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Lots of new theatre books

The shelf I reserve for newly arrived theatre books is beginning to groan so it’s obviously time for a round up.

There’s a lot of Shakespeare on the pile and I was especially pleased to see Paterson Joseph’s Julius Caesar and Me with its arguably provocative catchline: “Exploring Shakespeare’s African Play”. I met Paterson at an event over a year ago and he told me about this book project which was, at that point just beginning to simmer in the Methuen Drama’s Playmaker series. Paterson played Brutus in the RSC’s  2012 production of Julius Caesar directed by Gregory Doran.  His book discusses the rehearsal process, reflections on his previous work and way in which ethnic minority actors are positioned in modern productions of Shakespeare – among  many other things. It’s full of insights and very readable.

In a completely different mood – reflective rather than focusing on immediacy – comes Emma Smith’s Shakespeare’s First Folio: Four Centuries of an Iconic Book (Oxford). Smith traces the story of individual copies of the first folio and uses that as a way of – often quite entertainingly – exploring the impact it has had on different people at different times. It is, as the blurb suggests, the biography of a book.

Shakespeare’s Originality by John Kerrigan (Oxford) details the playwright’s relationship with his sources – all those poems, plays, chronicles, prose romances. He is especially interested in what you can learn about the plays as we know them from studying the works which triggered them. It’s a slim, concise book with just over 100 pages but it’s commendably thorough and incisively witty. When, for instance, he’s discussing the gait of certain characters and where certain ideas came from he writes “Let me reboot with another limp.” That’s my kind of writer.

We’re very used to the Arden Shakespeare series which provided the intense, scholarly notes we all studied at university. But how helpful is that to actors and directors trying the stand the play up on the stage? Enter the new Arden Performance Editions which have a much “cleaner” text  next to accessible, practical notes. The notes include references to issues such metrical irregularity as well as word meanings and leave space for the user’s own jottings. The first three titles are Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Ideally you probably need both Arden versions if you’re really to get to the heart of a play both on stage and off because studying plays is a very different activity from studying other forms of literature such as, say, novels or poetry. Studying Plays by Mick Wallis and Simon Shepherd (Bloomsbury) is the fourth edition of a book which adeptly leads students through the process with plenty of reference to plays such as King Lear, A Doll’s House and Our Country’s Good.

 And if you’re studying plays, two especially interesting new play texts have recently come my way. In both cases I saw the work on stage and was so fascinated by what I’d seen that I read the published script afterwards. Dennis Kelly’s Girls and Boys  (Oberon Books) is a monologue, wonderfully enacted in its premiere production by Carrie Milligan who has since transferred with it to New York. Something has happened to the protagonist’s children and the way in which the piece gradually reveals the truth is masterly. David Haig’s play Pressure (Nick Hern Books) in which he starred both at Chichester and Park Theatre, is coming into the West End’s Ambassador’s Theatre this summer. It focuses on the tension – caused mostly by the uncertain weather – just before the D Day landings. It’s a fine play and an interesting example of how to sustain dramatic tension.

Or if you’re after how-to resources for actors, students and directors, try the new CD from Nick Hern Books/National Theatre: The Voice Exercise Book: The Warm Ups by Jeanette Nelson. It provides support, ideas and information for any voice user.

And anyone teaching improv will find this new text book useful:  Applied Improvisation by Theresa Robbins Dudeck and Caitlin McClure (Methuen Drama).

Finally comes a rather beautiful book about the staging of early modern drama in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse at The Globe. Will Tosh’s Playing Indoors (Bloomsbury) describes how the playhouse was designed and built and what has been learned from it about performance practice since it opened. It’s entertaining as well as informative. Tosh is no dry academic. And the coloured photographs are lovely.

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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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