Joan Littlewood is often described as “pioneering”. She was part of a movement which both presented working class people on the stage and made them welcome as audiences. This wasn’t new: in Shakespeare’s time, popping down to the Globe or other London theatres was a standard form of entertainment. Going back even further, your ordinary street Roman looked forward to the next arena show – whether it was plays and variety shows or combat and lion-feeding.
In the 1950s, UK playwrights and novelists began writing about the working class – and Joan’s contribution was to take this kind of work into the theatre and to use the theatre to grow more of it. She developed the Theatre Workshop, which became permanently based at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1953. It was seen as left wing, which helped it slip from the 1950s, with their focus on the working class, to the 1960s, with their focus on deposing the establishment and valuing alternatives to traditional family life.
Joan Littlewood brought landmark productions to Stratford, including Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey (1958) and Brendan Behan’s The Hostage (1958). She was also known for her musicals, most notably Frank Norman’s Fings Ain’t What They Used T’ Be (1959) and the musical Oh What A Lovely War (1963). She had a wide vision, and also produced the British premiere of Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage and Her Children (1955). What is remarkable about this list of productions is that they are not dry, earnest pieces about their own times but really good and memorable shows. They were stand-out examples of the culture of their time which can still entertain today.
Joan Littlewood was born in 1914 and died in 2002. Peter Hall said she was the “greatest revolutionary of the British theatre. Where the passion is, where the emotion is, where the entertainment is, is where Joan Littlewood is”.
Joan’s legacy continues in today’s Theatre Royal at Stratford East, which still aims to tap into its local community to create work of a high standard. It works with local young people and still has a name for creating and staging musical theatre.
In October, the person and the legacy will come together. To mark the centenary of her birth last year, the Theatre Royal commissioned a sculpture from international artist Philip Jackson. Murray Melvin and Barbara Windsor led a fundraising campaign to bring the idea of a sculpture to life. The bronze sculpture, which will be placed in Theatre Square – close to the Theatre Royal Stratford East – is to be unveiled on 4th October.
Kerry Michael, Artistic Director of Theatre Royal Stratford East said: “The sculpture of Joan Littlewood will be a permanent reminder of her great contribution not just to British Theatre, but to World Theatre. We are proud of our history at Theatre Royal Stratford East and this is the perfect way to celebrate it.”
•For more information about what is on at the Theatre Royal, go to: www.stratfordeast.com