Saturday, August 17, 2013

Shakespeare References in Michael White’s Empty Seats

Michael White’s book Empty Seats has several references to Shakespeare and his works, which of course one might expect of a book about the theatre. When talking about Spike Milligan in the role of Oblomov, White writes, “Spike, on the other hand, saw the part as nothing short of Hamlet” (page 51). There is another Hamlet reference later in the book: “Immediately after Calcutta, I presented a season of Hamlet, directed by Jonathan Miller, at the Fortune Theatre – perhaps the smallest theatre in which Hamlet has ever been performed. It was fascinating to see it played in such intimacy. Hugh Thomas was Hamlet” (page 146).

He also talks about the play Macbird, which had landed him in trouble with the Lord Chamberlain: “The first, Macbird, was a brilliant lampoon based on Macbeth, written in rhyming couplets by Barbara Garson, a twenty-five-year-old Californian. It had trouble enough finding a stage in America but eventually was put on at the Village Gate in New York in January 1967…It had only just got under way in America when the Joint Select Committee appointed by Parliament in Britain began the hearings that were to lead to the Lord Chamberlain being relieved of his duties in regard to the theatre. The two star witnesses were Peter Hall, already director of the Royal Shakespeare Company, and Ken Tynan” (page 92).

Regarding the cast members of Oh! Calcultta!, White writes, “Dominic Blyth, who went on to become a very good and serious Shakespearean actress” (page 132).

Michael White also discusses a production of The Two Gentlemen Of Verona: “A very enjoyable musical we did together was the Joe Papp production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. This had music by the composer of Hair and had started life, like so many of Papp’s shows, in the Free Theatre in Central Park. It moved to Broadway, where I saw it, and we agreed to take it to London. We had a magnificent company, including Diane Langton, Bennie Lee, Michael Staniforth (who was later to appear in Chorus Line) and Derek Griffiths. John Guare, one of New York’s most amusing authors, wrote the book. But, although we got terrific reviews, we never actually sold out. I think the general public always felt it was true Shakespeare rather than a rock-and-roll musical. Moral: If you are going to adapt any classic to a musical find a totally new title” (pages 134-135). He mentions this play again a little later: “When we were doing Two Gentlemen of Verona I was sitting in a complete slump” (page 166).

There is also a reference to Titus Andronicus. White mentions that both Brian Thompson and Sue Blaine had trouble getting established. “They might be all right for The Rocky Horror Show, was the view sadly typical of British attitudes, but not for, say, Titus Andronicus” (page 156).

Empty Seats was published in 1984 by Hamish Hamilton Ltd.

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