The Theatre Book Award, awarded annually by the Society for Theatre Research, was presented at the Theatre Museum on April 2nd before a distinguished gathering of theatre practitioners, writers, publishers, academics and the media.
The winner for the best new book published in English during 2003 was Sir Richard Eyre for National Service, the diary record of his years as director of the National Theatre.
The judges were actor Corin Redgrave, theatre critic Susannah Clapp and theatre historian and archivist Jane Pritchard. The prize was presented by the President of the Society for Theatre Research Timothy West CBE.
The short-list (previously announced) was:
National Service by Richard Eyre (Bloomsbury)
Playing King Lear by Oliver Ford Davies (Nick Hern Books)
Images of Beckett by John Haynes & James Knowlson (Cambridge University Press)
Are You There Crocodile - Inventing Anton Chekov by Michael Pennington (Oberon)
A Short History of Western Performance Space by David Wiles (Cambridge University Press)
These books, together with all those submitted for the prize were on display.
'Welcome to the Theatre Museum. My name is Geoffrey Marsh and I'm the Director here, I took over last year from Margaret and you are all very welcome. The main business of today is to look at books that have been published but I thought as a starting point I might flag up a few books that haven't been published yet or I don't think have ever been written, as a way of promoting the institution here. First of all, if you haven't had the chance to see it you are very welcome to look around the museum later. There is an exhibition that started in November last year supported by the Society of London Theatres about the evolution of the West End. If you get to the end of that exhibition you will see that there is a check-out bill that shows that in the last eight years 650 million pounds has been spent on refurbishing theatres either in the West End or in the central London area and I think that one of the most extraordinary things is that money has been spent and represented a vast amount of skill both from the performing arts and the architects and specialist consultants who have done that work. And yet no-one, as far as I know, is even planning at this stage to publish that. If we were in France, you know, there would be a government sponsored books saying what a fantastic thing had been achieved courtesy of the French State. I think it is a very sad thing that nothing has been done to promote the institutions or indeed the specialists that have achieved that remarkable transformation.
So, that's one book that I hope to see in a couple of years up for a prize here. [Applause]
'The second book idea I'd like to highlight, which I think is a great gap in the market is that although there are lots of books about individual theatres there is a complete lack of a general but scholarly account of the evolution of the West End. As the world's premier performing arts centre and, although we gather together for the exhibition it showed to me that there was enormous scope for a book which would track the development of theatre in the West End alongside the social history.
'The third book, which might not be considered sufficiently academic, there is still no decent account of the evolution of the night-club. It is a great shame and it would certainly be of great interest to the teenagers that we have here on our education groups. Which brings me to the final thing I wanted to say, which is, from June on the 1st and 3rd Thursdays of the month we will be opening the Theatre Museum between 5.50 and 8.30. there will be an anchor talk in the middle of the evening but it is very much intended as a place you can drop in and have a drink if you are going on to the theatre or meeting friends and don't want to go to a smoke filled Hog's Head or whatever, but a rather quieter, and perhaps more convivial atmosphere. If any of you are interested in exploring the history of the London night-club, the last three (in October, November and December) are about the story of the night-club in London, led by Terry Charman from the Imperial War museum [laughter] Ah, some of you know him ! He knows something about it but he is rapidly doing some more research. I hope to see those three books here, winning prizes in a few years time. But now to Howard Loxton to talk about the real prizes.'
'Thank you Geoff for your kind welcome - and welcome too from me, on behalf of the Society for Theatre Research, thank you all for coming. Thank you too the Theatre Museum for its hospitality and to its staff for their assistance in mounting this event.
'It is now six years since the first Theatre Book Prize was presented, years during which it has been gaining increasing recognition. But, if it is to do its job of drawing attention to and developing interest in theatre books, as well as acknowledging the contribution of a particular author with a relatively minor sum, it needs the continuing support of both publishing and theatre people and increased assistance from the media. We could also do with increased funding: if win the lottery or hold purse strings that might provide us with either personal or corporate sponsorship I'd love to hear from you.
'This year the judges have been Susan Clapp, who sadly cannot be with us this morning in the flesh, Janet and Corin Redgrave, though how Corin managed to find time to read the pile of books you here on display on top of a very busy and amazing professional year I cannot image. My most sincere thanks to all of them. They may not have had to consider quite as many titles as judges in some previous years but the books have been wide ranging.
'They have had to consider biographies of 2 actors, 2 actresses, a drama teacher, a critic and a dramaturg and an architect playwright, and another presenting a text and photographic record of another dramatist. There have been autobiographies, memoirs and diaries from 2 dancers, one of them who went on to be a theatre manager, a lighting designer who has also run a theatre, a young actress struggling under the pressures of her first West-End musical, a British actor in a Broadway musical and the edited journal of a musician playwright.
'There has been the first volume of a multi-volume history of theatre, and two histories of individual theatres, and a book on the close relationship between artists and actresses and their mutual exploitation of each other. One book looked at the ways in which Australia has been presented on the British stage and on Australian companies playing here, another on Lorca's plays was eligible because it dealt with production of them given here. There was a book by a leader writer-director on both his crafts and Peter Hall's much-needed book on speaking Shakespeare, though we wondered whether it met the prize criteria, and academic books on the handling of different Shakespearean themes in production, visualisation of subjects from Shakespeare's plays both theatrically and pictorially. One book looked at the presentation of the Orient on the Victorian stage, another was the first volume of several forthcoming on British censorship and there have been two books which have suggested that academics reconsider they way of looking at theatre history, sometimes reaching conclusions which theatre practitioners have long held to be obvious.
'Two books have also looked at performance space one focused upon the environments created for one particular director, the other taking a wide historic view. And then, there has been what must have been the year's most prodigious undertaking, a two volume encyclopaedia encompassing theatre not only but from ancient times right to the present day, but looking at theatre globally: a book I have to mention, if only because so many of you here have contributed to it.
'Quite a range, you must agree. But that's quite enough from me.
'I have asked the judges to say something about the books selected for the short-list, dividing them between them, so they don't necessarily get their favourites! Susannah unfortunately can't be here but we managed to record her contribution...'
Susannah Clapp, spoke on video, with interruptions from some technical problems in playback which caused some amusement and a cry of 'Live theatre is always so much better! This is her uninterrupted text:
'I am talking about this book, National Service by Richard Eyre. This is my ideal theatre book, which is actually to say it's an ideal book. In a sense the interest of this book is quite straightforward: it is a close-up, first-hand, insider's account of ten years in one of the most important, and some would say the most important theatre in Britain. All the things that make this book significant could also make it ponderous. The sheer weight of material could make it difficult to get through, but this is so much not the case here. The first thing that makes me want to advocate this books is that it does everything that you'd want a book written by an artistic director to do. Anyone who goes to the theatre can't fail to be interested in an account of a production mounting, taking-off, or, particularly in this book, waning, failing, and the moment when you know it's not going to work. There are really miserable moments when that is the case here - and soaring moments when that isn't the case.
'It's got a mixture of the consequential and the apparently insignificant and trivial. It's got the surprise encounter with a young fellow called Tony Blair who is like a very agreeable academic until he smiles and looks like a politician. A moment when John Osborne looks like an Edwardian and Princess Margaret looking like a Maltese landlady and complaining that she hated opera because it was a lot of people standing there yelling.
'Although it's a diary account, a journalistic account in some senses, it's also very subtly written. And a book which should put every theatre critic on her guard. Because it is consistently demanding about the theatre. It is very trenchantly written and it takes fro granted that it matters, which means that you can be very hard on what you see: and Richard Eyre is famously hardest on his own productions. He has very lightly acerbic things to say about theatre as spectacle. There are very finely balanced judgements... where you feel both his enthusiasm for an occasion and also an ultimate recoil to something not being delivered, not finally being said.
'I think the most important thing about this book is that it makes a case for theatre not by polemic, but simply by the sheer volume of life that it includes. It is one of the best accounts of depression that I have ever read, and extraordinarily so because hers is someone who has a fulfilled and very successful professional and personal life and yet is being dogged by melancholia. It's a very tender account of being a father - almost any daughter reading this book would have wanted this person as their dad - and a woebegone, wry account of being a son. In discussing all these aspects it brings to them all the qualities which make a good production and which make Richard Eyre a good director and a good runner of a theatre: which is to say he's got a quick eye and a very receptive ear.
'Almost my favourite anecdote is one that blends the ordinary with the majestic or the strange, in which Eyre passes through the greenroom on his way and sees an Irish barman looking at the television and hears the announcement of Samuel Beckett's death and the barman saying 'That's another one gone!' And Eyre saying 'Of course, Beckett would have appreciated the stoicism of that remark.' And of course he's right. That's what I love about this book: that it shows a really vital interconnection between the stage and life. It doesn't co-opt the life onto the stage it shows them both informing each other.'
'I'm going to talk about, briefly, two books: David Wiles A Short History of Western Performance Space and Michael Pennington's Are You There Crocodile. My attitude to performances spaces is, I suspect, very similar to that of the majority of my colleagues. Having acted in all of the National Theatre spaces: the Cottesloe, the Lyttleton and the Oliver, I can say unhesitatingly that my preferences are in that order. I love and prefer the Cottesloe for its intimacy, I like and respect the way the Lyttleton for the fact that it manages to overcome the disadvantages of its size to make you believe that a person in the back row of the stalls can hear you and see you. I fear and dislike the Olivier because I know that the person in the back row can only hear me if (a) I raise my voice unnaturally or (b) with the help of amplification, and that that person cannot see my facial except with the aid of a Hubble telescope. No doubt if I were a stand-up comic, I should reverse that order of preferences, because I can imagine that the satisfaction of making an audience laugh at one's jokes increases in proportion with the size of the audience. And I suppose the same consideration, that is the size of audience would influence the choice of a rock star or an opera singer. But, as an actor, and again I think I am quite typical, in this respect I am astonished to find how seldom actors have been consulted in the design of a theatre, and how frequently architects have neglected the most elementary needs of the performer or, which is almost as bad, . of the spectator.
'I have something of the same problem with David Wile's A Short History of Western Performance Space. The actor has disappeared. His place has been taken by an anonymous mummers, robbed of expression and individuality, devotees in a ritual, masked stilt-walkers, fire-eaters, puppeteers, etc. Etc. Take the following:' When Peter Quince's actors elect to rehearse at the Duke's Oak, two traditions merge, a popular folklorique tradition linked vestigially to pagan nature worship of the kind Tacitus describes among the Anglo-Saxons, and the literary tradition drawing on the sacred groves of Graeco-Roman antiquity.' This is from the opening chapter, ' The Sacred Space',. It reads very well, but I wanted to call out from the back of the stalls: 'Yes but actually, Quince's actors chose to rehearse at the Dukes Oak because (a) it's well-known enough to serve as a meeting place, (b) it's outside the city so they can have their privacy for their rehearsal and (c), if you read the scene that follows, their concerns as actors or semi-professional actors, are strikingly similar to ours. They worry about their costumes, their beards, the parts they're being asked to play, and what the audience will think of their performance. So, I read David Wiles's book with some misgivings, and a tendency to quarrel with every statement it made. Because as performers we inherit yesterday's theatres, yesterday's audiences and yesterday's plays and we struggle to make performances for today in those yesterday's spaces. And whilst we can occasionally transcend those boundaries to make happenings or events in found spaces or even ploughed fields where ley-lines converge, we do so only courtesy of a few enlightened ministries or town halls, in a few privileged countries of Western Europe, where our performances are valued sufficiently to warrant a subsidy.
'I am afraid this sounds grudging. It is. But I think from my very grudging standpoint that this is a very good book, and perhaps it will be some compensation to the author and the publishers to reflect that it must be a very good book to have overcome, even partly, the defences of one who was so much on his guard against it.
'I have misgivings also, or had, about Michael Pennington's Are You There Crocodile?, though for different reasons. For a start, the title. It is actually a quote from Chekov's friend the landscape painter Izad Levitan makes and once you know the context it is very charming, and disarming. An instance, as Pennington shows us, of a Russian characteristic to give one's friends animal names. But, at first sight, as a title without its context, or, if you like, before its text, it sounds whimsical, and whimsy is all to often what we English look for and cherish in Chekov. Secondly, Chekov is both an heroic figure and a comic, tragic figure, a genius who died far too young and left us a collection of short stories, fine letters and a quartet of great plays. So like another comic, tragic hero, Oscar Wilde, he is rather too easily assimilable for comfort. Scores of writers, directors and actors have cosied up to Chekov or Wilde with a kind of chummy intimacy which is facile and reductive. So I bristled with apprehension. But within three or four pages I began to breathe a great sigh of relief. Pennington says at one point, early on, that his ambition is to know more about Chekov than anyone else. That is a wonderfully optimistic and, in the best.sense, boyish ambition, and I think he probably achieves it. But the ambition itself is all important. He has tact and infinite curiosity. Like another but fine critic-biographer, Richard Holmes, Pennington is a traveller explorer with an eye and an ear to catch those things that most of us are in too great a hurry to notice. I liked this book immensely and I think you will too.'
'The titles of both books I'm talking to you about are both straight-forward, there is no guessing there is no disguise. The first is Images of Beckett , by John Haynes and James Knowlson, published by the Cambridge University Press. Perhaps I should add that, because I am an archivist, I am very much speaking from that perspective. The authors' names on the front of this book are in alphabetical order and with no disrespect to James Knowlson I would say that is really the photographs of John Haynes which place this book on our short-list.
'It has been striking, over the last year, how few books on the visual medium of theatre take the iconographical aspect seriously. I an sure most of us know the problems surrounding the inclusion of photographs in books, but here we have seventy-five quality images -- portraits of Samuel Beckett and on-stage photographs that encapsulate productions of his plays in performance and rehearsal. Such images seem much less common today than they were even a few decades ago.
'I would like to emphasise the quality of the reproduction and also the intelligence of the book's design by Stephanie Thelwell. It is a landscape-shaped volume allowing justice to be done to full page reproductions -- the shape of the page reflecting that of the stage -- and this also permits, for example, the storyboard layout of the series of six images of Billie Whitelaw in Footfalls.
'The essays by James Knowlson do indeed complement the images and-- a small but important detail -- the credits for Haynes photographs are unusually complete. They note the actors shown, and the theatre, the director and design of the individual productions and the year of performance -- making this not only an interesting read and feast for the eye, but also a useful source book.
'The second book I am talking about is Playing Lear by Oliver Ford Davies, published by Nick Hern Books. This too, I feel, will become a useful source book for it does two things well. It not only documents Oliver Ford Davies' approach to the monumental role, but it also considers many aspects of working in the theatre today: the lighting, the management, the audience, the critics, the programme, even travelling to the theatre -- although I question his judgement on the North London Line -- and the timing of the rehearsals. One of the book's strengths is that it presents practices in, and attitudes to, theatre at the start of the twenty-first century. This makes it a valuable resource beyond the specific play and the role that is its focus.
'There have, of course, been many accounts of working on specific roles and rehearsal diaries, and Playing Lear is an excellent example of this genre. But it goes further. The book is informative in general terms of the craft of acting Shakespeare as well as specifically on one actor's approach to his won role: his hope and fears. It discusses his own initial ideas and their modification when working with director Jonathan Kent and fellow actors.
'Oliver Ford Davies played Lear in the memorable Almeida production staged in the temporary theatre of the bus station at Kings Cross in 2002. And in those days there was a reason to go to that dreaded place Kings Cross. As always it is impossible to preserve the full experience of live theatre, but with such a rounded approach to documentation-- even discussing reviews (read after the run was over) and including a post mortem discussion with John Barton -- Oliver Ford has produced a book that is (and I use the word advisedly) compelling to read.
'I would add that Playing Lear was one of the first books we received during the judging year and from my perspective -- even knowing that we would receive many that would be much less interesting and enjoyable -- it made me glad that I'd been invited to be on the award panel.'
Howard Loxton then promised to keep the audience only a moment longer to say
'Since I have been concerned with this prize we have usually found it fairly easy to decide upon the winner, not on the short-list, but upon the winner. This year it was extraordinarily difficult. Three titles were really running neck-and-neck until the last moment. It wasn't a unanimous decision but one of them had to win. Can I call upon Timothy West to tell us who the winner is.
'I don't go in for all this 'And the winner is.' The winner is someone I have known for a long time and am proud to think of as my friend and, who's contribution to British theatre, and perhaps to world theatre, has been extraordinary. The winner is, of course, Richard Eyre, for his wonderful book National Service, and without wishing to over the rather truncated Susannah Clapp....er.. [laughter] chat. I feel that in its genre as a memoir - most memoirs I think clearly show the temptation to go back on the drawing-board and say 'Oh God, did I really say that,' or 'I really shouldn't have been so awful about him,' or 'no, no I really can think of something more sensible to say there.' I didn't feel that about Richard's book at all. I felt that it had gone straight from the mind, straight from the feeling, straight from the heart. Sometimes in a jaundiced condition, sometimes in a very generous condition. And it truly, for me, spoke of all the difficulties, all the delights, all the depressions that, as Susannah said, are connected with trying to run a theatre. And trying to run that particular theatre which, let us not forget is actually four jobs. You are trying to run a company. You are trying to run a building, which is not the same thing. You are trying to be the political and social spokesman for the British Theatre. And you are also, occasionally, allowed as treat, to direct some plays. It is with enormous pleasure that I can present this, very modest, I'm afraid award to Richard. Please....'
'Thank-you very much, thank-you. I'm just going to wait until I get home to open it. I don't want to betray anything by my expression. I don't want to make you jealous. Thank you very, very much. I am very, very touched for a number of reasons. Not least, because of the competition. Two of the authors are friends of mine and this has caused me some embarrassment, so if.... This, I know, sounds disingenuous, but it's true, this was a book not written to be published. But it was published because after keeping a diary for about 12-15 years, and finding myself in the unusual state of being out of work because of a cancelled film, I found myself with a lot of time on my hands, and started to transcribe this book, without admitting to myself that I was transcribing it in order to present it to a publisher. The publisher was Liz Calder, and I thank her for persuading me that it was a book worth reading, and a book worth publishing. The reason I started to write because I wanted to be a writer. Not because I wanted to record my experiences at the National Theatre. I wanted to write and the only subject I had available, like all first time writers, was of course myself. And I found myself much more interesting than anything else. And so, it is unashamedly a book about myself. And another reason I am particularly touched by this award is that it somehow vindicates my belief that I could become a writer. Those people who involuntarily contributed to the book, many of whom are here today,... I thank them for their forbearance and not striking me or issuing a libel suit. This was a book exasperating to edit. Because of the rules that I chose to stick to I could not change my opinions in the light of hindsight, sometimes much to my regret I could not rewrite. I could edit by excision and occasionally by elision, but not by addition. People say you seem to have had a miserable time at the National Theatre. Its quite untrue. I had a wonderful time at the National Theatre most of the time but it is much more interesting writing about happiness than unhappiness. If I were still keeping a diary I would only be able to record today: Won and award. Was very pleased.
Book Prize Archive
22nd May 2008