If there is an ideal place to stage a celebration of Arnold Wesker, who died in April, it is obviously the Royal Court theatre. It was there in 1960 that the Wesker Trilogy was hailed as a defining moment in postwar British drama. But at a deeply moving celebration yesterday, in which friends and colleagues spoke warmly of Wesker and his work, there was no false sentiment. James Macdonald reminded us that George Devine and Tony Richardson, the Courts first directors, had both urged Wesker to rewrite the third act of Roots on the grounds that you couldnt talk endlessly about a character, Ronnie Kahn, who never appeared. This, as Macdonald tartly observed, only a few years after Waiting for Godot!
Related: Sir Arnold Wesker obituary
One of the striking features of the Wesker celebration was its perceptiveness about the plays. Macdonald, who directed a superb revival of Roots at the Donmar in 2013, quoted a review of the original production by an unexpected drama critic, Ted Hughes. Writing in The Nation, Hughes described Wesker as a naive lyrical poet full of joy and an analytical realist in the collision of the poet and the analyst lies his suffering. David Edgar also pointed out that, while Osbornes Look Back in Anger articulated the social fury of the 1950s, it was Wesker who put that anger into the context of history and who tapped into the political disillusion that is one of the key themes of postwar drama.
Everyone spoke well about Wesker: Janie Dee about the joys of directing a musical version of The Kitchen; Pamela Howard about Weskers late-flowering skill as a visual artist; Mike Leigh about a congratulatory letter he received, after the triumph of Secrets and Lies at Cannes, in which Wesker confessed that writing and directing movies was what he had always wanted to do. But I was especially struck by the testimony of Fiona Laird, who directed Weskers version of Dava Sobels Longitude in 2005. She had expected to encounter a bitter old curmudgeon. Instead she met a loving, witty, hilarious, charming man.Superb revival James Macdonalds production of Arnold Weskers Roots at the Donmar Warehouse, London, in 2013. Photograph: Stephen Cummiskey
That is notable since Wesker had some grounds for bitterness. Of the 44 plays he wrote, a large number had their premieres abroad. We tend to focus on his early work in which, as Laird pointed out, he finds political resonance in his own autobiographical experience. We ignore, however, the later work in which, she said, he looks from the outside in. He wrote, for instance, a powerful play about false memory syndrome, Denial, of which little has been heard since its premiere at the Bristol Old Vic in 2000. Phoenix, Phoenix Burning Bright, dating from 2006, also shows Weskers ultimate scepticism about imprisoning doctrines and endorsement of liberal humanism.
While it is good that we live in a theatrical culture that champions youth, we should do more to explore the late work of the living or recently dead. It was deeply affecting to attend the Royal Court celebration, which ended with Jessica Raines ringing delivery of Beatie Bryants joyous speech of self-discovery from Roots. But perhaps the finest tribute we could pay to Arnold Wesker would be to present some of his forgotten or totally unknown plays.
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