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TV Review: The complete history of English theater (abridged)

Sunday, August 26, 2001

By Christopher Rawson, Post-Gazette Drama Critic

Ostensibly, this is the book of the TV series called 'Changing Stages,' " says British stage director Richard Eyre in his foreword to the book of the same name. "In fact, the reverse is true."

The six-part TV series, the first two hours of which will be shown on PBS tonight, is therefore the TV version of the book. But that's not right either, because while the book was co-written with playwright Nicholas Wright, the TV series is unambiguously Eyre's solo "personal response" to 20th-century theater.

 
 
TV REVIEW

"Changing Stages"
When: WQED/WQEX, 9 to 11 tonight and Sept. 2 and 9

   
 

The TV series is further distinguished from the book by including material on American theater added since the series was shown last year on the BBC. "An epic journey through 20th-century theater," it calls itself, but in covering (however briefly) American and selected European theater, it better justifies the claim of inclusiveness that was added to the book for marketing purposes.

Not that you can't spot the places where American clips have been inserted by WNET (New York), where the series was additionally produced (if that's the term). In Episode 1, Arthur Miller and Stephen Sondheim talking about Shakespeare are original, but a sequence on American productions of Shakespeare is probably added. Certainly added is a brief interview with August Wilson squeezed oddly into a sequence about the example of Brecht in Episode 3 (along with a clip of the London production of "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom," for heaven's sake!).

But that aside, having watched three of the six episodes, I'd say the TV series has more coherence than the book. It benefits from Eyre's presiding point of view and the sharper focus enforced by limited time. He sticks more to what he knows. There's thankfully little historical summary, but his nuggets of cultural and social history (newsreels included) create a vivid context.

And the interviews! In Episode 1, there are not just bits (sometimes many bits) of Eyre's own interviews with Ian McKellen, Judi Dench, Trevor Nunn, Tom Stoppard, Miller, Sondheim, George Wolfe, Peter Hall, Peter Brook, John Gielgud and Uta Hagen, but also historical interviews with Laurence Olivier (very long, with an unidentified Kenneth Tynan as interviewer), Paul Robeson and a startlingly youthful Joe Papp.

Comparing himself to Gielgud, Olivier famously calls Gielgud the top half -- air and melody -- and himself the bottom -- "all earth, blood." One of the designers who made up the famous team of Motley compares their two Romeos: "John was beautiful and Larry was real." Asked by Tynan what it was like to realize he had hit the heights, Olivier says it happened twice, once with "Richard III," and success, he says with a shade of a blush, "just smells like Brighton, and oyster bars."

In one of his most brilliant commentaries, Eyre then strides around Brighton, comparing it to Olivier's acting with dead-on insight. At such a moment, TV documentary becomes persuasive art.

Of course it has to make its way cut off from what Eyre insists makes theater essential -- the live performer and audience. But for this intelligent tour of famous theatrical turning points, that's a plausible cost.

All this is in tonight's Episode 1, "Shakespeare" -- because, as Eyre says, Shakespeare is "our theatrical DNA." Also tonight is Episode 2, "Ireland." Eyre starts with the refreshing if slightly exaggerated claim that in the 300 years after Shakespeare's dearth, while England ruled Ireland, "not a single great play was written by an Englishman." They were all Irish, or rather Anglo-Irish, which is rather different, extending from Congreve, Farquhar, Goldsmith and Sheridan down to Wilde, Shaw and Synge and eventually O'Casey, Beckett and Friel.

"Without them, the story of 20th-century English theater wouldn't be worth telling," Eyre says. Such interviewees as Stephen Rea, Edna O'Brien and Fiona Shaw are invoked, and Eyre continues the story down to such heirs of Shaw, O'Casey and Synge as the Manchester School, D.H. Lawrence (an undervalued Eyre favorite), the regional repertory movement and the National Theatre.

There's lots more to come. Next week brings Episodes 3 and 4: "America" and "1956." Episodes 5 and 6, to air Sept. 9, are "Between Brecht and Beckett" and "The Law of Gravity." The book's 14 chapters have been compressed into these six episodes, but far more smoothly than I expected, largely because of Eyre's brisk pace and those telling interviews. In Episode 5, for example, Albee, Mamet, Pinter, Sam Shepard, Tony Kushner, Billie Whitelaw, LeRoi Jones and Alan Bennett join the tour.

In downplaying theater's educational function, Stoppard says it is not just an "extremely elaborate and entertaining classroom." But TV's "Changing Stages" is just that.

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