Originally compiled as a companion to the TV series Changing Stages, Richard Eyre’s fascinating compendium of interviews Talking Theatre is an insight into the history of modern theatre from the mouths of the people who helped shape it.
Eyre speaks to some of the most important and influential figures in the theatrical world, from actors such as Fiona Shaw, Liam Neeson, Ian McKellan and Stephen Rea, to directors Peter Hall and Peter Brook and playwrights Arthur Miller, Harold Pinter and Tom Stoppard, as well as producers such as Cameron Mackintosh. Together they may not provide a comprehensive encyclopedia of theatre, but they do give a good overview.
An erudite and engaging interviewer, Eyre is never just an invisible presence – you feel him shaping each conversation to suit his own interests, but this works in the book’s favour, as one gets the sense that in being interviewed by a peer – by someone with whom there is no need to ‘dumb down’ or compromise views or opinions – the interviewees are more expressive and expansive than they would otherwise have been. That many of the interviewees are no longer with us lends the book a poignancy and a sense of history captured, and makes one grateful that Eyre embarked on this project while figures such as Miller, Gielgud and Pinter were still alive to take part in it.
It is a book best dipped into. As Eyre repeatedly covers the same ground, such as the influence of Irish writers on the British theatre, the forming of the modern RSC and the National Theatre and the ‘revolution’ of the Royal Court in the 1950s, the interviews can be repetitive if read in one go, although it is often fascinating to read different – and often conflicting – perspectives on the same events.
It’s also not a dry read: it may be packed with facts and dates, but these are always illuminated by the personalities involved, and these are never boring. In fact some of the interviews felt too short – personally, I would have liked far more of Sondheim, and some of the actors’ interviews could have been longer. While rightfully focused on the more intellectual, technical and historical aspects of theatre, it’s also not without a delightfully gossipy streak: from John Gielgud’s dismissal of Tennessee Williams as “drunk and tiresome” to Arthur Miller’s rather horrifying revelation that, when summoned to House Committee on Un-American Activities, he was quietly told he wouldn’t have to appear if the chairman of the committee could get his photo taken with Miller’s then-wife, Marilyn Monroe. Such colour stops the book from ever feeling like simply a technical overview.
Though the detail of the book means it may be somewhat daunting for the casual theatre-goer, for anyone with a deeper interest in the medium, Talking Theatre is a must.