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Obituary: Charles Marowitz

A provocative revolution in British theatre in the 1960s was the aim of the American-born director and playwright Charles Marowitz. He helped to establish the experimental Open Space theatre in London and collaborated with Peter Brook on productions for the Royal Shakespeare Company Experimental Group.

Marowitz’s early work as a director included: the original London production of Joe Orton’s black farce Loot (1966); John Herbert’s play about a young man’s experience in prison, Fortune and Men’s Eyes (1967); Sam Shepard’s The Tooth of Crime (1972), which tells the story of an ageing rock star; and Macbett (1972), a free adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth by the Romanian playwright Eugene Ionesco.

His work with Brook led to a season at the LAMDA Theatre Club of so-called Theatre of Cruelty productions, in which the intention was to assault the senses of the audience to make them delve into their sub-conscious and recognise their unexpressed emotions.

The season helped to propel Glenda Jackson to fame. She was the first serious actress to appear naked in a play. She portrayed Christine Keeler, the call-girl whose liaison with a cabinet minister played its part in bringing down the Conservative administration of Harold Macmillan.

After serving in the Korean war, Marowitz moved to Britain, where he enrolled at LAMDA. His first production here was the comedy Marriage, by the Russian dramatist Nikolai Gogol, at the Unity Theatre.

When he was producing Shakespeare, he displayed little reverence. He injected a sense of black power into Othello and conjured up a feminist take of The Taming of the Shrew. In Measure for Measure, he added several new scenes and characters, while his version of Hamlet has the title character raping Ophelia. He once said: “I despise Hamlet… You may think he is a sensitive, well-spoken and erudite fellow, but he gives me a pain in the arse.” Marowitz also gave Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler a Freudian slant, with the heroine riding her father around the stage and lashing him with a whip.

Together with producer and former actress Thelma Holt, he founded the Open Space theatre, which was designed so that the stage and auditorium were as flexible as possible. It led the way in immersing the audience in the performance, blurring the boundaries between reality and illusion.

For a time, the Open Space rivalled the Royal Court as London’s most progressive theatre. But, come 1980, when cuts in subsidies to the arts were beginning to hurt, it closed.

The following year, having made plenty of enemies in London, Marowitz returned to America. In an interview, he once said: “To be merely a provocateur is not in the end such a bad epitaph.”

Charles Marowitz, who was born on January 26, 1934, died on May 2, aged 80.

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