TAKING STOCK: The Theatre of Max Stafford-Clark. Philip Roberts and Max Stafford-Clark
Pub – Nick Hern Books 2007
ISBN: 13 978 1 85459 840 0
Review: Kim Durham February 2007
Detailed, in-depth; a portrait of a career of more than 50 years
Max Stafford-Clark’s remarkable theatre career now reaches its fifth decade, so this book comes as a timely review. It gives an account of the progress of a director who has consistently ploughed his own furrow and has been the foremost conduit for new writing for the British stage during much of that time.
And a fascinating account it is, despite an occasional scrappiness to the proceeding, drawing as it does on taped interviews with Stafford-Clark, writers and actors, diary entries, letters and intervening sections that slip from third to first person and back.
The earlier decades, the sixties and the seventies now seem very distant indeed. The briefly covered late sixties at The Traverse in Edinburgh are years where a new emerging theatre was an integral part of the long vanished counterculture of that time, primarily influenced by American experimentation, inchoate, and, surprisingly, considering Stafford-Clark’s later focus, more physical than text based.
The early 1970s work with Joint Stock, similarly, seems to belong to another country whose proceedings and preoccupations are now a world away from our own. In particular, the case studies on Fanshen and Epsom Down, draw us into a vanished time of political radicalism, of the exhilaration at the opening of new possibilities, of the attempt to forge new non-hierarchical ways of working. It also depicts a climate of enervating tedium as each action, each decision, both personal and collective, is subjected to group ideological analysis. From this distance some of it indeed now seems both squirmingly self-regarding and absurdly self-deluding.
Yet it’s clear that it was out of this work that Stafford-Clark’s rigorous, focused and investigative approach to text emerged. What is also brought into focus is how remarkably ‘of its time’ much of the work has been. As with the collectivist experiments of the seventies, so, with the Royal Court of the Thatcherite eighties. Here case studies focus on the decade defining Serious Money and Our Country’s Good, again directly responsive to the mood of the age. Now a building based director, Stafford-Clark’s off-stage battles are no longer with a collective of bolshie actors but with board members who express concerns about “the difficulty of interesting prospective patrons in the Court’s programme and the lack of a hospitality structure…”
The book’s most affecting account comes in this central section and deals with the director’s collaboration with Andrea Dunbar, the author of The Arbor and Rita, Sue and Bob Too. Dunbar, from the lowest rung of the underclass, became feted by the theatrical world. Before The Arbor was produced at The Royal Court she had never been in a theatre. But this was not to be a story of a plucky young working class talent escaping from its roots and Dunbar’s early death and the continuing desperate straits of her three children clearly continue to cause Stafford-Clark some discomfort.
The latter part of the nineties finds Stafford-Clark again running his own touring company and Taking Stock brings us up to date with a wonderfully vivid account of his remarkable production of Macbeth. This last demonstrates Stafford Clark still riding the decades and remaining responsive to the times.
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