Joan Littlewood and British theatre

This video from Britain says about itself:

A recording of Joan Littlewood’s production of Brendan Behan’s play THE HOSTAGE at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Joan’s anti-established theatrical pomp and phoniness bringing to the world real, and radical theatre, and via Maggie Bury E15 Acting School.

Ewan MacColl was also a founder member of Theatre Workshop, whilst married to Joan Littlewood, he then married Jean Newlove the mother of Kirsty MacColl who was one of the kids of Theatre Workshop born the year of this recording.

By Peter Frost in Britain:

Joan Littlewood, doyen of working-class theatre

Saturday 4th October 2014

Peter Frost celebrates the centenary of the founding mother of working-class theatre in Britain

Joan Littlewood, who was born 100 years ago this weekend, changed the face of British theatre forever.

Her great loves — agitprop, political and community theatre, speaking out in working-class language — have passed into mainstream culture both on stage and screen.

Littlewood, who died in 2002 aged 87, devoted her whole life to community theatre.

Late in life she said: “I really do believe in the community, I really do believe in the genius in every person.”

The Theatre Royal at Stratford, east London, remains a lasting tribute to her.

This year her production of Oh What a Lovely War! has been celebrated and has refocused interest on her, but there is much more to salute and pay tribute to in this, her centenary year.

Joan Maud Littlewood was born in Stockwell, south London, to an unmarried mother who disapproved of books. However her grandmother, who did most of the childcare, was known as a fine teller of — often bawdy — jokes and stories.

As soon as she could read Littlewood herself adopted the dangerous hobby of reading library books by candlelight under the bedclothes out of mother’s sight.

Young Littlewood’s first contact with the world of the stage was an approach by one of Stan Laurel’s scouts. She played a few small comedy parts in local shows.

Her first brush with politics was aged 12 in the general strike. She questioned her grandfather on why the strike had been defeated after just 10 days.

“What do you want, a communist red revolution?” grandpa asked the young Littlewood.

She didn’t hesitate. “Yes” she answered. It would be her political credo for life.

She won a scholarship to a convent school, fortuitously just a short walk from the Old Vic.

Theatre visits rather than formal schooling set her course for life and she applied for and won the only London scholarship to the then rather posh and middle-class Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Despite winning awards and acting with Bernard Shaw, the atmosphere at Rada and their views on what theatre should be about, didn’t suit Littlewood and after just a year she decided to head for the US. She started out by walking to Liverpool.

She got 130 miles on foot to Burton-on-Trent before collapsing. She begged or borrowed the fare to Manchester, to meet an ex-Rada teacher and communist Archie Harding, whose left-wing views had seen him exiled to Manchester by the BBC.

In Manchester she found, and loved, a culture of small, leftist agitprop groups dedicated to taking drama to working people.

In this new and exciting world she met fellow young communist Jimmie Miller. Later he would become folk singer Ewan MacColl. They married and together they founded the Theatre of Action in 1934.

Littlewood and MacColl subsidised their communist work by acting and reading for the BBC but all their energy went into what by 1936 had become Theatre Union.

Theatre Union productions were influenced by Brecht, Stanislavsky, Meyerhold and Expressionist movement pioneer Rudolf Laban.

The inspiration Littlewood herself returned to most often was the commedia dell’arte — travelling troupes of radical players in 16th-century Italy.

During the war Littlewood and MacColl’s work was often splendidly reviewed but always refused official funding.

The couple were blacklisted by the BBC and by forces entertainment group ENSA as subversives. MI5 kept detailed files on them both.

Despite this, at the end of the war, such was Littlewood’s artistic reputation the BBC asked for her help with features and drama.

Instead, in 1945, she and her company, now renamed Theatre Workshop, hired a lorry and took to the road.

Two teenage communists, Howard Goorney and Gerry Raffles, joined the tour.

Both would become lifelong parts of her company and life.

Goorney as a principal actor, Raffles the indispensable backstage organiser.

Raffles soon replaced MacColl in Littlewood’s affections despite being her junior by nine years. Their relationship would last more than 30 years.

Raffles hitchhiked and slept rough as he searched working-class communities for venues where the group could perform. Although audiences loved the shows, money and bookings were hard to find.

In 1953, Littlewood and Raffles found a disused and scruffy theatre to rent in east London. MacColl left to concentrate on folk singing and recording.

The Theatre Royal, Angel Lane, Stratford, smelled strongly of cat’s pee but the rent was just £20 a week. They moved in, got rid of that smell, and again changed the face of British theatre forever.

Outstanding performances included Harry H Corbett — later TV’s Harold Steptoe and the only communist to be linked romantically to Princess Margaret — in an award-winning Richard II.

The 1955 production of the Czech play Good Soldier Schweik transferred to the West End. Many other productions too moved from Stratford to successful West End runs.

Among them were Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, Brendan 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.

Many of these shows were uproarious working-class comedies but with a serious message. All were a reaction to the stultified, overwhelmingly middle-class West End theatre.

In 1956 Behan’s anti-capital punishment prison drama The Quare Fellow drew full houses.

Many what are now well known names started under Littlewood’s tutelage.

These included Yootha Joyce, Glynn Edwards, Richard Harris, Brian Murphy, Nigel Hawthorne and Barbara Windsor.

Not all impressed Littlewood. She told the young Michael Caine after only one production: “Piss off to Shaftesbury Avenue. You will only ever be a star.”

Some West End successes eventually gave her and Raffles enough money to purchase the theatre but for Littlewood the spark had dimmed.

Exhausted and deflated, she travelled alone to Nigeria to work on a film project that never happened.

Back in London she launched her plan for a Fun Palace — a Thames-side entertainment promenade, with music, lectures, plays and restaurants.

It was as if she had foreseen the O2 Dome, but it never happened for her.

She returned to Stratford in 1975 for her last, and perhaps best-known, success with Oh, What A Lovely War!, a work of genius in which a lifetime’s creativity and politics came together.

A revival of that show to celebrate the centenary of the start of World War I has put Littlewood back in the limelight. Centre-stage is exactly where she deserves to be a century after her birth.

Peter Frost blogs at,

On October 4 and 5 one of Joan Littlewood’s most exciting visions will come to life when over 120 Fun Palaces will pop up across Britain and globally.

They will celebrate the theatre director, her centenary and her vision. This is a campaign for culture in which everyone can join.

It gives rebirth to Littlewood’s dream of bringing arts, welcoming and free, to the heart of working-class communities.

Find your local event at

Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner poem on stage

This video from Britain says about itself:

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner ~ Samuel Taylor Coleridge ~ Full Version

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (originally The Rime of the Ancyent Marinere) is the longest major poem by the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, written in 1797–98 and published in 1798 in the first edition of Lyrical Ballads.

By Indianna Purcell in England:

Memorable rebranding of Coleridge

Saturday 13th September 2014

The Rime of the Ancient Mariner
South Bank Centre, London SE1


IT WOULD seem that there’s nothing too ambitious for Britain’s darkest warbling cult trio The Tiger Lillies. And thank goodness for that as their latest project — premiered in France over two years ago — is one of their most spellbinding shows in recent times.

Having embarked on projects such as transforming WWI poetry into songs or a macabre classic German children’s book into an even more sinister musical, The Tiger Lillies now take on Samuel Coleridge’s epic poem The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Along with Mark Holthusen’s stunning visual effects, they transform it into a unique, haunting and effortlessly graceful stage production.

Coleridge’s eerie crime-and-punishment classic recounts the tale of a mariner who narrates his nightmare sea voyage where, having shot an albatross, he’s forced to wear it round his neck in penance by his fellow sailors, who ultimately all perish.

In bringing that morbid tale to life, lead singer and accordionist extraordinaire Jacques grimaces through his usual glass-breaking vocal range, with many of the 20 seductive songs sounding sombre in comparison to the Lillies’ usual circus-style cabaret tracks.

In contrast with many of their shows where the group perform on a stage with minimal visual effects, relying more on their own startling stage presence, this time they perform behind a screen of animated handmade puppets. It’s a puppet theatre which they memorably transform into a work of nightmarish art.

Shakespeare’s Hamlet, played by actress Maxine Peake

This video from England says about itself:

21 mei 2013

Interview with Maxine Peake: Interview at MIF13 Launch. Maxine talks about her one-women performance in The Masque Of Anarchy at MIF13. Read more here.

By Peter Lazenby in Britain:

We aspire to give women the confidence to take on whatever role they choose

Thursday 4th September 2014

Maxine Peake talks to Peter Lazenby about playing the traditionally male role of Hamlet at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theatre.

It’s no surprise that Manchester’s Royal Exchange has extended its run of Hamlet with Maxine Peake playing the role of Shakespeare’s tragic hero.

It opens next week and the actor, a long-time friend of the Morning Star, has won widespread acclaim for tackling the role. There’s a big demand for tickets.

It’s caused her a few bumps and bruises as well. That, too, will raise no eyebrows among those who know her. When she takes on a role she does so “full on,” she says.

She did it in 2012 when she performed Percy “Red” Shelley’s 91-stanza poem The Masque Of Anarchy. It was written in response to the 1819 slaughter of protesters in Manchester’s infamous Peterloo Massacre, when sabre-wielding Hussars rose into a peaceful crowd of 60,000 listening to speakers calling for greater democracy and freedom.

To the public, of course, Peake has many faces — those of the characters she has portrayed in a wide range of TV series. They include Dinnerladies, Silk, The Village and Shameless, along with her performance as Myra Hindley in See No Evil: The Moors Murders. The list goes on.

But there’s always a freshness to her work, maybe because it is influenced by her deeply held political beliefs.

Peake is a socialist and is not afraid to speak out, particularly in voicing her disgust at the coalition government’s austerity measures and attacks on working people.

Now she is breaking more new ground as a woman actor taking on the traditionally male role of Hamlet. It’s never been her desire to play the Prince of Denmark, she says, “but it has always been my ambition to play a male part in a production. I don’t look at a role in terms of its gender, just whether I identify with the character or not.”

So why is she doing it? “I had done a production with Sarah Frankcom, our wonderful director, three years ago in which I played the title role in Strindberg’s Miss Julie and it was quite a success for the theatre,” she tells me.

“So we sat down and put our heads together to think of another project. We wanted something different that would stretch and challenge us both to the limit. Hamlet seemed perfect.”

It is “a mountain of a play, very physically demanding and challenging,” she says. “The design is very cool and minimal with a quite extraordinary use of light.”

Peake’s commitment to her audiences is total and she wants them to take a clear interpretation and accessible version of the play with them when they leave the theatre. “Hopefully it’ll be a Hamlet they can relate to. But mainly I hope that they feel they got their money’s worth and had a full theatrical experience.”

The theatre, as does virtually all the media, suffers badly from gender imbalance and for Peake playing Hamlet is part of the process to redress that. “There is a real sea-change in the gender balance in theatre,” she explains. “The Exchange I think is leading that process. The imbalance has gone on now far too long and it’s so exciting that companies are having a go at tackling it. It’s still not enough but I hope that our Hamlet will help with that.

“In years to come women will be playing these roles and no-one will be questioning it and we aspire to give women the confidence to take on whatever role they choose.

“Hopefully people will now start to tackle the race issue that I feel is still a problem in theatre and television and we’ll start to do more colour-blind casting and begin to represent honestly the wonderful racial diversity of our country.”

Peake chooses to live in the region of her birth – she was born in Bolton in Lancashire and now lives in Salford — rather than London.

In addition to acting she is an accomplished writer and her work has included a play for BBC Radio 4 about the courageous women who staged an underground occupation of a Lancashire colliery in protest at pit closures in 1993.

The Royal Exchange has made her an associate artist, with a wide-ranging role. What does she hope to achieve now?

“I will be writing as a part of my new role,” she says. “I have an idea but what it is I can’t tell you yet I’m afraid. I will be mentoring some young actors on a project next year who have been cast from the local community.

“I am really excited. I think the Royal Exchange is a thoroughly modern theatre that is responding to its surroundings and the times we live in. Up the revolution!”

Such enthusiasm is positively infectious.

Hamlet runs from September 11-October 25, details:

Theatre in Scotland about the extreme right

This video about theatre in Britain is called There Has Possibly Been An Incident: Interview with Chris Thorpe.

By Mike Quille, writing about the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland:

Reality checks with a future

Wednesday 3rd September 2014

MIKE QUILLE recommends two plays on far-right extremism that merit wider exposure beyond an apolitical festival

GIVEN the open, if undeclared, war being waged by the ruling classes across Britain and the energising effect of the referendum debate on Scottish politics, you might think that this year’s festival would have provided more in the way of artistic critiques, protest and alternative imaginings.

Yet much of the theatre on offer seemed unwilling to “stimulate a desire for understanding, a delight in changing reality,” to quote Bertholt Brecht.

Because political apathy rules, maybe no more should be expected from artists.

But this seems pretty undemanding when you see examples of good political theatre.

A case in point is Blood Orange, a classic piece of agitprop by the Electric Theatre Collective. It’s based on real-life recent events in Dumfries, when the Scottish Defence League attempted to march and mobilise support.

In the play, a young man’s grief for his mother and the loss of their family shop is manipulated by a shadowy skinhead into racist violence, with tragic results.

In the process of telling this story, Blood Orange successfully combines a strong political message, exuberantly expressed in poetic writing and great ensemble acting, which is presented within the — brilliantly appropriate— crazed visual and sonic aesthetics of clubbing.

It’s a show which could and should be shown anywhere in Britain as a wake-up call to the dangers of the far-right’s mobilisation of alienated working-class youth.

Confirmation, a one-man show by writer-performer Chris Thorpe, works differently but is equally effective.

Based on the psychological theory of confirmation bias — by which we tend to interpret the world in ways which reinforce our convictions —it explores what happens when liberal, tolerant attitudes come up against right-wing extremism.

Thorpe and director Rachel Chavkin dramatise the resulting conflict in an innovative way through role play, thought experiments and Q and A sessions with the audience.

These are all delivered passionately, even aggressively, by Thorpe as he lurches violently around centre stage. Like a demented boxer, he confronts himself, his imagined political opponents and us.

Through a dramatised dialogue with a white supremacist and Holocaust denier, Thorpe negotiates through the psychology of engagement with far-right opinions and the cautionary need to keep our core values while being aware of our natural bias.

Enlightening and entertaining, it’s an unpredictable, intimidating and daring performance.

Both shows plaited together ideas and action — they’re outstanding examples of another Brecht dictum, that “theatre must teach all the pleasures and joys of discovery and all the feelings of triumph associated with liberation.”

More of that, please.

Iraq war refugees in Britain, new theatre play

This video from Britain says about itself:

Nabil Elouahabi and Rashid Razaq discuss their new play, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, with Juliette Foster on Arise News, 17 July 2014.

By Joe Gill in Britain:

The power of nightmares

Tuesday 5th August 2014

Nabil Elouahabi tells JOE GILL how he came to produce and star in a new play about an Iraqi refugee in Britain

Nabil Elouahabi took the opening night bow at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston last week to loud applause for a play that he not only stars in but nurtured from an idea to its realisation.

Written by Evening Standard journalist Rashid Razaq and directed by Nicholas Kent, The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes tells the story of an Iraqi refugee who comes to Britain and changes his name to that of the famous Mexican writer in a semi-comical attempt to disguise his Arab origins and forget the horrors of Iraq.

Told in a fragmented narrative, it’s a funny, sad and moving drama in which Carlos (born Salim) meets a rich Englishwoman called Lydia (Caroline Langrishe) while working as a waiter. He marries her but ultimately cannot escape his past — he left a wife and daughter in war-torn Baghdad.

The play opens with Carlos handcuffed to a hotel bed during a dirty weekend with Lydia — a sharp and witty two-hander in which a sex game morphs into an English history test for the would-be British citizen.

By the end we are taken full circle as the story jumps between 2006 and 2011, each scene introduced with a video speech from western political leaders, including Bush, Blair and Cameron, reminding us of the doublespeak used to justify the Iraq war.

Ultimately we see the impact of political deception in the tragedy of Carlos’s life but rather than a mere victim, his eccentricities, struggles with the language — captured brilliantly in the script and Elouahabi’s performance — and naive dreams of becoming a true Englishman keep the piece grounded at the human level.

We believe wholeheartedly that Elouahabi is Carlos/Salim — an innocent everyman caught up in brutal geopolitics.

Elouahabi is best known for his TV and film work — playing Tariq in East Enders, with parts in 24, Zero Dark Thirty and two Michael Winterbottom films — but recently he has been searching for more interesting roles than the two-dimensional terrorists he was being offered.

“I was becoming very frustrated with the parts that were available and the prism through which we see Arabs,” he says.

“I am lucky in that I do work, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a frustration that the roles you are doing are peripherals, always seen as an addition. I wanted to completely change the theatrical lens and make them the centrepiece.”

Ultimately this led to him producing The Nightmares of Carlos Fuentes, the seeds of which were born when he read a collection of short stories by Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim back in 2009.

“I’d been working with Nick Kent at the Tricycle and I was fortunate enough to be part of a trilogy of plays called The Great Game: Afghanistan. Then Nick retired and I thought he’d be an interesting person to take this piece to because it had a political dimension to it and I knew that was his brand.”

Elouahabi asked Kent if he would consider directing a play based on the Blasim story. “One of the strengths of Nicholas Kent’s direction is his ability to hang the piece on a political frame without it being didactic — it’s always through the personal. It’s about his wife, his daughter, about the human in all of us.”

Kent was moved by the story of displacement and assimilation. Next Elouahabi asked Razaq, whose work he had seen and liked, to write a script on spec. Kent was impressed with Razaq’s draft script. Two years and 20 drafts later, the play took to the stage.

“It’s the first time I’ve put on the producer’s hat,” says Elouahabi.

“For me it’s about creating the right alliance, getting the right people to do the right jobs and letting them get on with it.”

The play opened with Iraq once again in the headlines. “We’ve just recently had this surge in sectarian violence in Iraq with Isis coming through, forcing Shias and Sunnis to divorce, so this is absolutely topical right now.”

Elouahabi has recently made headlines for talking about the paucity of good roles for Arab and black actors in British drama. “For me it’s about enriching the theatrical landscape as opposed to making it exclusive,” he says.

“We all benefit from sharing stories with different people in them. There is a fear that ‘oh no, that’s a story with Arabs in it,’ but actually if the stories and characters are on the front foot, everything else is irrelevant. It’s all about the writers and the people at the top believing those stories are going to be watched.

“I’m not on a political mission, but simply from an audience perspective, why just have fish and chips? It’s like food, now we like hummus – let’s put more food on the table. Right now it’s just a bit samey samey.”

Runs until August 16. Box office (020) 7503-1646.

Refugees from the world’s conflicts came to Westminster to share their stories, writes JEREMY CORBYN: here.