Christmas Books Special: Performing arts books reviewed

The Bard, the boards, Buñuel and Björk
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The Independent Culture

Ned Sherrin declares that he will not be revealing details of his drug-fuelled, three-in-a-bed romps with Dame Sybil Thorndike and Dame Edith Evans in The Autobiography (Little Brown, £18.99), which may disappoint some readers (and amaze others). He does, however, recount splendid anecdotes of other theatrical dames: Maggie Smith in youth; Margaret Rutherford in dotage; Eileen Atkins indiscreet in New York; Flora Robson lachrymose in London. There is much gossip, but also wisdom and generosity, in a book that will offer great Christmas cheer.

One dame for whom Sherrin has particular affection is Judi Dench, whom he directed in Mrs and Mrs Nobody and of whose unfailing theatrical instincts he provides a delightful vignette. Further insight into the work of Britain's greatest actress can be found in Scenes from My Life (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20), in which Dame Judi opens her archives and supplies a photographic record of her extensive performances. The accompanying commentary is the closest that she has so far come to autobiography. Dame Judi relates how much she learnt from working with Peggy Ashcroft, John Gielgud and Edith Evans, and records her distress that "the majority of young actors don't really want to know of our great theatre tradition". An exception is Kenneth Branagh, who not only cast many eminent actors in his Shakespearian films but invited them to direct performances on stage. Kenneth Branagh by Mark White (Faber, £17.99) is an authoritative account of the actor-director's career, which pays tribute to his achievement in popularising Shakespeare on screen.

Accounts of Shakespeare himself continue to pile up on the shelves, with six major lives since 1998. The latest is Shakespeare: The Biography by Peter Ackroyd (Chatto & Windus, £25), and while it may not quite merit its definitive article (for my money, the cream of the current crop is Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World), it is a sound and sympathetic account. Ackroyd plays down the Catholic sympathies emphasised by many recent commentators and offers an especially vivid portrait of Elizabethan London.

A highly original approach to Shakespearean biography comes in James Shapiro's 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare (Faber, £16.99), which, as the title suggests, focuses on the year in which he wrote four of his greatest plays, including As You Like It and Hamlet, linking them to the political dramas of the day, such as Essex's campaign in Ireland, the Queen's failing powers, and even the founding of the East India Company. Further treats for Shakespeare fans can be found in Bella Merlin's With the Rogue's Company (National Theatre, £12.99), an enthralling account of the rehearsal process for Nicholas Hytner's production of Henry IV, and The Shakespeare Companion by Emma Jones and Rhinnon Guy (Robson, £9.99), a treasure trove of trivia.

Arthur Miller in his autobiography, Timebends (Methuen, £12.99), writes of Shakespeare's "repeated affirmations of monarchy's divine rights". Miller misses some of the ambiguity in Shakespeare's portraits of kings and over-explicitness is among his own dramatic failings, but his death this year robbed the theatrical world of one of its greatest talents. Methuen has reissued both Timebends and Salesman in Beijing (£12.99), the captivating account of his pioneering production of Death of A Salesman in China. Remembering Arthur Miller (Methuen, £18.99) contains the reminiscences of 70 colleagues and friends, from Hoffman to Pinter, and an incisive essay by Christopher Bigsby.

The world of Ivor Novello was closer to that of the music hall artist than the high-minded dramatist but, as well as penning and playing in a succession of hit musicals that dominated the West End stage from the 1930s to the 1950s, Novello starred in Alfred Hitchcock's The Lodger and Shakespeare's Henry V. Paul Webb's compelling biography, Ivor Novello (Haus, £16), skilfully evokes the forgotten star. Matthew Sweet, in Shepperton Babylon (Faber, £12.99), follows Webb in chronicling Novello's affairs with actor Bobbie Andrews, poet Christopher Hassall and even a supposed one-night stand with Winston Churchill, throwing in Siegfried Sassoon for good measure. This compulsively scandalous account of the British film industry provides similar prurient pleasures to Kenneth Anger's Hollywood exposés, along with an invaluable history of neglected British cinema.

François Truffaut notoriously declared that the words "Britain" and "cinema" were incompatible. The great French director features prominently in the journals of Catherine Deneuve, Close Up and Personal (Orion, £16.99). Deneuve's seven diary accounts of shooting such films as Dancing in the Dark with Björk, and Buñuel's Tristana, paint a vivid portrait of life on location, but the chilly style will do little to relieve her reputation for aloofness. This is one Christmas offering that should be read beside a blazing fire.

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