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SLIM CHANCES by Edward Petherbridge

I believe this may be a Vulpes Libris first. In the past we have inadvertently – and just once to my knowledge –  had different people reviewing the same book twice (I leave you to find the review in question for yourself) but this is the first time we’ve done it deliberately.

We originally reviewed Edward Petherbridge’s Slim Chances in October 2011 (HERE) … but the new edition, published to coincide with the 50th Anniversary of the National Theatre, is sufficiently different from its predecessor to warrant an entirely new review – and we can think of nobody better to write that review than his friend, the theatre historian Kathleen Riley



Review by Kathleen Riley

slim chancesOn 22nd October 1963, after a gestation period of 115 years, Britain’s National Theatre was born at the Old Vic in Waterloo. Its inaugural production, directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, was Hamlet; Peter O’Toole, fresh from the Arabian Desert, as it were, was the Prince and Michael Redgrave, who had played Laertes to Olivier’s Hamlet at the Vic in 1937, was Claudius. The NT’s golden anniversary is the occasion for this new and special edition of Edward Petherbridge’s Slim Chances, which begins appropriately with an epigraph from a play about Harley

Granville-Barker, a leading proponent at the dawn of the 20th century of the idea of a national theatre. The chosen passage, from Richard Nelson’s Farewell to the Theatre (2012), explains why theatre matters, the strange permanence of this most ephemeral art, its singular use of ‘the entire live human being as its expression’, and therefore its direct, intimate communication with an audience. These things are at the heart of this very personal history of the NT’s half-century – these and the spell that theatre can, in minute and myriad ways, create, a spell rendered no less potent by the revelation of its inner workings.


With John Stride in Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Photo by Anthony Crickmay

Edward’s association with the National Theatre spans almost its entire existence. In 1964, his first two lines as a member of the company were spoken to Olivier’s Othello. In 1967, he starred in one of the NT’s most iconic productions, Tom Stoppard’s debut play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (voted in a recent newspaper poll the best production of the NT’s first decade). With Ian McKellen in the mid-1980s, he led a company of actors at the NT’s new home on the South Bank. In total he has appeared in some twenty-five NT productions, and in 2011 the original edition of Slim Chances was launched with a sell-out Platform in the Cottesloe. What Edward offers, then, is the unique perspective of one who has served at the coalface of the NT, both as Prufrockian attendant lord and the apogee of attendant lords, who has worked with an extraordinary roll call of actors, directors and designers, and who can take us as close as we are likely to get to understanding the imaginative, transformative playground that is the actor’s workaday world.


Self-portrait as Faulkland in The Rivals. Photo by EP

But Edward offers more than the actor’s perspective. The pages of this new edition are filled with evocative descriptions of performances witnessed from both sides of the ‘footlights’, from the NT’s inception up until its present season. One of the most exciting is his recollection of the moment the Lyttelton curtain literally opened on a Rattigan renaissance:

I have a treasured memory, still fresh, of my delight in the summer of 2010 as the Lyttelton’s rich front-of-house curtain (yes, curtain!) parted slowly: it seemed to be the first purposeful, spacious, dramatic gesture of the performance, revealing the apotheosis of a West End drawing room. Terence Rattigan’s people and their talk in After the Dance beguiled us instantly, let us so subtly, so realistically into the secrets of the life within that room. Let’s face it, there is something pleasurable in watching angst suffered in tasteful surroundings. But something else seemed to happen, something spellbindingly delicious: there was in the audience a palpable collective sense of theatrical Nostos, a homecoming.

Image 2

Self-portrait at ‘Temple Studios’, Paddington. Photo by EP

In an appendix entitled ‘NT Now’, which brings us right up to the minute, he hilariously relates his dubious adventure into site-specific ‘immersive theatre’ with the NT-Punchdrunk collaboration The Drowned Man: A Hollywood Fable, the journey home on a ghostly late-night Tube being for him the most interesting part of the evening, enlivened as it was by Lucien Freud and Poems on the Underground.

Brand new to the special edition are chapters on the National’s Brechtian beginnings, the royal opening of Denys Lasdun’s Brutalist Epidaurus, and memorable productions such as The Rivals in 1983 and The Seagull in 1994. And there is a reprise of a piece Edward originally wrote for Plays & Players in 1989, two months after Olivier’s death. His reminiscences of ‘Sir’ (never ‘Larry’) form one of the most poignant and perceptive portraits of this deeply complex colossus ever published. In January last year, an Israeli critic cited Edward’s eloquent words about Olivier as an example of a high order of critical writing, quoting onlyEdward and Kenneth Tynan (Literary Manager of the NT during its Olivier years) in this respect. ‘Great performance’, he said, ‘stirs the right image in the pen of someone  who knows how to assess it.’


As Jeremy in Love for Love (1967) with Olivier’s Tattle. Photo by Zoe Dominic

Despite the necessarily retrospective nature of the volume, there is almost equal focus on the recent past, the here and now, and indeed the future, about which, like Nelson’s Harley Granville-Barker, Edward is hopeful – but also healthily ambivalent. He rejoices in the NT’s new temporary studio space, The Shed, with offerings such as Home, but his joy is tempered by an awareness of the contradictions underlying a national theatre and of theatre’s limitations in effecting real social change at a national level:

Image 5

My Perfect Mind. Photo by Manuel Harlan

The young members of the cast all had a direct line to the ‘street’ idiom required and, although … audibility was a problem, their ‘soliloquies’ were absorbing. The audience was as one and rose to the event, and yet polarized at the same time. The youngsters in the know and partisan, as if they knew or might even have been the authors of the sad confessions, which they responded to sometimes joyously, applauding the riffs and particularly the raps. I couldn’t help being amazed that there is a luxuriant supply of theatre studios in London where this kind of rapprochement between old and young takes place at the same time as there continues the shameful shortage of housing and a desolate degree of youthful alienation.

This special edition of Slim Chances is not exclusively concerned with the National Theatre; it also tells the story behind My Perfect Mind, a show which, as script consultant, I was privileged to see take shape, and take flight, in the Plymouth winter and London spring. Created by Edward, Paul Hunter and Kathryn Hunter, the show boldly and brilliantly interwove the narrative arc of Shakespeare’s King Lear and Edward’s journey from being on the brink of playing Lear in

Image 6

Study of Lear and the Fool
in charcoal, 2012

New Zealand to recovering from a sudden disabling stroke. It connected immediately and profoundly with audiences in a way that only the most magical and ‘real’ pieces of theatre can. It evolved through a rigorous, often exhilarating rehearsal regimen of improvisation but was months, even years, in the planning. As well as conning Lear’s lines, a large part of Edward’s preparation was ‘a constant and creative musing expressed in prose, verse, charcoal and acrylic.’ And it these multimedia musings that are collected here for the first time, together with a summation of the experience written just days after My Perfect Mind ended its triumphant run at the Young Vic.

The book comes with a bonus CD of nearly eighty minutes’ duration. The audio extras include a ‘live’ cabaret and a history of the NT in 50 limericks. The latter is a marvellous feat of invention, wit and rhyme, by turns irreverent, tender, edgy, gently mordant, and ultimately full of affection. And they do encapsule broad vision in a peep, or indeed the ‘humanity’ of a puppet war horse in a single focused gesture:

I’ll remember those horses for years

And their shadowy skilled puppeteers

Tears for a horse?

Par for the course

Each turn of a head and twitch of those ears.

Image 8

Photo by EP

In Nelson’s play, Granville-Barker defines the essence of theatre as ‘Nothing between them – and us. Just like this (gestures between himself and the others). You and me. Talking, and listening. Intimacy.’ This is not dissimilar from Virginia Woolf’s advice to the essayist: ‘the essay must lap us about and draw its curtain across the world. … Vague as all definitions are, a good essay must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out.’ Vital to what makes Edward such an accomplished essayist, apart from a wonderful facility with words, are the instincts and skills that make him a great actor and enable him to connect intimately with an audience. Then there is his artist’s eye. In an exhortation to art students, Oscar Wilde said: ‘To paint what you see is a good rule in art, but to see what is worth painting is better.’

As an actor and writer (and painter), Edward is an acute observer, a fine portraitist but, more than that, he can discern the pictorial and poetic in life and on the stage, usually in the stuff of a mere moment. And, as Rossetti noted of the sonneteer, he can monumentalize that moment with genius. He talks and listens and is just as capable of being spellbound as he is of casting a spell.

IndepenPress, 2013. ISBN: 978-1780037233.  283pp, 86 illustrations. 

One comment on “SLIM CHANCES by Edward Petherbridge

  1. Jackie
    November 20, 2013

    What a terrific review and by one who has seen Mr. Petherbridge perform. I like how the review shows the intertwining of the actor and the theatre, yet also aspects of life offstage. And to show how the new edition expands on the previous. Very nicely written!

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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