Found books 4: seriously glam
Is it possible to love productions you've never seen? Oh baby baby, it is. I'm not just talking about Garrick's Shakespeares, or brightly coloured 19th-century extravaganzas, or the Moscow Arts doing Chekhov for the first time and minting a new voice and a transforming style of acting. Though I do love these too. But closer to home I adore the productions by Philip Prowse, Giles Havergal and Robert David MacDonald, presiding triumvirate at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre for over 30 years, between 1969 and 2004. Most of their shows were staged before my theatre-going lifetime, but I know about them through one, quite marvellous book: The Citz by Michael Coveney. Originally published in 1990 by Nick Hern Books, it's not in print, but you'll find a second-hand copy online.
I was led back to the book because I've been reading about Diaghilev's Ballets Russes recently (yup, add 'em to the love list above), including MacDonald's lapidary memory play Chinchilla, loosely based on the impresario's waspish retinue and ardent commitment to talent. A bare, white beach at the Lido was gradually populated by mirrors and raffia chairs, lithe-limbed boys, the bulky, black-overcoated figure of Diaghilev himself. The 1977 play was a key Citz production: all three artistic directors were involved, as writer, director-designer, actor, and the show, as Coveney describes it, defined how the company 'had chosen to collaborate fiercely on what they believed to be good theatre in the teeth of ridicule, misunderstanding and critical contempt.'
Why ridicule, why contempt? When Havergal took over the parochial Scottish theatre in 1969 and invited Prowse and MacDonald to join him, he created a defiantly cosmopolitan theatre. It staged the gorier bits of Jacobean drama, the less tractable corners of the European repertory. It featured an acting style that was less about quivering sensitivity and more about rhetorical attitude and the ability to carry off Prowse's assertively glamorous frocks. Blood, flesh and pearls decorated the stage. Hofmannstahl, Karl Kraus and lashings of Goldoni were scintillatingly translated by MacDonald.
I read about these shows in Coveney's panting account and I shiver with pleasure: how the corrupt world in Massinger's The Roman Tragedy was reflected in a grinding soundtrack that suggested 'now the Emperor's mental instability, now the application of torture, now the buzzing of flies in a grotesque charnal house.' Or how the passing of years in Semi-Monde, Noël Coward's divinely decadent jeremiad, was marked by beige vases of pink and blue lilacs being restocked with tiger lilies. Or how Jonathan Hyde, stalking in drag through a brilliantly coloured Goldoni, claimed to be 'dressed to kill - well, maim.'
It's thrilling to read about productions which are intellectual but never bookish; stirring but never sentimental; eclectic, electric and informed by a sensibility that seems impervious to outside opinion (which is why actors and audiences loved [some of] them). Frankly, I don't burn to know what the Citizens are doing now (though it usually sounds pretty interesting). And nowadays, Coveney isn't, to be honest, a favourite writer (he's currently chief critic at Whatsonstage): he's often too snide or chummy. But in The Citz, describing audaciously and unfashionable - if high-fashion - shows which took place far from London, he can't play the insider and he hits grace note after grace note, an enthusiast mainlining provocation with every production he describes.
Go on then, tell me - what are the shows you wish wish wish you'd been in the right place and time to see? And where have you found the most exciting descriptions of them?
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