Cheltenham Literature Festival 2015

Flags outside Cheltenham Town Hall

We reviewed several events, either directly or indirectly related to theatre . . .

SUPER SUNDAY – 11th October


Companies such as Propeller do Shakespeare in highly adventurous, sometimes outrageous, ways. Michael Sheen played Hamlet in a psychiatric ward, at the National Theatre an entire deer carcass was flung onto a table to illustrate Lear and his hundred men’s appalling table manners. But it always remain Shakespeare. Now hot on the heels of HarperCollins’ Austen Project comes Hogarth Shakespeare. Authors are free to ‘re-imagine’ the bard. But here’s the problem – there is no Shakespeare setting, and sadly, none of Shakespeare’s language. Jeanette Winterson’s The Gap of Time (A Winter’s Tale) includes an investment banker, a rapist, a game designer, etc.. Jane Smiley admitted that her novel A Thousand Acres, (based on King Lear) was largely about agriculture. Tracy Chevalier is ‘re-imagining’ Othello in a school with 11 year-old pupils. Apparently each author is using the Shakespeare vehicle to write about themselves. Will the 11 year-old Othello be demanding selfies of Desdemona? Will her only friend Emilia betray her by posting pictures on Facebook? How will an 11 year-old boy kill his school crush? Following the successful Austen Project this Hogarth enterprise smacks of a cynical sales plan. I almost felt sorry for Iqbal Khan, renowned RSC director, for having to share the platform. Though he admitted that not all Shakespeare’s story lines are great, he regularly re-imagines the bard’s work – but I don’t see him abandoning Shakespeare’s language anytime soon.   Astrid Burchardt


The title of this is a bit of a pun – it is theatre about war and the theatre of war i.e. the place where war takes place. With boundless energy Bryan Doerries tours readings of Greek tragedies for servicemen, both here and in the States. He is evangelical, as only an American can be, pleading the case of those soldiers and veterans who, often with post-traumatic stress, feel that they dutifully went out to kill the enemy but are betrayed by their own people on returning home. Jason Isaacs and Lesley Sharp headed the rehearsed reading from Sophocles’ play Ajax and very well they did it too, but this is theatre as therapy, not theatre as art or entertainment.   Astrid Burchardt


Perhaps misleadingly listed as a kid’s event, (it was nearly all talk) this performance was presented by Toby Olié and Finn Caldwell, two of the lead manipulators of War Horse. Having a large number of children in the room the presentation was rather on the too enthusiastic Blue Peter side, but their genius showed through. Puppets now have a significant place in theatre, not as side acts but as central characters (War Horse, Goodnight Mister Tom). In Propeller’s Richard III the two little princes were played by puppets and the audience was moved to tears.    Astrid Burchardt


Though strictly speaking not an event related to theatre we thought, as it was Zoë Wanamaker reading Ms Smith’s poems, we could be excused. In fact the event did have theatre connections because Ms Wanamaker recently appeared as the eccentric poet, “the bard of Palmers Green” in Hugh Whitemore’s excellent one-hander play Stevie. Consequently the poems were read “in character” and jolly quirky little poems they are too. If you have not read Stevie Smith, I recommend that you do or even better, listen to them being read.   Michael Hasted


10th October


Year of the Fat Knight: The Falstaff Diaries is Sher’s third book based on the journals he kept while preparing major roles. The other two were about working on Richard III for the RSC and the Primo Levi piece for the National. It is fascinating to see how an actor prepares a role and the daily processes through which he goes. It was not made clear whether the diaries are an aid to creating the character or are in some way cathartic after a hard day toiling at the coal face of Thespis. I suspect a mixture of the two.

Mr Sher read some excerpts from his book, one of the funniest was about donning the Falstaff fat-suit for the first time and his concern about how he would be able, if at all, to pee while wearing it. Sher is a talented man; not only does he act and publish diaries of his travails, but he has also written some novels, an autobiography and published a book of drawings and paintings. I don’t know where he gets the time – he certainly doesn’t strike me as the sort of actor who spends much time “resting”. He is also very eloquent, being able, in his chat with Libby Purves, to describe, not only the practical processes of rehearsing a play, but the emotions as well.

This Henry IV Pt. 1 was directed by Sher’s partner, RSC artistic director Gregory Doran, and it was amusing to discover that in the very early days of preparation for the production Sher was not even considered for the part of Falstaff and the two of them mulled over which actors might be suitable until Ian McKellen, who was in the frame, pointed out that Sher himself would be the ideal choice. Sher’s initial reticence was based on the feeling that he was physically too small and that Falstaff is always played fat by tall(ish), already large actors. The fatness was resolved with the aforementioned fat-suit, the height . . . well, that was not. Nevertheless, Sher was a triumph. We saw the production when it was at Bath Theatre Royal in November last year and you can click here to read our 5 Star review of it.    Michael Hasted


9th October


Dennis Potter was a playwright, but a playwright who wrote virtually exclusively for television, although he later ventured into films. His three best known works, Pennies From Heaven, The Singing Detective and The Blue Remembered Hills were landmarks in British drama and influenced a generation. Because of his journalistic background he preferred the immediacy of television over theatre, but also because the money was better.

We learned a lot of things about Potter from Piers Haggard who directed Pennies, Kenith Trodd who produced it and was a long-time friend and collaborator of Potter along with John Williams, one of the editors of The Art of Invective, an anthology of Potter’s work, the book that was the raison d’être for the event at the Literature Festival.

Apart from being acknowledged as a great playwright, Dennis Potter was not an easy man to work with apparently. How much of this could be put down to the crippling disease from which he suffered most of his life, we can only guess. But the illness did influence his work – the hero of The Singing Detective was bed-bound, wrapped in grease and suffering from the very same condition, psoriatic arthritis, as the author.

Potter’s later worked lacked many of the elements on which his reputation had been built and it is arguable that if he had not died at the relatively early age of 59 and had carried on writing mediocre work, his status may well have been diminished. As it is, we are left with a legacy on a par with that of, say, Harold Pinter, Arnold Wesker and John Osborne. The difference is that these three, along with several others, were part of a movement, or at least a zeitgeist, – the “angry young men” extoling the virtues of “the kitchen sink”. Dennis Potter was a man alone.      Michael Hasted


6th October.


The ever personable Misha Glenny introduced both Kafka events, the first featuring Kafka expert and Oxford professor Carolin Duttlinger; in the second Joyce Crick, Kafka translator, Ritchie Robertson, Oxford professor of German and Jeff Young, playwright and life-long fan shared the platform. My problem with academics digging for gold in an artist’s archive reminds me of a kind of autopsy. In Kafka’s case the fact that close friend Max Brod chose to ignore Kafka’s death bed wish to burn his unpublished manuscripts (an act of disloyalty in many people’s eyes) has provided an opportunity to rake through obscure writings that were never intended to be made public.

All too often academics tend to dissect what others have created. The ambition to go where no man has dared go before, or, as in the beer advert, reach parts others cannot reach, produced a typical, rather dry university lecture, read from a manuscript. The short pieces cited by Carolin Duttlinger seemed to be jottings, the kind every writer makes but then never finds a place to use them. Had Kafka worked on a computer he would surely have destroyed the many previous versions of his writings and jottings, as I do, perhaps thus preventing Brod from reworking The Trial after his trusting friend’s death. Some of the material illustrating Kafka’s life and loves depicted the writer as obsessed with food and fitness who dreamt of working in a locked cellar room and recorded the outbreak of WW1 with the words: Germany has declared war on Russia – Swimming in the afternoon. The overall picture that emerged was of a man who only took note of the world around him when he was in crisis.

The second event dealt with the dilemma of how to translate Kafka’s Metamorphosis (many are still surprised that Kafka actually wrote in German). Joyce Crick was particularly interesting here, explaining the finer points of producing a ‘translation’ that is true to the spirit of Kafka’s language.    Astrid Burchardt


5th October


An immovable figure of the theatre – Miller biographer Christopher Bigbsy today celebrated the centenary of his friend Arthur Miller with touching affection. When Miller described Willy Loman, the central character of Death of a Salesman, (a staunch believer in the American Dream, no matter what the cost), as a man who tried to inscribe his name in a bloc of ice on a summer’s day, perhaps he was speaking about himself – he could easily have gone the same way, if the House of UnAmerican Activities (HUAC) had succeeded in banishing him and his work. As it was, throughout his life Arthur Miller never hesitated to stand his ground. When he started out as a new playwright with an ambition to see his work staged on Broadway the idea was greeted with hollow laughter. His plays were metaphors, deeply personal stories but always had a wider political and moral dimension. He set out to have a conversation with American society; instead he was to have a dialogue with the world, as his work was better received in Europe than in America. Most of his ground-breaking plays were written in the 1940s and ’50 when Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill, though older than Miller, also produced their major work.

In an inspiring and intimate platform discussion Christopher Bigsby managed to dispell the constant obsession of the Miller-Monroe connection (lasting only 4 years as he pointed out) by which the wider public have tended to define Miller.       Astrid Burchardt