From students of A-level theatre studies, through those taking college programmes in performance arts, to others on full-scale degree courses in drama, the projected readership for this ambitious handbook is wide, and its diverse needs are covered, on the whole, with remarkable skill. Mick Wallis and Simon Shepherd aim to set out and exemplify all the components of theatre productions, from the playtext (dialogue and stage direction) to the text in performance (comprising the four key elements of character, dialogue, plot or action and theatrical space) and the role and status of actor and audience.
This is a vast programme. The authors cut it down to size by splitting topics into short subsections, most of them little more than a page long. Many could serve as a focus for units of work at every level from the sixth-form up, although all but the ablest theatre studies students will need the teacher's active mediation in turning miniature expositions of theory into effective classroom study.
Even so, Wallis and Shepherd could hardly have made things easier. They are good at avoiding jargon, abstraction and theoretical terms except the one they are actively introducing. They also address the student directly and straightforwardly without being patronising, and, throughout the text, they scatter manageable suggestions for follow-up work.
The greatest strength of the book lies in the examples. Point after theoretical point is given theatrical flesh and blood with lively instances from a wide range of plays. Central and recurrent ones are Ibsen's A Doll's House (which emerges as a truly pivotal text for students of theatre) and Shakespeare's King Lear, but the range of reference is wide, with other key points sharply exemplified by the York Corpus Christi Plays and Waiting for Godot, and walk-on parts for everything from Seneca to Inspector Morse. Expertise and enthusiasm combine to make theatre's complexities accessible in this well-organised and useful book.
Peter Hollindale is reader in English and educational studies at the University of York