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Dateline: 8th April, 2007

Publicity image
Publicity image for Shadowlands, directed by Joanna Read

Changing Scene at Salisbury

A personal look at Joanna Read's time at Salisbury by Kevin Catchpole

An Hungarian interlude awaits Salisbury Playhouse artistic director Joanna Read this summer as, after eight years in post, she prepares to leave the city in order make time for her young family and new challenges in freelance work.

Joanna Read and her producer husband, Nick Pitt, have children aged two and four and commencing their formal education. “My husband will be working in Hungary on the BBC series Robin Hood," she explained, “so we are looking forward to two months with the family in Budapest.

“There are also several freelance opportunities I want to explore, including particularly writing and musical projects – and after eight years, and with the completion of a £1.4m rehearsal extension nearing completion, I think this is the right time for me to move on.”

Joanna Read moved to Salisbury in succession to Jonathan Church, currently director of Chichester Festival Theatre.

Having studied drama at Bristol University after which she worked at Birmingham Rep later doing freelance work at Watford Palace and Sheffield Lyceum, she spent six months as assistant to David Thacker, Director of TheYoung Vic.

Joanna Read was for four years as associate director to Lawrence Till at Bolton’s Octagon Theatre from where she accepted an invitation to succeed Jonathan Church as Artistic Director at Salisbury.

Earlier, the Playhouse had experienced troublesome, if not quite turbulent times under the leadership of Deborah Paige, a talented director who could not seem to inspire the confidence of the local community. No doubt this was due largely to difficulties implicit in following such a hugely popular figure as the late David Horlock, whose final production, Jamaica Inn, as things turned out, laid its own trap for Joanna Read.

In her first days at Salisbury, Joanna Read found a warm welcome through her pleasant, fair-haired appearance and friendly manner. Such was her appeal, in fact, that whenever critics arose from the audience to challenge her work, as they always will, greater numbers from the same ranks would respond protectively.

Whether it were Shakespeare, with whose plays she enjoyed mixed fortunes, A Winter’s Tale, for example, being less memorable than her exciting staging of Macbeth in the round, Joanna Read continually sought to raise the sights of her Wiltshire audience. Less successful was her ambitious adventure with Maxim Gorky’s Barbarians, made possible by an increase in the Arts Council grant. The result tended to underline Chekhov’s well-known view that, artistically, Gorky was no match for him! The production did involve a large and talented cast though audiences, perhaps predictably, struggled with Gorky’s heavy story.

Among her most ambitious productions, the musical The Hired Man, brought to Salisbury not only a new score by Howard Goodall but also the author himself, Melvin (Lord) Bragg. This enterprise won for Read the Theatre Management Association award for Best Musical.

Her more recent collaboration with Goodall, Two Cities, based on Dickens’s classic tale with the execution scenes switched from Paris to St Petersburg – in a vain bid to avoid confusion with Les Miserables - did not, alas, enjoy the same success.

However, there are far more endeavours for which Joanna Read’s tenure will be most fondly remembered in the wide catchment area served by this Wiltshire stage.

Equus, currently gripping West end audiences, was the first production in the round on Salisbury’s main stage and in 2005, Playing For Time, the first stage production of Arthur Miller’s grim story of the concentration camp, featured a cast of 25, led by Joanna Riding, most of whom were required to be musicians as well as actors. In the same season, To Kill a Mocking Bird, once more in the round, won more fans for this exciting staging.

In addition to her own productions, Joanna Read provided a much valued arena for other young directors, notably Lucy Pitman-Wallace, responsible for Noël Coward’s Relative Values, memorable for a formidable Countess from Maggie Steed, and this season, Oscar Wilde’s A Woman of No Importance. In 2000 there was Mark Rosenblatt’s fine production of one of the best-made plays of them all, Somerset Maugham’s classic The Circle, featuring a strong cast including Trevor Baxter, Lois Baxter (no relation) and Jonathan Newth.

As for Jamaica Inn, Joanna Read, surely unknowingly, chose a work memorably directed by David Horlock in what tragically turned out to be his final production when he was killed in a road accident the week prior to dress rehearsal. .

But whereas Horlock’s had been a blockbuster version of the Daphne du Maurier original, shrouded in Cornish mist, Read’s account was re-written by Lisa Evans to include a strange additional character, a fight director with little evidence of action on stage and a lighting artist who left the audience for long periods in darkness.

“What on earth,” enquired Liverpool Daily Post reviewer Philip Key, “have they done to Jamaica Inn? It seemed to think it was Chekhovian.” And yet the courageous Playhouse Company subsequently took this production to Cornwall and to Devon, where reaction from the Barnstaple press was much more favourable.

“Leavened with sometimes unlikely humour,” wrote Chrissie Sawl, “the petulance of horses represented in wire, the production seethed with all the dark menace of the original tale. Fantastic design and clever lighting all helped director Joanna Read pull off an absolute triumph.”

That review, which I now read for the first time, will surely encourage both director and company. Yet it does not prompt me to sway one comma from my own original conclusion which was that this imaginative staging suffered from its own invention.

“Translation of such a good yarn from page to stage" I wrote, "is in itself a challenge inviting comparison with the original. To compound this task by incorporating vocal score, comic animal mimicry and the introduction of a twin ‘conscience’ figure for the heroine is surely taking invention at least one device too far.

“The fact that a little over ten years ago, Jamaica Inn was famously staged here as a tribute to David Horlock, following the director’s sudden death before opening night, merely adds to the hurdles to be overcome.”

Certainly, however, Joanna Read’s years at Salisbury ended triumphantly with her excellent production last month of William Nicholson’s remarkable first work for the stage, Shadowlands, the powerful story of CS Lewis and Joy Davidman featuring Julian Glover and Lisa Eichorn.

The present season ends wth a production of Tom Stoppard’s Indian Ink which was to have been Joanna Read’s farewell production, a task that now falls to…Lucy Pitman-Wallace.

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©Peter Lathan 2007