British Universities Film & Video Council

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Theatreland: Behind the Scenes at London’s Theatre Royal, Haymarket. GB. DVD. 2009. 480 minutes. £9.99

About the reviewer: Mark Taylor-Batty is Senior Lecturer in Theatre Studies at the University of Leeds. His key areas of interest include the career of Harold Pinter, the theatricality of Samuel Beckett and aspects of Twentieth-century French theatre. His research on the rehearsal processes of Roger Blin and his artistic relationships with Adamov, Artaud, Barrault, Beckett, and Genet came to fruition in the book Roger Blin: Collaborations and Methodologies (Peter Lang); he has also published two books on Harold Pinter: one for the Northcote House ‘Writers and their Work’ series published in 2001 and About Pinter: The Playwright and The Work (Faber and Faber) in 2005. He is currently an executive of the International Harold Pinter Society and co-editor of the journal Performing Ethos. In 2009 he published a book on Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in collaboration with his wife Juliette Taylor-Batty, as part of the Continuum Modern Theatre Guides series.

Theatreland is a made-for-television observational documentary which takes viewers behind the scenes at London’s Theatre Royal Haymarket during its 2008-09 season. The format has become well-known over the last decade or so on television, since the BBC’s Airport established the genre in the mid-1990s. Over eight episodes of the one season captured on this DVD, the programme follows the daily running of the theatre during their sold-out run of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, and preparations for a production of Breakfast at Tiffiny’s, adapted by Samuel Adamson. The first episode coincides with theatre’s new artistic director, Sean Mathias, arriving to present his debut production, one of the most significant theatrical events of 2009: Beckett’s classic play starring no other than Simon Callow, Sir Ian McKellen, Ronald Pickup and Patrick Stewart. In the fifth episode, we meet Anna Friel, who will play the lead in the Truman Capote adaptation, waiting ‘in the wings’ as the theatre machine gears up to prepare a new production as the run of Godot comes to a close.

Over the eight episodes we meet not only the stars of stage and screen who tread the boards, but the busy backstage team who keep the theatre running. The master carpenter Tony Brunt and James Whitwell the head flyman make repeated jovial appearances, at rest or at work, and tantalizing glimpses of McKellan and Stewart as Vladimir and Estragon are intercut with scenes of the pair checking the water tank in the roof or pulling down rotten Victorian plaster from a ceiling. The juxtaposition of the mundane, such as fixing the plumbing in the actors’ toilets, with the satisfying exposure to the reflections of key British actors on their profession can be frustrating, but occasionally these combinations produce appealing results, such as when the star-struck usherette Rossie overhears with delight Simon Callow bemoaning that he had Maggie Smith distractingly in his eye-line throughout his first act appearance. Her amused assessment that these legendary actors were like schoolboys backstage at their first performance rings true, and such moments captured are amongst the treats of this series.

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