The best of 2004: performance books reviewed

Tangled up in blue
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The number of fine performance-related books published this year would fill the proverbial Christmas stocking to bursting. Prime among them must be Gielgud's Letters (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). By turns waspish, witty and wise, Sir John trains his eye on every aspect of theatrical life from the 1930s to the 1990s, offering an insightful view from both the stage and the stalls and revealing an unsuspected fondness for corduroy.

The number of fine performance-related books published this year would fill the proverbial Christmas stocking to bursting. Prime among them must be Gielgud's Letters (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20). By turns waspish, witty and wise, Sir John trains his eye on every aspect of theatrical life from the 1930s to the 1990s, offering an insightful view from both the stage and the stalls and revealing an unsuspected fondness for corduroy.

Anyone puzzled by the remark in Gielgud's New Year 1964 letter to his lover, Paul Anstee ("I am tied up - like Michael Redgrave - till April") should turn to Alan Strachan's enthralling biography of the actor, Secret Dreams (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25). Strachan makes a strong case for Redgrave while illuminating many aspects of his tortured psyche, notably his bisexuality and sado-masochism.

Early in his career, Ian Holm understudied Redgrave's Hamlet. In his autobiography, Acting My Life (Bantam, £18.99), Holm remarks on the absurdity of the casting, given that Redgrave was a "strapping six-footer" while he is short. Holm's range and technique have made him one of the finest actors of his generation. Here, he provides fascinating insights into his performances as well as glimpses of a turbulent private life.

Memories of two much-loved actors are to be found in Sheila Hancock's The Two of Us (Bloomsbury, £17.99) and Denis Quilley's Happiness Indeed (Oberon, £19.99). Hancock and her late husband, John Thaw, belonged to the new breed of Sixties working-class actors, as much at home on TV as at the RSC. Hancock charts their private and professional lives, the demands of their careers, the pressures of celebrity, and her bereavement, with immense sensitivity and candour.

Quilley appeared with Hancock in the British premiere of Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, but his path was otherwise different, almost entirely devoted to the stage. His well-named memoirs show why he was so admired by the public and his peers.

Michael Blakemore describes Quilley as "a man who was not only gifted and versatile but also exceptionally decent". The words might equally be applied to Blakemore himself who, in his eloquent memoir Arguments with England (Faber, £20), displays all the perspicacity that makes him one of the country's leading theatre directors. He recounts how, saved by the unlikely figure of Robert Morley from a medical career in Australia, he came to RADA and worked in rep before enjoying his glory days at Olivier's Old Vic.

This year's Shakespeare biography is Stephen Greenblatt's Will in the World (Cape, £20), which follows the fashionable course of filling the lacunae in the Bard's life with material drawn from the plays. The result is challenging if contentious - as in his assertion that Claudius and Gertrude and the Macbeths are the canon's sole significant examples of "a married couple in a relationship of sustained intimacy", omitting the far more exemplary Pages in The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Greenblatt identifies the cruel comedy of The Merchant of Venice with the crowd's laughter at the execution of Elizabeth I's Jewish physician, Roderigo Lopez. Anyone wanting a more detailed study of Elizabethan anti-Semitism as well as an engaging account of playing Shakespeare's Jew should try Gareth Armstrong's A Case For Shylock (Nick Hern Books, £12.99).

Musical theatre aficionados will relish Ruth Leon's Gershwin (Haus, £9.99), a succinct but substantial account of the great composer's life and work from his Lower East Side beginnings to his Hollywood triumphs, while those with more avant-garde tastes will enjoy Lisa Appignanesi's The Cabaret (Yale, £25), an authoritative and lavishly illustrated account of the genre from its 19th-century origins, through its Weimar heyday, to its current manifestation in stand-up.

Top of any balletomane's wish-list will be Meredith Daneman's Margot Fonteyn (Viking, £20), the first comprehensive biography. Daneman is an acclaimed novelist as well as a former dancer and she draws on both disciplines to capture Fonteyn's quicksilver personality both on and offstage. A richly illustrated portrait can also be found in Christina Franchi's Margot Fonteyn (Oberon, £20), part of the Royal Opera House Heritage Series.

Two other excellent books of photographs from Oberon are Tocororo, which captures the athleticism and eroticism of Cuban star Carlos Acosta, and The Royal Ballet: 161 Images by dancer-photographer Johan Persson (both £20).

Finally, lovers of TV comedy and camp humour will delight in Frankie Howerd by Graham McCann (Fourth Estate, £18.99) and So Me by Graham Norton (Hodder & Stoughton, £18.99). Nothing more clearly illustrates the change in sexual mores and popular taste than Howerd's desperation to conceal all traces of his gay promiscuity and Norton's delight in revealing intimate details of his. Perfect for those dreaming of a blue Christmas.

Michael Arditti's 'Good Clean Fun' is published by Maia Press

Comments