Christmas books: Looks back at Court and Globe

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The Independent Culture
THE ONE event that really shook the theatre world this year was the suicide, on 20 February, of playwright Sarah Kane. Her shock-fest Blasted, in 1995, seemed to sum up Nineties drama in the same way as John Osborne's Look Back in Anger symbolised Britain in the year of Suez. Both plays appeared at London's Royal Court, and Philip Roberts's The Royal Court Theatre and the Modern Stage (Cambridge, pounds 12.95) provides a definitive history of this powerhouse of new drama from 1956. His account of Look Back In Anger is exemplary. Like the rest of the book, it shuns cliches and uses new material.

The myth of the Angry Young Men has dominated our memory of 1956, the Year Zero of postwar British drama. In 1956 and All That (Routledge, pounds 12.99), Dan Rebellato offers a powerfully argued reassessment of that era, arguing that the "revolutionary" new wave of writers - led by Osborne, Arnold Wesker and John Arden - was based on some often unspoken ideas about sexuality. The new boys defined themselves against the middle-class theatre of Terence Rattigan, Noel Coward and Binkie Beaumont, which was seen as effete, ephemeral and effeminate. By contrast, the new wavers were vigorous, authentic and manly.

In State of Play: playwrights on playwriting, a sizzling collection of essays edited by David Edgar (Faber, pounds 9.99), Mark "Shopping and Fucking" Ravenhill suggests that the "mincing old poofs" of the 1950s were pushed aside by the "Angry Straight Young Men". This version is complicated by the fact that some of the new writers weren't that straight (Osborne once admitted to being "30 per cent queer").

Noel Coward, one of the old queens buried by the new wave, was born 100 years ago. Sheridan Morley's readable biography has been reissued together with his account of Gertrude Lawrence's life as The Private Lives of Noel and Gertie (Oberon, pounds 14.99). Reading the stories of this showbiz partnership conjures up the lost world of 1920s and 1930s theatre in its flip-flapping glory.

Of Coward's collected works, published by Methuen, a rare gem is the volume of Revue Sketches and Parodies (pounds 9.99), which delightfully reproduces his short, witty satires. Readers can provide their own cigarette holders. For a full account of gay theatre, dip into Alan Sinfield's Out On Stage (Yale UP, pounds 20), which dives into the sexual scandals of the Wilde era and emerges a century later with today's gay plays.

Love and sexual identity remain fascinatingly ambiguous subjects, as shown by Simon Callow's remarkable book about his tempestuous friendship with agent Peggy Ramsay. As he reveals in Love Is Where It Falls (Nick Hern, pounds 14.99), Ramsay was not only the "wrong" sex for Callow; she was over 70 when they met. Moreover, the thirtyish Callow was already in love with an Egyptian film-maker whose depression and suicide are described with devastating truthfulness.

Back at the Court, playwright David Hare made his acting debut last year in Via Dolorosa, his monologue about the Israeli-Palestine conflict. His diary of the experience, Acting Up (Faber, pounds 9.99), is a compelling account of what it feels like to go on stage night after night, and reveals a much more passionate side to Hare's normally urbane persona. Full of spiky anecdotes and profound insights, it is one of the most exciting and engaging books about theatre ever written.

Equally distinctive, Peter Hall's voice can be heard loud and clear in The Necessary Theatre (Nick Hern, pounds 5.99), a very short but punchy polemic that defends arts subsidy. Hall blasts away at British philistinism, celebrates the creativity and variety of theatre, and argues passionately for a permanent repertory company.

Hall's recent problems might have struck a chord with another South Bank entertainer. Anthony Holden's popular account of the "man of the millennium", William Shakespeare (Little, Brown, pounds 20) is sharply written and satisfyingly argumentative. Holden's Bard is an upstart chancer, rewarded by riches for his business acumen and by venereal disease for his randiness. Shakespeare comes across as a hungry young man always on the look-out for subsidy. Underfunded, frustrated, he was also amazingly creative and eccentric: proof that, in the past 400 years, British theatre may have changed less than we think.

Aleks Sierz's book on In-Yer-Face Theatre will be published by Faber next year.