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As if by Chance: Journeys, Theatres, Lives

David Lan
Faber and Faber

As if by Chance

The recently retired Artistic Director of the Young Vic has been using his spare time usefully to compile a delightfully quirky memoir, which gradually builds into something akin to an autobiography but also an overview of his theatrical work over a period of close to half a century.

Eschewing chronology in favour of themes, David Lan roams around his life, various significant locations and the theatre world relating enchanting stories that together give deep insights into his experiences and thought processes.

They also introduce many of the key figures and plays in the theatre over the last 50 years.

Readers will discover a childhood spent in apartheid South Africa, during which an unconventional young boy discovers early that he is homosexual, much to the discomfort of his loving Jewish parents.

Their own relationship was also a little out of the ordinary, while the story delves back a generation or two further before heading onwards and upwards.

As a teenager, young Lan became enchanted not only by theatre but also its practitioners and most particularly playwright and director Nicholas Wright, his partner for almost the whole of the period under review.

This helpful connection also introduced Lan to London and, more specifically, the Royal Court, where the aspiring man of the stage’s career began to pick up at a time when he looked completely unrecognisable as the front cover demonstrates.

There was then an unlikely interregnum while he first escaped South African National Service by means that sound close to farcical, before taking a degree and then seeking time out working as a social anthropologist in war-torn parts of southern Africa, all grist to the mill for a budding playwright and director.

Most readers will find greatest interest in the coverage of his reign at the Young Vic, during which the theatre was transformed not only artistically but also materially, undergoing a multi-million pound refurbishment that left it with three performance spaces and a new character.

In unexpected ways, the big names who helped to secure Lan’s reputation make heavily anecdotal appearances including Peter Brook, Luc Bondy, Patrice Chereau and Benedict Andrews amongst many high-profile directors with Gillian Anderson leading the acting contingent.

The theatrical highlights also come thick and fast with Chekhov a particular favourite, along with Yerma and moderns such as Le Costume, The Jungle, The Inheritance and A Streetcar Named Desire.

By the end of what is indisputably a good read, fans will realise that there are still big gaps in their knowledge of one of the leading theatrical exponents of the last few decades but they will also have also a much deeper understanding of what makes the great man tick.

Reviewer: Philip Fisher