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!

oberon-christmas-12

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.

9781783198771

‘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.