Regrettably: notes on ‘How To Win Against History’

How to Win Against History is a musical retelling of the life of Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquis of Anglesey (1875 – 1905). He was born to inherit the Empire, but instead he burned brightly, briefly and transvestitely through his family’s vast wealth; putting on fabulous plays starring him.
Written, composed and performed by Seiriol Davies, this fabulous show has been a huge hit at the Edinburgh fringe for the second year running, and is touring the UK throughout 2017.
In this blog, Seiriol talks about how he first learned that Henry Cyril even existed.

“I grew up on Ynys Mon, a.k.a. Anglesey, a.k.a. The Druidic Haven of the Celts, a.k.a. The Flat Bit Before You Get To The Irish Ferry. It’s a barreny, lovely, salty sort of place. Henry Cyril Paget also lived there, which is handy.

While we’ve been making HTWAH, I’ve said this particular story so many times that I’ve a bit lost track of exactly how true it is (oh my god look: thematic relevance), but my recollection is I used to make my parents take me to Plas Newydd, which is the Paget family’s estate on Anglesey, over and over again as a boy. Of course, it may have been like twice and I just sucked it all in through my hungry, mad child-eyes in such detail that it felt like loads.
And I should say it’s a National Trust place, we didn’t just turn up at somebody’s house with me in the back seat, goggle-eyed and absorbing key memories for later musical theatre projects.

In fact, my mum has in her retirement expressed an interest in working at Plas Newydd and becoming one of those powerful-looking National Trust ladies who dwell by the fireplaces in an angora cardie waiting to tell you what that weird Game of Thronesy thing is (it’s probably a long-range bedpan) or to point vehemently at the ‘stop prodding that’ sign, or to pose for the odd awkward group selfie with a family in velourette anoraks from Wisconsin.
And I for one think this would be very exciting.

But anyway, there were two key reasons why I wanted to go there so much:

(i) The mural by painter Rex Whistler (the non-Whistler’s Mother one) which is all Italianate froufferies and phantastickal towers and harbour-folk, and is well worth the twenty minute tour guide talk-through, as it does things with foreshortening that beggar belief. Like, if you as a viewer do a nifty crab-walk along the floor in front of it, it can make a sailboat seem to sail out of the harbour before your very eyes while not moving at all in real life because it is a painting and this is not Harry Potter. Or at least, that is what the tour guide claimed, and my response was to just glare at it until I could sufficiently motivate myself to believe I could see what she was talking about.

But in any case, it’s a bit Where’s Wally and a bit Magic Eye and I was so preoccupied with it that we’ve now got a framed copy of it up by the sink in the kitchen in my flat. And I’m fairly sure that, if it wasn’t positioned where the glassware cupboard door slammed into it with alarming enthusiasm every time I open it, I would have by now found the peace to enter its zone and divine its secrets while washing the wine glasses of a Tuesday morning. But, as it is, I just get mesmerised and accidentally smack it again with the cupboard door.

(b) The small collection of laminated, photocopied snaps of Henry Cyril which were grudgingly stuck on the wall next to the toilet by the back porch. Now, as context, the pictures of the other, preceding Marquises (NB Other people seem to say ‘Marquess’, but I tend to prefer ‘Marquis’. I’m not sure why; I think maybe cos Henry seemed to favour it that way, and I’m just some ratbag socialisty commoner with Radio 4 affectations, so I’ve allowed myself to pick which spelling I fancied. Do get in touch, DeBrett’s) are not exhibited in the same laminatey toilet zone; their pictures are painted in oil, hanging in big gold frames in rooms you actually hang out in, or they are immortalised as busts, or full-body statues on top of huge columns erected looming over Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch (a nearby village) as a deliberate copying of Nelson’s Column in London.

Well, one of them has that. The first Marquis was a hero at the battle of Waterloo (by which we presumably mean he stood in a big hat at the back telling some poor people to run that way) and was so British that, when his leg got blown off by a cannon shell, The Duke of Wellington, who was next to him, looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think your leg’s been blown off” and Paget looked down and said “By Jove, sir, I think you’re right”. For these services to hats, shouting and limb-removal-not-noticing, he got himself a Column, which is probably one of NW Wales’s top Columns, and I really mean that.

The fact that it was this sort of lineage Henry Cyril was coming from makes it no real surprise that he got relegated to the Gallery De Toilette, because…
I mean look at him. Google Image Search ‘Henry Cyril Paget’ and look at them outfits.

Aren’t they stu-hunn-ing? Doesn’t he look like Freddie Mercury drove through Elizabeth Duke’s wearing a sellotape suit?

Henry Cyril Paget and Seiriol Davies

I drank them in, those pictures, though not really identifying very much with the whole fabulousness thing. I’ve never been an extravagant dresser per se, apart from a brief phase when I took to tying bright scarves to the belt loops of my skater jeans in an attempt to look like a sort of sexy satyr, but ended up looking (as a friend helpfully pointed out) “as though my butt was wearing a cape”. And, at the time of seeing the images,
I was probably wearing a Homer Simpson T-shirt, urban camo trousers and Hi-Tecs.

But there’s just something about him in those pictures. Okay, sure, there’s the millions of poundsworth of costume budget; but there’s also the sort of ‘don’t give a fig’ attitude he has which I loved: that he’s gazing out, dressed for some reason as a prog rock chandelier, telling the world to fig off, the bunch of motherfiggers.

And reading the little inscription underneath, which said (spoiler alert) that he’d ruined himself, died young and been expunged from the family history as comprehensively as possible – with all the letters, photos and diaries his family could find, burnt – set off my little internal bell of moral outrage. And so, because I believe in swift, decisive action, I decided to make a play about it twenty years later.

But over all that time, the simplicity of that feeling hasn’t really changed, despite growing-upness making it clear the whole thing’s more complicated, what with issues of privilege and stuff like that.

Because that’s Henry. Even though on paper he’s not the most obviously sympathetic character (“Hey come see my show about this dead white millionaire and how hard his life was. Come back please!”) people have just seemed to warm to him. Due to some combination of his defiance, his outsideryness writ on such a massive, Imperial scale and the fact that we know hardly anything about his internal life (due to the aforementioned bonfire), people seem to be able to pour themselves into him. Because I reckon most of us, at least some of the time, think we’re an outsider in a world that everyone else gets. And whatever our actual ambitions, very few of us are quite so extravagantly emo as to want no trace of us to exist after death.

Also yes, his outfits are life-giving.

I wanted to make something that redressed the balance a tiny bit; that told at least a version of his story as pieced together from a lot of extraordinary events with no internal monologue. With songs and me in a dress and a gag about Keira Knightley.

However, the truth is: there is a bit more stuff that survived the fire. I was lucky enough to have the help of Lily and Christopher Sykes, who are descendants of the actual real life Lilian from her second marriage, as well as Prof Viv Gardner, fabulous performance historian at the University of Manchester. With their help – as well as some lovely people who’ve written to me either when they heard we were making, or having seen, the show – I’ve got a few more tidbits.

Based on the conversations I’ve had with people after the show (sample:
“So, did he really exist?” “Yes. Did I forget to say that several times in the show?” “No, but I thought that was you making it more clear that he didn’t exist.” “Surely that would be quite a weird way of saying that.” “Yeah, but you are quite weird.” “Good point. A Strongbow Dark Fruits please.” “Strongbow Dark Fruits. Really?” “Don’t judge me.”) I thought it’d be good to talk a bit around the story, to weave some of these bits of tid into the script; to show how the show matches up with the true-life story as much as I know it.

I might be wrong, you might think this a very tiresome thing to do, but anyway I’ve done it now. And you can buy it here.”

 – Seiriol Davies, Woolwich, Friday 6th Jan 2017

Oberon have published both the annotated script edition, and the musical score in the songbook edition. The annotated script contains many footnotes (feenote) from Seiriol’s research, while the song book contains the fully-transcribed piano and vocal arrangements for all fourteen songs from the show, so you can have a sherry and sing any of the glamorous roles.

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How I Write… by W. Sydney Robinson

To celebrate the official release of Speak Well of Me today, we’ve been chatting to its author, W. Sydney Robinson, about how his day-to-day life as a writer looks… it’s not all book launches and agent lunches you know!

Writers seldom discuss their working practices. The reason is simple: nothing is more unglamorous or depressing than a writer’s routine. This is not to say that authors lament their lot – far from it – but the pleasure they derive from this most dreary of pastimes will always be a minor mystery for the happy, well-rounded multitude.

The first illusion to demolish is that we spend most of our time writing. Over the past decade I have completed three biographies, but only a small fraction of this time has been devoted to the actual process of writing. What takes infinitely longer is the task of hunting down information: in libraries, archives and – most exciting of all – among the living. Only once a great deal of undigested material has been assembled does the outline of the book begin to take shape – and then one can actually begin.

W. Sydney Robinson

When I reach this stage my daily routine is unerring. I wake up as early as possible – sometimes four or five o’clock in the morning. I quickly review what I did the previous day, making any changes which seem necessary, before sketching an outline of whatever I hope to achieve that day – sometimes as much as a whole chapter. This planning stage is crucial. Out of the mass of materials, I try to link together a story, usually sticking quite rigidly to the chronology, but departing from this when a particular event or anecdote seems part of a more general theme. Wherever possible I will allow the subject of the biography to tell the story for himself, as there is nothing more tedious to the general reader than the biographer commenting upon events or documents in the manner of a narrator. They have come to hear Johnson or Nelson or ‘LBJ’ – not Boswell, Southey or Robert A. Caro. That may be an old-fashioned view, but it happens to be my own.

Once the day’s paragraphs have been sketched out, I take a short walk or, sometimes, a run. This moment contemplating the dawn of a new day is vital for me. To see the sun beaming down on empty fields, or men and women hurrying to their places of work, helps keep my self-appointed task in perspective. For nothing is more destructive to a writer’s readability than to forget that to the world at large his output very likely means nothing at all.

Having cobbled together the bare bones of the paragraphs I take myself to one of my preferred cafes to commence work. In my early days of writing I had a romantic notion that small, independent coffee houses would be the most congenial places for this. I soon learnt, however, that there is little a purveyor of delicious homemade carrot cake detests more than a writer. So instead I sip my small latte in a Costa or a Nero for several hours, and before I know it the morning is over – and most of my day’s work complete.

This is when the early start begins to pay dividends. With six or seven hundred words safely in the iCloud, it is possible to peruse other people’s books. I know that some authors swear that they never read a line not written by themselves until their task is complete, but I can envisage no way of writing that was not at least in part derivative of what has come before. To be unconscious of this would be to allow one’s style to be dictated by Steve Wright, Homes Under the Hammer, The Big Bang Theory, or whatever other scraps of culture one may pick up around the house on a normal day. For my reading I tend to stick to what I know best: the classics, as well as the innumerable books by authors I happen to have written about. Over the past four years this has entailed reading through the scores of plays, novels, biographies and histories composed by one of our greatest of living authors – Sir Ronald Harwood – but I still derive much inspiration from my previous literary subjects, especially Sir Arthur Bryant, Dean Inge and the Titanic’s most curious victim, W. T. Stead.

In the early evening I finish the last of my writing before reading it all the way through again, just as I commenced the day. This helps ensure that there is no ‘break’ or deviation in the chapter. On some days I earmark the entire new section for destruction the following morning – a writer must not be too precious about these things.

And then, if I am lucky enough to still have someone who is willing, I find a friend with whom to pass an agreeable evening discussing other things. For however large, however important and however great the subject may be, the writing of another person’s life is no substitute for a life that is lived.

Speak Well of Me is published today and is available to buy online here, in all good bookshops, and can also be ordered into your local bookshop on request. 

If you enjoyed this insight into a writer’s life, let us know, we would love to expand this blog into a mini-series, featuring more of our writers. You can also check out How to Be a Writer for more on how professional writers organise their working day. 

No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to info@oberonbooks.com and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.

Christmas Gift Ideas from Oberon!

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It’s officially December and we can finally stop holding it in and get excited about CHRISTMAS TIME!

There are no Scrooges or “Bah Humbug”s allowed in Oberon HQ and, with only about 2 weeks left until last orders in time for Christmas, we’re here to make gifting easy, with two amazing ‘Buy One Get One Half Price’ offers on our website, a reduction on Carlos Acosta at the Royal Ballet and a very sparkly newsletter indeed, complete with good book ideas for everyone including kids, poets, actors, historians, writers, readers and Shakespeare buffs!

Head over to OberonBooks.com and check out the banners at the top of the page for our latest special offers and new publications.
Or follow this link for our specially selected (and discounted!) Chrsitmas gift ideas for all the bookworms in your life. Happy reading!!

baubles

Characters for our times – The gender bending of Rosalind and Henry V

In this guest post, writer, biographer and author of Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, Angela Thirlwell marvels at the actress Michelle Terry’s ability to capture the nuance and essence of a character regardless of their gender, and Shakespeare’s ability to write such rich a diverse roles, which are still being reimagined and recontextualised today. 

On a rare day of sunshine in this unreliable English summer I saw Shakespeare’s Henry V at the Open Air Theatre in London’s Regent’s Park. In a daring piece of cross-gender casting by director Robert Hastie, mesmerising Michelle Terry played the King. Only a year ago, at Shakespeare’s Globe on Bankside, she was a triumphant, exuberant and intelligent Rosalind, the heroine who finds her true self in drag as Ganymede. Here’s the first thing: As You Like It and Henry V were both written during the same season around 1599.

Michelle Terry as Henry V

Michelle Terry as Henry V

In both gender-fluid roles, Michelle Terry inhabits the dynamics of growing up, anatomised so powerfully by Shakespeare. As Ganymede, Rosalind makes on the face of it, ‘a pretty youth’. As Henry V, the boy-king too is ‘in the very May-morn of his youth.’ But both these apparently different characters mature, catapulted into roles of leadership. What unites them is their increasing self-knowledge.

During Wimbledon fortnight while I playfully wondered whether Rosalind played tennis, I noticed that real tennis balls actually feature in Henry V. They are symbolic of Henry’s new grasp on foreign policy. The French Dauphin sends Henry what appears to be a ton of treasure. When the chest is opened, the Duke of Exeter peers in to see only ‘tennis balls, my liege.’ It’s a diplomatic snub of breath-taking insolence which Henry instantly clocks. His witty riposte uses the technical terms of real – or royal – tennis as it then was (and is still played today at a few courts) the forerunner of modern tennis:

When we have matched our rackets to these balls
We will in France, by God’s grace, play a set
Shall strike his father’s crown into the hazard.
Tell him he hath made a match with such a wrangler
That all the courts of France will be disturbed
With chases.

Michelle Terry as Rosalind (as Ganymede)

Michelle Terry as Rosalind (as Ganymede)

The Dauphin’s mockery ‘turned his balls to gun-stones’ and to the horrors of the battle of Agincourt. I found it heart-breakingly poignant to see this battle choreographed onstage on the 100th anniversary of World War One’s Battle of the Somme. The actors stepped through water channels that were instant reminders of the mud of the trenches. My grandfather Joe Goldman joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, later the Machine Gun Corps, and was wounded at the battle of Passchendaele in 1917, another bloody battle a year after the battle of the Somme.

Angela Thirlwell's grandfather in the trenches in Flanders in 1917 holding a bomb.

Angela Thirlwell’s grandfather in the trenches in Flanders in 1917 holding a bomb

In this production of Henry V it isn’t only the king who is played by a woman. Some of the ordinary troops are also played by female actors, as is the wonderful Chorus of Charlotte Cornwell. Her authorial role threads through the play from beginning to end, putting a friendly arm round the shoulders of the audience and encouraging our imaginations to work. ‘Think when we talk of horses, that you see them.’ Today women are prominent in diplomacy, in government and in the armed forces so this cross-gender casting makes sense and makes for universality.

Regent's Park Theatre

Regent’s Park Theatre

As part of the peace settlement after Agincourt, Henry gets Katherine, Princess of France as his Queen. A male actor (Ben Wiggins) plays Katherine exactly as the role would have been taken in 1599. Their courtship scene – Ben playing Katherine, Michelle playing Henry – so often one of sheer comic relief, has a new, meaningful, dual-gendered gravity. I heard Henry unpick the old cliché about love, ‘to say to thee that I shall die is true, but for thy love, by the Lord, no,’ with exactly the same wry precision that Rosalind rebukes Orlando: ‘Men have died from time to time, and worms have eaten them, but not for love.’ Inspirational Michelle Terry makes both Henry V and Rosalind characters of our time.

Angela Thirlwell has written Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine, which is published by Oberon Books

9781783198559

Into the spotlight steps Rosalind, the actor-manager of As You Like It.
She’s alive. She’s modern. She’s also a fiction.
Played by a boy actor in 1599, she’s a girl who gets into men’s clothes to investigate the truth about love.
Both male and female, imaginary and real, her intriguing duality gives her a special role.
What is a man? What is a woman?
We are all Rosalind now.

Rosalind’s Daughters: from Joan Hunter Dunn to Serena Williams

Angela Thirlwell is an experienced and highly regarded biographer. For her latest book, however, in very creative approach to biography, she’s chosen Shakespeare’s Rosalind as her subject. The result is a playful, insightful, and impeccably researched glimpse of the real Rosalind… even if how ‘real’ she can ever be is still a matter for debate.
In this guest blog post, Angela’s excitement about Wimbledon prompts new ideas about Rosalind’s legacy.

It’s Wimbledon fortnight and my daughter and I are lucky enough to have won two tickets through the public ballot for seats high up on No. 1 Court. The combination of guile and aggression in the modern women’s game made me suddenly ask myself if Shakespeare’s Rosalind would have played tennis? Of course, on one level, she couldn’t have played lawn tennis as played at Wimbledon today. The game as we know it hadn’t been invented. Tudor men like Henry VIII played real tennis, a breathless version of the game with small-headed wooden rackets and hard balls ricocheting off indoor walls and roof – rather like to squash.  Women didn’t play lawn tennis at Wimbledon until 1884 about 20 years after the new game of lawn had become popular with men.

9781783198559

One of the chapters I found so much fun in writing for my book about Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, was my very personal take on her ‘Afterlife – A woman for all time – Rosalind’s daughters’. I realised that so many of Rosalind’s descendants had been part of my reading landscape since I was a child, from Jo March in Little Women to Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Neither actually cross-dressed as a boy called Ganymede like Rosalind but Jo sheared off her hair and sold it to pay the family bills, and Lizzie tramped the fields six inches deep in mud, vaulting stiles and charging through puddles with scant concern for her delicate Regency petticoats. Like Rosalind, both Jo and Lizzie both took command and found themselves liberated by claiming the rights of their boyfriends or brothers.

Rosalind

Wimbledon fortnight makes me remember one tennis-playing daughter of Rosalind I left out of my chapter on her Afterlife. She’s John Betjeman’s wartime beauty, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, with her ‘strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!’ The young subaltern – or Betjeman himself – who worships her reminds me of Rosalind’s Orlando who played love games in the Forest of Arden and impaled his sonnets in her praise on its branches. Shakespeare’s love story unfolds through a series of duelling conversations – like the erotic geometry of tennis:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Joan Hunter Dunn

Joan Hunter Dunn

Darting about the court in her daring culottes or shorts, Joan’s appeal is as homoerotic as Rosalind’s.  Betjeman’s subaltern almost swoons at the effect:

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.

In the year of Shakespeare400, who are the strong Rosalinds of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships? Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta. You can make your own list!

Angela Thirlwell - https://angelathirlwell.co.uk/

Angela Thirlwell – https://angelathirlwell.co.uk/

Learn more about Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine HERE
Learn more about Angela Thirlwell HERE
Learn more about Joan Hunter Dunn HERE

Sheridan Morley Prize Shortlist Announced

Sheridan Morley

Sheridan Morley

The Shortlist for the 2016 Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography has been announced, and we’re delighted to see Peter Whitebrook’s new biography of John Osborne included in the line up of five. John Osborne: Anger is Not About… was published in October 2015 and has been widely praised since.

‘Whitebrook’s account is readable and pacy. He writes with insight and clarity, and is especially good at sketching out the social, cultural and political context of the playwright’s life and times.’ Aleks Sierz, Tribune Magazine

The other nominees are James Shapiro for 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, David Hare for The Blue Touch Paper, Qais Akbar Omar and Stephen Landrigan for A Night in the Emperor’s Garden and Michael Pennington for Let Me Play The Lion/How to Be an Actor.

The judging panel includes Kika Markham, who was indeed shortlisted herself for last year’s award for Our Time of Day: My Life with Colin Redgrave. Previous recipients of the prestigeous prize include Dominic Dromgoole, Sir Michael Holroyd, Simon Callow, Stephen Sondheim, Rupert Everett and Michael Blakemore.

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‘As Peter Whitebrook’s thoroughly researched biography of John Osborne so ably demonstrates, the legacy of one of the most significant writers of the 20th century is simultaneously both invigorating and sad… a readable biography that goes rather further than one might expect’ British Theatre Guide

‘Whitebrook takes the reader through every peak and trough of a story that has plenty of both… There are also some fine anecdotes that deserve re-telling.’  Keith Bruce, Herald Scotland

 

Click here to read an exclusive extract in the Independent.

Established in 2008 to honour Sheridan Morley’s career as an author who specialised in biographies of actors, directors, and theatre and film personalities, including his own memoir, Asking for Trouble. The 2016 Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography will be awarded in a ceremony on 2nd March at the Garrick Club in London. The winner receives a £2,000 cash prize. We’re wishing Peter Whitebrook all the best from everyone at Oberon Books!

Click here to learn more about the Sheridan Morley Prize.