Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Feature • OSBORNE’S LAST STAND • 1956 and All What?

lookbackBuy a copy of Look Back in Anger

Even in death, John Osborne has the power to stir up controversy. I think I may be one of those on whom David Hare turned a withering scorn on Monday night. In a re-run of a tribute essay he gave five years ago – ‘I stand by every word’ (save for a couple of updates) – repeated last night as part of the Royal Court’s 50 years celebration of its epoch-making staging of John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger, Hare excoriated all or any of us who dare to cast a critical glance in the direction of his beloved ‘John’.

Hare seemed to see ‘spiteful revisionism’ in any hint of dissent at the man he described as ‘putting poetry back on stage’ and ‘reconnecting theatre to its audience’.

Hare’s 45 minute Hay-on-Wye essay kicked off a sometimes emotional collage of titbits and video clips recalling the première 50 years ago, to the day, of the play and the author whose impact the author whose impact conventional wisdom now claims to have changed the face of British theatre for ever.

If there’s no disputing the effect of Look Back in Anger – and the excerpts last night with David Tennant as Jimmy and Anne-Marie Duff as Alison confirmed its talent to aggravate and, more surprisingly, move – or the revolution unleashed in Sloane Square by the great George Devine and his cohorts, I yet have some quarrel with the way Look Back is now used, in its own turn, as a kind of revisionist shorthand to blanket out much of what went before and what came after.

You could be forgiven, if you were an alien arriving from planet Mars, to believe that insofar as British theatre is concerned, little or nothing much happened between Osborne’s 1956 entry and Peter Brook’s 1970 A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is as if those two dates have become the sacred pillars upon which the whole history of British theatre and its evolution has now been built: reductive, to say the least.

Hare contributed to this impression with, amongst other things, a misguidedly spiteful attack on Noël Coward, clearly reviled for his camouflaging in comparison to Hare’s hero’s flaunting of ‘feeling’. Strange this, since, in many quarters, Coward’s own plays, far from innocuous froth, have come to be recognised as theatrical exocets in their own right which are standing the test of time quite as well, if not a good deal more robustly, than many of Osborne’s. But then, somewhere deep inside Hare, he may still feel himself fighting the same cultural battles as his idol.

‘The English hate energy’ – a quote by one time Royal Court director Lindsay Anderson – might summarise how Hare also feels about the cultural pool in which he finds himself forced to swim. ‘John’ was the poet laureate of lost opportunities’, Hare announced. ‘John’s subject was failure.’

Identification or no, notwithstanding this eulogy from one disenchanted Englishman to another, the evening itself was a stylish, loving, if studiously edited, account led off by a paunchy looking Ian Rickson and MC-ed by old Osborne friend, Ben Walden. Of Osborne’s less attractive features such as his treatment of wives and relatives there was, understandably, only tenuous reference.

A dramatisation, presumably taken from Osborne’s and other diaries, of how Look Back in Anger reached the stage, proved totally fascinating with Damian Lewis as Osborne, Nicholas Le Prevost as the great George Devine and Simon Day as Tony Richardson.

Even more revealing were clips from a Face to Face BBC TV interview with John Freeman where the uncomfortable scars of an unhappy childhood and a clearly ongoing troubled soul were plain to see in the markedly camp, soft-featured face of the young Osborne.

And topping it all off, reading the original Ken Tynan review that with Harold Hobson’s for The Sunday Times, turned the world around, suddenly there was Corin Redgrave – Tony Richardson’s brother-in-law. Making his first appearance since his heart attack, Redgrave, looking robust and smiling broadly, his voice gaining strength all the time, read with good-to-see flourish and warmth.

As Walden said, ‘Oh, if John could only have been here to see the fuss being made of him and what he used to call “that old play of mine”’.

I bet he would hardly have recognised himself.

Carole Woddis © 2006

Originally published on R&V 10-05-06

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