A feature by Pauline Flannery for EXTRA! EXTRA!




The Society for Theatre Research presents


Theatre Book Prize 2012


Zoe Wanamaker with David Weston


Judges Catherine Comerford, Managing Director The Stage, Professor Michael Wilson and Rupert Rhymes OBE speaking on the year’s books


Theatre Royal Drury Lane


April 25, 2012


It’s fitting that The Society for Theatre Research’s Theatre Book Prize was staged at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. A bastion to theatre tradition from Garrick, Kean, it housed huge 19th century melodrama spectaculars involving train crashes, earthquakes, floods, through to helicopter landings, in the longest running show to date in the theatre’s history, Miss Saigon. The Theatre Royal provides a majestically, theatrical backdrop to match the kudos of these awards. 

A quick look at previous prize winners hints at the diversity and prestige of these. In 2005 James Shapiro’s book 1599: A year in the life of William Shakespeare is well on its way to being a seminal Shakespearean work. In 2007, theatre critic Michael Billington won for State of the Nation and in 2009, dance critic Jann Parry for Different Drummer: the Life of Kenneth Macmillian.

So, in the Grand Saloon dominated by three crystal chandeliers, Greek statuary and a triptych painting featuring old movers, shakers and rockers from the last thirty-odd years, the ceremony began.

Presided over by Howard Loxon, former actor, now theatre critic in a poacher turned game-keeper role, he introduced the three other judges: Professor Wilson, Dean of the School of Media and Performance at Falmouth University, representing academia; Catherine Comerford, Managing Director of The Stage, representing the Press, and Rupert Rhymes (Judge) founder of the Rupert Rhymes Bursaries for theatre and management, representing the profession. Each talked about the breadth and ‘rich variety’ in both the long and short lists. A range spanning ‘WH Smith to academia,’ quipped Comerford. 

It is an impressive, dazzling array: all those wonderful words dedicated to the passion, knowledge and research of British Theatre! Catching the eye, Nadine Holdsworth’s book Joan Littlewood’s Theatre, which ‘does much to unpick many of the myths’ that surround this twentieth century pioneer, says Wilson The spotlight hits E15. Earlier this week, Winning Words, part of the cultural Olympiad, revealed Caroline Bird’s poem The Fun Palace, dedicated to Littlewood’s dream of building a Vauxhall Gardens for Stratford East.

Another gem is the slim, red, elegant An English Ballet, Catherine Comerford describes as a ‘short sweet read’ which reproduces a 1975 speech by the founder of the Royal Ballet - Dame Ninette de Valois, in which ‘Madam’s voice comes over loud and clear.’ Similarly, Slim Chances, a collection of essays by Edward Petherbridge, and Catching the Light, describing the working partnership between Sam Mendes and actor Simon Russell Beale, by Mark Leipacher, Artistic Director of The Faction Theatre Company,  offers ‘fascinating insights,’ into the life and process of the actor.
It is for this reason that people in the business – and there were a few present amongst the damask-pink décor – might naturally gravitate towards these autobiographical process-type tomes. Poignantly at the top of this list, heading Joanna Lumley and David Weston, is A Spectacle of Dust by the late Pete Postlethwaite.

Of the short list I was taken with Wilson’s passion for Black and Asian Theatre in Britain by Colin Chambers, taken ‘from the early forms of blackface and other representations in the sixteenth century through to the emergence of black and Asian actors, companies and theatre groups.’ And, Wilson’s enthusiasm for the monumental enterprise by Steve Nicholson The Censorship of British Drama 1900 – 1968 which he described as ‘a work of outstanding scholarship.’ Following the frictions of John Osborne, Joan Littlewood, and Beckett this surely will be a prize winner in future when the fourth, and final volume, appears.

Catherine Comerford praised A Dancer in Wartime by Gillian Lynne, ‘a book with plenty of interest for dancers and dance enthusiasts alike,’ and the intriguing Automata and Mimesis on the Stage of Theatre History with its unwieldy title, yet provocative doll automaton figure on the front cover, modelled on Marie Antoinette. These automata are in vogue thanks to the recent success of Martin Scorsese’s film, Hugo.  

Finally, Rupert Rhymes described his time as a ‘revealing experience’ with the two volumes on Ira Aldridge (The Early Years and The Vagabond Years) by Bernth Lindfors, exploring 19th century attitudes towards black actors - a touch of pride, prejudice and blind casting. ‘Another delight’ was Christopher Beeching’s The Heaviest of Swells, an account of the early years of Champagne Charlie.

And so to the recipient of 2012…David Weston for Covering McKellen: An Understudy’s Tale, revealing the ups, downs and fall out of the Royal Shakespeare Company’s 2007 world tour of King Lear, starring Sir Ian McKellan.

Outside the rain lashed. Inside there was warm applause. Zoe Wanamaker presented David Weston with his award. And passing the many resplendent paintings lining the grand staircase on the way out, all agreed that ‘it had been a good turn out.’ I was still struck by the opulence and history of the place, all the while trying to avoid direct eye contact with the day-glow, jolly green giant -a Disney extravaganza currently packing them in…Then again Drury Lane has always presented a prosperous, popular front…..


The Society for Theatre Research http://www.str.org.uk
London WC2

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