theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…
There 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
Originally published n R&V 01-04-08
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