“I am big. It’s the pictures that got small”. It is hard to imagine a dramatist with a slighter resemblance to Gloria Swanson than the mild-mannered, hugely talented Robert Holman who died of cancer in a hospice last Friday at the age of 69.
In Billy Wilder’s movie Sunset Boulevard, Swanson is the reclusive silent screen star who snarls the legendary line as she dementedly dreams of making a talkies-era comeback with her crackpot scenario about Salome.
Holman would have responded with his usual, wry self-deprecating laugh if I admitted to harboring occasional fantasies of him pulling off a Swanson/Norma Desmond. In his heyday, he had been big; he had spent periods as resident dramatist with the National Theatre and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford. He was thought of – and talked of – in the same breath as the playwright Stephen Poliakoff, his exact contemporary.
This is a memoir of my relationship with Holman rather than a long-lens obituary. The relationship came to be affectionate over the years but never effusive. That was not his way. We were in the same room maybe half a dozen times all told We never ‘socialized’. The only playwright with whom I do that (and not regularly) is David Eldridge, the most gifted of the next generation of dramatists – a gang who continued to champion his work and to benefit from his example. Another of these is Simon Stephens.
It was my luck to meet Robert when I went to interview him for The Independent. This was in late April or early May 1999 and the occasion was the transfer to the West End of the Oxford Stage Company’s exquisite revival of Making Noise Quietly. Holman’s beautiful, elliptical triptych of plays about lives touched by war and violence.
It was one of the plays chosen for the Independent’s recent round-up of the Best 40 Stage Plays to try to see or read. On the day in 1991, I remember the sight and smell of daffs in the office set aside by the London base of Oxford Stage Company. And of being, and being extremely taken, by how this shy, diffident man with the twisty-mouthed way knew his own firm, principled mind
“He was a very quiet and honourable man, my dad, really” he said of his father who spent the First World War labouring on the land as a conscientious objector. His great-grandfather was sent to Strangeways for his beliefs during the Great War. But ironically at the time of the Second, he was engaged in government-sponsored war work, organizing the reception in Manchester of the Jews fleeing from Poland. Around a 1000 people turned up at his funeral.
I loved Holman’s honesty and the way he was sometimes prepared to concede that he was a touch flummoxed. His father was brave enough to admit to his adult son if the Nazi death camps had come to public attention earlier, he would have laid aside his principles and fought. Endearingly, Robert could not remember whether it was before Making Noise Quietly or as a result of seeing it that his father had made that confession.
Dominic Dromgoole who has successfully run more theatres than Goering managed to close, is one of the heroes of this story. In his book The Full Room: An A-Z of Contemporary Playwrights (to which I did not give sufficient credit when it first came out), he vividly captures one of the essences of the dramatist, “There was no happier sight for me in 1999 than the hunched figure of Robert Holman, shrouded in his anorak. Standing in the foyer of the Oxford Playhouse. His eyes were popping and his grin looked as if it would break his face”. Dromgoole is Cambridge educated but during his tenure as Artistic Director of the Bush, his sensibility was remarkably open to the likes of Holman (who did not go to university) and David Eldridge who, barely out of the drama course at Exeter University, found his first play Serving it Up snapped up, as it were, by the Bush Theatre. Dromgoole on Eldridge, “The writer as bloke. David often has the air of someone who’s doing it for a bet. No more loveable big-hearted person exists in the catty world of theatre. But you sometimes suspect that he sneaks back to Romford, joins his mates and laughs himself silly, positively pisses himself silly over the silliness of la-la land.” ‘I’ve just been to a conference on political theatre’ ‘What you, David? Fuck off’, ‘No I have. I was the keynote speaker’.
Very funny and very true. And very alive to the fact that one of the ways you can evince academic cleverness is to know when your mind needs to get out by temporarily switching off and letting the instincts get to work. This reviewer is Oxbridge-trained to his finger-tips and taught at three top-ranking Oxford colleges. But I would like to think that I very quickly realized that Robert Holman had a finer mind that my own.
Likewise, I have no doubt that the most penetrating interpretation of a Shakespeare text I have heard was in the RSC’s Swan production in the late 1980s of Titus Andronicus by Deborah Warner. She skipped university and trained as an ASM. No tenure-seeking wrong-headed ‘new’ interpretation was going to distract her
Robert was not a man inclined to chew the fat with critics; my worst enemy could not accuse me of being a fully-paid-up Stage Door Johnny. An odd couple. But there was no assumption of his part that he automatically deserved attention or respect. Like all creative people he recognized that every dog deserves its day – or Buñuel’s Un Chien Andalou might never have been let off its lead.
He invited me to go to see what turned out to be his last play The Lodger which was produced by the Coronet Theatre in Notting Hill. I caught it on the last night of its run. The place was packed to the rafters. I looked up the press reviews it had received. Which was a disheartening experience. Beautiful acting, direction and design.
It was not that the script was treated with disrespect exactly but even the positive reviews felt churlish and cheese-paring. As with the by-and-large defensively out-of-sorts response to Nina Raine’s Bach & Sons which opened earlier in the year with Simon Russell Beale giving a tour de force – and an amazingly eloquent and musically learned text by Raine – it occurs to me that theatre critics have lost the art of sustained listening. Instead of paying proper attention they get cross-patch or platitudinous (with some honourable exceptions). Or, suggestive of folk who know the price of everything and the value of nothing, they resort to snootily jocose recountings of the plot and galumphingly jocose descriptions of the (in the Coronet’s case) oddball beauty of the building.
One of Holman’s most valuable precepts and shrewdest perceptions is that plays are contributions to literature. It is no coincidence that Shakespeare the greatest playwright is also the literary genius nonpareil. We go to hear a play on the Shakespearean stage. In one those gaffes that have an undercurrent of wisdom, in the mechanicals’ play-within-the-play, Pyramus says “I see a voice…”
I was first dumbfounded by the depth of Holman’s talent when I bought the text of Rafts and Dreams, his 1970 play produced at the Royal Court. It starts off in a suburban setting and develops into a weird and capaciously telling surreal fantasia when two men uproot a tree in a London back garden and trigger a flood of the entire world. The quandaries about whether to bring a baby into existence on a planet where there is also child sex trafficking. Ahead of its time and I was able to marvel over it anew as literature.
Robert is also Shakespearean in being deeply inspired by actors. “His acting comes from the same place as my writing,” he told me at the Coronet when I remarked that the prodigiously gifted Matthew Tennyson seemed to have become the acme of the performer-as-muse.
The play is called The Lodger and as it shifts from the canal in Little Venice to a Lake in Norway, it is about the need for family and the fear and wariness about intimacy in this fallen world where people are abused and fight shy of the truth unless redeemed by the gift of being able to laugh at themselves. It ends in a dance.
In ways that sometimes resemble a cross between the sacred-and-profane love machinery of Iris Murdoch and the world of Alan Bennett, two sisters meet just after the death of their elderly mother. They have both been put off motherhood themselves for contrasting/complementary reasons. To what extent are they in mutual denial?
I reckon the reviews settled for the easy part of describing the sisters and ducked discussing the implications of why the play is called The Lodger (the whole metaphysical/social dimension to Jude – the part played by Matthew Tennyson).
I am so grateful to have known Robert and grieve his loss.
But here is a positive thought. Just as Rafts and Dreams begins with the disastrous uprooting of a tree, so The Lodger climaxes on the planting and composting. What about a re-staging of the earlier play. As a memorial to him it would appropriately be a celebration, a valediction – and a kind of annunciation.