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Andrzej Lukowski: Theatre Royal Stratford East should be allowed to step out of Joan Littlewood’s shadow

Joan Littlewood pictured in the 1970s outside Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: TRSE Archive Joan Littlewood pictured in the 1970s outside Theatre Royal Stratford East. Photo: TRSE Archive
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Are all great iconoclasts doomed to become icons?

The titanic British theatremaker Joan Littlewood more or less gave up on the stage after the 1975 death of her partner Gerry Raffles. But since her passing away in 2002, she has steadily recolonised the British theatre.

Her name is invoked for the annual Fun Palaces initiative (named after – though not quite the same as – a long-held vision she had for the future democratisation of theatre buildings). The Royal Shakespeare Company is shortly to premiere a new musical about her, Miss Littlewood. And, of course, there are the endless genuflections to her made in the name of her old gaff Theatre Royal Stratford East, a building that now, amusingly, *literally* lies in her shadow after the recent construction of a statue of her outside.

Writing in The Stage last week, former TRSE PR Mark Borkowski probably hit peak taking-Littlewood’s-name-in-vain via his criticism of new TRSE boss Nadia Fall. Having worked himself into a lather over an interview with Fall in the Evening Standard in which the writer – but not the subject – was critical of the outgoing regime, Borkowski took issue with Fall saying that in her new season “I’m trying to channel Joan Littlewood”.

Mark Borkowski: Theatre Royal Stratford East must not forget its pioneering legacy

He snarked that Littlewood “might not have immediately embraced the appointment of a National Theatre graduate”, as if that could possibly be of any relevance to Fall’s suitability. A hypothetical argument over who a dead person might or might not approve of to run a building she last worked in 43 years ago seems like a silly argument.

There’s an echo of the continued British obsession with Winston Churchill in the way the free-spirited, establishment loathing, high-achieving Littlewood is invoked by modern theatremakers, and I’m not sure it’s an entirely healthy thing. Not least for TRSE, wherein every successor to Littlewood must be compared to a condensed, idealised version of her that encompasses the big hits and a fondly imagined take on her combative personality. Its recent-ish revivals of Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be and Oh What a Lovely War felt like nostalgic dead ends.

I’m not in any way arguing that Littlewood is overrated. She was a giant of her time. But I can’t think of a single other theatre to be so aggressively haunted by the legacy of its founder as TRSE. I can’t think of another deceased theatremaker whose putative opinion on things that happened after her death is deployed as often as hers. And romanticising the behaviour of somebody who was probably something of a bully by modern standards is, at the very least, a bit problematic.

In any case, literally putting Littlewood on to a pedestal doesn’t exactly seem in the spirit of her own distrust of sacred cows. She was a hugely important figure whose work should never be forgotten. But maybe she should also be allowed to die.

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