banned in 1892 for its blasphemous portayal of biblical characters, the story tells of Salome, the step-daughter of King Herod who performs the dance of the seven veils in return for the head of Iokanaan (John the Baptist) on a platter. Translated from its original French, Salome is now enjoying a rare revival. Rupert Goold's Headlong Theatre is bringing it to Hampstead Theatre from 22 June to 17 July, concluding a short UK tour. A speedy read at just 38 pages, this script comes with a pithy, informative introduction, outlining the play's background and themes.

For students

So You Want to Go to Drama School? by Helen Freeman, Nick Hern
An audition panellist for the Guildford School of Acting, Helen Freeman has produced a very clear and comprehensive guide aimed at 16 and 17 year-olds serious about acting. In a realistic yet reassuring tone, she covers everything from what to look for in a prospectus, highlighting how important it is to research where you apply, to how to enter a room to make the right impression. The chapters are sensibly sub-divided into readable chunks, with pragmatic points rounding off each section. You may well find this indispensable, even after you get accepted on to the course.


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