Spotlight: CARDENIO at RSC

Gregory Doran directs Cardenio

Gregory Doran, editor and director of Cardenio

Gregory Doran has performed a masterful act of literary archaeology in bringing a lost Shakespeare play to the stage. Opening last night at the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon, Cardenio is set in the heat and dust of Andalusia in seventeenth-century Spain. But the history of the play is every bit as thrilling as the play itself. Here, Greg charts the thrilling story of Cardenio, from the story’s first appearance in Cervantes’ Don Quixote to its re-imagining at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2011, via Shakespeare and Fletcher’s stage in 1612 and the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in 1727.

Theatre is the most collaborative of the arts; and collaboration has been the key note of Cardenio since William Shakespeare and his younger colleague John Fletcher decided to write a play together, based on an episode in the Spanish best-seller, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, first published in England in 1612, in a translation by Thomas Shelton.

Cardenio somehow avoided inclusion in either the First Folio of Shakespeare’s plays in 1623, or of Humphrey Moseley’s publication of Beaumont and Fletcher’s plays in 1647. But Moseley did register The History of Cardenio by Mr Fletcher. & Shakespeare (sic) for publication in 1653, in the Stationers’ Register. Perhaps Sir William Davenant (who promoted the rumour that he was Shakespeare’s illegitimate child) had a manuscript of this play, and may have prepared it for performance by his company after the Restoration, with Thomas Betterton, the leading tragedian of his time, as Cardenio himself. Davenant’s company had done adaptations of the two other Shakespeare/Fletcher collaborations we know about: The Two Noble Kinsmen and All is True (Henry VIII); so why not Cardenio?

Cardenio production photo - Pippa Nixon as Dorotea and Alex Hassell as Fernando

Pippa Nixon as Dorotea and Alex Hassell as Fernando. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

The prompter to that company, one John Downes, retired in 1706, and it seems a manuscript copy of Cardenio, in his handwriting, fell into the hands of one Lewis Theobald. Theobald, who had trained in the law, had tried his hand at everything: classical translation, journalism, poetry, opera librettos and even a novel, and was scratching a living writing the new popular pantomimes at the theatre in Lincoln’s Inn Fields. But he finally came to prominence by challenging the great poet of the Augustan Age, Alexander Pope, for his sloppy inaccurate edition of Shakespeare. And Theobald’s follow-up move, designed to secure his place in the literary pantheon, was his adaptation of that Cardenio manuscript, which he called Double Falshood, or The Distrest Lovers. It was a success. It ran for ten consecutive performances at Drury Lane Theatre.

Back in 2003, when I was directing Fletcher’s The Tamer Tamed, his sequel to The Taming of the Shrew, we got a group of actors together to read Theobald’s Double Falshood. We all agreed that it had great potential, but that the plotting (particularly at the beginning) was convoluted, and it was missing several scenes. At which point, we put the play aside. However, after re-reading Shelton’s 1612 translation of Don Quixote, I realised that those missing scenes might be re-imagined from the very same source material that Shakespeare and Fletcher must have used.

Cardenio production photo - Oliver Rix as Cardenio

Oliver Rix as Cardenio. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

In 2007 on a visit to Spain with my production of The Canterbury Tales, I was introduced by the Almagro Festival director, Emilio Hernandez, to Antonio Álamo, a writer and the director of the Lope de Vega Theatre in Seville. Antonio is a Cervantes nut, so we inevitably discussed Cardenio. He alerted me to what an extraordinary story it is, and made me realise just how much Theobald (who admitted he was adapting it for the tastes and sensibilities of the London audience of his time) had removed: namely, much of the psychological complexity and rigour of the original. We would need to replace Cardenio’s ‘cojones’!

Further discussion with Spanish colleagues ensued. I travelled to Cordoba to accept a Bellas Artes medal, on behalf of the RSC, from the King of Spain (Laurence Boswell’s brilliant Spanish Golden Age Season had visited Madrid, as had my own production of Coriolanus: both had emanated from the RSC). In Alicante at a Cervantes/Shakespeare conference organised by Professor Jose Manuel Gonzalez de Sevilla, further discussions took place – and finally a visit to Seville with Antonio Álamo, to understand the significance of the story in Spain. Out of this visit came another draft, which we workshopped with the Hamlet company in 2008, and another draft was further developed at an RSC residency in Michigan, under the aegis of Professor Ralph Williams. Here we worked with Hispanic-American actors from the LAByrinth theatre company in New York. So, for example, Cardenio was played by a Mexican, and Don Bernardo by an actor from Los Angeles, which certainly revealed and rooted the play’s Spanish temperament.

Cardenio production photo - Alex Hassell as Fernando, Christopher Chilton as Priest, Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda

Alex Hassell as Fernando, Christopher Chilton as Priest and Lucy Briggs-Owen as Luscinda. © RSC/Ellie Kurttz

Throughout the process, we poured over other seventeenth-century versions of the Cardenio story, by Pichou, by de Castro, by Bouscal, and by Thomas D’Urfey. But in an attempt to provide some sense of integrity to the piece, where extra lines were needed, I tried to limit myself to plundering only those Jacobean plays in which John Fletcher had drawn upon Cervantes.

Cardenio is the first new production in the Swan Theatre, since the RSC’s Transformation Project (another collaborative effort if ever there was one). The Swan opened twenty-five years ago with Fletcher and Shakespeare’s The Two Noble Kinsmen, so it is only fitting that we return with another play they worked on together, although this time the list of writing credits has grown to the length of a Hollywood blockbuster, with Shakespeare, Cervantes, Fletcher, Shelton, Theobald, etc.

Cardenio programme text (jacket)

Cardenio - Shakespeare's 'lost play' re-imagined

Cardenio reopened the RSC’s Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon on April 27th, and runs to 6th October 2011. It has already received a glowing reception from the critics – ‘an extraordinary and theatrically powerful piece’ wrote the Guardian, ‘a spirited, entertaining and at times touching night at the theatre’ adds the Telegraph. Today’s piece is an extract from Gregory Doran’s Introduction to the published text of the play. To secure your own copy of the Bard’s ‘lost play’ – with a special 20% discount (and free p&p for UK customers), click here and add ‘Cardenio Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout and your discount will be applied when your order is processed.


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Spotlight: LONDON ROAD at the National Theatre

London Road jacketPlaywright Alecky Blythe and composer Adam Cork have scored a tremendous success with their bold, innovative verbatim musical London Road, which opened at the National Theatre last week. But what was the genesis of this ‘startling, magically original’ (Evening Standard) new work?

Alecky Blythe: I work using a technique originally created by Anna Deavere Smith, who combined the journalistic technique of interviewing her subjects with the art of reproducing their words accurately in performance. The technique involves going into a community of some sort and recording conversations with people, which are then edited to become the script of the play. However, the actors do not see the text. The edited recordings are played live to the actors through earphones during the rehearsal process, and onstage in performance. The actors listen to the audio and repeat what they hear. They copy not just the words but exactly the way in which they were first spoken. Every cough, stutter and hesitation is reproduced. Up till now for my previous shows, the actors have not learnt the lines at any point. By listening to the audio during performances the actors are helped to remain accurate to the original recordings, rather than slipping into their own patterns of speech or embellishment.

London Road production shot

Howard Ward, Nicola Sloane, Duncan Wisbey, Michael Shaeffer, Claire Moore, Clare Burt, Paul Thornley, Hal Fowler, Kate Fleetwood, Rosalie Craig, Nick Holder (all as reporters). Photo by Helen Warner

My first interviews from Ipswich were collected on 15th December 2006; five bodies had been found but no arrests had been made. The town was at the height of its fear. I had been gripped and appalled by the spiralling tragedies that were unravelling in Ipswich during that dark time. It would of course be a shocking experience for any community, but the fact that it took place in this otherwise peaceful rural town, never before associated with high levels of crime or soliciting, made it all the more upsetting for the people who lived there. It was not what was mainly being reported in the media about the victims or the possible suspects that drew me to Ipswich, but the ripples it created in the wider community in the lives of those on the periphery. Events of this proportion take hold in all sorts of areas outside the lead story, and that is what I wanted to explore. What Adam and I discovered with the music was that it succeeded in binding together shared sentiments that were being echoed throughout the town during those worrying times. I was excited to have a new tool at my disposal with the songwriting. By creating verses and choruses I could shape the material for narrative and dramatic effect further than I had ever been able to do before.

It was not until six months later, when I returned to Ipswich to gauge the temperature of the town after the arrests but before the trial, that I stumbled upon what was to me the most interesting development so far. A Neighbourhood Watch that had been set up at the time of the murders had organised a ‘London Road in Bloom’ competition and the street could not have looked more different from when it had been besieged by the media the winter before. Hanging baskets lined the roads and front gardens were bursting with floral displays. Such was the impact of the terrible happenings in that area that the community had come together and set up a series of events, from gardening competitions to quiz nights, in order to try to heal itself. Although this had some coverage in the local press, the national media had not reported this final and important chapter of the story. Over the course of the next two years, I regularly revisited the residents of London Road to chart their full recovery.

London Road production shot

Rosalie Craig (Helen), Duncan Wisbey (Gordon) and members of the company. Photo by Helen Warner

Adam Cork: When I first met Alecky at the National Theatre Studio almost four years ago, as part of an experimental week which brought together composers and playwrights, I had no idea that I’d be working with a ‘verbatim’ practitioner. And when Alecky explained the concept and methods of this documentary form to me, I have to admit my very first thought was ‘How on earth can I turn this into music?’ But when we started listening to her interviews, I began to feel that this could be an inspiring new approach to songwriting, or, more accurately, an exciting development of an existing way of composing songs. Whenever I’ve set conventional texts to music, I’ve always spoken the words to myself, and transcribed the rhythms and the melodic rise and fall of my own voice, to try and arrive at the most truthful and direct expression of the text. And here was an opportunity to refine that to a much purer process, without any authorial or poetic interpretation (not to mention my own bad acting) polluting the connection between the actual subject and his or her representation in music.

My initial aim was that the music should be as articulated as possible, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing justice to the reality and the uniqueness of the depicted people. I also wanted to seize the challenge of taking an experimental idea and developing it into something which could be interesting as both music and drama. I didn’t want to reference any overall musical style, but rather, discover responses suggested by the material on a moment-by-moment basis. For that reason I didn’t foresee much cross-pollination of musical motifs from one song to another, although I did want the identity of each individual song to be clear; I felt this was the only way I could create musical meaning from this un-versified, spontaneously spoken text. I also hoped that, in the spirit of the documentary concept, the musical score would be like a time capsule inside which the speech rhythms would be captured and contained, frozen and fossilised in music just as they have a fixed existence on Alecky’s recordings. And I wanted to find a way of singing with the quality of speech, which is altogether different from either an operatic or a conventional musical-theatre vocal style.

London Road production shot

Nick Holder, Hal Fowler, Howard Ward, Paul Thornley, Rosalie Craig, Nicola Sloane and Claire Moore. Photo by Helen Warner

Making spontaneously spoken words formal, through musical accompaniment and repetition, has the potential to explode the thought of a moment into slow motion, and can allow us more deeply to contemplate what’s being expressed. This seems particularly interesting when many different people speak about the same thought or feeling. The choral presentation of this story seems to underline the ritual aspect of human communal experience. The experiences captured on this stage are not new to our species, whether it’s the healing process after a tragedy, the gathering of forces within a community to find and punish a dangerous individual, or the telling of all these events to the wider community. This is deeply ancient, shared human experience in all its facets, no matter how much professionalism and the division of labour distance us from each other today. The people of Ipswich, the residents of London Road, and the news media, play their part in this ritual, and so do we, in presenting this piece of choric theatre.

London Road plays at the National Theatre, booking until 18th June. Today’s piece is an extract from Alecky and Adam’s introductions to the published text of the play. To buy the full text – with every hesitation, stumble, stutter and tic carefully recorded – with a special 20% discount (and free p&p for UK customers), click here and add ‘Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout and your discount will be applied when your order is processed.

TERENCE RATTIGAN special

Dan RebellatoAs the plays of Terence Rattigan once again take centre stage during his centenary year, Dan Rebellato, academic, playwright and editor of the NHB Rattigan collection, argues that Rattigan has been unfairly cast as the writer of stuffy, conservative drama, and that his plays are consummate in their emotional power and sensitivity.

How did I first come across Terence Rattigan’s work? Aged 12, I was Taplow in a school production of The Browning Version. I got to start the play, which was a bonus; I ate a chocolate, got taught how to grip a golf club, and had to speak bits of Ancient Greek, which was nicely show-offy; also I was textually obliged to take the piss out of the older boy playing Crocker-Harris. I thought it was a hoot and was surprised when we took our curtain call on first night to see members of the audience in tears.

Flash forward a decade or so and I’d begun a PhD looking again at the theatrical revolutions of 1956. Armed with a revisionist historiography, I’d noted that the success of the Royal Court, Look Back in Anger and so on, was so overwhelming that it had cast the twenty or so years beforehand completely into shadow. I have always been interested in post-war British theatre, reading voraciously plays, histories and books of reviews; but apart from An Inspector Calls, The Mousetrap and my vague memory of being in The Browning Version, I knew next to nothing about that era and I wanted to find out whether it really was sentimental, conservative and, in Arthur Miller’s famous – but presumably not all that well informed – remark, ‘hermetically sealed off from life’.

Browning Version & Harlequinade jacket

Browning Version & Harlequinade by Terence Rattigan

It was a wonderful adventure in research. The drama of the forties and early fifties was so little a part of my theatre education that going into the archives and research libraries to find the plays, magazines and debates of the time I felt –  and PhD researchers often report these feelings – like Howard Carter coming across the tomb of Tutankhamun. Play after play dazzled me with its originality, its strangeness, its political sophistication, its formal elegance and beauty, its unfamiliar playfulness with the audience. It was, I thought, a radically different theatre, with its own rules, and as much of a claim to serious attention as the remarkable work done at the Royal Court.

Chief among these discoveries was Terence Rattigan. Re-reading The Browning Version I could now see why the audience was crying: it’s a perfect miniature – still perhaps the finest one-act play I know – and one that aches with yearning and a profound sense of the pain and humiliation in the very tiniest moments of casual disregard. In the same summer I read him chronologically through the forties and fifties – Flare Path, While the Sun Shines, The Winslow Boy, Love In Idleness, The Browning Version, The Deep Blue Sea, Separate Tablesand with each play my eyes widened further, my jaw dropped lower at his technical accomplishments, and the ever-greater emotional richness of his work.

Flare Path jacket

Flare Path by Terence Rattigan

The journey from apprentice to master is almost inexorable. Flare Path is elegant, heartfelt, sincere and warm, full of empathy, a patriotic melodrama perhaps, but one finely wrought for its audience. By the time you get to The Deep Blue Sea, Rattigan is writing as challengingly and profoundly about human feeling as anyone in the century. It’s telling that critics reproved Rattigan for not killing off the Count in Flare Path, who returns miraculously before the final curtain and also for not killing off Hester Collyer, whose suicide is threatened throughout The Deep Blue Sea. But in 1942, he was too conservative for the critics. A decade later, the critics had become too conservative for him.

A play on the page is one thing, of course, and on the stage it’s another.

I approached Karel Reisz’s 1993 Almeida production of The Deep Blue Sea with some trepidation. What if the play didn’t really stand up in production? Perhaps the carpentry would become too apparent when real actors have to play those lines? As it happened though, the production in its original setting (for it lost a little something when it transferred into the West End, and more still when it was refitted for TV) was the finest Rattigan production I’ve ever seen. More than anything else, this was the production that secured Rattigan’s reputation for the twenty-first century.

From the very beginning, as the neighbours let themselves into Hester’s flat, I was shocked by the horror of the story unfolding before me, the slowly brutal estrangement of Hester and Freddie. In the last moments before the interval, Hester is getting her lover ready for his interview, polishing his shoes, adjusting his collar. Freddie breaks the news that he’s leaving her and makes to go, grabbing his shoes. ‘I haven’t finished them,’ she screams, a detail filled with her desperation. I found myself convulsed with tears.

After The Dance jacket

After the Dance by Terence Rattigan

One of the great pleasures of editing these new editions for Nick Hern Books has been the chance to spend weeks and weeks in the company of these beautiful plays. Thanks to the superbly archived Rattigan Papers in the British Library, I’ve been able to trace the emergence of these plays through successive drafts, letters to friends, arguments with directors and actors, and their rise and fall and rise again through successive productions.

Does Rattigan have anything to tell us now about how to write plays? Sure he does. It’s important to distinguish his techniques from the inflated shorthand about the ‘well-made play’. Rattigan never followed the well-made play rules slavishly, he had his own sense of how to tell a story. There’s no ‘obligatory scene’ in After the Dance; there is nothing nineteenth-century about the structure of Cause Célèbre; Hester doesn’t follow Paula Tanqueray into a convenient grave. Rattigan’s real dramaturgical genius is to generate fathoms of subtext that the actor and the audience can fill. He knew the value of a simple sentence – ‘I haven’t finished them’ – that can bring an agonised gasp of understanding from an audience.

Rattigan always used that theatrical understanding to generate emotional and sexual understanding. Look no further than Separate Tables’s final scene; it’s a scene all about alternative sexuality, liberalism, tolerance, and the rejection of prejudice. And it’s entirely conducted through small talk about the weather and horse racing. The audience member who doesn’t find themselves inwardly cheering like a mad thing has a heart of stone.

Cause Célèbre jacket

Cause Célèbre by Terence Rattigan

This year is Rattigan’s centenary. He would, I am sure, been gratified to see the flurry of productions that are marking the occasion. Deep Blue Seas in Yorkshire and Chichester (and a movie on the way), Flare Path, Less Than Kind, Cause Célèbre in London, In Praise of Love in Northampton, The Browning Version and Nicholas Wright’s adapted version of Rattigan’s unproduced screenplay Nijinsky in Chichester, and seasons of his work on radio, TV, film, and even a new exhibition on the playwright’s works at the British Library.  It’s clear that his critical rejection in the 1960s hit him very hard. In some ways I think it killed him. The esteem in which he is now held has been a long time coming and I think Nick Hern’s decision (brave in the early 90s) to republish the plays in individual critical editions has played a part in that. Thankfully though, this change in his critical fortunes began before he died; I say ‘thankfully’ because he was a man devoted to audiences, not slavishly trying to please, but always to engage with them, seduce them, shake and move them. So, when In Praise of Love and Cause Célèbre were, rightly, well received, it buoyed him.

The latter was still running when his death was announced in 1977. The next night, at the end of the curtain call, Glynis Johns (the actor playing Alma Rattenbury) stepped forward and asked the audience to join her in three cheers for the play’s author. ‘We decided against standing in silence,’ she explained. ‘He was, after all, a man who liked applause.’

Click here to view the full collection of Terence Rattigan plays published by Nick Hern Books. As a special offer to our blog readers, we are offering a 25% discount (with free p&p, UK customers only) across our full list of Rattigan plays. Simply add ‘Rattigan Blog Offer’ in the comments field at checkout (your discount will be applied when your order is processed).

Click here to view the full range of events marking this year’s Rattigan Centenary.

Ken Campbell: The True Spirit of a Prankster

Michael Coveney

Michael Coveney, biographer of Ken Campbell

Published today – April Fools’ Day – is Ken Campbell: The Great Caper, Michael Coveney’s biography of the one-man comic whirlwind who tore through the British theatre establishment using well-rehearsed anarchy and a genius for surreal comedy. Here, Coveney recalls Campbell’s fondness for a good wheeze – including his notorious Royal Dickens Company hoax…

If there’s one side of Ken Campbell that illustrates his insistence that theatre should be lived ‘in the moment’, it’s his penchant for the prank, his love of the hoax. The maverick director, who died two years ago aged just 66, was a sucker for stunts and wheezes of all kinds in his work, from the physical clowning in his early Ken Campbell Road Show, right through to the impossible feats and adventures in his great epics – Illuminatus! and The Warp – and his unstoppable flow of unlikely tall stories in his magnificent solo performances. He mixed vaudeville with science fiction, pratfalls with philosophy and physical fun with furious linguistics.  This is what made him so unusual: he emerged from the world of weekly rep and the first stirrings of the fringe as a provocative instigator of the unexpected, the outrageous and the downright disrespectful.  He really did believe that the only things worth doing were impossible, and that going to the theatre should entail taking your life in your hands.

He also felt that creating mayhem was all part of the serious artistic process. Thus the idea that the Royal Shakespeare Company should be put on hold in favour of a similarly dedicated Royal Dickens Company may sound ridiculous, or even far-fetched, but the whole madcap adventure had a serious undertone.

Many theatre directors, even RSC ones, have occasionally called for a moratorium on the Bard. One of them was Matthew Warchus, who directed the Alex Jennings Hamlet for the RSC and is currently responsible for their biggest non-Shakespearian hit since Nicholas Nickleby and Les Misérables, the Roald Dahl musical, Matilda.

Campbell’s RDC hoax, brilliantly conceived and inspirationally executed, was a response to the great success of David Edgar’s two-part version of Nicholas Nickleby in 1980, exactly one year after Ken had launched his ten-play, 22-hour epic The Warp on an unsuspecting public at the ICA Theatre in the Mall.

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

Ken with Werner, his dog, in Recollections of a Furtive Nudist (National Theatre, 1988)

But it was also a dig at the RSC’s increasingly commercial ambitions in the rush for sponsorship and world domination, and a reminder that some people were capable of ambitious, glorious work without any subsidy to speak of and outside the citadel of the establishment.

He despatched a series of letters on authentically reproduced notepaper, apparently signed by Trevor Nunn, then the RSC’s artistic director, inviting leading directors and playwrights to embark on a series of Dickensian adaptations: Bill Bryden was asked to consider The Pickwick Papers; Peter Hall required to ‘have a look at’ Martin Chuzzlewit; and Trevor Griffiths urged to re-visit A Tale of Two Cities with Jonathan Pryce in mind as Sydney Carton.

Mike Leigh was offered twenty-three actors and a 17-week rehearsal period ‘to take on the challenge of Bleak House: looking forward to your reactions. Love, Trev.’ Mrs Thatcher’s arts minister, Norman St John-Stevas, was also kept in the loop: ‘Dickens will prove as big a draw as Shakespeare, if we can keep up this terrific standard…Any thoughts you have on this will, as always, be treasured. Love, Trev. PS: Perhaps we could get together for lunch some time soon to discuss this. The Pickwick Club would seem appropriate!’

Stories appeared in the newspapers and Trevor Nunn had to confirm, rather wearily, that no more Dickens adaptations were planned. He even told The Times that a lot of people had written back to him refusing his offers or, more embarrassingly, accepting them. Eventually, Campbell’s cover was blown by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight and he emerged from a silhouette to make a confession, claiming that he’d been inspired to perpetrate the hoax in order to focus even more public attention on the excellence of the RSC’s work.

There are two things theatre is particularly good at: telling stories and making mischief. And Ken was an arch exponent of both. The Ken Campbell Road Show was planned to be an advertisement for the lively new work at the Bolton Octagon, but Ken made his own offshoot enterprise in pubs and clubs far more interesting and enjoyable than the stuff they were actually putting on the Octagon stage itself. This subversive campaign was rooted in a philosophy, deeply and joyously antagonistic towards all manifestations of official culture or indeed political correctness, and it burns through his work from start to finish.

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow

Bob Hoskins in the Ken Campbell Roadshow (Bolton, 1969)

The Great Caper of my book’s title is also the title of a play at the Royal Court which recounted the Search for the Perfect Woman across continents as far as the Lapland tundra. This was an orgy of tall storytelling that mystified most critics but delighted a few, notably Ronald Bryden, who described the play as an alternative version of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days, with Warren Mitchell as its Phileas Fogg and Ken himself, appearing on the stage where he had once been rejected as a ‘career’ director, as his Passepartout.

Pranks and wheezes were pursued not only for the sheer hell of it, but as a means of challenging the status quo and subverting the laws of propriety. It’s amazing how little theatre does this nowadays in any serious way, and Campbell was the past master. In Walking Like Geoffrey, the inhabitants of the Nottinghamshire village of Gotham pretend to be mad in order to avoid paying their taxes, while a member of the aristocracy tries to ‘pang’ himself into another universe. He approached the task literally, just as Bob Hoskins in the Road Show used to invite his partner to stretch a huge length of very strong knicker elastic across the heads of the audience before unwittingly releasing it full on into the innocent mush of his cooperating partner. Sylvester McCoy used not only to put ferrets down his trousers, but also bang nails up his nose and explode small bombs on his chest.

And throughout his career, Ken was daring his friends and colleagues to go further than is strictly allowable, in both art and life. His solo shows were a perfect amalgamation of heightened, creative reminiscence and speculative narrative propulsion, brilliant compilations of words and images that leave you breathless with excitement and helpless with laughter. And he liked nothing more than watching a daring improviser compose a sonnet forwards on the spot while counting backwards in sevens from five hundred.

It simply can’t be done: which is the only point in doing it.

Michael Coveney is chief critic and blogger for Whatsonstage.com. To purchase your copy of his new book – Ken Campbell: The Great Caper – hot off the press at the special price of £12.99 with free p&p (usual price £14.99, UK customers only), click here and quote ‘blog offer’ in the comments field at checkout. You can also send a direct message on Twitter to @nickhernbooks quoting ‘THE GREAT CAPER’ and we’ll get back to you speedily to process your order!

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper by Michael Coveney

Also, to coincide with the book’s publication, Michael Coveney will be joined by special guests Richard Eyre, Jim Broadbent, John Sessions, Nina Conti and Daisy Campbell (Ken’s daughter), to talk about the maverick comic and his legacy, on Friday 8 April 2011 (5pm). Tickets cost £5 and can be purchased via the Royal Court’s website.

Ken Campbell: The Great Caper is the BBC Radio 4 Book of the Week for the week beginning 4 April 2011. For more information visit the BBC iPlayer website here.