Watching the disappointing film version of Oh What a Lovely War again has made me think about Joan Littlewood’s original stage production. I was a big fan of Littlewood’s in the sixties, and it’s my experience of seeing her work on stage that makes me unable to share the condemnatory attitude of people like Brian Bond in The Unquiet Western Front, and to regard her tendentious view of history more generously than I otherwise might.
I met Joan Littlewood once, very briefly. It was at the first night of an American play called MacBird! by Barbara Garson. This had been an off-Broadway succes de scandale in 1965, a parody version of Macbeth with Lyndon Johnson as the pretender plotting to assassinate JFK. The whole thing was in clunky blank verse; it was the kind of play which has a bold striking idea, but not much dramatic life to sustain it through an evening.
Anyway, Joan Littlewood had got her hands on this property. She probably realised from the start that it was a bit of a turkey, but it was a headline-grabber, and a good way of getting publicity for her return to Stratford East after a few years away.
So in rehearsals she more or less threw away the script. (As she often did. When Shelagh Delaney sent her the original version of A Taste of Honey, Littlewood used the rehearsal process to transform what was probably a very naïve piece into something genuinely touching.)
The first night began with witches cackling and in dim green light, circling a cauldron – very cliché-Macbeth. Then suddenly the lights came full up, and Brian Murphy (later George in George and Mildred) was saying cheerfully: “Bet that had you worried. Though for a moment you were in the other Stratford, eh?” there followed a hotch-potch of comic scenes and vaudeville turns, roughly related to the story of the original play. One or two shreds of that may even have survived. I don’t remember much detail, except an extraordinary image of Howard Goorney as Earl Warren, in a long black overcoat, circling the stage like an animated corpse. From Littlewood productions, it’s the images and the jokes that you remember.
It was a jolly production, rather than a mesmerising one, but I enjoyed it. My friend Dave and I hung around for a bit afterwards, and came across the author of the original piece, looking huddled and concerned. “It’s not the play I wrote,” she told us. I replied politely that I’d like to see a production of the original, and there was a voice behind us. It was a scruffy little woman, wearing a beret. “Go on, you put it on yourself then,” said Joan Littlewood chirpily, obviously quite unrepentant at having mucked about with this young woman’s work.
I think that summed up her attitude to life and theatre – “Have a go. Don’t just sit around being a moaning critic. Whatever you do, try something new. Have fun.” You could see why her actors liked her so much, though she worked them much harder than other directors, apparently.
Newspaper critics lambasted that production, but I doubt if that worried her too much. The other shows in that season were better. There was a beautiful adaptation of Vanbrugh’s The Provoked Wife, that made restoration comedy light and bright. It was the first time I’d seen a play with a string quartet onstage all the time, so that you had the pleasure of watching them play between scenes (part of her Brechtian aesthetic – the pleasure of watching skilled people at work). Mrs Wilson’s Diary was a collaboration with the Private Eye people that worked much better as satirical theatre than MacBird! did (closer to home, so the jabs were sharper and better aimed). Above all there was The Marie Lloyd Story, with Avis Bunnage brilliant in the name part. Littlewood deeply loved the music hall in the same way that T.S.Eliot did – as a conduit to honest and important energies that couldn’t find expression in more genteel kinds of theatre.
All of which is a deviation from this blog’s usual subject-matter. Apologies to any regular readers who expect more than an old bloke’s nostalgic ramblings. But they come into my mind a lot, these ancient stage performances, so intense in their time, now vanished forever, leaving no trace but the scripts they emerged from and the film versions that (usually) diminished them.