Introduction to Late 20th-Century Theatre
In 1946 the Arts Council was established with an annual grant to distribute among the arts. This ensured the survival of companies like the Sadler's Wells Ballet and Opera and the eventual establishment of the Royal Opera, the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre as well as supporting theatre in the regions and the work of individual artists and companies.
By 1956 the Arts Council was subsidising 40 companies across the country and between 1958 and 1970 15 new theatres had been constructed with public money.
Post war drama saw the rise of director's theatre, best illustrated by the meteoric careers of Peter Brook and Peter Hall. It also saw an explosion of new writing with John Osborne's Look Back in Anger seen as the landmark for a new generation of young writers who included Arnold Wesker, Tom Stoppard, Edward Bond and Harold Pinter.
George Devine at the Royal Court pledged to support writer's theatre and small venues continued to promote and support new writing as more experimental productions moved into the mainstream theatres.
The National Theatre Company was formed in 1963 at the Old Vic under Laurence Olivier and moved to its new home on London's South Bank in 1976 directed by Peter Hall. Peter Hall had also directed the first years of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford-upon-Avon.
Political theatre flourished - notably the work of Joan Littlewood and Portable Theatre Company who produced young political writers such as John McGrath, David Edgar, Trevor Griffiths, David Hare and Howard Brenton. The company Joint Stock pioneered a process of collaborative working, with writers workshopping their ideas with the company to develop a script. Joint Stock was responsible for developing many of Caryl Churchill's early plays.
When censorship was finally ended in 1968 there was an explosion of fringe and alternative theatre. Political theatre, feminist theatre, gay theatre and community theatre all flourished before suffering in the arts' cutbacks of the 1980s.
Scene from The New Men
The Strand Theatre in London's West End staged The New Men with Paul Daneman and Ernest Clark playing brothers Martin and Lewis Eliot. The text was adapted from a novel by C P Snow. The play examined the moral and intellectual dilemmas faced by scientists involved in the attempt to produce the atom bomb. Scientist Martin Eliot initially refuses to work on the project, but is persuaded by his civil servant brother. After the American bombing of Hiroshima, Martin tries to protest against American ruthlessness, and is again argued out of doing so by brother Lewis. The implication was that Martin had allowed his moral values to be corrupted by his brother's intellectual arguments.
Snow had himself been part of a group set up in 1939 at the outbreak of war to advise on the most efficient use of the nation's scientific resources. The play caused some consternation in the press, with many critics outraged at the author's support of unilateral disarmament.
A Penny for a Song by John Whiting
John Whiting was a repertory actor in York when he wrote A Penny for a Song in 1951. His gentle farce is set in Dorset in 1804, with the English coast threatened by invasion from France. The aristocratic family at the centre of the plot, the Bellboys, are an eccentric bunch. Sir Timothy is obsessed with the possibility of French attacks. He decides to dress as Napoleon, go to meet the French in his hot air balloon and order them to retreat, using his French phrase book. The local defence volunteers mistake him for the real thing. His younger brother, Lamprett, is devoted only to his fire engine, which he lovingly tends in the hope of a major fire erupting.
The young Peter Brook directed the premiere production which opened in Wimbledon in February 1951, transferring a month later to the Haymarket Theatre. He brought on board as designer the artist and inventor Rowland Emett, best known at the time for his cartoons in Punch magazine and later for designing the car for the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Emett's colourful, distinctive sets, of which this is a good example, drew spontaneous applause from audiences.
Programme for Entertaining Mr Sloane
This programme for the New Arts Theatre Club, a London fringe venue, was produced in 1964. There is an ironic contrast here between this non-traditional venue featuring a politically challenging play and the advertising sponsorship of the mainstream companies such as 'North Thames Gas' and 'Senior Service' (a major tobacco company). This programme is a pictorial reminder of the constant balance between new art and traditional forms of funding and fundraising that the theatre has always had to maintain.
The Heiress is a play based on 'Washington Square' by Henry James. Written by Ruth and Augustus Goetz, it is about Catherine Sloper who is not beautiful but potentially very rich. When the handsome Morris Townsend courts her, the play develops around the actions of her protective father, Dr Sloper.
This is the Haymarket Theatre production of the play directed by John Gielgud in 1949. Peggy Ashcroft as Catherine, holds the arm of her father, played by Ralph Richardson. Sir Ralph was one of the most beloved actors of the late 20th century. Together with motorcycling to work at the National Theatre quite late in his life, he is well remembered for his quirky sense of humour together with a quaint sense of self. During rehearsals for The Heiress he was seen looking for something. When asked what it was he replied 'I've lost my talent. It wasn't very big, but it was shiny'.
Look Back in Anger by John Osborne
The Royal Court Theatre became the home of George Devine's English Stage Company. Its third play was a new work by an unknown author: 'Look Back In Anger' by John Osborne. The production starred Mary Ure, Alan Bates, Helena Hughes, and Kenneth Haigh as the central character, Jimmy Porter.
Reviews were mixed, but critics recognised the power of the writing. When the BBC broadcast an extract, the play achieved national fame. The 'angry young man', Jimmy Porter, raging against the modern world from a run-down flat in a Midlands town, voiced the frustrations of educated post war youth, whose dreams of a better life had not been realised.
During the 1950s other theatre companies were producing gritty studies of everyday life, but Osborne succeeded in capturing the mood of the times and creating a play which now seems a landmark in 20th century theatre.
The Birthday Party
Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party was premiered at the Arts Theatre, Cambridge in 1958, and transferred subsequently to the Lyric Hammersmith. It was the 28 year old writer's first full length play, and was met with some confusion. The Times called it 'puzzling', the Illustrated London News 'bewildering'. But the Sunday Times critic Harold Hobson missed the opening night. He attended the Thursday matinee, in an audience of seven, including the playwright. He reacted very differently to the absurdist uncertainties of the play, writing that Pinter was 'the most original, disturbing, and arresting talent in theatrical London'. Sadly by the time his review came out, the Lyric had taken the play off. Hobson's insight was soon endorsed by the elevation of Pinter as one of the most highly regarded 20th century British playwrights. The unresolved questions and the sparse, pause-laden dialogue which are his signatures even spawned a new adjective: 'Pinteresque'.
This photograph is of Timothy West and Lisa Dulson in a 1999 production which toured and then played at the Piccadilly Theatre, London for a short season.
Programme for Uranium 235
Ewan MacColl (born James Miller) and Joan Littlewood ran an experimental theatre company called Theatre of Action, which later became known as the Theatre Workshop. He worked with Littlewood for 20 years, for much of which time they were married, advancing the theory of drama through a revolutionary technique. They used speech, mime, dances, and song, and devoted most of their time to playing in industrial centres to theatrically uneducated audiences.
McColl's play Uranium 235 was described on a handout as 'a vivid portrayal of the history of atomic research and the problems raised by the atom bomb'. The Glasgow Herald wrote that most writers would have got caught up in tales of dictators and secret agents, but McColl 'tells the story of mankind through the past 2,500 years, his struggle against stupidity and ignorance, his misuse of science ... and his undying spirit'. He even made quantum theory accessible, by portraying scientists Niels Bohr and Max Planck as a pair of knockabout comics.
Uranium 235 played throughout Britain, and in 1952 Michael Redgrave brought this production to London's Embassy Theatre and then the West End.
Tim Curry as Macheath and Sally Dexter as Polly Peachum
Brecht's reworking of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera was first performed in 1928, but both it and Gay's version have stood the test of time well. The savage dog-eat-dog low-life world they share still has strong resonances today. Brecht's book sharpened the political satire inherent in Gay's work. Weill wrote a score that has become part of Western culture's consciousness: jazzy, syncopated, dissonant, and full of inventive melody, it captures the essence of the mocking, ironic tone of the book.
Critic Andrew Rissik found the National's casting inspired: 'Mack the Knife is a suave, glinting hoodlum, a Weimar James Bond, and Curry is a sly, sinister actor with a big, dangerous voice. At his best, Curry is the most frightening kind of urban sophisticate, too clever to be entirely frivolous'. And Sally Dexter, as one of Mack's two wives, was praised by Our Theatre in the Eighties as 'one of the National's rare discoveries' who 'does a terrific 'Barbara Song''.
Rehearsal for No Man's Land
Harold Pinter's No Man's Land is one of his masterpieces. This photograph shows Peter Hall (kneeling) directing John Gielgud (centre) and Ralph Richardson (left) in rehearsal for the 1975 premiere by the National Theatre Company at the Old Vic.
According to Guardian critic Michael Billington the play 'is about precisely what its title suggests: the sense of being caught in some mysterious limbo between life and death, between a world of brute reality and one of fluid uncertainty'. A Hampstead writer has brought home a shabby stranger for the evening, to the resentment of his assistant and manservant. It turns out that the stranger is linked to the writer - he once had an affair with his wife. Pinter's economical dialogue combines a powerful sense of menace with a comic mismatch of delicate language: the burly, foul-mouthed manservant is concerned mainly with his 'world of silk, of organdie, of flower arrangements and eighteenth century cookbooks'. There is also the trademark sparse 'Pinteresque' poetry: 'I have known this before. The door unlocked. The entrance of a stranger. The offer of alms. The shark in the harbour'.
Nick Darke's play The Riot is based on an outbreak of violence among a fishing community in rural Cornwall in 1896. The religious locals have never worked on Sundays, but their already precarious livings are further threatened by 'Yorkies', fishermen from further North, who do work on the Sabbath. The desperate inhabitants of Newlyn begin their protest by tipping the entire Sunday catch back into the sea. Their action leads to a pitched battle between the good Methodists of Newlyn and the Yorkies (who actually come from Lowestoft).
This production, a joint venture with Cornish company Kneehigh Theatre, was a fast and furious comedy produced at the National Theatre in 1999. Kneehigh is known for its energetic physical and visual work often staged outdoors, drawing on fairytale imagery and involving live music.
Costume for Clara Zachanassian in The Visit
Théàtre de Complicité was one of the most successful companies of the 1980s and 1990s, bringing new insight to plays with their own brand of physical and intellectual theatre. In 1988 they produced Friedrich Dürrenmatt's The Visit, a play about how people can be bought and corrupted by wealth. The leading character is the billionairess Clara, played by the extraordinary Kathryn Hunter with a voice one critic described as 'marinaded in sex and cynicism', moving on crutches, which expressed the emotionally and morally crippled character, and hell-bent on revenge on the man who seduced her as a teenager. For her, Rae Smith designed this extraordinary wedding suit - a cream satin overlaid with a lattice creating a patchwork effect with the trims of fur, braids, beads, feathers, nets and all kinds of ornamentation. It is a superbly mad costume that reflects the fragmented twisted thinking of the character. It was worn with a vast striped train, covered with all kinds of underwear, from panties to corsets.
Timothy West as Falstaff
Shakespeare's plays Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 are the two central plays in a tetralogy (four part series). They follow Richard II and precede Henry V. Over the course of the tetralogy, Henry Bolingbroke seizes power from Richard II to become Henry IV. His uneasy reign is plagued by civil unrest, and concern over his apparently reckless heir Hal, who eventually succeeds him as Henry V and proves a far more effective king than his troubled father. Henry IV Parts 1 and 2 concentrate on Hal's relationship with his fat old drinking companion Falstaff, who seems to be leading the young prince astray. In fact, Hal is studying his lowlife companions so that he may be a better leader of men once he becomes king.
Falstaff (played here by Timothy West in the Old Vic's 1996 touring production, in which his son Sam West played Hal) is one of Shakespeare's fictional additions to his historical tapestry. He is a larger than life buffoon, who comes to dominate the plays. He was so popular that Shakespeare, having killed him off in 'Henry V', wrote another play based around him - The Merry Wives of Windsor - to satisfy public demand for the character.