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

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This month’s recent releases will appeal especially to readers with a passion for theatre history and those who delight in the whiff of nostalgia. With Christmas shopping season now very much upon us, these could make the perfect presents for any theatre-loving acquaintances.

To entertain, we have The Essential Noel Coward Compendium, a handy selection of Coward's work compiled by playwright and producer Barry Day. We also have a collection of biographies of Broadway performers in the coffee-table size I’m the Greatest Star by Playbill Radio host Robert Viagas. Viagas bravely gives a formula for stardom in his introduction. Tweaking his equation to make it apply to reality shows, you could see whether Jedward would pass. Although considering Barbra Streisand didn't make it, which Viagas says is because she hasn't been in enough musicals, we're thinking probably not.

On a more scholarly note, we have an insightful exploration of theatre under the Third Reich in The Swastika and the Stage, which academic Gerwin Strobl argues is a much neglected area of study. And there's an addition to the Cambridge Companion series – this time, on the 19th-century Swedish dramatist August Strindberg, known as much for his misogynistic views and his anti-Semitism as his 57 plays. What did he really contribute to theatre?

Plus, we have a guide on how to make performing pay. In Acting Professionally, professor of drama Robert Cohen and casting director James Calleri suggest ways to make a living from a career where you could well be unemployed most of the time - unless, of course, you follow their advice.

Laura Silverman
Book reviewer

Playwrights & Performers

The Essential Noel Coward Compendium by Barry Day
Methuen, £16.99

Capturing the sparkling wit of Noel Coward, playwright, producer and literary critic Barry Day has ambitiously collected excerpts from the entertainer’s plays, films, songs, short stories and diaries into one handy volume. Neatly divided by genre – the chapter on theatre includes a scene from the previously unpublished Design for Rehearsing – this is an easy book to dip into. The only shame is that the excerpts are so short, making it like a highly glorified quotation book. It’s still wonderfully engaging, and will be appreciated by those largely unfamiliar with Coward’s range, and dedicated fans who could recite several of his songs or one play in their sleep, but could do with a reminder of some of the others.

The Cambridge Companion to August Strindberg by Michael Robinson
Cambridge University Press, £17.99

The writer of 57 plays from the naturalist Miss Julie to the experimental To Damascus, August Strindberg was one of the most prolific nineteenth-century dramatists. Together, the 13 chapters of this book, each written by an academic, cover the immense scope of his work, yielding fascinating insights into Strindberg’s portrayal of women in his plays, compared with his Norwegian contemporary Henrik Ibsen, and his later influence on fellow Swede Ingmar Bergman, who directed 18 of his plays for the stage, eight for radio and two for television. This is a high-calibre, manageable collection of essays.


The Pocket Guide to Musicals by Maureen Hughes
Pen and Sword Books, £9.99

A quick and easy reference book of popular musicals, with timelines of the lives of the ‘Grand Masters’: Lord Lloyd-Webber, Sir Cameron Mackintosh and Sir Trevor Nunn, an overview of the history of musical theatre, 30-second plot summaries and a useful section dividing shows into when they written, and also the kind of musical they are, with categories such as child-friendly (Annie and South Pacific), rock (Godspell and Tommy) and comedy (Hairspray and The Full Monty). This book is too big for the pocket size it claims to be, it’s more handbag size, and I found it too much of an overview, but it’s nicely laid out and could be useful as an accompaniment to a book on a particular musical, composer or lyricist.

I’m The Greatest Star by Robert Viagas
Applause Theatre Book Publishers, £21.50

What makes a star? In this weighty encyclopedia covering 40 Broadway legends from 1900 to today, Robert Viagas, the host of Playbill Radio in the US, thinks he has the answer. Whether a performer qualifies can be worked out by an equation involving the difficulty of their roles, the seeming ease with which they accomplished them, the overall quality of their work, the number of lead roles they’ve had and, lastly, their uniqueness. The factors are all subjective, of course, but never mind. This selection contains several household names, including Fred Astaire, Julie Andrews and Angela Lansbury, plus plenty of less familiar ones to novices of the Broadway scene, starting with Bert Williams, whom Viagas claims is the first musical comedy star, as well as the first black one. In 400 pages, Viagas mentions dozens of shows – from Mary Poppins and The King and I, to more traditional ones Call Me Madam, Redhead and Wonderful Town. While there’s plenty to read and the text is clearly written, I was a little disappointed that all the photos were in black and white. Still, this is a good book for the Christmas gift list – you might need to order early as it’s published in the States.


Speaking in Tongues by Andrew Bovell
Nick Hern, £8.99

Pete is married to Jane. Leon is married to Sonja. Pete and Sonja meet in a bar and they go back to a hotel room. Leon meets Jane in a bar and they go back to a hotel room. Yes, part one of Andrew Bovell’s clever detective play really does begin in such a tangle, and as each scene is played out in parallel, reading the script, without having seen the drama on stage, takes a little getting used to. Parts two and three are more straightforward, but the plot doesn’t always move forward: incidents are repeated to reveal them from different angles. Even so, if you’re concentrating, the short lines and strong emotions will draw you in, and you can, of course, always see the play, too: it’s on at the Duke of York’s Theatre in the West End, with Life on Mars star John Simm, until 12 December. Gripping and emotionally complex.

Mrs Klein by Nicholas Wright
Nick Hern, £8.99

On at the Almeida in north London until 5 December, Nicholas Wright’s moving drama, based on the life of psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, explores mother-daughter relationships with wit and poignancy. First staged at the National in 1988, it shows the unsettling effect of the death of her son in 1934 on her family and her assistant, a refugee from Berlin. The script is a satisfying, speedy, read by the writer who adapted Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials for the National in 2003 and wrote episodes of the BBC television series The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, based on the novel by Alexander McCall Smith.


Women as Hamlet by Tony Howard
Cambridge University Press, £24.99

‘It is pretty much generally accepted that the original Hamlet the Hamlet of the Norse saga was a woman,’ claimed film magazine Pantomime in 1921. Ever since the late eighteenth century, actresses on stage and screen have clamoured after the part. The first Hamlet on film was Sarah Bernhardt; the first actress in radio was probably Eve Donne. The obvious question is why? A lecturer in English at the University of Warwick, Tony Howard examines what it is about the Prince of Denmark that has attracted women to the part, and looks at how much the appeal depends on the political and social situations of the actresses. He goes on to explore how they have interpreted the character, and how audiences and the wider society have reacted. This is a compelling and exhaustively comprehensive study, although not for those looking for light read.


Jewish Theatre: A Global View edited by Edna Nahshon
Brill, £99

One for the particularly scholarly reader, this broad collection of papers by academics worldwide were presented at a conference at University College London in June 2002. From a close study of parallels between Shylock and Othello, to a detailed argument that Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was a Jew, or at least based on a Jewish character in one of Miller’s short stories, this book is brimming with considered insights. Due to the price, this might be one to reserve at the library.

The Swastika and the Stage by Gerwin Strobl
Cambridge University Press, £19.99

The Nazi years have too often been dismissed as a gap in the history of the German stage or as ‘a black hole of destruction from which no light can escape’, argues Gerwin Strobl, a lecturer in modern history at Cardiff University, in this paperback, first published in 2007. Yet theatre was crucial to German identity when the Nazis came to power, and they used it for their own ends, often successfully. In his fascinating study, which is part of the Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre series, Strobl examines the ideology of theatre under the Third Reich in depth, looking at the problems playwrights faced after 1933, racism backstage, censorship, patronage and propaganda. As testament to his research, the footnotes, bibliography and the index comprise almost a third of this book’s 340 pages. Yes, it’s an academic work, but it’s relative accessibility makes it worthwhile reading for anyone with a serious passion for history.

Working in Theatre

Acting Professionally by Robert Cohen and James Calleri
Palgrave Macmillan, £17.99

It might come as little surprise that most actors are unemployed most of the time. But it gets worse. Fewer than half of the 150,000 professional actors in the US earn above the national poverty level each year (about £6,000). So how does the serious-minded performer make acting a career that pays? Most importantly, you must be clear about how you are going to reach your goal: you must know everything from how to get invited to a casting to why it might be sensible to negotiate your contract should you get an offer. Robert Cohen, a professor of drama at the University of California, and James Calleri, a casting director, offer substantial help in their thorough book for actors determined to find their big break. There’s a lot of material here for those in the States – especially the references to unions – but other chapters on show reels and auditions are universal. First published in 1972, this is the guide’s seventh edition, updated to include contributions from Callleri and scattered paragraphs on making your own website and starring in webisodes (videos made for broadcasting on the internet).


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