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FEATURE: Sir Arnold Wesker says he’s delighted by revivals of his work

Sir Arnold Wesker

Published: 22 March, 2012

He had 200 people at his 70th birthday party. And there will be only 100 when he celebrates his 80th birthday in May. “It is going to be a more intimate affair,” Arnold Wesker insisted.

But the event will perhaps be a more joyous occasion for the noted and knighted playwright, one of the original Angry Young Men of the theatre more than half a century ago, thanks to a remarkable surprise birthday received in advance.

The King’s Head, Islington’s famed pub theatre, is to present a landmark 80th birthday season of his work that will include the first London revival of his opera Caritas, originally commissioned by Opera North in 1991 and rarely seen since.

The season will extend into next year with the world premiere of The Wesker Trilogy: Revisited, a stage adaptation of an unproduced film script based on his three most famous plays, Chicken Soup with Barley, Roots and I’m Talking About Jerusalem.

And there may yet be more to follow with talks taking place for the production of his latest play, Joy and Tyranny, now completed and published, which was born out of the Arab spring.

Wesker, whose fame was at its highest during his days living in Bishops Road, Highgate, and while director of Centre 42 at the Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, is positively delighted with the injection of on-stage life into his work.

It follows the success last year of the revival of Chicken Soup with Barley at the Royal Court Theatre, where it made its debut, and a new production of The Kitchen at the National Theatre.

“They have all come out of the blue,” he told me at his present home in Brighton. “The latest approach came from Adam Spreadbury-Maher, the new director of the King’s Head, who used to run the Cock Tavern Theatre,in Kilburn, until it was closed down by the council.

“He wanted to do something more extensive than what is planned now – a total of seven productions – but he has only managed to raise the finance for three,” Wesker says. “Nevertheless, what a wonderful thing it is for any playwright to have this happen right out of the blue for his 80th birthday.”

First on the agenda is a revival of Denial, the play Wesker wrote in 1997 about false memory syndrome, and first seen at the Bristol Old Vic in 2000.

This is followed by Caritas. Wesker is not well enough to travel frequently and has sent Spreadbury-Maher a video copy of the Denial production. “I shall go and see a run-through of Denial and I hope to be there on opening night,” he says. “I do hope I am well enough to go up to town.”

The Wesker Trilogy will not go on stage until April next year. It is something the playwright describes as “a fourth script rather than an adaptation of the three plays – a re-thinking of my past.”

It will be adapted for the stage by Rachel Grunwald and Spreadbury-Maher. “I don’t know what people will think about the way three well-known plays have been edited, and I’m intrigued to find out,” said Wesker. “Perhaps the King’s Head production will finally lead to that film being made.”

Meanwhile, his wife, Dusty, is preparing for his 80th birthday party.

“I do like birthdays and celebrating them surrounded by family and friends,” admits Wesker.

Meanwhile, there is good news too about his latest new play, Joy and Tyranny, which is finished and has been published. He is having talks at the King’s Head about the possibility of that going into production next year.

He wrote it at the time Osama Bin Laden had been killed, Ratko Mladic captured and Muammar Gaddafi was on the run, sending out a signal to warn tyrants that they can never get away with slaughtering people, as is happening in Syria at the moment.

“It does certainly fit into the world we have today and the awful things happening that we never thought would return,” he says. “It’s about the way tyrants feel intimidated by joy, how it is the poets, the painters and the intellectuals who are the first to be sent to jail. Tyrants always hate people who are happy and talented and challenging and make others feel happy, too. And it happens on more than one level, happiness too in the school playground being ruined by bullies.

“And that is the same as tyrants who use airplanes to bomb innocent people.”

So it seems that the once very angry young man, who, as something of an outcast, has earned more distinction abroad than in his native land, is back on the ball.

• Arnold Wesker 80th Birthday Season, The King’s Head Theatre, 115 Upper Street, Islington N1, 0207 478 0160, Denial, May 15-June 9; Caritas, May 20-June 19; The Wesker Trilogy: Revisited will be staged in April 2013


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