Category Archives: History

FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 6 – OCCUPATIONS (1970) BY TREVOR GRIFFITHS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 7/5,)

The collapse of the 1968 protests left this incisive political dramatist searching for answers – and his response delved brilliantly into the dilemmas of revolution

Aside from Comedians (1975), the work of Trevor Griffiths is shockingly neglected. Yet he is one of the most questioning, intelligent political dramatists Britain has ever produced. Why does no one revive The Party (1973) which marked Olivier’s farewell to the stage? Why does the BBC, as we celebrate the NHS, not reshow Griffiths’ TV play about Aneurin Bevan, Food for Ravens (1997)? Above all – assuming theatre ever returns to something like normality – how about re-examining Occupations, which is a genuine modern classic?

First seen at the Manchester Stables in 1970, Occupations was given a superb Buzz Goodbody production, starring Patrick Stewart and Ben Kingsley, the following year by the RSC. Like a lot of Griffiths’ early work, the play was a response to the failure of the 1968 revolution in France. But, rather than deal directly with recent events, Griffiths finds what he calls a “historical correlative” in the abortive socialist uprising in Italy in 1920. We see Christo Kabak, a Bulgarian communist and representative of the Third International, arriving in Turin to await, and even influence, political events.

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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 5 – ‘OWNERS’ (1972) BY CARYL CHURCHILL ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/28; photo: Urge for ownership … David Swift and Jill Bennett starred in Owners at the Royal Court. Photograph: Frank Barratt/Getty Images.)

The writer unleashed her gift for black comedy to excoriate British attitudes to property and possessions in this sprightly drama

Caryl Churchill is rightly admired for many qualities: her formal inventiveness, her questing intelligence, her dystopian vision of everything from cloning to climate catastrophe. But she has one gift that is rarely discussed: her wild humour. It is there in the sudden eruption of a 10-foot bird into the family brouhaha in Blue Heart (1997) and in the backyard banter in the more recent Escaped Alone (2016). It is also vividly present in one of her earliest stage plays, Owners. Given that the piece had a brief run at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1972 and, as far as I know, only one revival, it is one of Churchill’s least-known works yet cries out to be rediscovered.

On the surface, it sounds bleak. It is about the urge for ownership and shows Marion, a rampant property developer, eating up everything around her: she’s not only prepared to turf two old friends, Alec and Lisa, out of their top-floor flat but seeks to claim the passive Alec as a lover and forcibly adopts the couple’s new baby in exchange for cash. The play has a lot to say about landlords and tenants and is full of intimations of Churchill’s later work. The English belief in the sanctity of property is central to the historical documentary, Light Shining in Buckinghamshire (1976). When the go-getting Marion states her philosophy as “be clean, be quick, be top, be best” you also hear the voice of the Thatcherite Marlene in Top Girls (1982).

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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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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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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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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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FORGOTTEN PLAYS: NO 1 – ‘THE NO BOYS CRICKET CLUB’ (1996) BY ROY WILLIAMS ·

(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 6/1; photo: Exemplary freshness and vigour … Roy Williams, pictured in 2008. Photograph: Sarah Lee/the Guardian.)

Our new series on lost theatre classics begins with an exceptional play about the dashed hopes of a middle-aged Jamaican woman

When the theatrical lockdown ends, I suspect there will be a temptation to rely on the established canon. But over the next 12 weeks I will be exploring, in reverse chronological order, some forgotten plays from the last 120 years. I’ve confined myself to plays from the British and Irish rep but feel free, as the list unfolds, to add your own suggestions.

The No Boys Cricket Club (1996) was Roy Williams’s second play and was written in his final year at Rose Bruford College. You could say that it deals with a subject with which we have become familiar: the dashed hopes of first-generation Jamaican immigrants uneasily settled in Britain. But several things make this an exceptional play.

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BERLINER ENSEMBLE: “MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN” WITH HELENE WEIGEL, “AN UNMISSABLE OPPORTUNITY”–UK GUARDIAN ·

STREAMING FROM FRIDAY FOR A WEEK: BERLINER ENSEMBLE–“MOTHER COURAGE AND HER CHILDREN” WITH HELENE WEIGEL, FROM 1957  

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Stay at home – BE at home: While the doors of the Berlin ensemble must remain closed to our audience, we provide you with a recording of a repertoire or historically significant staging as an online stream once a week. The stream of the week is always available from Fridays and then for a week.

We are very pleased that we can now show you, in collaboration with the Bertolt Brecht Archive of the Academy of the Arts, a recording of Bertolt Brechts and Erich Engels’ staging of “Mother Courage and Her Children” with Helene Weigel from 1957 (German audio only!). We can now make this staging, which is important in terms of theater history, accessible to a larger audience for the first time and thank the Bertolt Brecht heirs and Suhrkamp Verlag for this. The stream is available free of charge until midnight on May 21, 2020 at “BE at home”.

From May 22, 2020, 6:00 p.m., we will show a recording of Heiner Müller’s “Macbeth” in a production by Michael Thalheimer (with English Surtitles!).

Further digital offers from the Berlin Ensemble can be found at www.berliner-ensemble.de/be-at-home.

Photo: © Hainer Hill ©AdK, Berlin

 

Read more from Chris Wiegand in the Guardian:

Mother Courage

Achtung! Here’s an unmissable opportunity to catch a piece of German theatre history (though without English subtitles). The Berliner Ensemble is streaming a different production each week for its BE at Home programme, and from 15-22 May you can see Brecht’s classic play about the 30 years war in Europe. Legendary actor Helene Weigel, Brecht’s wife, plays the title role. Weigel played the part of the indomitable profiteer and matriarch more than 200 times in her career.

For further streaming events

 

Synopsis, from Wikipedia:

Mother Courage and Her Children

The play is set in the 17th century in Europe during the Thirty Years’ War. The Recruiting Officer and Sergeant are introduced, both complaining about the difficulty of recruiting soldiers to the war. Anna Fierling (Mother Courage) enters pulling a cart containing provisions for sale to soldiers, and introduces her children Eilif, Kattrin, and Schweizerkas (“Swiss Cheese”). The sergeant negotiates a deal with Mother Courage while Eilif is conscripted by the Recruiting Officer.

Two years thereafter, Mother Courage argues with a Protestant General’s cook over a capon, and Eilif is congratulated by the General for killing peasants and slaughtering their cattle. Eilif and his mother sing “The Fishwife and the Soldier”. Mother Courage scolds her son for endangering himself.

Three years later, Swiss Cheese works as an army paymaster. The camp prostitute, Yvette Pottier, sings “The Fraternization Song”. Mother Courage uses this song to warn Kattrin against involving herself with soldiers. Before the Catholic troops arrive, the Cook and Chaplain bring a message from Eilif. Swiss Cheese hides the regiment’s paybox from invading soldiers, and Mother Courage and companions change their insignia from Protestant to Catholic. Swiss Cheese is captured and tortured by the Catholics having hidden the paybox by the river. Mother Courage attempts bribery to free him, planning to pawn the wagon first and redeem it with the regiment money. When Swiss Cheese claims that he has thrown the box in the river, Mother Courage backtracks on the price, and Swiss Cheese is killed. Fearing to be shot as an accomplice, Mother Courage does not acknowledge his body, and it is discarded.

Later, Mother Courage waits outside the General’s tent to register a complaint and sings the “Song of Great Capitulation” to a young soldier anxious to complain of inadequate pay. The song persuades both to withdraw their complaints.

When Catholic General Tilly’s funeral approaches, the Chaplain tells Mother Courage that the war will still continue, and she is persuaded to pile up stocks. The Chaplain then suggests to Mother Courage that she marry him, but she rejects his proposal. Mother Courage curses the war because she finds Kattrin disfigured after being raped by a drunken soldier. Thereafter Mother Courage is again following the Protestant army.

Two peasants try to sell merchandise to her when they hear news of peace with the death of the Swedish king. The Cook appears and causes an argument between Mother Courage and the Chaplain. Mother Courage is off to the market while Eilif enters, dragged in by soldiers. Eilif is executed for killing a peasant while stealing livestock, trying to repeat the same act for which he was praised as hero in wartime, but Mother Courage never hears thereof. When she finds out the war continues, the Cook and Mother Courage move on with the wagon.

In the seventeenth year of the war, there is no food and no supplies. The Cook inherits an inn in Utrecht and suggests to Mother Courage that she operate it with him, but refuses to harbour Kattrin. Thereafter Mother Courage and Kattrin pull the wagon by themselves.

When Mother Courage is trading in the Protestant city of Halle, Kattrin is left with a peasant family in the countryside overnight. As Catholic soldiers force the peasants to guide the army to the city for a sneak attack, Kattrin fetches a drum from the cart and beats it, waking the townspeople, but is herself shot. Early in the morning, Mother Courage sings a lullaby to her daughter’s corpse, has the peasants bury it, and hitches herself to the cart.

JOAN ACOCELLA: ON MIKHAIL BARYSHNIKOV AND ‘THE WHITE HELICOPTER’ ·

Mikhail Baryshnikov as Benedict XVI and Kaspars Znotiņš as Georg Gänswein in The White Helicopter at the New Riga Theater

(Joan Acocella’s article appeared in the New York Review of Books, 5/14.)

THE RED SHOES

The White Helicopter

a play by Alvis Hermanis, at the New Riga Theater, Riga, Latvia, opened November 21, 2019, with additional performances planned for 2020

(The theater is temporarily closed.)

In 1967 Clive Barnes, of The New York Times, flew home from a trip to Russia and reported that in a class at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute, the Kirov Ballet’s school, he had encountered “the most perfect dancer I have ever seen.” That was a weighty announcement. Barnes, the Times’s lead dance critic, had seen a lot of dancers, and this one, Mikhail Baryshnikov, was only nineteen. Because Baryshnikov became an extraordinary dancer so young, many people failed to realize he was also an extraordinary actor. One of the earliest performances I ever saw him in was a Soviet movie, Fiesta (1971), an adaptation of Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises. He played Pedro Romero, the teenaged matador whom Brett Ashley seduces, and he was a thrill: handsome, open, and innocent, a flower awaiting the scythe. Acting was not new to him. It was part of his training, as it was, and is, for almost all serious ballet students in Russia. And dramatic inventiveness was central to his breakthrough role at the Kirov, as Albrecht in Giselle, where he turned the male lead, traditionally played as an aristocratic cad—an interpretation that supported Soviet ideology—into a lovestruck boy.

Once he defected to the West in 1974, Baryshnikov again and again triumphed as an actor-dancer, in new ballets such as Twyla Tharp’s Push Comes to Shove (American Ballet Theatre, 1976), in which he played a sort of confused hipster, and also in nineteenth-century ballets such as the Russian Don Quixote, of which he made a new production for American Ballet Theatre in 1978, dancing the part of Kitri’s lover, the barber Basilio, himself and shocking that tired old piece back into life.1 He bit off those assignments with gusto. Good ballet, bad ballet—it didn’t matter. He filled each role to its very skin. When, in 1978–1979, he abandoned his opera-house repertory to go to New York City Ballet and dance in George Balanchine’s largely nonnarrative works, he was sometimes scolded by critics for doing too much acting—for making faces, as they say in the trade.

Some critics, when they could, described his achievements in the classroom vocabulary,2 not, I believe, because they thought the reader would understand those words but because the words sounded rich and fine enough to convey the critic’s astonishment that Baryshnikov could draw out of his body so elaborate and poetic a response to his dramatic situation. After all, he was only a Sevillian barber (Don Quixote) or a boy in love (Giselle) or something like that. Yet when he performed those beautiful, clear, fantastically difficult steps, he was no longer just a barber or even just a dancer—even a great dancer—but a metaphor, for all the intelligence, energy, and allure that a human being might aspire to.

Baryshnikov returned to ABT in 1980, now as the company’s artistic director, and remained there until 1989, at which point, having had several operations on his knees, he pretty much abandoned classical dance. This was not shockingly early. He was forty-one. Most ballet dancers quit by the age of forty-five or so, for the same reason he did. They can’t hack it anymore, physically. Then, typically, they go on to something less interesting. If they are big stars, they may be asked to direct a company. Far more often, they simply teach, or find a hedge-fund manager to marry.

But Baryshnikov, though he retired from ballet, did not retire from dancing. He just switched to other kinds of dance. Practically the minute he left ABT, he got on a plane and flew to Brussels, where he went to work as a guest artist for his friend Mark Morris, whose modern-dance company was headquartered at that time at Belgium’s royal theater, the Monnaie. (At one point, Baryshnikov was to have been the Nutcracker in Morris’s Hard Nut, which premiered at the Monnaie, but his knee problems scotched that plan.) In 1990, together with Morris, he founded the White Oak Dance Project, a small, rather deluxe modern-dance company (live music; private planes, if they needed one). He also did tours with people he admired—Tharp, the postmodernist Dana Reitz, the kabuki star Tamasaburo Bando—and he made guest appearances with Trisha Brown, Merce Cunningham, and, above all, Morris.

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CLOSED THEATERS ARE NOTHING NEW. THE GOOD NEWS IS, THEY REOPEN ·

(Matt Wolf’s article appeared in The New York Times, 4/9; via Pam Green.)

LONDON — We live in unprecedented times — or so they tell us. The coronavirus lockdown, which began in Britain on March 23, has led to the cancellation of all theater performances through May 31, at least. What happens after remains to be seen.

But this is hardly the first time the city’s playhouses have been closed: During Shakespeare’s time, and then again during World War II, to name two examples, they shut their doors in response to different calamities. But they reopened in due course, affirming a heartening capacity for cultural rebirth that speaks ever more urgently to us today.

The plagues of the Shakespearean age did not allow for the contemporary comforts of social media or Zoom, but an artist’s need to create continued then as it surely is doing now: Shakespeare kept busy writing, retreating to the insular world of poetry and the comfort of home.

His theater, the Globe, not subject to the health and safety requirements of the modern age, was a vector for contagion, not to mention inflammation: It burned down in 1613 and was rebuilt, only to be shut three decades later by the Puritans, who represented an obstacle to performance of a censorious rather than viral sort. That edict was eventually lifted in 1660 when the high spirits of the Restoration ushered in a new theatrical age.

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