(Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 10/6)
“Why is it always the women,” asked the French director Jean Vilar, “who resurrect the theatre in England?” He was speaking specifically of Joan Littlewood, who was born 100 years ago today and whose work was acclaimed in Paris long before it became accepted in London. Although you’d now have to be well over 50 to have seen any of Littlewood’s famed productions for Theatre Workshop, the extraordinary fact is that her legend still lives on. What exactly was it that made her such an influential pioneer?
Her prime achievement, I believe, was to demolish the barriers we erect between “popular” and “art” theatre. Joan Littlewood honed her craft as a director tirelessly touring the country with Theatre Workshop from 1945 to 1953. She believed that theatre should both stimulate and entertain: thus you find a show like Uranium 235, explaining the principles of nuclear fission, playing in a Butlins holiday camp in 1946. This ability to unite the serious and the popular reached its fulfilment in Oh What a Lovely War in 1963. It was Murray Melvin, one of the original cast, who pointed out to me that the show united two different strands in Littlewood’s work: her belief in the dance theories of the German choreographer, Rudolf Laban, and her passionate love of the English music hall.