Joan Littlewood was a controversial and innovative director. What was the legacy of her contribution to theatre?

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Joan Littlewood was a controversial and innovative director. What was the legacy of her contribution to theatre?

Joan Littlewood was considered controversial from the moment she walked out of RADA after only three months of study there on the only London scholarship awarded. She had no time for conventional acting, cut glass accents or typecasting. Littlewood headed north and founded the Theatre of Action in 1934 which two years later became known as the Theatre Union. In 1945 it became the famed Theatre workshop; a group of actors heavily committed to a left wing ideology whose aim was to revive and preserve all they thought was best in the theatrical traditions of Britain and Europe. Theatre Workshop was an instance of group theatre which had not been seen since the 16th century Italian Commedia Del’Arte or the Community Plays of The Middle Ages. Under the direction of Littlewood they devised and commissioned plays by and about the working class of Great Britain, something that had never been done before to the extent that they were doing. The group was heavily influenced by Vsevolod Meyerhold as they experimented with physical approaches to characterisation. However, Littlewood drew on a variety of additional influences in order to create her own theatre and theory of actor training including Commedia Del’Arte, Stanislavski, Brecht and the expressionist Laban. Her unique approach resulted in pioneering productions such as Oh What a Lovely War and new works by playwrights such as Shelagh Delaney and Brendan Behan, ‘these productions of new shows brought a much needed robust spirit to Drama.’ Yet Littlewood was extremely underfunded and had much opposition in her way throughout the vast majority of her career.

Littlewood drew actors from non-theatrical backgrounds and in doing so managed to elevate amateurs to professional status with no formal training. This was one of the reasons that The Arts Council initially refused The Theatre Workshops requests for a grant by claiming that they would not do so ‘unless actors were replaced or retrained.’ This exemplifies how Joan’s work with amateurs was considered extraordinary and controversial by critics and audiences alike. Yet Littlewood championed new working class actors such as Barbara Windsor who claimed that ‘She (Littlewood) just tore it all apart; we got out of all that drawing-room stuff. It was just fab.’ and Harry Corbett who went on to star in British television comedy Steptoe and Son. Another of Littlewood’s protégées was Nigel Hawthorne who as an aspiring young actor had endured much rejection but finally got his break as he was accepted into the Theatre Workshop in 1965. He was given so much to do in the theatre workshop that he became noticed and from that time he managed to stay in regular work. In a recently published book the late actor said: "Littlewood was the most important influence of my life. I owe her everything. Her encouragement stimulated me and transformed my work as an actor. She taught me to be truthful." Hawthorne went a long way as a result of Theatre workshop and was eventually knighted for his services to theatre, film and television.

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Theatre Workshop also supported and promoted new writing, producing successful new works such as Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow which both transferred to the West End. In the 1950’s Irish writer Brendhan Behan, an ex-IRA man, was struggling to get his work performed, then in 1956 Littlewood championed his work at Stratford East. ‘The company’s exceptional flair for improvisation and rewriting – Behan’s script was chaotic – drew full houses.’ Littlewood played a crucial role in providing the Irish playwright worldwide success and lasting influence. In actual fact The Quare Fellow has only just ...

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