Littlewood’s Approaches to Texts and Devising

Interview with Nadine Holdsworth: Part 4

Nadine Holdsworth is Professor of Theatre and Performance at the University of Warwick. Her research has two distinct, but sometimes interconnected strands in Twentieth Century popular theatre practitioners and theatre and national identities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. She has worked particularly on Joan Littlewood and has written Joan Littlewood for the Routledge Performance Practitioners Series in 2006 and Joan Littlewood’s Theatre with Cambridge University Press in 2011.


Connections to the GCSE, AS and A level specifications

  • Methods of creating, developing, rehearsing and performing
  • Key collaborations with other artists
  • The relationship between actor and audience in theory and practice
  • Influence
  • Significant moments in the development of theory and practice
  • Social, cultural, political and historical context

PC: Is there a clear difference in her work with text compared to her devised pieces?

NH: Yes. The form was always about making it work with the text, so whatever the text required was the form that was made. Or in terms of the more improvised pieces like Oh What a Lovely War or earlier plays like John Bullion it was about the best relationship between the different elements of production. Derek Paget uses a term collision montage which I think is a really lovely way of talking about that work. She constantly reordered scenes making something like Oh What A Lovely War, to see what was going to have the most impact: put that next to that, what does that do? Try it again here, what does that do?

PC: I know that Littlewood was very playful with her actors: was her experimentation with form rooted solely in her playfulness or was it rooted in a research and understanding of the theatre?

NH: I think it changes given the different contexts she was working in.

  • In the beginning the impetus was political
  • then it moved through to wanting to make really vivid theatrical imagery
  • then the idea of the authentic working class voice becomes more important (A Taste of Honey, You Won’t Always Be On Top and Brendan Behan’s plays)
  • Then she shifts into wanting to be much more improvisational, breaking down that relationship between the auditorium and the stage space with interruptions and humour to develop a relationship with the audience.
  • Then after Oh What a Lovely War she gets completely bored with theatre and theatre spaces full stop and she starts doing community projects for kids and makes plans for this big cultural centre – the Fun Palace. This idea lives on in the Fun Palace events run across the world at the start of October led by co-directors Stella Duffy and Sarah-Jane Rawlings.

So yes there is definitely the sense of her anarchic spirit driving these shifts but it is also about her ever growing knowledge of the theatre that never allowed her work to stay still.


  • Littlewood constantly reordered scenes making something like Oh What A Lovely War, to see what was going to have the most impact. Derek Paget uses a term collision montage.
  • Littlewood’s anarchic spirit drove shifts in her approach but changes always came about with her ever growing knowledge of the theatre.


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