Oberon Books 2012; viii + 262 pages, ISBN 978-1-84943-233-7
Reviewed by Ian Herbert
Little did I realise, when I smiled at the curious name of our University newspaper’s lead reporter, one Bendy Nightingale, that I was reading the early efforts of the man who was to become one of England’s leading theatre critics. More seriously rebranded as Benedict Nightingale, his subsequent career included stints for the New Statesman and the New York Times, culminating in twenty years as chief critic for The Times in London.
His Great Moments in the Theatre is a reflection of this lifetime of theatregoing and deeper theatre studies–he also taught theatre at the University of Michigan. From the Oresteia in 458BC to Jerusalem in 2009, he introduces us to more than a hundred landmark productions. As if to set the scene, he begins with a semi-scholarly series of vignettes of early masterpieces as they premiered (including Hamlet, Phèdre, Iolanthe, Ghosts and The Seagull), but the bulk of the book deals with productions that he has himself seen over his last half century of theatregoing.
This means that the book’s later coverage inevitably leans towards British and, to a lesser extent, American productions: this is not intended as a total survey of world theatre. Rather it is one very knowledgeable man’s experience of theatre, presented in an approachable and entertaining style that makes it as much a pleasure for the general reader as a point of valuable reference for the specialist.
For Benedict Nightingale has been present at many historic premieres in his long career, from Pinter’s The Homecoming in Cardiff in 1965 through Les Miserables at the Barbican twenty years later to Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem at the Royal Court in 2010. The jobbing London critic has to see the widest range of performance, from Fringe to West End and beyond–an amusing curiosity in the book is Ben’s account of the disastrous tryout of Lionel Bart’s megaflop musical, Twang! in Manchester in 1965.
The approach of each entry varies considerably. You may find a brief but penetrating assessment of a playwright or director’s career, an evocative description of an individual actor’s performance, or an historical account of the event in context–we get the background to several great theatre riots, for instance, including Astor Place and the Abbey, Dublin openings of both Playboy of the Western World and Plough and the Stars. We gain much from the author’s personal contact with many of the people whose work he describes–their anecdotes and asides abound.
Apart from an account of Martin McDonagh’s gorefest The Lieutenant of Inishmore, the in-yer-face movement of recent years gets little attention: Blasted has its mention in an assessment of an earlier shock-horror play, Edward Bond’s Saved. Nightingale is more interested in some of the more physical manifestations seen lately–Complicité’s Mnemonic, Lepage’s Far Side of the Moon and the work of directors such as Katie Mitchell.
This a book best enjoyed as a bedside reader. You can dip into it at any point and find wit, wisdom and often both, with frequent insights that can surprise or delight. You may be annoyed at times by the author’s habit of concluding many of his entries with a short, pithy epigraph, and you may be surprised by the publisher’s decision to set the book’s type at such a pitch that most of the entries go on to a few lines on an otherwise empty third page. Good for your own personal notes, though.
 Ian Herbert is now consultant editor of Theatre Record, which he edited and published from 1981-2003. He edited the technical journal Sightline, 1984-91. He writes regularly for theatre journals worldwide, including a fortnightly column in The Stage newspaper. President from 2001-2008 of the International Association of Theatre Critics, he is now an Honorary President. A board member of the Europe Theatre Prize, he is also past Chairman of the Society for Theatre Research in London and a trustee of the Critics’ Circle. He is a visiting professor of three US universities and has lectured in many countries of the world.