John Lahr is a theatre critic who has commanded audiences and made careers. Theatre is in his blood because he’s the son of Bert Lahr, the Cowardly Lion in The Wizard of Oz and the original Estragon on the New York stage in Waiting for Godot. He’s written books about Joe Orton, that greatest comic dazzler since Wilde, and about Dame Edna. He’s edited the diaries of Kenneth Tynan, that star of a critic, and he also – just a year ago – wrote as fine a biography of Tennessee Williams as the world had any right to hope for.
Joy Ride is a collection of profiles that run the gamut of Lahr’s theatrical interests, which are never less than mainstream. We get sober and judicious reviews of different, generally glittering productions – Chiwetel Ejiofor’s Olivier Award-winning Othello for Michael Grandage at the Donmar Warehouse, and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Willy Loman for Mike Nichols. The latter turned out to be the last hurrah for those incomparable artists: Nichols at the end of a long, marvellous career and Hoffman at the height of his powers – mid-career – creating such a lasting sense of loss.
Lahr says of their production, “This staging of Death of a Salesman is the best I expect to see in my lifetime.” And we believe him.
John Lahr is a comprehensive and compelling guide to the figures who create theatre and the productions they shape and star in. He has an interesting portrait of Nick Hytner, the former head of Britain’s National Theatre who is one of those rare luvvies who can keep a silence and whose dark, unsentimental production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel Lahr admires.
He has cameos of Tony Kushner, David Mamet and Harold Pinter, whom Lahr describes as not only rich and histrionic of voice but someone who looked as if he could hit somebody.
The greatest of these portraits though is of Ingmar Bergman. Lahr presents Bergman through all his dealings with women – his battles with Ingrid Bergman (no relation), his relationships with Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson – and a nearly fantastical occasion when he patronised Olivier.
It’s masterly stuff, though it seems a bit obvious and a bit limited to describe Bergman’s art as “psychological”. Still, this is essential reading for any theatre tragic. QSS
Bloomsbury, 592pp, $19.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 10, 2016 as "John Lahr, Joy Ride". Subscribe here.