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 , , .
artbymandy

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

juniordoctorblog.com

pulseless electrical activity.

The Observation Post

mistermuse, half-poet and half-wit

Wild Star Landing

Poetry, Facts, Fiction, Inspired by Travel, Art, Science, Nature & Philosophy

Turtle Bunbury

Historian * Author * Presenter * Speaker * Guide

Fierce Writing

Not so much Rage Against the Machine as Slightly Peeved the Taps Won't Work

Victorian Footnotes

Bringing back the forgotten

Etan Smallman

Freelance journalist

Michael Ehrhardt

Permanenter Ausstellungsraum

jessicanorrie

Writing about writing; words about the world

It's all in the Past!

Writing about current events from a historical perspective.

Mrinalini Raj

I LEAVE YOUR ROAD TO WALK ON MY GRASS.

History Quirks

The Casual Past

vintageinkstand

Words and images from the past

janiceduke.wordpress.com/

The adventures of Janice Duke and her Magical Travelling Paint Box

Caz Greenham...Storyteller...Author...

Creator and Author of The Adventures of Eric Seagull 'Storyteller' series

Movies From The Silent Era

A repository for movies from the silent era

Art Universal

Art as a Sensory

Henry Brooke

Musings, Memories and Miscellanea

Matthew Toffolo's Summary

Daily summary of the life/movie world.

When Angels Fly

Author site of S. Jackson & A. Raymond

off the leash

History, technology, books and baseball.

FLOW ART STATION

THE ENLIGHTENED ART MAGAZINE

Writer Site

Memoir, poetry, & writing theory

hungryfaces

faces gourmet world of fashion, design and art

From guestwriters

Lifestyle magazine and Readers Digest

The Vintage Toy Advertiser

Suffering ink-stained fingers and occasional staple wounds to bring you wonderful images of vintage toy ads and other retro paperworks

Sauce Box

Never get lost in the Sauce

scribblesofstageandscreen

Theatre, Film and TV.

Smart History Blog

Compelling Stories of Russian History

Newcastle Photography

Photography Blog by Chris Egon Searle

Brave and Reckless

Reclaiming my inner badass at 50

Gretchen Del Rio's Art Blog

Watercolor paintings

Today in History

"Tell me a fact, and I'll learn. Tell me a truth, and I'll believe. But tell me a story, and it will live in my heart forever." - Steve Sabol, NFL Films

The Architect & I

The Nazis assigned him a number but I wanted the world to know his name.

Basic Archaeology

Archaeology News, Interesting Facts and More

Travalanche

Being a web log for the observations of actor, author, cartoonist, comedian, critic, director, humorist, journalist, master of ceremonies, performance artist, playwright, producer, publicist, public speaker, songwriter, and variety booker Trav S.D.

1stangel.co.uk/loisbryanphotography/

LOIS BRYAN Photography and Digital Art

vixlowthion

A Green future for the Isle of Wight

TOKIDOKI (NOMAD)

a world travel photo blog by Jackie Hadel

swo8

Music means something

%d bloggers like this: