Aboard the Victory O

This funny and touching memoir was originally written by Jonathan Miller for a celebratory volume of essays by colleagues and friends of stage and screen actor Laurence Olivier. It is published in the collection One Thing And Another: Selected Writings 1954-2016, published by Oberon Books and edited by Ian Greaves.

“I first met him informally at parties after Beyond the Fringe. He saw the show and was, I suspect, slightly irritated by our Shakespeare sketch. He had sat in a box and it got backstage that he was not conspicuously amused.

My first professional contact with him was when Ken Tynan edited a television programme called Tempo, which was commercial television’s answer to Monitor. With his wonderful flair for what is fashionable, Tynan had asked us to do a regular satirical spot. In the opening programme this was a pastiche of C. P. Snow written by Alan Bennett, a high-table scene of people drinking, wearing gowns and so forth, and bandying conversation about. On the same programme Larry was being interviewed by George Harewood about the opening of Chichester.

Jonathan Miller, then & now

We were on first but we began ‘corpsing.’ There were two takes, three takes, and Larry was obviously amused by the fact that the young lads couldn’t do it. By the fourth take we could see him getting more and more impatient at these dreadful amateurs. It took something like 20 takes before we got it right, by which time he was thoroughly nettled, if only because we’d kept him waiting so long.

Then I didn’t see him for some while, by which time I’d blotted my copybook quite badly with him. When I saw his performance as Othello, I told a journalist that while I couldn’t help but admire the extraordinary bravura, energy and detail of it, I wasn’t all that impressed by the performance as a whole. He was understandably annoyed by this – or I heard he was – and looking back I can understand just how he felt and I’m rather surprised he ever asked me to direct anything. However, some years later I was doing my first and only feature film – an unspeakable catastrophe – and was sitting in the commissariat at Elstree when a message came through saying ‘Laurence Olivier on the phone.’ I thought it was Alan Bennett or Peter Cook. Anyway, a hoax. I came to the phone and heard this voice saying, ‘Dear boy… This is Laurence Olivier here… Joanie wants to do The Merchant of Venice and would love you to direct it.’ No question of him acting in it, no mention of that at all.

I was blushing at the thought of what I had said about his Othello. ‘I would love to,’ I managed to say and I mentioned doing a nineteenth-century version. He said, ‘Whichever way you want to.’ Later I saw from his book that he came up with the idea. It may well be that we both thought of it. But, anyway, it then gradually became apparent that he was going to do Shylock. Now, whether he had thought this all along and had decided to delay committing himself until he found out whether I had an idea which coincided with his own, or one which he could approve of, the fact is that he came to the first reading knowing the part perfectly. Not like the other actors.

This was so characteristic of him. He’s very Machiavellian and although this has its drawbacks, there was always something glamorous about his political calculation. It was like working for Diocletian.

Before rehearsals I had a lot of difficulty eliminating ideas of which he had been persuaded by Ken Tynan, who had in turn been persuaded by Orson Welles. The idea, for example, that Bassanio should play all three suitors, including the black one, in order to get the right casket. There was another idea that Portia would present herself in court in a wheelchair. In any case there were a lot of encrustations – Tynan’s rather than Olivier’s – which I had to careen before I could find the clean lines of the play. Eventually we came to an agreement, which also involved persuading him to drop an enormous amount of make-up – false nose, ringlets, a Disraeli beard, all adding up to a sort of George Arliss. I said, ‘Larry, please’ – as a Jew I felt embarrassed – ‘please, we’re not quite like that, not all of us.’ He then said a wonderful thing: ‘In this play, dear boy, which we are about to perform, we must at all costs avoid offending the Hebrews. God, I love them so.’ ‘The best way to do that, Larry,’ I said, ‘is to drop these pantomime trappings which are offensive and unnecessary.’ He agreed to drop the ringlets.

But he had invested in extremely expensive dentures which gave him his strong prognathous look – based, I think, on a member of the National Theatre Board – and he was so attached to them in both senses that I felt I would have been a terrible spoilsport to object to them. He used to go round the corridors of the National Theatre seeing whether anyone knew he had them in. He would give interviews to journalists wearing them. He loved them so much and he looked rather good in them – and I couldn’t bring myself to object!

Still from The Merchant of Venice

In the event we did a lot of horse-trading. I would give him ideas and he would exploit them. He never tried to push rank. He has what all really great actors have – an expedient recognition of good business. If you have a good idea he’ll take it from you regardless. If not he will go on to ‘automatic pilot,’ or rather he’ll take over the controls himself.

I suggested the little dance, at the moment when Tubal tells him Antonio’s ships have gone down. I also suggested that he entered bearing Jessica in his arms when he discovers her flight. This reminded the audience subliminally of Lear and Cordelia – another father ‘betrayed’ by his daughter. I suggested his crying at the end, though not in any way which he didn’t utterly make his own. He always looks for a memorable effect at some critical moment and I remember him saying, ‘Oh God, I’ve done a fit, a fall, I cannot possibly fart!’ I said, ‘Why not try humiliated, terrible crying. I can’t do it, but I know you can.’ Off he went and gave it this curious unparaphrasable energy and vehemence which did actually freeze the blood. I remember him saying, ‘Oh dear boy,’ and there was a look of brimming gratitude in his eyes. He has an absolutely wonderful, really humble magnanimity. If something is good, it doesn’t matter who or where it comes from.

When the Merchant opened I became aware of his stagefright, as he called it. I didn’t know it was that, not until three or four days into the run. He certainly never spoke about it during rehearsals or run-throughs or on the first night.

I was standing in the wings one night and could see, in that rather unnatural light coming from elsewhere which you see from the darkness of the wings – a look of shocked terror on his face, beads of sweat on the make-up and his eyes staring as if they were behind a mask. I couldn’t detect anything more than a hesitation. I knew, though, from brief moments of stagefright in Beyond the Fringe, that what to an outside observer seems like a thirtieth-second is half an hour for the victim. He then confessed to me that he had these moments of appalling, shattering lapses in which he forgot his words and the earth stood still. There was a night when he actually forgot the things that a Jew has: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?…’ One was almost tempted to say, ‘Hath not a Jew elbows!’

Still from The Merchant of Venice

After the event he was wonderfully humorous about it, but I should imagine from the drenched and exhausted way in which he came off stage it was far from funny. I think it happens to a lot of people as they get older. It was obviously more than mere forgetfulness. It was the terror of a moment of standing outside himself and seeing himself suspended in the night sky of a theatrical performance, illuminated by all those lights, watched by dimly visible faces – and frozen. It must have been a horrible experience.

But he seemed to recover from it because far from retiring as he threatened to do, he came back with redoubled vigour in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He has this curious and startling immortality, which became part of his charisma. He would be fatally ill one moment and the next moment he’d be back on stage doing a part of heroic length with some superbly accomplished piece of business, giving the performance of his life. Everything about him as a public performer is to do with being unexpected, unpredictable – Machiavellian in fact.

His ability to shift with the tide is also absolutely astonishing. There was a time when, despite the noble glamour of his roles in Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), he belonged, for a lot of younger people, to another era. The slightly clipped tones, the romantic, matinée idol; nothing whatever to do with us, and we all thought he was yesteryear. Then quite suddenly he was doing Archie Rice with brilliant modern seediness. He took on the very thing which denied everything he had been. In place of the glossy, beautiful, noble, grand creature of earlier days, he was suddenly scratching the inside leg of his awful check-trousers as a seedy comic, offending all the ladies who had adored him. He renewed himself in this act of metamorphosis – a sort of phoenix performance. It’s part of his Machiavellian strategy: be unexpected, come back as something else. If they think you’re dead, spring to life; if they think you’re passé, change your course. Identify with the enemy, join them, and then beat them. No one else could manage to be as protean, as Machiavellian, as self-serving – and remain so lovable.

Those of us who knew him as a father, as a leader of the National Theatre, saw he had what he had always wanted, as a great patriotic Englishman: control of the whole show. He was always the great commanding officer. He would have loved to have been the captain of the flagship which sank the Bismarck. He always wanted to serve his majesty and there he was, in command of this grounded boat, 15 brass rings on his sleeve and a bridge of his own.

The very set-up of the National, the offices in Aquinas Street, was like Pompey’s galley, or like the shacks on those HMS training ships which are on land. It was absolutely made for him. Whatever competitiveness he might have had among his peers was now sublimated into running his ship, dispensing largesse, interest, and patronage to younger actors. His eminence had been recognized and a lot of otherwise competitive energies were turned to totally benevolent purposes. He loved the thunder of feet on the companionway. He was always speaking down the tube, lots of clang-clangs to the engine-room, backings and churnings of propellers, and people brought up unexpectedly to the bridge. He had genuine interest in the welfare of his staff, like a first class Captain on a battleship. ‘Sign on. Everyone is expected to do their duty.’ And because of this he created an enormous competitive admiration and filial affection amongst those who worked for him.”

One Thing And Another is a collection of Jonathan Miller’s thoughts on subjects as varied as human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, modern medicine and opera. It is published by Oberon Books and is available from our website.

The Actor’s Toolkit

We’re excited to announce the launch of The Actor’s Toolkit today, which gathers together its definitive range of titles for working actors and actors in training. Written by some of the finest practitioners in their fields, these books are designed to equip actors with everything they need to learn, develop and thrive.

As the UK’s foremost publisher of plays and books on theatre, Oberon is also the go-to publisher for those who teach the craft of acting and their students. The Actor’s Toolkit comprises eleven titles in all, based around the categories of Movement, Voice, Text, Auditions and Career.

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The launch is supported by a social media campaign, advertising in trade press and a discount offer on the Oberon website. Anyone interested should head to www.actorstoolkit.co.uk to learn more and get 3 for 2 on any of the eleven core books in the series until 31st January 2017 with the discount code TOOLKIT342.

Books in the Series

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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!!

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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

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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.

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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

The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre

Unique in style and content, The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre by Aleks Sierz and Lia Ghilardi is a lively guided tour through the history of theatre in Britain. An easily-digestible insight into 400 years of politics, fashion, arts, religion and royalty, this volume is a delightful and light-hearted way to learn something new – as if you were really there! To take a sneak peek inside, click here.
We’ve pulled together a small selection of the famous faces you’ll meet in the book, as well as some key information about their lives and work. It’s a very quick and easy who’s-who of some British theatre heroes from the past, beginning in 1564 with Christopher Marlowe…

Marlowe

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Christopher Marlowe (Illustrated by James Illman)

Shakespeare

Shakey

William Shakespeare

WW

WW

William Wycherley

RBS

RBS

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde

Shaw

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw (Illustrated by James Illman)

The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre is available now, and is a wonderful asset to any student or teacher of history, drama or theatre. 

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‘An immensely entertaining, informative guide to 400 years of British theatre that wears its considerable learning lightly.’ Michael Billington (Guardian)

‘This book is the perfect introduction to British theatre … even those who know a great deal about the subject will be entertained and learn a great deal as they enjoy this page turner.’ British Theatre Guide

‘It combines the latest insights of today with the story of yesterday. It reads like a fast-moving ride on a theatre-go-round — only much more informative. The gossip is fun, too.’ Sir Christopher Frayling

‘I am bowled over by The Time Traveller’s Guide to British Theatre… I’ve read many histories of theatre in my time, some very dry and academic and others rather more basic and banal for young readers… But never before have I chortled and marvelled my way through anything quite so informative and entertaining.’ The Stage

World Shakespeare Day Celebration

Today is ‘World Shakespeare Day’ and, while the Oberon team can’t seem to agree on whether it marks his birth or his death, we’re celebrating his life all the same! For this very special blog post, we’ve created a round-up of some of our favourite Shakespeare-themed books – all of which you can now have a snoop inside by clicking on the images below. Plays, memoirs and acting handbooks, all inspired by the man himself.
Not only that, but we’re offering 1/3 off on all of our Shakespeare-related titles with the discount code ONBIRTHDAY at the checkout on our website. I suppose that means it’s his birthday then, does it?  

‘Andy Hinds offers a rich and detailed 9781783190089path towards a precise contact with the challenge of speaking and inhabiting Shakespeare’s language. This book is an immensely useful resource for anyone teaching, speaking and acting Shakespeare.’ Ralph Fiennes

‘It is to this book’s enormous credit that it focuses in depth on the nuts and bolts of getting lips and heads around the intricacies of verse-speaking without either shirking the difficulties or becoming stilted and dull… I wish I’d had this book when I was acting – I’m delighted to have encountered it as a teacher.’ Teaching Drama


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‘Acting students and young professionals will flock to learn from him….passionate, entertaining… Indisputably wise and true… Wonderfully illuminating’  Telegraph

‘This is the most fabulously hybrid book – part actor’s handbook, part memoir – what is most inspiring is Hall’s conviction that form can be as exciting as feeling/ Acting in this way is more than just listening to Shakespeare – it is responding to Shakespeare’s linear needs’ Observer

‘As fascinating to readers as it is to actors.’  Independent


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A mixture of theatrical history, opinionated views and personal reminiscences. Sharp insights, anecdotes and vibrant character sketches pour from [Weston’s] pen, as do dismissive put-downs… His book should be compulsory reading for any aspiring actor still labouring under the delusion that the profession is in any way glamourous… Weston may never have played Hamlet during his long career, but he has achieved something possibly more valuable. He has become, in Hamlet’s phrase, one of the abstract and brief chroniclers of the time.’ Mail on Sunday

 


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‘A blend of travelogue, actor’s memoir and historical meditation… Asbury observes how the rival colours, the red rose for Lancaster and the white rose of York, define an insuturable cut that persists in Britain today… the bonds of history assert themselves in the midst of precincts and skateboarders.’ Times Literary Supplement

‘An enjoyable and sincere grand tour… fortified with pork pies and pinot grigio, accompanied on occasion by fellow Royal Shakespeare Company actors, and alternating between a campervan named Bongo and an open-topped MG, Asbury combines theatrical reminiscence and historical narrative.’ The Times


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‘This is a remarkable, challenging and bravely original work.’ Guardian

‘Toni Morrison’s language is superbly poetic – she’s admirable in her reckless unconcern that she will be compared to the Bard and come off the loser.… There are tremendous passages of writing, of music and some sterling performances… thought-provoking, with many magical moments.’ The Arts Desk

‘A rare and delicate show that shines a new light on Shakespeare’s tragedy.’ La Croix

 


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‘A witty and fiercely anti-colonialist revision of Shakespeare’s island fling… the play, in Philip Crispin’s admirable translation, lends Shakespeare’s myth all kinds of extra resonances.’ Michael Billington, Guardian

‘Toni Morrison’s language is superbly poetic – she’s admirable in her reckless unconcern that she will be compared to the Bard and come off the loser.’ Arts Desk

‘Not simply a new reading of Shakespeare but an original play of astonishing power… Philip Crispin’s admirable translation of the play provides the whole production with a secure textual basis… a remarkable theatrical event.’ Malcolm Bowie, TLS


Visit Oberonbooks.com for these and all our other titles.
Or search through all of our Shakespeare titles. Don’t forget the code ONBIRTHDAY.