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Theatre@Risk. Michael Kustow. Methuen. [pound]12.99. ISBN 0413-76690X. The Hidden Plot. Edward Bond. Methuen. [pound]17.99. ISBN 0413-725502. The Full Room. Dominic Dromgoole. Methuen. [pound]18.99. ISBN 0413-772306.

Considering the frequency with which the British theatre is pronounced dead, it is a miracle that it survives at all. Last year the Arts Council's Boyden Report declared regional theatre to be fatally under-resourced while a conference earlier this year brought in a similarly devastating verdict on the state of London's West End. The subsidized theatres are unable to stage the kind of new and classic plays they were originally set up to stage while in the commercial sector, even the big, 'glitzy' musicals can no longer send their producers laughing all the way to the bank. Some blame the proliferation of heroin addicts in Shaftesbury Avenue. Others -- more realistically -- suggest that theatre tickets are simply too expensive.

Either way, this doom and gloom has put theatre back in the spotlight. Sir Richard Eyre -- formerly director of the Royal National Theatre -- recently presented a BBC TV series, 'Changing Stages', which surveyed the last 100 years of theatre and was illustrated with some all-too-rarely shown footage of great performances from Gielgud's Hamlet to the National's Oresteja. His conclusions on the state of the art at the beginning of the twenty-first century were predictably mixed. Theatre still has the potential to excite, provoke and entertain, he suggested, but most of the really innovative work is happening abroad where, thanks to indifference at home, many of Britain's own most inventive practitioners have taken refuge.

In Michael Kustow's book, Theatre@Risk, the former Director of London's Institute of Contemporary Arts makes an even more impassioned plea on behalf of live theatre. As a producer himself, he knows exactly how difficult it can be to get a play onto the stage and his diary-style account of his battle to have John Barton's epic ten-part Trojan War cycle Tantalus produced makes it clear that staging anything remotely out of the ordinary is virtually impossible these days. Mr Kustow's efforts on behalf of Tantalus took him all over the globe, from Sydney to London and from Athens to Denver, and it is only after more than four years of this Henry Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy that his persistence finally paid off. Tantalus opened at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in October 2000.

As well as telling this alarming but illuminating tale, Mr Kustow also looks back at some of the key events in recent theatre history such as the launch of the Royal Shakespeare Company. He surveys the contemporary international theatre scene, picking out productions and companies he feels are innovative and exciting. In one particularly illuminating chapter, he talks to various leading directors and writers about how they first became interested in theatre and why they think it's important.

Overall, this is a fiery, persuasive polemic and Mr Kustow's lively descriptions of ground-breaking productions like Ariane Mnouchkine's 1789 or Peter Brook's L'Homme Oui make it difficult not to agree that theatre is essentially a communal activity which has a lot more to offer than the solitary, impersonal forms of 'entertainment' provided via corporate TV and the Internet.

The playwright, Edward Bond, joins this on-going debate in a rather different way. Aloof and academic, his book, The Hidden Plot, is essentially a collection of essays distilled from articles, notebooks and jottings. Despite the fact that it contains some interesting arguments about theatre's role in a society driven mad by the pursuit of wealth and power, it is, unfortunately, almost unreadable. This is largely due to the fact that Mr Bond -- who rose to prominence in the 1960s with Saved and consolidated his reputation in the 1970s with thoughtful, rigorous works such as Bingo and Lear -- has filled it with gnomic utterances about child psychology, political theory and the relationship between theatre and society. It has the dry, uncommunicative qualities of a bad PhD thesis. As an argument for the importance of theatre, it rapidly becomes unstuck -- if only because it comes across as the nostalgic ravings of a man who clearly can't accept that playwrights are no longer mistaken for prophets.

In many ways, in fact, it is hard to believe that The Hidden Plot is a book written by the same person who created some of the most challenging and rewarding pieces of theatre staged in the last fifty years. Only the most dedicated theorist will want to bother with its interminable -- and rather pompous -- diatribes about 'social madness' and 'theatre events'. As it happens, the same author's Notebooks are also being published by Methuen. These impromptu writings are, in contrast, intensely engaging and offer plenty of insights into how the playwright goes about turning the raw stuff of everyday experience into pieces of theatre with the universal impact of The War Plays or Restoration.

Finally we turn to Dominic Dromgoole. His book, The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwriting, may not have the academic density of The Hidden Plot but its sharp, conversational tone comes as a breath of fresh air and its heterodox argument that, far from being dead, British theatre is very much alive and kicking is all the more convincing for being put across in unpretentious, forthright terms.

Unlike most commentators one hears or reads, the artistic director of Oxford Stage Company celebrates the huge diversity of contemporary writing for the stage and even goes so far as to suggest that the current 'wave' of new writers represents a renaissance equivalent to that witnessed during Shakespeare's time. His book makes it hard to disagree.

Like Mr Kustow, Dominic Dromgoole is overwhelmed by his enthusiasm for new writing. As a 'who's who' of contemporary British playwrights, his book's short-comings are more than compensated for by its rigorously honest and, at times, entertainingly opinionated, verdicts on both up-and-coming talents such as Patrick Marber and old-hands such as Harold Pinter. Although the author has little time for the verbal gymnastics of Marber and his cronies - whose work he categorizes as 'cocaine theatre' - he is passionate in his defence of 'controversial' writers such as David Harrower, Mark Ravenhill and the late Sarah Kane.

It's easy to spot omissions. Where, for example, is Peter Nichols, writer of Privates on Parade? Also some of the curt analyses seem unjustifiably dismissive. Arnold Wesker is consigned to the scrapheap even though Denial, which premiered last year, is probably one of the most powerful and sensible treatments of 'recovered memory syndrome' one is ever likely to see.

Overall, however, Mr Dromgoole's vibrant, unpretentious style means that his book is no mere catalogue. Some have described it as 'the longest suicide note in history' - no doubt because even those writers he champions don't always come out in the best possible light. However, even if one doesn't agree with his tastes, one can't fault the sheer energy of the writing. Unlike both Theatre@Risk and The Hidden Plot, The Full Room gives the writer's - rather than the producer's or theorist's - point of view. As such, it is a valuable addition to the current debate. Without writers, after all, theatre simply wouldn't happen.
COPYRIGHT 2001 Contemporary Review Company Ltd.
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Review; The Full Room; The Hidden Plot; Theatre@Risk
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Aug 1, 2001

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