In tribute to Sir Arnold Wesker - creator of The Roundhouse

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In tribute to Sir Arnold Wesker - creator of The Roundhouse


Fri, 22/04/2016 - 14:33


Sir Arnold Wesker at the Roundhouse
21 April, 2016

THE playwright Sir Arnold Wesker, who died last week at his home in Brighton, aged 83, was a one-off sensation. He helped change the face of British drama – and that includes creating The Roundhouse, Chalk Farm, as a potent symbol of the performing arts – when he launched Centre 42 in 1964.

His greatest London stage triumphs – his plays Roots, Chicken Soup with Barley and I’m Talking about Jerusalem – were written while living with his wife Dusty in Bishops Road, Highgate, in the late 50s and 60s.

In a career spanning over five decades he wrote some 40 plays, as well as novels, short stories and poetry, nearly half a million of his plays being sold internationally.

Wesker, along with Harold Pinter and John Osborne were labelled Angry Young Men, members of the Kitchen Sink School of playwrights whose contemporary works shattered post-war complacency.

And for Wesker, the East End son of immigrant Jews who supported the Communist Party, it was his own experience working as a carpenter’s mate, a bookseller’s assistant, a kitchen porter and serving in the RAF that provided the bedrock of his real-life plays.

He had to wait until 2006 before his seminal role in British theatre history was recognised with a richly deserved knighthood.

“In terms of his role among the defining generation of writers who emerged from 1956 onwards, Arnold has a key place,” said Stephen Daldry, who directed the revival of The Kitchen in 1994. “The plays are extremely personal.

“They are an obvious expression of left-wing ideas and dreams and hopes, but he is never for a moment dogmatic, and more in that Royal Court Theatre tradition of liberal humanism.”

When he emerged in 1958 with Chicken Soup with Barley, the critic Kenneth Tynan immediately recognised Wesker as “potentially a very important playwright”.

And as fame enveloped him, Wesker said: “There was a feeling of inevitability about it. I don’t think that I ever felt that it wouldn’t happen. But at the same time it was exciting and exhilarating... I felt myself capable of taking on the world.”

Indeed, his Centre 42 Theatre Company project to take over The Roundhouse, built in 1847 as a Victorian railway turntable and subsequently a gin warehouse, was another of his inspirations.

However, the scheme ran out of funds and the Roundhouse was subsequently taken over by the businessman Torquil Norman in 1996.

And it stands today in its own way a tribute to the wonder of Arnold Wesker.

Marcus Davey, the venue’s current chief executive and artistic director, said: “We’re deeply saddened to hear that Sir Arnold has passed away. Fifty years ago he founded The Roundhouse as an arts centre to champion art for all – a passion and a promise we remain committed to, to this day.”


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