Like most professional reviewers I pass on nearly all review copies once I’ve written about them or rejected them. If I didn’t I would not by now be able to get through the front door for miniature mountains of books and, as it is, friends and family tease me about my ‘book problem’ - by which they mean the 5,000 or so titles which are shelved, reasonably systematically, all over the house from attic to cellar.
But every now and again the postie or courier turns up with a review copy of something so useful, interesting, entertaining or whatever, that I can’t part with it and it just has to join the bulging shelves. The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance, edited by Dennis Kennedy and to be published on 26 August, is a case in point.
Its 2,400 entries eclectically cover styles, movements, buildings, organisations and traditions with biographies of actors, playwrights, directors and designers. A quick flick, for example, turns up Chichester Festival Theatre, W S Gilbert, Guthrie Theatre, La Mama Experimental Theatre Club, Margaret Leighton, Hal Prince, satire, Ken Saro-Wiwa and zaju (tsa-chu).
This new book is a concise and updated version of The Oxford Encyclopaedia of Theatre and Performance which was published in 2003 in two volumes and is still available online by subscription through www.oxfordreference.com.
Editor Dennis Kennedy is Beckett Professor of Drama Emeritus at Trinity College, Dublin and a professional director and playwright. He says that the new book ‘attempts to see theatre and performance as human expressions with large cultural significance,’ explaining that the discussion has been expanded to include ‘key issues in censorship, dance and dance-drama, opera, ritual and some para-theatrical activities such as animal fights and public executions.’ Also included are other types of live entertainment including circus, sport and Wild West shows.
Keeping the focus firmly on performance and leaving other books to cover literary issues, the new Oxford Companion certainly ranges across an impressive number of topics and there are things to learn on almost every page, especially about plays, practitioners and movements from other countries and cultures. Find out here, for example, about Danish dramatist Ludwig Holberg (1684-1754) whose name I knew because of Greig’s Holberg Suite, but that was the sum total of my knowledge. There’s an interesting starting point entry on ritual and theatre too and another on Greek Drama. Get the basics here and then move on to something more detailed if/when you want to take it further. That makes it a useful reference book for students.
Inevitably some of the choices are arbitrary. Simon Russell Beale is included but Alex Jennings is not. Neither West Yorkshire Playhouse nor Crucible Sheffield is regarded as significant enough for inclusion. Given the current emphasis on the importance of children’s theatre and work for young audiences it seems odd too that neither Unicorn nor Polka merits an entry of its own, although there is a brief reference to Unicorn in the short essay on youth theatre. On balance, though, I think The Oxford Companion to Theatre and Performance is a book best valued for what it includes rather than criticised for what it leaves out and, as such, it certainly earns a place in my collection.