Category Archives: Books

FATHER OF SELF-EXILED BELARUSIAN WRITER JAILED FOR REPOSTING ARTICLE ·

(From Radio Free Europe, 11/10; Photo of Sasha Filipenka, from Radio Free Europe.)

Self-exiled Belarusian writer Sasha Filipenka told RFE/RL on November 10 that a Minsk court sentenced his father to 13 days in jail for reposting an article by the Zerkalo (Mirror) website that the government has labeled as extremist. Filipenka wrote on Facebook earlier that police detained his father on November 9 and that it is “obvious that they are putting pressure on me and want me to stop talking to the European media.” The 39-year-old writer is the author of several books for which he has received literary prizes. He fled Belarus after he took part in anti-government protests in 2020. To read the original story by RFE/RL’s Belarus Service, click here. 

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THE PLAY’S THE THING – BUT ITS SUCCESS DEPENDS ON THE THEATRE TOO ·

(Michael Billington’s article  appeared in the Guardian, 7/18.Photo: ‘The power to draw the audience together’ … the Swan Theatre at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Not all buildings are created equal. From sightlines to acoustics to the alchemy of actor-audience rapport, the physical facts of a dramatic space are fundamental

What makes a good theatre? Critics are not the most reliable guides. We sit in the best seats, don’t have to pay, and are there to assess the performance rather than the building. If ever I have wanted guidance on architectural issues, I have turned to Iain Mackintosh, who from 1973 worked for Theatre Projects Consultants, has designed many successful theatres and has now put his encyclopedic knowledge into a book called Theatre Spaces 1920-2020. But the revelation comes in the subtitle: Finding the Fun in Functionalism. At the heart of the book lies an assault on modernist concrete buildings and a celebration of any theatre where actor and audience enjoy an easy rapport.

Mackintosh covers a lot of ground and tells a number of good stories, two of which relate to the old Shakespeare Memorial theatre in Stratford, which opened in 1932. Derided at the time as a “jam factory”, yet capable of infinite adaptation, it has long been attributed to a 29-year-old modernist architect, Elisabeth Scott. But Mackintosh implicitly endorses the view that it was the work of her employer, Maurice Chesterton (cousin of the famous GK). He also quotes a story about Tyrone Guthrie, on being offered co-directorship of the theatre in 1950 by Anthony Quayle, saying he would only accept if they built a new theatre with the audience on three sides. Asked what should be done with the existing theatre, Guthrie replied, “Bulldoze it and push it into the river.”

In seeking an antidote to modernism, Mackintosh rejoices in two things. One is spaces built of brick and plaster, which, unlike concrete, are adaptable. The other is what came to be known as the “courtyard theatre”, modelled on rectangular, galleried 18th-century playhouses such as the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond in North Yorkshire. This was the inspiration both for the Cottesloe (now the Dorfman) at the National Theatre, and the Tricycle (now the Kiln) in Kilburn, which owe everything to Mackintosh’s design. But Mackintosh also singles out the Swan in Stratford, where he was not involved, and where the architect, Michael Reardon, was inspired by galleried churches whose architecture “had the power to draw the audience together in a way that modern theatres do not”.

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HOW THOMAS LANIER WILLIAMS BECAME TENNESSEE ·

How Thomas Lanier Williams Became Tennessee | The New Yorker

(Casey Cep’s article appeared in the New Yorker, 7/10,17/23; Photograph by Vandamm Studio © Billy Rose Theatre Division / NYPL for Performing Arts.)

A collection of previously unpublished stories offers a portrait of the playwright as a young artist.

Williams’s early stories feature the outlines of the spinsters, sirens, hotheads, and ministers whom he later made famous.

If you ever have to lie about your age, try to do it with as much creativity and conviction as Tennessee Williams. When he was nearly twenty-eight, the playwright submitted a handful of one-act plays to a contest for writers under twenty-five. Worried that his deception would be discovered, he changed his name and mailed the submission not from St. Louis, where he lived, but from Memphis, using his grandparents’ home there as the return address. Born Thomas Lanier Williams III in Mississippi, he first considered calling himself Valentine Sevier, after an ancestor on his father’s side whose brother was the first governor of Tennessee. But he decided to instead keep his last name and change only his first.

“Mr. ‘Tennessee’ Williams got a telegram last night,” he wrote to his mother a few months later, in March, 1939, letting her know that he’d won the contest, receiving a hundred-dollar prize from the Group Theatre, in New York City. “Do not spread this around till the checque has arrived, as some of my ‘friends’ . . . might feel morally obliged to inform the Group that I am over 25.”

If Williams had any scruples of his own, he shed them with an elegant explanation. After dropping out of the University of Missouri School of Journalism, he’d spent the fall of 1932 through the spring of 1935 as a clerk at the International Shoe Company, in St. Louis. His father, a sales manager there, got him the position, which Williams described as “hard labor,” though it mostly involved dusting sample shoes in the morning and typing factory orders for the rest of the day. He took a smoke break every half hour and got paid sixty-five dollars a month. “The job was designed for insanity,” he later remembered. “It was a living death.” He therefore felt entitled to excise that period from his personal history. That’s why Tennessee was three years younger than Tom, and eligible to enter the playwriting contest that brought him to the attention of East Coast agents and West Coast directors.

But all that is only a technical explanation of how Tom became Tennessee. The deeper questions about Williams’s transformation are the stuff of endless debates and dissertations, fuelled by interviews, letters, memoirs, biographies, and Williams’s own writing, including posthumous publications. Most of us don’t mind literary grave robbing, especially when it comes to authors we love, in which case we don’t mind cradle robbing, either: the boyhood diary of F. Scott Fitzgerald, the miniature books of the young Brontë sisters, the childhood newspaper of Virginia Woolf. In this spirit, New Directions is publishing a volume of the early work of Tennessee Williams, who died forty years ago. Slightly less jejune than the abovementioned efforts, this set of short stories is more like the university-era poetry written by T. S. Eliot in the notebook he titled “Inventions of the March Hare,” or Vladimir Nabokov’s blank-verse play “The Tragedy of Mister Morn,” which he wrote as a twentysomething.

The Caterpillar Dogs and Other Early Stories” includes seven works of short fiction by Williams, culled from the seventy-six boxes of his archival materials at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. They are introduced by Tom Mitchell, an emeritus theatre professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who previously adapted several of Williams’s stories for the stage. Written during the Great Depression, the stories are mostly from the era of Tom’s life that Tennessee erased, when he was living in what he called the City of St. Pollution, writing in the evenings after work, hopped up on black coffee and cigarettes, struggling to find a form and an audience for his art.

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THE TRAUMA OF CARY GRANT: HOW HE THRIVED AFTER A TERRIBLE CHILDHOOD – AS TOLD BY HIS DAUGHTER ·

(Emma Bockes’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/5; Photo:  ‘All the neglect he suffered meant he made sure that that was not my life’ … Jennifer Grant. Photograph: Andrzej Lawnik/The Guardian.)

Born into extreme poverty, Grant was told as a child his mother had died. She had actually been placed in a psychiatric institution. It was the start of a life of repression and extraordinary reinvention

During the casting process for Archie – a forthcoming series for ITVX – about the life of Cary Grant, the late actor’s daughter, Jennifer, had several, unbreakable criteria. The actor playing her dad needed to be suave, of course, per Cary’s public persona. He had to be cerebral – her dad was an avid self-improver. And he had to wow her in a way that reflected the intensity of her relationship with a man who, at the age of 62, gave up a huge career to devote himself exclusively to raising her. Even by the standards of Hollywood, this last detail was eccentric.

It is more than 35 years since Cary died and to talk to his daughter, the sadness is still, sometimes, immediate. Jennifer Grant was a baby when her parents divorced – her mother is the actor, Dyan Cannon – and it was her father with whom she primarily lived until his death, when she was 20. “When will I stop missing him?” wrote Grant in her 2011 memoir and although, of course, the answer is never, working on the TV show has helped her close the circuit between the father she knew and the incongruity of his concealed origins – a hardscrabble upbringing in England. “I think it’s a story that deserves to be told,” says Jennifer, 57, from her house in Los Angeles, where she lives with her two children and works as an actor – most recently in the Brad Pitt film, Babylon. “It makes one appreciate Dad so much more. He had repressed so much – it was somewhat of a secret and it didn’t have to be. It was nothing shameful that he did, as a six-year-old boy.”

No aspect of his background showed up in his persona as the star of such classics as The Philadelphia Story and An Affair to Remember. It is hard to conceive now just how famous Cary was and what he represented: an idea of the sophisticated Englishman that made him Hollywood’s biggest male movie star of the prewar period, up there with Clark Gable and James Stewart. The question is how precisely he pulled this off and in the show, which has been written by Jeff Pope, who also co-wrote the Oscar-nominated movie, Philomena, the story flips between the childhood of Archibald Alexander Leach, as he was then known, and the mature Cary, who with his daughter’s approval, is played by Jason Isaacs. It was “clear from the outset,” she says, that he was the right actor for the role.

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View Evenings with Cary Grant on Amazon

 

‘IT WAS SHOCKING’: THE AUTHOR UNDER ATTACK FOR DOUBTING SHAKESPEARE ·

(David Smith’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/27; Photo: The Guardian.)

Elizabeth Winkler’s controversial new book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, investigates highly fraught theories around the beloved playwright

 “It’s a funny thing,” admits Elizabeth Winkler. “I don’t really like controversy. I don’t seek it out. There are some people that thrive on it and I don’t. I find it upsetting and distressing to see my work and my ideas misrepresented and twisted. It’s not fun. But you study the history of the subject, you know that’s how it goes.”

The subject in question is perhaps the final blasphemy of British culture: the theory that William Shakespeare of Stratford-upon-Avon might not have written Hamlet, Macbeth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and other plays and poems that bear his name.

The doubters point to Shakespeare’s lack of higher education and aristocratic background and the scarcity of personal documents and literary evidence directly linking him to the works. Some suggest candidates such as Francis Bacon, Christopher Marlowe or Edward de Vere, the 17th Earl of Oxford, as potential authors of Shakespeare’s plays.

It would of course have been the hoax of the millennium: no need to fake a moon landing. The theory remains decidedly fringe, outside the mainstream academic consensus and, as Winkler puts it, “not permitted”. In her book, Shakespeare Was a Woman and Other Heresies, she writes that “it has become the most horrible, vexed, unspeakable subject in the history of English literature.

“In literary circles, even the phrase ‘Shakespeare authorship question’ elicits contempt – eye-rolling, name-calling, mudslinging. If you raise it casually in a social setting, someone might chastise you as though you’ve uttered a deeply offensive profanity. Someone else might get up and leave the room. Tears may be shed. A whip may be produced. You will be punished, which is to say, educated. Because it is obscene to suggest that the god of English literature might be a false god. It is heresy.”

This passage neatly captures Winkler’s lucid and light-footed approach to the subject. The 33-year-old American journalist and book critic, who holds English literature degrees from Princeton and Stanford universities, writes for the Wall Street Journal newspaper and the New Yorker magazine. While she categorises herself as a sceptic of the Stratford man (“There are so many gaps”), this is not a polemical book seeking to knock Shakespeare off his perch and push dubious evidence for an alternative.

Instead Winkler brings a journalist’s eye to the controversy, zipping between highbrow philosophical debates around the nature of knowledge – how can we be truly certain about anything? – to the more prosaic and petty squabbles of academics with skin in the game that might be plucked from a novel by Michael Frayn or David Lodge.

Her book makes three compelling arguments: tying the authorship question to the rise and fall of imperial Britain and its need for national mythmaking; exploring how Shakespeare was turned into a secular god, with theatre filling the vacuum left by the decline of the church; and challenging the basic human need to cling to belief when doubt might be the proper response.

Her central point is not the authorship question itself but the ecosystem of egos, vested interests, literary feuds and cultish bardolatry that has grown up around it. We meet Stratfordians who defend Shakespeare’s genius with religious intensity and zeal and anti-Stratfordians who respond with a contrarian ferocity worthy of atheist Richard Dawkins. This is one fight with little room for agnostics.

Winkler writes: “The authorship question is a massive game of Clue played out over the centuries. The weapon is a pen. The crime is the composition of the greatest works of literature in the English language. The suspects are numerous. The game is played in back rooms and basements, beyond the purview of the authorities.

“Now and then, reports of the game surface in the press, and the authorities (by which I mean the Shakespeare scholars) are incensed. They come in blowing their whistles and stomping their feet, waving their batons wildly.”

Winkler dived feet first into this melee four years ago with an essay in the Atlantic magazine under the headline “Was Shakespeare a Woman?”, floating the idea that Emilia Bassano Lanier, a 16th-century poet of Italian heritage, had a hand in the plays attributed to the man from Stratford. There was a fierce backlash that ran the gamut from lofty scholars to Twitter trolls.

Sitting outside the Washington national cathedral, a grand structure built in 14th-century English gothic style, Winkler tells the Guardian: “I was very quickly castigated as a conspiracy theorist and denialist – they’re invoking climate change denial or Holocaust denial, even though those things are not remotely equivalent. I was compared to anti-vaxxers and purveyors of disinformation. Very ugly comparisons. It was mortifying and shocking at first. I’d never been attacked like that as a writer.”

Why is a question about the authorship of 400-year-old plays getting people so riled up?

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THE GREAT WHITE BARD BY FARAH KARIM-COOPER REVIEW – RECLAIMING SHAKESPEARE ·

(Arifa Akbar’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/6; via Pam Green; Photo: Adjoa Andoh as Shakepeare’s Richard III. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

An inspiring analysis of Shakespeare and race restores his reputation as a playwright for all

There is a vivid moment in Farah Karim-Cooper’s new book where she reflects on the image of the nation’s pre-eminent playwright – how unfathomable he has seemed to artists and how his face has been conjured from a historical blur. She compares portraits and discerns a marked shift in the 18th century when he seems to become “more beautiful, symmetrical, and whiter in complexion”.

If visual art has hitherto seemed like a peripheral detail in the appraisal of his work, Karim-Cooper, a professor of Shakespeare studies, connects this paled image to a metaphorical whitewashing: the man we celebrate today is not the one who lived and worked in Elizabethan England but a reconstructed fantasy, built to serve as an emblem of white excellence and imperial Englishness.

Efforts to decolonise Shakespeare have been fiercely contested in the past and as co-director of education at the Globe theatre, Karim-Cooper navigated her own storm when she organised a series of webinars on anti-racism in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. Far from being cowed by the experience, she has produced a book-length study of the bard through the lens of race theory.

It is a thorough analysis but also a kind of love letter. Karim-Cooper felt an instant connection to Shakespeare at the age of 15, during an English lesson on Romeo and Juliet. But in order to love him, she argues, we have to know him fully, and not only his genius but the darker aspects of his legacy.

Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh

It is a clever deployment of Shakespearean wisdom on how to love without a distorting “fancy bred in the eye”. The great white bard of the title is just that type of idealised cultural construct, she suggests. “I am a foreign, brown woman – and I feel seen and heard in Shakespeare’s plays,” Karim-Cooper asserts and this chimes with her book’s broader aim: to restore the swan of Avon as a playwright for all.

Close readings of the texts produce concrete examples of racial prejudice, antisemitism and colonial subjugation in works such as Othello, The Merchant of Venice, Julius Caesar, Antony and Cleopatra and The Tempest. Some of this is familiar, but Karim-Cooper’s broader sociopolitical scope makes us see certain lines and characters afresh. She also bypasses charges of unfairly applying 21st-century definitions of racism and white supremacy by calibrating her analysis to the values of the Tudor era, or subsequent centuries.

We are taken from original stagings in black- and brown-face to the trauma carried in roles such as Othello for contemporary Black actors. Karim-Cooper makes some rather creative connections between Shakespeare’s world and ours: a discussion on inter-racial couples such as Othello and Desdemona and Titus Andronicus’s Aaron and Tamora segues into an analysis of the present day ambivalence towards Prince Harry and Meghan Markle; she draws on the cultural theorist bell hooks’s idea of political resistance through self-love, hailing Aaron’s eloquent defence of his blackness (“Coal-black is better than another hue / in that it scorns to bear another hue”) as “the first ever black power speech”.

Historians including Miranda Kaufmann and David Olusoga have supplied ample examples of diversity in Tudor Britain, and Karim-Cooper sees Shakespeare as holding a mirror to this society, with his plays interrogating live issues around race, identity and the colonial enterprise. Her critique is at its most absorbing and original when she shows how complicated his approach was. “Shakespeare often challenges us to hold two contradictory views simultaneously – it was how his mind worked,” she writes, and demonstrates how figures such as Shylock and Aaron were both defined by stereotypes as well as undermining them. Her arguments, cumulatively, come to feel essential and should be absorbed by every theatre director, writer, critic, interested in finding new ways into the work.

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NOËL COWARD WAS NOT JUST AN AMIABLE JESTER BUT A SCATHING SOCIAL SATIRIST ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/21; Will Young as Nicky Lancaster and Diana Hardcastle as Florence Lancaster in The Vortex at the Royal Exchange theatre, Manchester, in 2007. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian.)

Anniversaries offer a chance for reappraisal. Fifty years after the death of Noël Coward, it is worth asking whether, as a playwright, he still speaks to us today. You might have thought that his world had faded but the truth is that between 1924 and 1941 Coward wrote five comedies – Hay Fever, Private Lives, Design for Living, Present Laughter and Blithe Spirit – that are regularly revived. They may look like escapist diversions but their structural symmetry, verbal precision and opportunities for actors mean that they are bankers which have achieved the status of minor classics.

But, rather than dwell on the famous five, I think it is worth asking whether there is more to Coward than a mastery of quilted fun and whether we should range more widely through his 50 or so plays. Oliver Soden’s excellent new biography, Masquerade, reveals Coward to be a more complex individual than we had acknowledged: Soden even suggests that, in his combination of manic activity and deep melancholia, there was a hint of what we now know as bipolarity. Sheridan Morley, Coward’s first biographer, called his book A Talent to Amuse. But, while Coward liked to present himself to the world as a message-free entertainer, he was a finger-wagging preacher and occasionally scathing satirist. You could, in fact, write an alternative study of Coward called A Talent to Abuse.

I’ve recently reread four early Coward plays which reinforce my notion that he was far more than an amiable jester. His first major success, The Vortex, first performed in 1924, looks like a chamber-drama about an intense mother-son relationship. It is, in fact, shortly to be revived at Chichester with a real-life mother and son – Lia Williams and Joshua James – in the leading roles. But, while the final confrontation has obvious echoes of the closet scene in Hamlet, the play also feels like a condemnation of Jazz Age frenzy and hysteria.

Nicky Lancaster, the drug-addicted hero, says at one point “we swirl about in a vortex of beastliness” and we are reminded that the title refers to a whirlpool that swallows up and absorbs its victims. The Vortex gave Coward the success he craved and he followed it with the perennially popular Hay Fever. But in the same productive period he wrote the overlooked Easy Virtue: seemingly a piece of updated Pinero in which a shady lady with a past comes into conflict with her starchy in-laws.

Reading it today, what is striking is Coward’s fierce condemnation of social convention, sexual repression and upper-class philistinism. Reviewing the last major revival at Chichester in 1999, I said the play had curious affinities with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger in that it shows a protagonist who finds no responsive chord in the surrounding world and that the most sympathetic character was a retired colonel who represented a vanished Edwardian decency.

Arguably the most curious of the early Cowards is Semi-Monde written in 1926 but never staged until 1977 when Philip Prowse did a sumptuous production for the Glasgow Citizens. This is Coward at his most self-consciously cynical as he shows the shallowness of a group of socialites as they parade through the lounge of the Ritz Hotel in Paris. With its cast of 28, the play is unwieldy but what hits one is Coward’s withering portrait of the inconstancy of his many gay, lesbian and bisexual characters. Coward’s own inclinations were never in doubt but you might conclude from this glittering kaleidoscope that he felt homosexuality was something that should be practised but not preached.

The fiercest of this early quartet is Post-Mortem written in 1930 and seen in a truncated TV version and a revival at London’s King’s Head. It is commonly described as an anti-war polemic. Since it is about a hero, killed 1917 who returns as a ghost to see how the wartime sacrifice has been squandered in peace, it is really an attack on Coward’s own times. What is extraordinary is the breadth of the assault: church, state, a mendacious press all come under Coward’s critical fire in a play about what, in a sketch from Beyond the Fringe, was called The Aftermyth of War. It is no surprise, after this, that the Observer critic, St John Greer Ervine, dubbed Coward a “Savonarola in evening dress”.

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PLAYS FROM THE DISASTER: ON THE 20TH ANNIVERSARY, HOW DRAMATISTS DOCUMENTED IRAQ AND AFGHANISTAN ·

 

As Karen Malpede points out in her introduction to Acts of War, tragedy “arose as a complement to, perhaps also as an antidote to, war.” The greatest of the early playwrights wrote from experience—Aeschylus and Sophocles were generals in the Athenian army, and Euripides was a combat veteran. Electronic media reports war instantly, but the stage provides an unrivaled venue for facing the horror of armed conflict on a human scale.

This historically important anthology of plays by American and British writers bears witness to the realities of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for combatants and civilians alike and asks what it means to be a citizen in a democracy at war. From violence on the battlefield and in the cells of Guantanamo to the toll exacted on the homefront, the seven plays collected by Malpede, Messina, and Shuman explore in depth the costs of war. Sometimes with humor or erotic charge, always with compassion and surprising insight, these contemporary plays return to the theater a necessary social edge.Karen Malpede’s introduction sets the plays in the broader contexts of theater’s roots and recent history, while award-winning journalist and author Chris Hedges provides a foreword.

The plays included in this collection: Guantanamo: “Honor Bound to Defend Freedom” by Victoria Brittain and Gillian Slovo; American Tet by Lydia Stryk; The Vertical Hour by David Hare; Prophecy by Karen Malpede; 9 Circles by Bill Cain; No Such Cold Thing by Naomi Wallace; and A Canopy of Stars by Simon Stephens.

View Acts of War on Amazon.

 

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, CARY GRANT! ·

Get to know the real Cary Grant for his 119th birthday, in Nancy Nelson’s acclaimed biography (he was born January 18, 1904).

Recollections in His Own Words and by Those Who Knew Him Best

Nancy Nelson’s Evenings with Cary Grant, which uses the icon’s own words—and is enhanced with material from Grant’s personal papers—draws from the remembrances of Katharine Hepburn, Gregory Peck, James Stewart, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, Burt Reynolds, Sophia Loren, Quincy Jones, Deborah Kerr, and George Burns (over one hundred and fifty voices in all). Together these friends, colleagues, and loved ones provide a sublime, truthful, and candid portrait—as close to a memoir as Grant ever got.

Foreword by Barbara and Jennifer Grant.  Available now.  

“Forget the other Grant books, this is it.  Superb.”–Kirkus Reviews.

“It’s a lovely, funny book about Cary.”–Katharine Hepburn.  

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‘I THREW MY ARMS AROUND BECKETT!’ – ELECTRIFYING FIRST NIGHTS, BY CIARÁN HINDS, EILEEN ATKINS AND MORE ·

(Dominic Dromgoole’s article appeared in the Guardian 10/26; via Pam Green; Photo: A hallucinatory experience’ … Frances Barber with Amanda Abbington and Reece Shearsmith in The Unfriend. Photograph: Manuel Harlan.)

The author of a new book about the greatest openings in theatre history asks stars of stage to recall their most thrilling first nights – and the occasional disasters that befell them

History has no shortage of explosive first nights and openings. Moments in public art when the concerns of an epoch meet the truths of artists and catalyse a volcanic response. These are the nights when pins can be heard dropping, when time is stretched into unforeseen patterns, when success is grasped or failure faced. For artists they are electrifying. Here are some stories from the frontline.

‘Beckett stood there like a stone but I carried on’

Eileen Atkins, attending Beckett’s Play, 1964
There were three figures on the vast Old Vic stage, all encased in jars. They did the same script twice through. Mad about Beckett anyway, I was overwhelmed by the cleverness and what it did to my brain. It was extraordinary the difference in effect when done at first one pace, then an entirely different one. The whole meaning shifted. Later I was in a car when I saw the director George Devine walking along with a man. I leapt out and shouted: “George, George, I just saw your amazing play.” “Well, say hello to the author,” he said and there was Samuel Beckett. I threw my arms around him and he stood like a stone. I wasn’t going to let him make me feel abashed, so I carried on.

‘The silences that night were spellbinding’

Anne Reid, The York Realist, Royal Court, 2003
I had no idea this was such a good play. The first time I read it, I thought: “Oh no, not another northern mother. Boring.” I was 64 and I’d never worked in London before. Peter Gill directed it so beautifully. Everything was specific in its choreography: this is the height to hold a teapot, this is how to take off and hang a coat. Whatever the action, he said if you take your time and present it, the audience will find it interesting. And he was so definite about pace: play the first scene legato, the second pizzicato – he really knew the music of a scene. The silences in the theatre that night … spellbinding! Later, we went to the Royal Court bar and as Peter walked down the stairs everyone burst into applause.

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