Peter Nichols always was my favourite living playwright, and still is, even though his plays are rarely produced nowadays. He writes about difficult topics – much of it from his own life – yet manages to be both seeringly funny and heartbreaking at the same time.
His best-known play is probably A Day in the Death of Joe Egg, about a severely disabled child, based on his own experience as a young dad. My favourite – and, I was interested to hear, his also – is Forget-me-not Lane, about his childhood growing up in Bristol with his travelling salesman father, nickname ‘Hitler’, and his long-suffering mother. What you might call the British Death of a Salesman. Here again he manages to write about dislikeable people (his father) with compassion and understanding and even a kind of empathy. However harsh the subject, however much he takes the micky out of his characters, his plays are overlaid with great humanity, and a strange affection for human vulnerability and weakness.
Bearing all that in mind it’s surprising to hear he was known as a bit of a curmudgeon, with a reputation for complaining about things in public – such as, for instance, a time when he was commissioned by the National Theatre to write a play and subsequently ignored, even snubbed. So it was an especial pleasure to attend what was described as a ‘panel discussion’ at the British Library celebrating ‘Peter Nichols at 90‘; to see he is still alive, well, lively, with an amazingly retentive memory and not in the least curmudgeonly. The ‘discussion’ – more like a celebration of him and his plays – was chaired by the director Michael Grandage and featured readings from Stephanie Cole, Roger Allam, Sarah Woodward and Sam Swainsbury in front of a packed audience of stars from stage and screen, and Michael Blakemore.
What a privilege. I am only sorry he has given up writing plays. There were a lot of young people in the audience, some of them directors apparently. As Michael Grandage suggested, some of them may be moved to give his plays a new and much-deserved airing.
© Patsy Trench
I did a bit of research on DR DEE beforehand. Every year when I’m teaching students studying the Live Theatre course at summer school at Kingston University I like to include, among the cross section of plays, a musical. And that’s tricky. There aren’t many – any – that aren’t either American or been on for so so so long that …
Then I read about Damon Albarn‘s opera, playing for just a handful of performances at the Coliseum, and it looked like a likely candidate. Opera is not part of my remit but this didn’t sound like opera in the conventional sense. Nor was it.
The production, put together by Albarn and director Rufus Norris and choreographed by Frantic Assembly’s Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett, is visually breathtaking. There are two bands – one in the pit and the other on a platform above the stage (representing perhaps hell and heaven respectively). Albarn himself sings and plays guitar. The stagecraft is breathtaking. Queen Elizabeth spends a good deal of the first act suspended above the stage, her massive golden robes enfolding her subjects below. Real ravens fly in and out again. Strange concertina-like white screens snake across the stage masking deft furniture and scene changes.
Queen Elizabeth reigns (guardian.co.uk)
But I’m darned if I could understand a word of it. I’d been warned – hence the research – so I knew Dee was a mathematician/astrologer/occulist and ‘angelologist’ (I read the word somewhere so it must exist). That he was highly influential in Elizabeth’s court and was consulted on the date of her coronation, yet fell out of favour when he hooked up with an Edward Kelley – a ‘scryer’ (fortune teller) who managed to convince Dee the angels told him he should have his way with Dee’s wife – and became so obsessed with consorting with angels that Walsingham, who rather oddly donned stilts in the second half, lost patience with him.
Yet none of this would have been obvious if you didn’t have some knowledge beforehand, or had read the blurb in the programme. I don’t like to sound churlish by criticising what was one of the most magnificently-realised productions I’ve ever seen. But I kind of felt it was missing something, and that something was a writer.