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Joan Littlewood’s Theatre


Nadine Holdsworth


Cambridge Studies in Modern Theatre

Cambridge : University Press, 2011

Hardback. 323 pages. ISBN: 978-0521119603. £55.00 / $90.00


Reviewed by Delphine Lemonnier-Texier

Université de Rennes 2 UEB


This monograph on Joan Littlewood takes the reader into detailed and meticulously documented analyses of a number of “key events, influences, relationships and approaches to theatre” that shaped and defined Littlewood’s work, in order to fill the gaps and restore the accuracy that Littlewood’s autobiography somewhat lacks.

The introductory chapter maps out a number of Littlewood’s influences and does not shun the debate on the use of archives and the residues of performance history in research, underlining the potential biases and the limitations of archival research, and arguing in favour of a thematic rather than a chronological structure. The book therefore follows three themes in Littlewood’s work: the war, the classics, and the working-class communities, before developing two lesser-known aspects of her paratheatrical work, the Fun Palace project, and the spaces for young people.

The second chapter, entitled “The war game: politics, ethics and representation”, draws a portrait of Littlewood’s pacifist stance and her constant faithfulness to her socialist ideas through a detailed analysis of performances in order to show how audacious theatrical experimentation was used for topical political commentary. In the analysis of the performances of Last Edition, Professor Holdsworth also shows that despite Littlewood’s explicit denial of a feminist streak, her work does display “a gender dynamic at work” [52].

“Controversial classics: resisting cultural authority” develops the analysis of Littlewood’s innovative readings of the classics – and particularly of Renaissance plays – as counter-hegemonic and radically renewing their reception. Whereas mainstream theatres tended to consider Shakespeare’s and other Elizabethan plays as sacrosanct monuments celebrating the glory of the nation, Littlewood “created her productions of the classics to be in dialogue with the prevailing material and cultural conditions of her time” [83], “shedding light on the contemporary resonances of the text” [86] and going against the “Gielgud-school”. Aptly labelled “cut-and-paste Shakespeare”, her manipulations of the script anticipate upon many a contemporary process. Featuring a new posture for the stage-director, Littlewood insisted in it on sharing the creative journey with her collaborators and even invited the actor to invent scenes missing from the original, actor and director inventing as they went along. Her “queering” of Shakespeare in Richard II, her adoption of modern dress, her determination to use visual imagery from the 20th century and above all her insistence on showing the other England that Shakespeare portrays in his taverns, brothels and farms, eloquent in her Henry IV, had a significant impact on productions of Renaissance plays by other companies in the 1960s including the RSC, a lesser-known aspect of post-WW II productions of Shakespeare that the present study unveils.

Littlewood’s poetic realism in her depiction of working-class communities is the focus of the third chapter. Showing in what way Littlewood and Theatre Workshop’s productions resulted from the combined influences of dominant and resistant discourses on class as well as aesthetic tools from the ‘new wave’, the study shows how ensemble playing developed in Johnny Noble and Landscape with Chimneys, later culminating in The Long Shift and You  Won’t Always Be on Top. Underlining the way critics mistakenly focused on what they saw in the latter production as a form of extreme verisimilitude, the study shows the carefully calculated effects the set was designed to have upon the spectators, and Littlewood’s intention, as she put it herself, to have them “listen to the speech of the countryside, the back street, the factory; to bring this to work, as the Elizabethans did, the raciness, tang and rhythm of democratic speech” [149].

Nadine Holdsworth then delves into Littlewood’s engagement in popular theatrical communities and reveals Brendan Behan’s “volcanic” influence. Emergent writers (Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney, Frank Norman) and their talent for capturing idioms and language patterns allied with Littlewood’s exuberant theatricality produced what the author defines as a Rabelais-like (in Bakhtin’s reappraisal) “non-official, non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic theatre that revelled in its own subversive techniques, acknowledgement of the audience and wilful blurring of the boundaries of theatrical form and taste.” [166] Hoping to revive qualities associated with Bakhtin’s definition of the carnivalesque, her work however somewhat romanticises criminality and displays an uncritical populism to the point of having a counter-productive effect, which the study analyses in the case of Norman’s play, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be. Her staging of Delaney’s A Taste of Honey, meticulously documented in this chapter, reveals how she both took part in the social impetus and inquiry of kitchen-sink plays of the period and developed her own style with a heightened musical-style theatricality, which created a celebration of the present moment rather than a lament for a lost culture.

Delving into the archive of Littlewood’s Fun Palace project, the following chapter analyses how Littlewood withdrew from making traditional theatre productions to look for a new way of conceptualising entertainment in the modern age and new possibilities for cultural encounter. Described as “a university of the streets” and “a laboratory of pleasure”, Littlewood’s space was to be conceived in close collaboration with pre-existing activities in the local community. Blighted by financial and bureaucratic obstacles, the project never took shape but has had an enduring influence, including on the architectural design of the Paris Pompidou Centre, minus the social impetus of the Fun Palace, however.

The final chapter analyses “spaces to play/playing with spaces: young people, play and citizenship” and the way Littlewood developed small-scale projects in Stratford East, underlining the connections of theatrical activity with everyday life and emphasising the notion of citizenship. “Young people were encouraged to explore what they wanted from social spaces” and Littlewood devised ways of inviting these young people to “re-enact their own stories and as such to view them as constructions capable of being replayed with different narratives, subject positions and outcomes” [259]. The study demonstrates how Littlewood’s project engaged with the notions of self and other “and how these relations are not fixed, but open to reappraisal and change”.

Highly readable, richly documented and enlightening, addressing all aspects of Littlewood’s career and thus providing new insights into the development of her work and its posterity, this monograph constitutes an extremely valuable resource on one of the most creative and visionary figures of post-WW II British drama.


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