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

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It’s a superlative time for alternative memoirs this month, with offerings from Steven Berkoff and Stephen Sondheim. Berfkoff’s autobiography, Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent, is highly intimate, focusing on family life and friends and enemies before fame; while Sondheim’s, Finishing the Hat, is the reverse, as he uses his lyrics as a springboard to comment on other giants of the musical world.

The most revealing books form our backstage section: The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters, in which the Birmingham University tutor dissects what makes classic drama and suggests why Hamlet works against the odds; while Jane Taylor’s Handspring Puppet Company takes us behind War Horse, and inside the puppets of the South African-based company’s previous shows.

We’re also featuring two mini-Wikipedias with authority in our reference section. Look out for The Oxford Dictionary of Dance by Craine and Mackrell and The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance edited by Dennis Kennedy. Read a page or two and you’re guaranteed to feel worthy.

Laura Silverman Book reviewer

Memoirs, Biographies and History

Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent by Steven Berkoff JR Books
As you may well know him for playing the villain (in Octopussy, Rambo and Beverly Hills Cop), perhaps you won't be too surprised that Berkoff was a troubled teen, spending time in a remand home for stealing a bike. The actor and playwright, who wrote Biblical Tales, on at Hampstead Theatre over the summer, has, of course, turned his life around, but his formative years contain some pretty juicy stories.

This memoir is of Berkoff's childhood and teenage years. Growing up in London during World War II, the Berkoffs' East End home was destroyed in the Blitz and family life was tough. His father, a tailor, was aloof (Berkoff calls him 'the strange beast'), and while he recalls happy memories, from chewing liquorice, to getting together with girls in the park (he goes into this with considerable adolescent rapture), Berkoff doesn't hold back on those that are more uncomfortable. Disappointing conversations with his father, being caned at school, becoming a father himself aged 15, and being put in a detention centre, which he describes as 'a form of concentration camp', are all there.

Berkoff employs a chatty style for his stories and psychological insights. The book is not exactly in diary form, but its short subtitled sections make it easy to slip into, if not out of. You'll be so engrossed you won't want to put it down.

Finishing the Hat: The Collected Lyrics of Stephen Sondheim (volume 1) Virgin Books
The title of this 480-page tome comes from the song in Sunday in the Park with George in which Seurat is reflecting on the creative process. 'Studying the hat/ Entering the world of the hat/ Reaching through the world of the hat/ Like a window.’ In this hefty book, the lyricist and composer reflects on his own creative process, by including observations and anecdotes alongside lyrics from his musicals, from Saturday Night (1954) to Merrily We Roll Along (1981). There are also handwritten lyrics from songs that were discarded before the productions were staged. Most revealing are Sondheim’s comments on other musical figures: WS Gilbert’s lyrics 'bore me to distraction – literally’; while Noël Coward is 'the Master of Blather’. Sondheim’s Passion is on at the Donmar Warehouse until Nov 27, while you wait for the second volume examining later works.


Anne Boleyn by Howard Brenton Nick Hern, £8.99
For Brassneck writer Howard Brenton, Henry VIII's second wife was ribald and witty. Unlike the Anne history would have us believe. Victim of a tyrant husband? Ruthless reformist hungry for power? Not the Anne who made her debut at the Globe this summer. Brenton's Anne loves Henry, she just also loves the most controversial religious and political beliefs of the day. Using many a modern-day idiom, Brenton livens up debates about class, church and state to such an extent that the royal court of the fifteenth century might be stirred from their graves.

The Master Builder by Henrik Ibsen and adapted by David Edgar Nick Hern
One of the father of modernism's more introspective works, The Master Builder is thought to be based, in part, on his own passion for a young female admirer. A tragedy of betrayal, guilt, lust and the decline of love, it explores the fear, ambition and temptations experienced by Halvard Solness, an ageing architect trapped in a loveless marriage. The young woman who drives the story is Hilde Wangel, who inspires him to build one last masterpiece. David Edgar's adaptation, which has just premiered at the Minerva in Chichester, brings the language up to date, from the nineteenth-century, making this an impassioned read.

Beautiful Burnout by Bryony Lavery Faber & Faber, £9.99
As the staging of this play features music by Underworld, it is tempting to recommend reading it with the group's greatest hits in the background. There's even a track-listing in the introduction. The story, however, has little to do with electronic dance music, and everything to do with boxing in the grim and grit of Glasgow. It's about the tension between the brutality and grace of the sport, and the ambition and tragedy of young aspiring boxers. Like the sport, the script is fast-paced and punchy, shaping vernacular banter into rhythmic lines, so reading it, you can imagine the energy on stage. This is a rewarding speedy read from a prolific feminist writer. Beautiful Burnout is touring the UK until Nov 27 (see the Frantic Assembly website for details).


The Secret Life of Plays by Steve Waters Nick Hern
In this seductively titled quasi-manual, Steve Waters offers, what he calls, 'a tentative ecology of playwriting'. As a playwright, he admits that 'great plays amount to more than formal obedience'. (Hamlet, for example, shouldn't work – it's too long, too open to sub-plots, too confused in its genres – but it does.)

For the past four years, however, he has run the MA course in playwriting at the University of Birmingham and he is interested in why some plays affect us more than others. Here, Waters divulges, or at least explores, some of the 'continuities, conventions and trade secrets' of a successful work. Plays by Churchill, Mamet, Bond and Büchner crop up as favourite examples as Waters examines structure, character and how to stir emotion. This is a neatly laid-out book, with chapters divided handily into chunky sub-sections, so you shouldn't feel like you're reading a series of essays or a play-by-numbers instruction sheet. Essential for aspiring playwrights.

Handspring Puppet Company edited by Jane Taylor David Krut Publishing, £35
Even those who haven't seen the Olivier Award winning War Horse are bound to have seen snippets of Joey, its lead character, on the web or on posters. With their beautifully crafted work and attention to the smallest of movements, the South African-based Handspring Puppet Company have redefined puppetry for adults. Punch & Judy or Avenue Q this is not. This coffee-table size book has the most vivid pictures of life-size puppet monkeys, giraffes and, of course, horses, accompanied by thoughtful, in-depth essays on the philosophy behind the company and how their puppets work. Or should that be essays accompanied by pictures? That will depend on your mood. Sometimes staring at a photo of an actor operating a puppet can be as absorbing as several pages of text.

Handspring's founders Adrian Kohler and Basil Jones have each contributed lengthy, thoughtful sections; the former guides readers through their productions, from Episodes of an Easter Rising in 1985 to War Horse in 2007; the latter analyses the contribution of the puppeteers to the authorship of a work. Handspring's new show, Or You Could Kiss Me, devised with playwright Neil Bartlett, is on at the National until Oct 30. It's worth queuing for a ticket.


The Oxford Dictionary of Dance by Craine and Mackrell Oxford University Press
What is gopak? Where does the term cabiole come from? In which work is 3D technology used to create the illusion that the dancer is crossing vast expanses of space as she moves? Welcome to Dance University Challenge. And here are your hosts, Times dance critic Debra Craine and Guardian dance critic Judith Mackrell. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, first out ten years ago, looks and feels amazingly compact and welcoming for its 2,700 entries. The updated version includes new entries on shoes, film, dance notation, sport, fashion, as well as 100 web links, making it yet another of those essential books. For those who just can't wait to get it, the answers to the above are: a spirited Ukranian dance; from capra, the Latin for goat – it's a leaping step, usually performed by male dancers, in which stretched legs are beaten together in the air; and Le Sacre du Printemps (2006).

The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance edited by Dennis Kennedy Oxford University Press, £25
What do you get if you cross an encyclopaedia with a dictionary? An Oxford Companion. This work, edited by Dennis Kelly, a professor at Trinity College, Dublin, started life in 2003 as a two-part encyclopaedia. At 704 pages, this version is, apparently, more concise. With 2,400 entries, it doesn't sound like there are many omissions: the main ones are venues and production companies. Discussion has been added on censorship, dance, opera and, more obscurely, Wild West shows. Unlike the paperback Oxford Dictionary of Dance, only those with strong arm muscles and a big bag are likely to want to carry this on a trek across the Andes, but taking it across a room and even down from a shelf is do-able.

You'll find entries, averaging 250 words, on topic from lighting to burlesque; Henry Fielding to Fiona Shaw; and Egyptian coronation ritual to kyogen (Japanese short farces performed between no plays). The updated timeline at the back, putting theatre-related events in their historical context, includes the election of Obama as US President (2009) and the death of Harold Pinter (2008). A must-have.


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