Location: Theatre Square, London
Artist: Philip Jackson
The 20th century was a revolutionary period for playwriting and theatre-making. There was a significant rejection of tradition, pioneered by the likes of Harold Pinter, Edward Bond and Peter Brook. Amongst the most radical, and often referred to as ‘The Mother of Modern Theatre’, was Director Joan Littlewood. Political and provocative, Littlewood was a woman ahead of her time who turned the post- war, middle-class, male-dominated world of drama upside down.
Born and raised in South London, Littlewood went to see an early production of John Gielgud's Macbeth at the Old Vic. She was critical and disappointed, going on to produce her own version of the play at school. She then went on to win a scholarship at RADA, where she found herself in a world of privilege which she did not much care for and ultimately abandoned. Instead, she set off for Liverpool on foot, with hopes of reaching America, but ended up moving to Manchester in 1934 where she met Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl). Together they developed Theatre of Action, an unfunded ensemble company that quickly became a hub for provocative playwriting, attempting to rebel against traditional classical theatre with hard-hitting stories concerning the working-classes. One play, The Last Edition, was seized by the authorities for breach of the peace.
Littlewood began producing a series of hard- hitting documentaries for the BBC, driven by socialist politics, and in 1941, she was banned from the BBC for her alleged extreme communist views and for fear of broadcasting her dangerous ideas to the nation. MI5 observed her for almost two decades. It was a time of political repression and restricted self-expression, so she began writing scripts under alternative names. Littlewood was a determined revolutionary, who never stopped trying to get her BBC ban lifted.
“Before I die, I’d like to push open the door so that people can see the absurdities of the calcified turds of the establishment and recognise the genius in themselves” – Joan Littlewood
This bronze statue, called ‘The Mother of Modern Theatre’ is based on an iconic photograph of Joan Littlewood in the 1970s, when the Theatre Royal Stratford East was threatened with demolition, sitting on rubble in almost exactly this location. Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) was an English theatre director, who demolished the barriers between ‘popular’ and ‘art’ theatre.
The sculpture was created by Philip Jackson, an award-winning Scottish sculptor, noted for his modern style and emphasis on form. It was unveiled in 2015 outside Theatre Royal, the year in which she would have turned 101. Jackson wanted the sculpture to be a permanent reminder of her great contribution not just to British theatre, but to world theatre.