Rogues & Vagabonds

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

Archive Book Review • ONE NIGHT STANDS pub. Nick Hern Books • Michael Billington • 2008

onenightstandsbillingtonThere are two great pleasures to be had from reading Michael Billington’s first collection of theatre criticism, One Night Stands 1971-1991. The first, assuming you are old enough to have been going to plays in the Seventies, is to be reminded of some wonderful, occasionally mind-blowing, evenings in the theatre. Written in the wind as drama is, reading Billington’s precise observations for the Guardian newspaper on, say, Terry Hands’ Henry VI trilogy at the RSC (1977), is like opening a forgotten cupboard stuffed with memories of images and performances all inseparable from the teenagers we were then. The second is to be in the company of such an astute mind, a left-wing intellectual who cares passionately about the theatre, who has never stopped believing it has the power not just to reflect upon, but also to change, society.

‘Criticism, to me, is not the last word: simply part of a permanent debate about the nature of the ideal theatre.’ He has lofty ambitions, Billington; there is never, ever, anything of the hack about him. Nowhere is there a mention of what the majority of people would consider to be the prime function of theatre criticism, which is to let them know whether buying a ticket would be a waste of money or not. And that, I think, is a good thing. Like all of us, he is a product of his times; he is a good Seventies socialist and not a modern populist. He comes out of the same box as those clever boys of that era, the Oxbridge-educated left-wing directors and writers who had experienced the kitchen sink revolution in drama as part of their childhood and assumed that theatre should reflect their own times.

Billington is by temperament and experience, therefore, better suited to understanding theatre as practised by a writer or director, than by an actor. He can undervalue the contribution that actors make to a production, jemmying their names in at the end of a review. He admires ‘intellectual vigour’ in an actor and can describe them thoughtfully – here is John Wood – ‘ …he epitomizes perfectly the spirit of the Seventies: ironic, inquisitive, anti-heroic, and constantly aware of the absurdity under the crust of human experience.’ But his descriptions generally do not have the sheer physical thrust of an actor-centred critic such as Kenneth Tynan. His description of Leonard Rossiter – ‘…who always left behind an indelible outline: the accosting profile, the lizard-like tongue …’ is a welcome exception.

Where Tynan performed, Billington analyses; even when describing flamboyant performers he particularly enjoys – the two Kens, Dodd and Campbell, for example – he dissects the nature of their humour, keeping his distance. He describes the party, but never goes to it himself. While this can make his work seem a little dry and high-minded, it also makes him a valuable observer of what is, of course, now history. Those years before the roller-coaster of Thatcherism and the arts cuts, when Lindsay Anderson was directing David Storey’s The Changing Room (1971) at the Royal Court, when the National Theatre was finally opened (1976), when the RSC was triumphing at Stratford, were fascinating, important years in the history of English theatre and Michael Billington was there to document it all.

His first reaction to the Olivier theatre, the ‘marvellous open space in which all eyes seem directed towards a focal point’, remains salient, as does his view of the Lyttelton, ‘ …the chief impression I have got … is that it is not well suited to naturalistic, box-set drama but is marvellous for epic, expressionist or expansive work.’ You could say that again.

That he is uneasy in the Eighties goes without saying: offended by the West End, ‘ …a place of shows rather than plays that manages to combine insult to the intelligence with injury to the pocket’, appalled by Tory Arts minister Richard Luce’s speech – ” …the only test of our ability to succeed is whether or not we can attract enough customers.” As Billington says, ‘By that criterion … The Mousetrap is the greatest play of the century.’

Yet still the plays roll on; no theatre critic has worked as long and as diligently as Michael Billington. To simply park your behind on a seat for so many years is an achievement, but to carry on caring so much, from radical youth onwards is amazing. ‘I hunger for plays about man in his totality.’ He never stops wanting to learn.

The Eighties bring Trevor Nunn’s Nicholas Nickleby RSC (1980), ‘…darkly impressive and remarkable vignettes…. Yet for all that I couldn’t help wondering periodically if the whole thing wasn’t a waste of the RSC’s amazing resources.’ Nunn’s instinctive populism chimed rather too well with the times for Billington.

Here are Bill Brydon’s The Mysteries, Cottesloe (1985) an ‘unforgettable piece of communal theatre’ performed by Brydon’s macho group of actors, the best rep company the National ever had, including Brian Glover in cap and braces as God. And here is writer Caryl Churchill – at last, a woman! – with Serious Money, Royal Court (1987).

So-called golden ages are always suspicious, strangely always appearing to chime with the commentator’s own youth, but one can’t help noticing that the Seventies and Eighties certainly had a lot of cracking theatre.

It is all very London-based, I suppose because Billington was always the top-dog critic for his paper and therefore got sent to the productions with the most buzz about them which, wrongly, would tend to be in the capital. He name checks brilliant regional work: Michael Elliott at the Royal Exchange, Giles Havergal at Glasgow, but rarely describes it. He is, however, constantly concerned about British theatre’s insularity. He yearns to see more European plays, ‘Twentieth century English drama is rooted in the family. But the moment you step outside these shores you find a whole range of plays that assume it is the relation between man and the spirit of his times that it is the business of drama to explore.’

This is a fascinating document. Remembering the mannered, mesmerising Alan Howard as Henry VI, RSC (1977), the monumental Michael Gambon in A View From the Bridge, Cottesloe (1987) is fantastic. Great, too, to remember the actors with smaller parts who didn’t have the careers they should have had; Carmen Du Sautoy, for instance, in Love’s Labour’s Lost RSC (1978), or, like Griffith Jones, are sadly now gone – his Duncan in Macbeth, RSC (1976) was indeed ‘…the embodiment of ruined grace.’

Above all One Night Stands is a passionate discussion of why theatre matters and will matter in the future, (which, of course, is now our present); it will not be killed by new technologies because ‘…people are going to hunger for a unique experience’. Right again, Mr Billington.

Claire Ingrams © 2008

  • One Night Stands was originally published in 1998. This re-issue was to coincide with the publication of Billington’s State of the Nation.

Originally published n R&V 01-04-08

Advertisements

One comment on “Archive Book Review • ONE NIGHT STANDS pub. Nick Hern Books • Michael Billington • 2008

  1. Pingback: Archive Book Review • ONE NIGHT STANDS – British Theatre, 1971-91 via— Rogues & Vagabonds | crafty theatre

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Information

This entry was posted on 12/02/2016 by in Books, Reviews, Theatre and tagged , , .
Jots from a Small Apt.

Largely @ Liberty

Rethinking Life

Art and the philosophy of life

Croatia, the War, and the Future

Ina Vukic - Croatia: people, politics, history, economy, transition from communism to democracy

lynz real cooking

lynz real life

Pride's Purge

an irreverent look at UK politics

Pride's Purge

an irreverent look at UK politics

Tropical Affair

Observations of the illusion through the eyes of wonder...

barneyhoskyns.com

The home of writer Barney Hoskyns' books, poems, photos and more.

Smorgasbord - Variety is the spice of life

Blog magazine for lovers of health, food, books, music, humour and life in general

I didn't have my glasses on....

A trip through life with fingers crossed and eternal optimism.

Left Handed Lottie

Drawing and painting on an ipad

Atelier 88

More than just rooms

The Sleeping Hare

Art by Lottie Nevin

Pacific Paratrooper

This WordPress.com site is Pacific War era information

beetleypete

The musings of a Londoner, now living in Norfolk

Vegan Books For Children

books from Little Chicken, Honestly Books and Violet's Vegan Comics

Catherine Meyrick

Historical Fiction with a touch of Romance

Silver Screenings

an irreverent blog of old movies

My Life as an Artist (2)

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Violet's Vegan Comics

Virtual Vegan Comics for Children

Two Rooms Plus Utilities

Written from the heart, this is the unadulterated truth of live with multiple chronic illnesses and being housebound. My life open for you to follow. Please join me

kickingthecat

How current policy is little more than kicking the cat....

Matt's History Blog

Hopefully interesting snippets and thoughts

David Hencke

Westminster and Whitehall news investigations

Notes from the U.K.

Exploring the spidery corners of a culture and the weird stuff that tourist brochures ignore.

BRIDGET WHELAN writer

August is archive month. Posts from the past

P.A. Moed

Creative Exploration in Words and Pictures

creartfuldodger

collage/mixed media artist

My Dad Is A Goldfish

Caring for a demented dad

Scope's Blog

Scope exists to make this country a place where disabled people have the same opportunities as everyone else. Until then, we'll be here.

Art Studio of a Country Woman

Painting My World with My Heart

e-Tinkerbell

Literature, books , sport and whatever intrigues me

AT A GENTLE PACE - Bridget Whelan's lifestyle travel blog

for people who would try anything except whitewater rafting (probably)

reviewdonkey

My personal opinions about.......stuff (as if you care!)

A Teacher's Reflections

Thirty Years of Wonder

The Theatre Guild Newsletter

Celebrating 98 years on Broadway!

Pen and Pension

Immerse yourself in Georgian and Regency England

Scleroderma Guy

It's Not A Life Sentence. It's A Life. Sentence

Lives Our Ancestors Left Behind

What were their stories for us?

REDFLAGFLYING

Dictatorship is good. If the Dictator is me.

J.M. Weselby @ Magpie Creative Writing Services

because all writers are magpies at heart...

LibDem Fischer

The world of politics

MovieBabble

The Casual Way to Discuss Movies

CineMuseFilms

Freelance Film Critic

%d bloggers like this: