She Changed The Face Of British Theatre

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She changed the face of British theatre

By John Ezard

September 27 2002

Joan Littlewood, Theatre director, 1914-2002

Joan Littlewood, who has died aged 87, devoted her prodigious life in the theatre to a faith she had kept since her Cockney youth. "I really do believe in the community," she said late in her life. "I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I've heard that greatness come out of them, that great thing which is in people. And that's not romanticism, d'you see?"

In her struggle to make this conviction flesh through drama, she was one of the bonniest fighters and intractably cussed personalities the theatre has known. Although celebrity did not help or console her, she has long been acknowledged, with Peter Brook, whom she despised, as the most galvanising director in mid-20th century Britain.

Her international heyday in the 1950s and 1960s, all spent with almost no public subsidy, now seems short. After 1973, she was almost inactive.

Yet her great causes - community and political theatre, improvisation, working-class language - have passed into the mainstream of drama and her record remains unsurpassed. The Theatre Royal at Stratford, East London, which was both her temple and fun palace, now thrives on substantial grants and the legacy of her vision.



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Littlewood was born out of wedlock in Stockwell, south London, to a mother who frown-

ed on books. But her grandmother, who raised her, was a fine, sometimes bawdy, storyteller. By candlelight, under the bedclothes, Littlewood read library books as soon as she was old enough.

She excelled as a scholarship girl at a convent school. At the Old Vic, only a short walk away, she saw John Gielgud's early performances and, judging his Macbeth too decorative, she produced and acted her own at school. For Banquo's blood she used cochineal; the Mother Superior fainted.

She applied for and won the only London scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. There, with a dawn office cleaning job to supplement the grant, she rehearsed as Ellie in Heartbreak House with George Bernard Shaw. But, disliking the patrician RADA accents, she set off for America by walking to Liverpool. She got 210 kilometres on foot to Burton-on-Trent before collapsing. Somebody gave her the fare to Manchester, where she called on an ex-RADA teacher in the BBC's northern office who gave her a job.

Manchester brought her closer to the counter-culture she sought: she found it in the BBC, where she worked as a producer, and in the then Manchester Guardian, but mostly in small, leftist agitprop groups dedicated to taking drama to the people of the north.

And she met Jimmie Miller, better known later as the folk singer Ewan McColl, who became her husband. He was a virtuoso performer, orator, enthusiast and womaniser. He had worked in German agitprop and claimed to know Berthold Brecht.

They founded the Theatre of Action in 1934 and, in 1936, Theatre Union. Their first show was an anglicised American agitprop text, John Bullion (1934). It had capitalists, bathing belles, street singers, wounded soldiers and a moving news panel all on stage at once; parts of it resurfaced in the opening scene of Oh What A Lovely War! (1963).

Littlewood and McColl made their living by acting and reading for the BBC, but their energy went into the stage. They lived with his parents. Her autobiography, Joan's Book (1994), records with a flicker of sadness that she got pregnant and had an abortion.

Theatre Union saw itself as the vanguard of theory; its productions were influenced by Vsevolod Meyerhold, the Stanis-

lavsky disciple who was the first director of post-revolutionary Soviet drama until Stalin purged him. And Littlewood early discovered the writings about movement of the expressionist teacher Rudolf Laban; she knew, revered and worked with him. But the inspiration she returned to most often when she spoke was the original, 16th-century Italian commedia dell'arte, those travelling troupes of radical players.

Littlewood picked up influences like a scholarly jackdaw, insisting that her company prepare properly. Her pre-rehearsal reading list for a production of Aristophanes in 1940 ran to four Greek plays, eight academic books, Thucydides' account of the Peloponnesian War and a study of Greek theatrical history. Any other approach was "mere philandering".

The little republic of the company survived hand to mouth through World War II, often splendidly reviewed but always refused grants by the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, the Arts Council predecessor. Littlewood and McColl were blacklisted by the BBC and by the forces entertainment group ENSA as subversives.

By the end of the war, her reputation was such that the BBC asked if it might consult her about features and drama. Instead, she took another step on what she called "the long road to heartbreak". In 1945, the group hired a truck, renamed itself Theatre Workshop and went on tour.

The group had been joined by two teenage communists, Howard Goorney and Gerry Raffles, a public school runaway. They became lifelong recruits, Goorney as a principal actor, Raffles as the backstage linchpin. Littlewood's relationship with McColl was over and Raffles, handsome and nine years younger, had to her amazement fallen wholeheartedly in love with her; their bond was to last more than 30 years.

In these wandering years, 1945-53, the troupe supported the early Edinburgh Festival fringe and toured Europe and beyond. But it was no nearer to finding regular audiences and security.

Then, in February 1953, Littlewood and Raffles rented the Theatre Royal in Angel Lane, a dilapidated palace of varieties reeking of cat urine. Their first production was Twelfth Night. They followed it with classical seasons including Volpone, The Dutch Courtesan and a reputedly outstanding Richard II from Harry H. Corbett (later in television's Steptoe And Son).

Takings were scant. "My best stuff nobody saw," she said. Stratford East remained off the beaten track for theatregoers until 1955-56, when Theatre Workshop won critical acclaim at the Paris International Theatre Festival with Arden of Faversham, Volpone and The Good Soldier Schweik.

Honour abroad suddenly drew home audiences to the forgotten little playhouse. In spite of Littlewood's dread of "going commercial", nine shows transferred successfully to the West End.

The breakthrough came in 1956 with The Quare Fellow, by Dubliner Brendan Behan, set in prison on the night of a hanging. The company's exceptional flair for improvisation and rewriting - Behan's script was chaotic - drew full houses.

Other transfers to the West End were The Good Soldier Schweik, Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey, Behan's The Hostage, Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Wolf Mankowitz's Make Me An Offer and Stephen Lewis's Sparrers Can't Sing. All were uproariously indelicate working-class comedies - although when necessary, as in A Taste of Honey, Littlewood could direct with great delicacy.

They created their own fashion, a reaction to the stultified West End theatre. By comparison, as Behan said, John Osborne's Look Back in Anger was about as angry as a genteel BBC radio serial.

Her methods were legendary. The young Michael Caine lasted only one production. "Piss off to Shaftesbury Avenue. You will only ever be a star," she told him. The young Richard Harris stayed for five, including Fings.

She had three shows in the West End by 1963, triumph on a Lloyd Webber scale and to incomparably higher standards, but without his managerial back-up. But Theatre Workshop was now hopelessly partitioned. Littlewood knew that success was going to kill it.

Exhausted and miserable, Littlewood walked out at the moment when she and Raffles had managed to buy the theatre. She disappeared alone to Nigeria to work on an abortive film project with the writer Wole Soyinka.

She returned but never recaptured the momentum: if it meant diluting standards or becoming a full-time commercial impresario, she did not want to.

Her last glory at Stratford was the peerless Oh, What A Lovely War!, a work of genius in which all her techniques came together in a mixture of agitprop and pageant play.

There was a final West End transfer, Mrs Wilson's Diary (1967), and her last production at Stratford, So You Want to Be in Pictures (1973).

Raffles had, meanwhile, taken care of all things domestic in Littlewood's life: cooking, chauffeuring, even buying her clothes and giving her pocket money. In 1974, he died at only 51 on holiday in France, having worked his heart out. Losing him took the guts out of her. She walked out of the Theatre Royal, never to return. In her autobiography she said nothing of her life after that.

She spent the rest of her life in France, where she rented a flat to be near Raffles's grave at Vienne, near Lyons, and was befriended by a neighbour, the octogenarian Baron Philippe de Rothschild, who had run a theatre in his youth. She called him Guv. They were matey but, she said, platonic companions until he died in 1988. When Playboy came to interview him, she came down to dinner wearing two bedraggled rabbit ears and a pompom for a tail.

By 1994, when she went back to Britain for the launch of her book, there were 100 fringe theatre groups in London. "I didn't need to have children," she said. "All over the world I have children."

The Guardian

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