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

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Two book prizes provide the focus of this month’s round-up. Jann Parry’s Different Drummer, a biography of the Royal Ballet choreographer Kenneth MacMillan, has recently been named the Society for Theatre Research’s book of the year, while Andrew Stott’s The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, has been awarded the Sheridan Morley Prize.

Not that accolades are everything, of course. Eclectic newcomers on the rest of the Whatsonstage.com book stack range from a pocket-size script of Boucicault’s London Assurance, on at the National until 2 June, to Mick Gordon’s Theatre and the Mind, in which the director and actor looks at the crossover between neuroscience and the stage. It’s really not as heavy as it sounds – physically, it’s quite lightweight, and well worth picking up.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer

Winners and Nominees

Different Drummer by Jann Parry Faber & Faber, £30
Kenneth Macmillan’s 70 works, including Valley of Shadows, based on Bassani's Holocaust novel The Garden of the Finzi-Continis, reveal an obsession with victims, outsiders and extreme psychological states that reflected the late choreographers’ own mental states and pushed ballet into new territory.

Dance critic Jann Parry was given full access to the British choreographer’s diaries, letters and notes in researching this impressive biography and it’s paid off, winning this year’s Society for Theatre Research book prize. This study is both an exhaustively detailed history of a man and a perceptive deconstruction of his work, showing Macmillian as a depressive, tormented by self-doubt, as well as an affectionate husband and loyal friend. Fascinating.

Opera for Everybody by Susie Gilbert Faber & Faber, £25
Subtitled The Story of the English National Opera, this 700-page tome serves as a chronicle of operatic life in England over the past 150 years. Jeremy Sams, the British translator for the modern-day ENO, has said opera once appealed to the British precisely because it was exotic, but from Emma Cons and Lilian Baylis’s ideal in the 1890s to the business-model of the ENO today, the ENO has always been based on the belief that opera can reach out to everyone. In its earliest incarnation, in the slums of The Cut, opera was even seen as a mode of social reform. Reports from ENO board meetings and political and financial negotiations that make up large sections of this book don’t always make for the easiest of reads, but this is an impressive work nonetheless – and a strong contender for the Society of Theatre Research prize, even if it was a runner-up.

The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Historiography by Thomas Postlewait Cambridge University Press, £45
What principles should theatre historians follow in their research, analysis, interpretation and writing, and what pitfalls should they avoid? Starting with case studies on Shakespearean theatre and avant-garde theatre, Postlewait’s intelligent book, nominated for the Society of Theatre Research prize, examines the methods and aims of historical study in the performing arts. Aimed at students and teachers, this is not a light read, but it is an intelligent, questioning work to train a bright and active mind.

The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theatre edited by Richard Dutton Oxford University Press, £89
Nominated for the Society of Theatre Research prize, this collection of 36 scholarly essays explores the social, economic and political pressures on players in Tudor-Stuart England. Contributions look at how companies met the opposition of City of London authorities, examine the role of entrepreneurs and financiers, construct the role of women and boy actors and detail the use of lighting, props music. A doorstop of a book, this is one for the shelves of the serious student, and for anyone else to seek out at the library.

The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi by Andrew McConnell Stott Canongate, £20
It's a surprise for a stand-up comic to admit he's scared of clowns, but Andrew McConnell Stott has done his research. The most celebrated English clown, Joey Grimaldi invented their part-child, part-nightmare persona. Creating the make-up and clown costume, he impressed even the severe lord chancellor Lord Eldon with his part-ballet, part-slapstick, part-variety show. His first big hit, Mother Goose in 1806, sold 300,000 tickets – the equivalent of a third of London's population.

Even so, Grimaldi's comedic act had a dark side. It was a way to deal with his traumatic childhood – his father, also a clown, often beat Grimaldi's mother and tormented his family with his obsession with death. Joey also lost his adored wife in childhood and his only son to drink. He suffered depression. McConnell Stott's biography is packed with vivid details of both Grimaldi's family life and the context of the Georgian theatre, making an enthralling if tragic read. Will being nominated for the Society for Theatre Research Book Prize and winning the Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography should at least make the author feel more comfortable and confident in the presence of clowns – as long as they don't take offence at exposure and exact revenge.

Talking Theatre by Richard Eyre Nick Hern, £20
Reviewed on this site in September, this nominee for the Sheridan Morley Prize consists of interviews by the former director of the National with just about everyone in the theatre world. From Judi Dench to Steven Berkoff, the question is which chapter to read first...

Diaghilev: A Life by Sjeng Scheijen Profile, £25
As a man of inexhaustible energy and a consuming desire to be in control, the founder and director of the Ballets Russes makes a fertile subject for a biography. Drawing on little-known Russian archives, Sjeng Scheijen presents Diaghilev's story in lucid, measured prose, even when describing his passionate love affairs and his collaborations with Picasso, Debussy, Rimsky-Korsakov, ­Matisse and Coco Chanel, to name a few. Focusing on Diaghilev's character above descriptions of his work, Scheijen examines his adoraton for his stepmother and the effect of his father's bankruptcy on his life. For as arrogant as Diaghilev could be, he could also be generous: he helped pay for a doctor for a dancer’s sick child and campaigned for the release of his brother Valentin, who had been captured by the NKVD in ­Russia. Nominated for the Sheridan Morley Prize, this biography is a valuable addition to the shelves of ballet fans.

Best of the rest

London Assurance by Boucicault Nick Hern, £3.99
If you're off to see the revival of this comedy of manners at the National, starring Simon Russell Beale, you might like to invest in this pocket-size paperback. Beale plays ageing dandy Sir Harcourt Courtly, who goes to a country house in Gloucestershire to marry 18-year-old Grace. Unfortunately, his son has also turned up – in disguise – and fallen for her. Sir Harcourt, however, is immediately attracted to the feisty Lady Gay Spanker. The snag is she's married.

Written when the Irish playwright was just 21, in 1841, London Assurance isn't generally regarded as his best work taken as a whole, but its characters are hilarious. From the short introduction to this edition, it seems Boucicault was a colourful character himself, with Trevor Griffiths, a professor at the University of Exeter, describing Boucicault as 'a playwright, actor, manager, copyright campaigner, entrepreneur, theatrical innovator, self-plagiarist, self-publicist, serial adulterer, bigamist and a bankrupt.' The production at the National, which has received acclaimed reviews, runs until 2 June.

Theatre and the Mind by Mick Gordon Oberon, £9.99
In this fascinating and slim hardback, bound in refreshing lilac, the director and actor Mick Gordon argues that theatre has much to learn from neuroscience (the study of the brain and central nervous system) and neuropsychology (the study of the relationship between behaviour, emotion and cognition on the one hand and brain function on the other). In eight short chapters, Gordon digests vital concepts, such as empathy, narrative and morality, in his lively, lucid way. It's an astonishing read that will have you thinking as much about how we process thoughts at all as it will about how plays work.


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