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Scenes from a life

A memoir: 75 years of watching plays

Irving Wardle | May/June 2012

In the early 1930s my father and stepmother set up a theatre in Bolton. Built on a former graveyard next to the Hanover Street gasworks, it was one of the chain of “Little Theatres” that formed the backbone of pre-war English amateur drama and it was here, in 1937, at the age of seven, that I saw my first show—“Fifinella”, a children’s play by the multimedia mogul Basil Dean. It began with two ladies in bearskins guarding the palace gates, but hardly had they sloped halberds than my cousin Robin and a girl two seats away started whispering about the performance. They were saying it was rubbish. They then said so again more loudly, and when people began shushing them they got up and barged their way to the end of the row, then down the aisle and onto the stage, at which point the penny finally dropped that they were part of the entertainment.

That was my first taste of how the theatre works. You could film Robin’s trick, but the result would be stone dead compared with the physical thrill of being there and tasting the disruption. Although I couldn’t have explained this at the time, I understood that as soon as the dramatic pretence begins, it generates a force field that becomes as tangible as barbed wire if anyone tries to walk through it.

I remember that moment perfectly, but have long forgotten what happened after it. Much the same goes for my memory of 40-odd years of theatre reviewing, which left the impression that most productions chug along on the safe old rails, but from time to time something happens, like the dazzling reflection from a cat’s eyes, that opens up the inner workings of the stage. Whether it’s a good idea for the public to pry into these secrets is a matter of dispute. But for me, the matter was settled from the moment of witnessing the collapse of the palace guard, and I have been on the lookout for “Fifinella” moments ever since.

As a teenager in the 1940s I was well placed to find them. Nearby Manchester was a prime touring date, and even the Bolton Grand attracted big names like Edith Evans. My father and his wife Norma both had freelance acting jobs at the BBC’s Manchester studios. One of their BBC acquaintances, who sometimes stayed at our house, was a documentary-maker, Joan Littlewood, who was said to do a bit of theatre on the side. When she was there they used to have spirited late-night discussions about the commedia dell’arte (whatever that was), and when she’d gone they were apt to chortle over the double entendres in her countryside commentaries (“with a sigh of relief, I grasped the end of his shepherd’s crook”) and mock her eccentric theatrical taste. They both believed in the primacy of the voice, and so far as radio was concerned it was easy to agree with that. Beyond radio, though, it meant that star actors were divinely appointed to rule the roost. Littlewood, it seemed, had other ideas.

One night during the war they took me along to a show of hers at the Miners’ Hall. The piece, by Littlewood’s partner, the folk singer Ewan MacColl, was “Johnny Noble”, a heroic fable of the war at sea, showing a merchant convoy under attack from German U-boats. There was a cast of six, and the set consisted of a piece of rope. MacColl and Littlewood, spotlit in matching black raincoats, delivered a bardic commentary on the action from either flank. Between them, in near darkness, the rope was strung with port and starboard lights that heaved and dipped with the rhythm of the waves. It made me seasick to look at. Then the bombardment began, and the crew went into combat with a Bofors gun—which consisted of four actors, three of them playing the gun with full recoil mechanism and the fourth loading and firing. It was unutterably thrilling. I had never imagined the possibility of such a thing, and the illusion was total. At the same time, I remained fully aware of sitting in this seedy hall watching some actors tying themselves up in knots. My parents admired the lighting, but thought the show coarsely propagandist. For me it triggered the idea that theatre consists of two simultaneous realities—the reality of the actor’s performance and the reality of the spectator’s presence in his seat—with attention continually switching from one to the other.

This was one of Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop touring productions before the company moved to Stratford East, discovered Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney, and created “Oh, What a Lovely War!”. On the road it specialised in fiercely drilled physical exercises that vanished in later years; and my parents were right about the lighting which, I later discovered, was the work of a former plumber, Alf Armitt, who had taught himself German so as to read Appia’s “Die Musik und die Inszenierung”, then apprenticed himself to an optical-lens grinder and equipped Littlewood’s penniless troupe with a revolutionary lighting system. In that department, Theatre Workshop qualified as an object of my stepmother Norma’s lifelong pursuit of “the best”—be it sausages, dentists, chilblain cures, undertakers or star actors.

We often quarrelled about it, though not when she took me off to the Manchester Opera House to see Olivier’s “Richard III” in 1945. I had no idea of what to expect when an ungainly figure with a long nose limped down to the edge of the stage and stood looking at us, turned and limped back upstage to lock the door, came down again and only then rasped the opening line, somewhat in the style of Mr Punch, confident that he was speaking in abso-lute conspiratorial privacy to 1,500 strangers. This was manifestly the best.

It turned the force-field rule inside out. Instead of erecting an invisible barrier between the stage and the auditorium, the theatre became one room so that Richard could seduce everyone in the house before putting his wicked plans into practice. With that alliance sealed, the stage snapped back into default position; and once we had served his purpose, Richard dropped us as he was to drop so many other helpers, leaving us to watch his high-wire crimes as gawping outsiders like the election crowd in the play. Unlike Richard, Olivier did not cheat the voters; he kept their sympathy with a display of dazzling comic intelligence and joie de vivre which presented villainy as just as likely a road as any other to human fulfilment. No other performance I have seen has revealed the basic fact about Richard, that inside the villain is a pantomime dame struggling to get out.

I picked up two other things from that production. One was that a performance can come alive in an open room or a divided room; but it cannot live in both at the same time. Brecht was not above committing this theatrical howler, as in “The Good Woman of Setzuan” where the heroine Shen Te seeks to demonstrate the heartlessness of the world by coming downstage with a little boy and appealing to the audience to adopt him—confident that there will be no offers. The modern stage has developed several effective ways of incriminating the audience, but this is not one of them. The spectator immediately feels cheated; and to my dying day I shall regret not having stood up at the play’s premiere, at the Royal Court in London in 1956, and offered to take the luckless juvenile off Peggy Ashcroft’s hands and treat him to a plate of chips.

From this starting point, the avant-garde companies of the 1960s were always knocking themselves out by trying to walk through the fourth wall. The most egregious example I can remember came in “Dionysus in 69”, Richard Schechner’s reworking of Euripides’s “The Bacchae”, when the preening god offers to make it with any girl in the house. One girl took him up on the invitation and headed purposefully for the acting area, causing Dionysus to pull up the drawbridge and beat a panicky retreat into his divinity.

The other idea that emerged from that first sight of Richard III was that if you aim to present a well-defined character you may be sentencing him to death. Even Olivier couldn’t hide the fact that the stuffing is knocked out of Richard once he gets to be king; as Shakespeare himself warns the actor with the monarch’s dismayed confession that he has lost his “alacrity of spirit”. It was later that I realised that Richard was only one of many characters who come to grief by planning too exactly what they want to do in the world. By exercising free choice they narrow their future freedoms, and the very act of living becomes a process of self-inflicted paralysis.

In the Old Vic’s famous 1944 season, this message was rammed home by pairing Richard III with Ibsen’s “Peer Gynt”, whose footloose hero keeps his freedom and vitality up to the last gasp by never committing himself to anything. It is a heroic role. But usually the acid test for heroic actors is whether they can retain Othello’s, Macbeth’s or Cleopatra’s power of choice after all the doors have been locked. Tragedy is about death, but you don’t get the tragic effect from characters who acquiesce in their own extinction.

The greatest example of imaginative escapology I remember was Michael Redgrave’s name performance in “Uncle Vanya” at the 1962 Chichester Festival. If ever a character were set on a straight road to the grave, it is Chekhov’s desperate estate manager. But he does have a climax where he tries to kill the bloodsucking professor whom he sees as the author of his wasted life. He fails, of course, and the failure marks his final defeat. As Redgrave played it, though, this was the moment where Vanya—one character among equals—took possession of the play. There was an offstage shot, a scurry of panic-stricken onlookers, and then Redgrave arrived to fire a second shot. I can still see that wild, running figure, seemingly swollen to twice its normal size, shouting “Missed again” even as he pulls the trigger, and so dominating the stage that everyone else shrank into the subhuman dwarfs of his fevered imag-ination. The actor had commandeered the spectator’s viewpoint and converted a realist play into a piece of expressionism.

Another Chekhovian example of the transformation process came in the 2008 Donmar production of “Ivanov”, in which the despairing debt-ridden protagonist receives a visit from his friend, Lebedev, the husband of his chief creditor, who offers to lend Ivanov the money to pacify his miserly wife. In the text, Ivanov says nothing to this offer. In the production Kenneth Branagh let a long moment elapse and then imperceptibly began crumbling to the floor. First the neck, then the shoulders and slackening gut—it took a long time—until he was finally curled up in the fetal position at Lebedev’s feet. During that wordless scene, Branagh converted stage time into psychological time, so as to infect every observer with the sense of what it is to be terminally unmanned.

By now I was on the outlook for transformation, which seemed to me the most magical of all theatrical devices since I first experienced it in a student production of Pirandello’s “Tonight We Improvise”. The magic struck with the arrival of an enraged character who accuses the others of doing him out of his death scene, which would have been a show-stopper. He describes how he would have played it, illustrating the description with stagey gestures and rhetoric until he is so caught up in the scene that he plays it to the end and expires on the floor. The others cluster round to praise or criticise his performance. But they are wasting their time. He is dead.

This kind of transformation is immensely powerful, but also short-lived, and has the effect for me of obliterating whatever happens next. As with “Fifinella”, I remember the thrilling gear-shift from one reality to another, but forget everything else. There is, however, another kind of transformation, no less powerful, which serves as a way of avoiding tragedy. A classical example is that of the nymph Syrinx who escapes being raped by Pan by changing into a reed. Life continues in an altered state. That could have been the motto of the improvisation genius Keith Johnstone whose comedy springs from the rule that life goes on. Here comes a monster ready to gobble everybody up. Don’t try to escape, says Johnstone, let him eat you: then you all turn into shit and carry on from there. This is also what happens to Shakespeare’s Parolles in “All’s Well That Ends Well”, as I first spotted in Trevor Nunn’s 1981 Edwardian production. Exposed by his fellow officers as a liar and a coward, Parolles the braggart captain (Stephen Moore) refuses to die of shame. Instead he embraces his fate and gladly turns to shit. “Parolles, live, safest in shame…Simply the thing I am shall make me live.” The response is almost heroic.

In half a lifetime of theatre reviewing, I have never tried writing about this stuff before. The reviewer’s task is to report on the events of the night, and the inner mysteries of the theatre do not get a look-in. In any case, I have always been confused about them. Some aesthetician I’ve never read has probably sorted them all out, but from my childhood experiences of Littlewood and Olivier, modern theatre seemed to me to consist of two separate systems with no shared bond or pecking order: ensemble theatre and star theatre. The first a republic, the second a monarchy.

Brecht came closest to bringing the two together when he managed to contain actors as Olympian as Helene Weigel and Ernst Busch in the Berliner Ensemble. But in England, where even the National Theatre’s soi-disant ensemble troupe opened in 1963 with the grinding discord of an inaugural Hamlet who was a guest star (Peter O’Toole), the two camps struck me as irreconcilable opposites in a cold war that inescapably converted every text into its own political image. Whatever justice operated within the company would be reflected in the kind of justice they put on stage.

My personal bias was all for ensemble—thanks partly to my own cold war with my queenly stepmother, a star-worshipping elocutor with loud opinions and orchestral vowels which she turned up to full volume in roles like Oscar Wilde’s Gwendolen, causing me to cringe and close my eyes. Then, to my disbelief, she was cast in a radio series about customers gossiping in a barber’s shop, and her false West End voice gave way to the rasp of an authentic Bolton woman. And she was playing in ensemble! Norma let no one forget that she had been at the Birmingham Rep with Greer Garson. If only, like her other acquaintance Doris Speed, she had found a berth in “Coronation Street” on ITV, we might have become friends. Or perhaps not: like many people, she wanted to be admired for what was classy and difficult, and disdained what she could do naturally.

Yet another confusion arose from the fact that my reviewing life coincided with the famous Royal Court playwriting revival of 1956. Like others of my generation, I fell into line with the Court’s slogan, “The playwright leads”, and would typically splurge most of my space on the play and hand a few bouquets around to the cast in the last paragraph.

I have learnt a lot from living playwrights. John Osborne showed that you can succeed without structure if you have something to say; Alan Ayckbourn that you can succeed without content if you possess a perfect technique. In Beckett, characters speak in the voice of your own deepest self. Pinter taught me that danger can be expressed through apparently harmless and trivial actions. He also became one of the few subjects on which Norma and I saw eye to eye. She had heard about “The Birthday Party” from my father and me, and decided to put it on at the Little Theatre. Pinter not only agreed, but went up to Bolton to sit in on her rehearsals and see what must rank as the play’s first production after its premiere at the Lyric Hammersmith in 1958. He was polite about the show afterwards, though I have no idea what he really thought. But there was no question of his impact on the girls in the company (one of whom gatecrashed his carriage all the way back to Euston), and on Norma herself, who fell for him as a solid-gold specimen of “the best”. As Pinter put it to me after recovering from this northern adventure, “she really put on her dark glasses for me.”

I have plenty more debts to living writers, but when it comes to sifting through the memories and seeing what comes out on top, it is mostly what actors and directors have done, not what playwrights do; which makes me see how much I involuntarily suppressed to fulfil the prevailing expectation of reviewing as a garbled form of news. When it comes to describing actors, things were pretty bad 40 years ago. Since then the length allotted to reviews has shrunk so much that description has all but vanished. If you think of what George Bernard Shaw did in that department a century ago, or William Hazlitt a century before him, this is a serious loss.

My random collection of insights has never added up to a coherent viewpoint. But over the years a shadowy idea has taken shape of what forms of life flourish best on the stage. One essential is that it happens in the present tense—a condition for which the semioticians have coined the word “deixis”, meaning “here and now”. An instance of that hit me at an early age in a wartime production of Congreve’s “The Way of the World” by Frank Sladen-Smith’s Unnamed Society, a well-known Lancashire amateur company. It was the opening scene with Fainall facing the house and supporting himself with his hands behind him against a table. As the curtains parted, they brushed over a lighted candle and one of his lace ruffs went up in flames. He looked down nonchalantly at the blaze on his wrist and tapped it out with two fingers. Then came the play’s first line: “You are a fortunate man, Mr Fainall.” An unscheduled real event had been contained within the fiction.

Coming right at the start, this made you feel that the whole evening was going to be OK—the company were so much at home in the play that they could take anything in their stride. Within the first ten minutes of any production, you can usually tell whether the scaffolding is still up or the actors are living inside the house. Sometimes you know from external signs, such as the ability of a director to extend the play beyond the text. At the end of John Dexter’s 1973 National Theatre production of Molière’s “The Misanthrope”—a show in which every laugh carried a political echo—the coquettish Célimène, who gives the truth-telling hero such a hard time, wandered upstage after the final speech and looked out through a window; the lighting changed and you saw she was standing in the shadow of the Elysée Palace, so in that split second you realised that the entire action had been under royal surveillance. Again, in Matthias Langhoff’s 1973 production of Ibsen’s “The Wild Duck”, much was made of the self-deluding Hjalmar’s profession as a photographer. After his daughter’s suicide, the usual assumption is that Hjalmar finally sees the light. In Langhoff’s wordless final scene, the photographic booth opened out to the whole back wall for a romantic view of fjords and snow-capped peaks, with Hedvig in the foreground looking thoroughly alive. This is Hjalmar’s memorial to his daughter. Her death has only stimulated his artistic pretensions and driven him deeper into self-preserving lies.

These are two examples of a director telling you what to look at. One basic difference between stage and film is that film tells you where to look, while in the theatre your eye is your own. This is backed up by a 1960 series of experiments from McGill University in Montreal, which found that unconscious eye movements are the sine qua non of vision. When we look, we do not focus: we scan. Perhaps fancifully, I like to associate this with the English Shakespearean tradition where the spectator scans between tragedy and comedy rather than being required to focus on one or the other, as in French neo-classicism.

For directors and actors who know how to command the eye, this enlarges the scope for collaborating with the audience in games of perception and fooling them with magic—two more stage essentials, which often combine when masks are involved, as at the end of Peter Shaffer’s “The Royal Hunt of the Sun”. The scene shows the killing of the Inca king Atahuallpa whom his people expect to return to life with the rising of the next day’s sun. In Dexter’s 1964 Chichester production they assembled wearing funeral masks covering the whole face. As the sun came up and the corpse failed to move, the masks swivelled to look up at the sky and then back to the lifeless body. And a miracle occurred. Masks cannot change their expression, but to the audience these masks clearly were changing and visibly going through the stages of expectation, amazement, disbelief and despair. To explain this as a projection of the audience’s feelings for the mourners does nothing to dispel its magic.

The human face, too, can function as a mask, as Helene Weigel proved once and for all in her performance in Brecht’s “Mother Courage”, which reached London just after Brecht’s death in 1956. When Courage’s son is executed by a firing squad, she has to deny knowing him or face death herself. Weigel, by no means an obvious beauty, sauntered over to view the body with hip-swinging allure and a lascivious smile that softened up the executioners before she had spoken a word. Then, after denying her son with a disdainful glance, she turned and sauntered back to her cart, still smiling the same smile: except that its sexual invitation had turned into a screaming rictus of grief.

It used to be said that the most important of all the dramatic components was conflict. I once took this for granted, and assumed it was my fault when threats, rows, fights and chases left me feeling short-changed. Conflict can indeed engage your attention—but, in my experience, only as an indicator of where the story is going. As with mountain-climbing, the real pay-off comes when you get to the top: when violence arrives at a plateau where nothing happens and you are brought motionless to the edge of your seat, hardly daring to breathe. Such moments are rare, but when they come they give the lie to the notion that heaven is boring.

The experience that fixed my plateau theory was Peter Sellars’s 1996 Glyndebourne production of Handel’s “Theodora”. Here is a group of Christians imprisoned by the Romans. Next day they will be executed, but that means nothing to them as they are in heaven already. They stand with their arms outstretched like trees in a sacred wood, as the angelic figure of Irene moves among them, intensifying their ecstasy by making slight adjustments to their branches. You could imagine such a scene bringing about a religious conversion, except that the same effect can be created through lust and bloodshed—as in Monteverdi’s “The Coronation of Poppea”, which shows Nero and his paramour intriguing and slaughtering their way through every obstacle and then, just as they had planned, arriving on a sunlit plateau of untroubled erotic bliss. In both cases the effect is sublime, and has nothing to do with morality.

This is perhaps a theatrical taste that develops later in life, when you outgrow the appetite for conflict. Even Strindberg, the greatest of conflict dramatists, wound up on the plateau of “A Dream Play”. Similarly, at the far end of the scale, I disqualified myself for criticism and slid into an exhausted peace with Norma as we learned to avoid contaminated ground and as she receded into her dementia-darkened 90s. When she died, we held a farewell party for her at the Little Theatre. There were readings of Keats’s “Ode to Autumn” and her other Royal Academy of Music party pieces. There were home movies of her pretending to be an elephant; and memories of shows she’d directed, including a “Hamlet” for which she’d planned to accompany the death scene with a sombre passage of Sibelius: except that on the first night when the moment came for the mourners to shoulder the prince’s body, up came the catchy strains of “Tea for Two”—after which Norma was banned from the theatre for three months for physically assaulting the boy on the sound desk. The party wound up with the actor who had played Hamlet speaking a poem by Samuel Laycock in which a victim of the Lancashire cotton famine of the 1860s has a chat with his newborn son.

Th’art welcome, little bonny brid
But shouldn’t ha’ come just when tha did;
Times are bad.
We’re short o’pobbies for eawr Joe,
But that, of course, tha didn’t know,
Did ta, lad?

The speaker was a retired school teacher in his 80s. I saw him standing there in the middle of the room in a leather jacket, looking at us over his half-glasses. At the same time I saw a prematurely aged young man in clogs and braces, cradling a beloved nothing in his arms and quieting the invisible child with a lick of invisible sugar. This, I would have said to Norma if she’d been there, must be the best. But I don’t suppose she would have seen it that way. 

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