Category Archives: Commentary

FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 4 – ‘BLOODY POETRY’ (1984) BY HOWARD BRENTON ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/22.)

This magnificently honest play about the Shelleys and Byron’s summer of sexual experimentation raises difficult questions about the cost of utopian aspirations

Howard Brenton’s output is massive. I reckon there must be more than 50 plays ranging from early, disruptive pieces including Revenge and Christie in Love (both 1969) to mature historical studies such as 55 Days (2012), about the trial and execution of Charles I, and Drawing the Line (2013), charting the arbitrary partition of India. But if I had to pick out one work that deserves regular revival, it would be Bloody Poetry which deals with a utopian experiment in living, and describes both its aspirations and resulting angst with magnificent honesty.

Brenton leans heavily on Richard Holmes’s book Shelley: The Pursuit for his story. He shows the Shelleys, Percy Bysshe and Mary, accompanied by Claire Clairmont, meeting up with Lord Byron on the shores of Lake Geneva in 1816. The plan, in Byron’s words, is that “we will all go communist” which, in reality, means a summer of free love, shared creativity, book talk and party games: the most significant of these being a shadow-play in which the group enact the parable of the cave from Plato’s Republic. In the more sombre second half, we see the aftermath of the experiment: Shelley, forever haunted by the ghost of his first wife, pens some of his greatest poetry and Mary writes Frankenstein yet love is betrayed, lives break up, children die. Was it all worth it?

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (85) ·


When I asked one of the journalists how they produced such remarkable critics, I was told of a very clever and purposeful method used in Germany. They let a young critic, he told me, always write an article full of praise. Any one could blame a thing, but it took a specialist to praise it. (MLIA)

SIR IAN HOLM OBITUARY ·

(Michael Billington’s and Ryan Gilbey’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/19; above:  Ian Holm in 2003. On stage he was especially noted for his performances in Shakespeare and Pinter. Photograph: Tom Pilston/The Independent/Rex/Shutterstock)

Acclaimed actor whose dazzling career included memorable roles in Alien, Chariots of Fire and The Lord of the Rings

Ian Holm, who has died aged 88, was a brilliant actor in all media whose career fell into distinct phases. On stage, he enjoyed a dazzling early period and triumphant later years, most especially in Shakespeare and Pinter; but, if there was a prolonged period when Holm was absent from the theatre, it was because he suffered a temporarily paralysing form of stage fright. The theatre’s loss, however, was the cinema’s gain. He transferred the vocal precision, technical skill and impish mischief he had displayed on stage to the screen, enjoying a new, late-flowering career in scores of movies including, most notably, the Lord of the Rings cycle.

Though he had begun to make his mark at the Shakespeare Memorial theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in the 1950s, he came into his own when Peter Hall took over in 1960 and transformed a summer festival into the Royal Shakespeare Company. Holm instantly became a contract artist and graduated from spry character actor to leading man.

His long grounding in Shakespeare, his iron technique and his total mastery of verse bore rich fruit in the 1964 season, when Hall presented a complete Shakespeare history cycle. In the course of a single week it was possible to see Holm growing from a beady, watchful Prince Hal to a working-warrior Henry V who joined his men in pushing a wagon off-stage as they sang a post-Agincourt Te Deum. As if that were not enough, he then turned into a wickedly malevolent Duke of Gloucester and snickering, snarling Richard III in the concluding Wars of the Roses trilogy, which was filmed for BBC television.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 3 – ‘THE COUP’ (1991) BY MUSTAPHA MATURA ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/15; The Coup, with Tony Armatrading as Black Lightning. Photograph: Ivan Kyncl/ArenaPAL.)

A Caribbean-set ‘play of revolutionary dreams’ acquires a chilling new relevance when protests confront the legacy of colonialism

 

Although I admired its ambition, I was sceptical about The Coup’s structure when I reviewed it at the National’s Cottesloe theatre (as it then was) in 1991. Looking at the play again, in the light of current events, has given me a whole new perspective.

Mustapha Matura, who died last year, once said that his constant aim was “to examine the effects of colonialism, political and psychological, on the colonisers and the colonised”. The Coup, which deals with a fictional revolution in Matura’s native Trinidad and Tobago, has suddenly acquired a new and chilling relevance.

The two islands have always been at the mercy of foreign invaders. Columbus staked a claim to Trinidad in 1498 and General Abercromby acquired it by force for the British in 1797. Tobago, having first been captured by the French, also passed into British hands before the islands eventually achieved independence in 1962. Given such a past, it is hardly surprising that nationhood came to seem a chimerical concept.

In Matura’s play we see an imprisoned Trinidadian president seeking to regain power by playing off the rival factions during a military uprising. But, although the play has scenes of wild farce, it is clear what Matura’s real target is: the brutal legacy of colonialism, which the president himself defines as “a loss of our sense of history”.

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SHELAGH DELANEY AND HER LANDMARK 1958 PLAY, ‘A TASTE OF HONEY’ ·

(from the London Review of Books.

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‘NO, I’M NOT GETTING MARRIED!’:  SUSAN PEDERSEN AND JOANNA BIGGS ABOUT SHELAGH DELANEY AND HER LANDMARK 1958 PLAY, A TASTE OF HONEY

Susan Pedersen talks to Joanna Biggs about Shelagh Delaney and her landmark 1958 play, A Taste of Honey.

Image shows Rita Tushingham and Dora Bryan in A Taste of Honey (1961), directed by Tony Richardson (PictureLux / The Hollywood Archive / Alamy Stock Photo).

The first two clips in this episode are from the 1961 film, the third clip is from The White Bus (1967) directed by Lindsay Anderson, and the fourth clip is from a 1959 interview with Delaney for ITN.

 

FOUR BLACK ARTISTS ON HOW RACISM CORRODES THE THEATER WORLD ·

(from The New York Times, 6/10; Interviews by Laura Collins-HughesMichael Paulson and Photos: Credit…Clockwise from top left: Lawrence Agyei for The New York Times; Idris Solomon for The New York Times; Lynsey Weatherspoon for The New York Times; Glen Stubbe/Star Tribune, via Getty Images;  via Pam Green.)

What has been the impact of race, and racism, on African-Americans working in the theater world? How should that world change? Those questions have taken on renewed, impassioned life since the killing of George Floyd, the shooting deaths of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, and the nationwide protests over racial injustice that have followed.

On Monday night, 300 artists challenged “White American Theater” in a blistering statement. This week the Broadway Advocacy Coalition is holding a forum on racism in the industry. We asked four African-American theater figures — based in different parts of the country and in different corners of the business — to share their first-person accounts. Here are their edited responses.

THE PLAYWRIGHT: Lydia r. diamond

‘Until you show me institutional change, I don’t want to hear it.’

My experiences of the theater are no different from my experiences of the world at large, which is that it’s very difficult to navigate in a racist and sexist world. Sometimes I think that theater thinks it’s somehow immune to being complicit in the intrinsic racism of our world. What I’ve seen over the course of my career is institutional racism and sexism at every level of the American theater. And that saddens me.

I hear so often from white men in the theater, “Oh, we don’t know what to do because all of the black people get the opportunities.” But you have only to look at the numbers. And it’s shocking.

Every second of every moment of my career is touched by some degree of a kind of racism that is just pervasive in the landscape of America. This moment, where the world is blowing up, comes out of a pent-up frustration about the way we as people of color have been navigating the world. It is frustrating to me and, I will presumptuously say, most other African-Americans or people of color in my industry.

I could list off some anecdotal “this thing happened and that thing happened.” I will say that I feel it around marketing. I feel it around reviews. I feel it around opportunities. For years — it’s a little bit less, because I’ve asked my agent to address this — but for years, it was a given that if I was produced, it would be in the [company’s] smaller theater.

It’s every production at every institution — with an acknowledgment that even within those institutions, I have been supported and nurtured and given an artistic home. Because that’s the [expletive] of racism in our country. The people that you’re working with love you, often. And you love them, often. And the country is entrenched in institutional, societal racism.

Oh my God, I’ll say this and then never have another Broadway production. But I think this is the time to speak truth. Everywhere there’s this racism and a lack of opportunity, and we know that the Great White Way is even more so. It’s a world that has been run by white men, and it’s a world that has high, high stakes. The higher the economic opportunities in our country, the more black people are denied access. Period.

You look at our Pulitzer Prize-winning playwrights who are African-American, and you look at our genius-grant-winning playwrights who are African-American, and then you measure how many people who have those kinds of accolades have access to venues on Broadway who are white versus who are black. You look at the people with those credentials and how many regional theater shows they have had, main-stage shows, next to their peers. And it’s tangible.

On the first day of a rehearsal, the whole theater company comes into the room and you do the meet-and-greet, and then you read the play. Always those rooms are at least 98 percent white people. The institutions aren’t diverse in any way.

The theater world is made up of really smart people. You figured out how to make people buy seats at between $150 to $500. You can figure out how to not be racist.

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BERLIN: THE WORLD’S NIGHTCLUB CAPITAL FACES AN EXISTENTIAL CRISIS ·

(Ruth Bender’s article appeared in the Walls Street Journal, 6/13; Photo: One of the world’s most famous nightclubs, Tresor, located in a disused Berlin power plant, stands empty due to coronavirus restrictions in Germany. MARZENA SKUBATZ FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL.)

Berlin’s legendary club scene has gone quiet. Some fear the party could be over for good.

BERLIN—The saying goes that in Berlin’s nightclubs, you can be or do whatever you want, as long as you don’t put anyone in danger.

In a pandemic, that’s a problem.

Paris has the Louvre, London its royal palaces and Berlin its nightclubs. Rooting back to the years after the fall of the Wall, when wild, improvised parties took place in abandoned industrial buildings, legendary techno club Tresor, rival Berghain and the city’s myriad other dance spots form a wild party scene that caters to all tastes—in music, drugs or sex.

Clubs are among the biggest draws for the 13 million visitors who flock to the laid-back German capital each year and a prime reason young talent moves here to work in one of Europe’s largest startup scenes.

But while Germany’s coronavirus lockdown is now largely history, the thumping bass remains silent and the city fears there might not be a future for its vibrant nightlife economy, at least not until there is a vaccine or an effective treatment for Covid-19. Almost four months since the virus arrived in Europe, the scene is teetering between melancholic resignation, denial and growing fears it may be gone for good.

“Berlin without clubs is like soup without salt,” said Dimitri Hegemann, owner of Tresor, which he founded in 1991. “If the soup isn’t tasty then the young people also won’t come.”

To DJ Ian Pooley, who spent 14 years in Berlin and has played in clubs the world over, club operators have fallen into a “silent depressive mood” about a situation they feel they can’t change.

Berlin’s clubs are facing an extreme version of what many German businesses have encountered. Government aid and donations from partygoers have put off bankruptcy, for now. Beyond Berlin state aid, the federal government’s latest stimulus package lists clubs as eligible for a €25 billion ($28 billion) aid program that can cover up to 80% of operating expenses through August for medium-size businesses that suffer sharp revenue losses due to government restrictions.

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REMAINS OF EARLIEST PURPOSE-BUILT PLAYHOUSE FOUND IN EAST LONDON ·

(Mark Brown’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/10.)

Location of the Red Lion, which predated the Globe, has been subject of debate for years

Archaeologists believe they have found remains of one of the most elusive of all known Elizabethan structures – the earliest purpose-built playhouse in Britain and a prototype for a theatre that staged plays by a young William Shakespeare.

The Red Lion is thought to have been built around 1567 and probably played host to travelling groups of players. Its precise location has been the subject of conjecture and debate for a number of years, but archaeologists are as certain as they can be that they have found its remains at a site in the East End of London where a self-storage facility once stood.

“It is not what I was expecting when I turned up to do an excavation in Whitechapel, I have to be honest,” said Stephen White, the lead archaeologist on a team from UCL Archaeology South-East. “This is one of the most extraordinary sites I’ve worked on.”

The Red Lion playhouse was created by John Brayne, who nine years later went on to construct the Theatre in Shoreditch with James Burbage, the father of the Elizabethan actor Richard Burbage. The Theatre was the first permanent home for acting troupes and staged plays by Shakespeare in 1590. After a dispute it was dismantled and its timbers used in the construction of the more famous Globe on Bankside.

Before the Globe and the Theatre, there was the Red Lion, which was in effect a prototype, said White.

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CONSTANT STANISLAVSKI (84) ·

I was convinced again that between the dreams of the stage director and their realization there is a tremendous difference, and that the theatre is first of all intended for the actor and cannot exist without him. . . . All my hopes were pinned [there] and on the development of a solid foundation for his creativeness and his technique. (MLIA)

FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 2 – ‘THREE BIRDS ALIGHTING ON A FIELD’ (1991) BY TIMBERLAKE WERTENBAKER ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/8; photo: Harriet Walter as Biddy in Three Birds Alighting on a Field at the Royal Court in 1991. Photograph: Donald Cooper/Alamy)  

Our series on forgotten theatre classics continues with Wertenbaker’s stylish dissection of Thatcher-era morality

I recently caught on BBC Four a repeat of Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain. In a programme on the 1980s, Marr argued that, whatever you thought of Margaret Thatcher, we were all, to some extent, her children. I see his point politically but that overlooks the way British film, TV and, most especially, theatre offered a resistance to Thatcherite values; and few works did this with more wit and style than Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play, which premiered at the Royal Court nine months after Thatcher’s abrupt dismissal.

At first, it looked as if Wertenbaker was writing a straightforward satire on the absurdly inflated values of the art market: a Cork Street equivalent of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money. We watched, with wry amusement, as Biddy, the trophy wife of a socially ambitious Greek millionaire, was despatched to amass a modern art collection and came up against all the fashion-mongering, insecurity and greed of the London galleries. But when Biddy meets a hermetic, truculent artist, Stephen Ryle, her eyes are opened to the enduring beauty of the British landscape.

Like all good plays, it hits several targets at once. It is partly a feminist work about the self-education of the upper-class, Benenden-reared Biddy. It also reflects Wertenbaker’s lifelong obsession with Greek myth: the reclusive Ryle is a modern equivalent of Philoctetes, abandoned by the Greeks en route for Troy only for it to be found that he was vital to their success. But what gives the play its lasting fascination is the way it nails, without mentioning Thatcher, her whole ethos: above all the belief that the free market is the ultimate test of worth. Behind the play lies a passion for our national landscape and a conviction that there were values that would outlast the money-mad 80s.

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