Seeker: Ken Campbell, His Five Amazing Lives by Jeff Merrifield. Published by Playback Publications, £15.99.
I never met Ken Campbell and yet felt that I knew him. Coming into the theatre business in the mid-1970s I was fascinated by the work that was going on outside the parameters of the traditional theatre setting.
I was not engaged by “well made plays” set (according to Ken Tynan) in “Loamshire” that were performed in proscenium arch theatres to invariably middle class and middle aged audiences. I was, however, enthralled by theatrical happenings that tore up traditional conventions and captivated new audiences with skill and bravado in both content and presentation.
For me this was theatre that was relevant to the now, rather than looking to the past; it was a living artistic experience rather than a something preserved in aspic. This was a time when the “art of the possible” relied more on vision, imagination and passion than on big budgets. It was also when the social engagement agenda was set by artists and their work rather than bureaucrats ticking boxes to appease political paymasters.
This theatre took various forms. There was the overtly political work of companies like 7:84 and Red Ladder; there were the grand spectacles of Welfare State International; there was the radicalism of Living Theatre; and there was the work of Ken Campbell, driven by a belief in japes and capers but vast in its variety and complexity.
In this new book about Campbell, Jeff Merrifield explores the fascinating and vital world of a theatrical visionary. It explores Campbell’s journey through distinct phases (the “five amazing lives” of the title), from a young actor/writer at the start of his career looking for a new engagement with an audience, through the period of the hilarious, anarchic (yet often profound) Roadshows, the epic work of Illuminatus and The Warp, the one-man shows, and finally the art of improvisation.
In his introduction to the book, Merrifield describes it as a love letter to Campbell. This is certainly true but what comes out with extreme clarity is that the love is not just about the man.
This is a love affair with theatre, with what it could and should be, and how this was realised in the work of one unique individual. It is meticulously researched in a way that is only possible if there is a true passion for the subject both in terms of the man and the work.
What comes over more than anything else is the complexity of Campbell – the (often intuitive) depth of the work mixed with totally accessible (often ribald) humour; the blend between the anarchic and the focused; the clash between the manic and the rational. This portrait reveals a fascinating, infuriating, brilliant and vulgar artist; an intellectual with a common touch; a man who philosophised through his work rather than through explanation; in short, a creative genius.
If there is a problem with this publication, it is that it is perhaps too detailed to sustain an interest in anyone who has just a general interest in the theatre. At over 400 pages long it is a hefty read and as is so often the case, the magic and/or humour of a live theatrical event cannot be adequately conveyed through describing either the event or the process that created it.
There will be many people who though interested in theatre will not share Merrifield’s passion for the subject and might fail to be engaged by what at times reads rather like a theatrical manifesto. However, for those with more than a passing interest in theatre, whether they are aware of Campbell’s work or not, I thoroughly recommend this book. It celebrates the unique contribution made by Campbell and all those who worked for him. Perhaps more importantly it reinforces the continued need for theatrical visionaries.
I would argue that it is harder now to follow a personal artistic vision than it was 40 years ago. At the same time there is an ever-increasing awareness that such a vision is sorely needed. There is a great deal to be learnt from the five amazing lives of Ken Campbell and this book sets it out in celebratory detail. I know him a lot better now than I did before I read this book.
Merrifield says this book is “a friend’s account … of Ken Campbell for all those fans and fellow seekers everywhere”. It is more than that.
It is an important retrospective of his work and demands that all of us who profess a passion for theatre ask important questions as to how to ensure its relevance and vitality. An “amazing legacy” perhaps?