101 GREATEST PLAYS: Michael Billington

Guardian Faber
ISBN: 978 1 78335 030 8
September 2015

Review: Alexander Ray Edser, 20 10 15

A splendid book.
It’s difficult to find enough words of admiration for this splendid book. There are a lot of these lists about at the moment, aren’t there . . . The ten best this, or the twenty most horrific this and so on. But Billington’s book puts all such compilations into the shade. He is one of our most respected reviewers (at the Guardian since 1971) and writers about theatre matters.

You can play the ‘what’s not in’ game if you wish, but the truth is, it doesn’t matter what is in or not in. This collection of short essays is written by a man whose knowledge of plays in performance must be, today, virtually unrivalled; and here he is, speaking about the plays he admires most.

It is an eclectic mix, and one that spans the Ancient Greeks to the present day. But whether Billington is writing about a play you know well or one that’s completely unknown to you, you end up knowing a great deal more than you did when you started. The tone is light, user friendly, but each analysis sparkles with great erudition.

Puzzling why KING LEAR is not in, is fun. But it’s more fun to find out why LOVE’S LABOURS LOST and HENRY IV, 1 and 2, are in the clutch of Shakespeare plays. There’s great pleasure to be taken, too, when your choice matches Billington’s—the choice of Jonson’s ALCHEMIST over VOLPONE for instance. There’s similar pleasure, too, in vigorous disagreement—as with Billington’s 101st choice, KING CHARLES III, by Mike Bartlett.

The greatest interest, though, stems from Billington’s ability to think across the whole gamut. While enlightening us on Aristophanes’ ASSEMBLY WOMEN he’ll surprisingly make connection with Caryl Churchill and TOP GIRLS. Or detour around David Edgar while writing about David Hare’s RACING DEMON. These connections have real power and light up the intellectual sky.

101 GREATEST PLAYS is marvellous to read, most satisfying to dip into, and magnificent as a reference book. A great experience.

2015-10-21 15:19:39

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