A word from the producer: On Joan Littlewood, Orwell and Huxley

A word from the producer: On Joan Littlewood, Orwell and Huxley

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Touring Consortium producer Jenny King considers what her late friend Joan Littlewood would think of her upcoming centenary celebrations, and compares the dystopian visions of Aldous Huxley and George Orwell and how they're realised onstage, with her own production of A Brave New World on the horizon.

“There is more stimulus in reality than in these endless discussions about art, all the schematic ideas for reviving theatre. They’re not the answer. The answer is all around us. “ – Joan Littlewood

I worked with Joan for three years from 1973-1976 - both on her Fun Palace project and on running Theatre Royal Stratford East for six months after her partner and theatre manager, Gerry Raffles, died in April 1975. She was my mentor and friend until 1994 when my production of The Father caused a bit of a 'rift' professionally speaking. We remained friends, though, until her death in 2002.

Joan was the best and worst of human beings; the most intelligent I have ever known. She was a genius of theatre.

She loved a good practical joke. She asked me once if I knew that actress Myvanwy Jenn’s left eye was a glass eye. I said, no I didn't. Later that day when I met Myvanwy in the corridor, I was staring into her left eye.

Myvanwy said, "Joan's told you my left eye is a glass eye, hasn't she?" I said "Yes, she did". "Well, it isn't," said Myv and sped down the corridor, screeching with laughter.

If Joan were alive now, for sure, the horrors of Gaza would be under hers and Gerry’s scrutiny rather than any revival of Oh What A Lovely War – she was always in the present.

Amongst events being planned for Joan’s centenary is the launch of her official biography by my friend, Peter Rankin. Dreams and Realities will be published by Oberon Books in October. There’s also a revamping of Joan's Fun Palace project in a Fun Palace(s) initiative run by Stella Duffy and Sarah Jane Rawlins supported by Arts Council England.  

Joan Littlewood: a potted biography

Joan Littlewood was born in 1914 and died in 2002. As a director, she helped change the face of British theatre. She broadened the classic repertoire, discovered new writers, created a genuine company of extraordinary performers to create a fresh theatrical style of playing at her Theatre Workshop based at Stratford East.

Amongst her celebrated productions were Volpone, Uranium 235, Henry IV, Richard II, Edward II, Twelfth Night, Treasure Island, The Quare Fellow, The Hostage, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be, Mrs Wilson’s Diary, and of course, Oh What a Lovely War.

By 1963, Joan had three productions running concurrently in the West End.

"The greatest revolutionary of the British theatre. Where the passion is, where the emotion is, where the entertainment is, is where Joan Littlewood is” - Peter Hall

Theatre Workshop was never funded by the Arts Council and received minimum support from the London Borough of Newham.

Dystopian duel

In the autumn of 2015, we will be producing a stage adaptation of A Brave New World, Aldous Huxley’s 1932 novel set in London in 2540, directed by James Dacre and co-produced with Northampton, Royal & Derngate.

Out of interest, therefore, I went on Monday night, to see the staging of George Orwell’s own then future-set novel, 1984, published 17 years after Huxley’s book. The Headlong, Almeida, Nottingham Playhouse production is now playing at the West End’s Playhouse Theatre in London.

Truthfully, I've never been an Orwell fan. Having always found his writing relentlessly bleak and grey, I didn't expect to emerge from the theatre dancing with joy. And I wasn't disappointed.


Headlong's production of Orwell's 1984


Trivia: In 1917, long before he wrote the letter below, Aldous Huxley briefly taught Orwell French at Eton.


21 October 1949

Dear Mr. Orwell,

It was very kind of you to tell your publishers to send me a copy of your book. It arrived as I was in the midst of a piece of work that required much reading and consulting of references; and since poor sight makes it necessary for me to ration my reading, I had to wait a long time before being able to embark on Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Agreeing with all that the critics have written of it, I need not tell you, yet once more, how fine and how profoundly important the book is. May I speak instead of the thing with which the book deals — the ultimate revolution?

…Within the next generation I believe that the world's rulers will discover that infant conditioning and narco-hypnosis are more efficient, as instruments of government, than clubs and prisons, and that the lust for power can be just as completely satisfied by suggesting people into loving their servitude as by flogging and kicking them into obedience…

Thank you once again for the book.

Yours sincerely,

Aldous Huxley 


I love it! The competitive subtext. But it is interesting to compare the two writers and their dystopian visions.

I wondered, as I left the Playhouse and walked to the Tube, whether Orwell’s vision and the current faithful production is somehow simpler, starker and more accessible than the issues of A Brave New World may prove to be; where consumerism is second nature and economic stability the key to the efficiency of the World State… we certainly have a challenge on our hands. I hope we find its humour.