To Guardian readers, the premise of State of the Nation will come as no surprise. A history of British theatre since the war, it makes no mention of theatre in its main title, following Michael Billington’s belief that a nation and its theatre are inseparable. I share that belief, though always with relief that I have never had to defend it. As a theatre reviewer you can get away with slapping a sociopolitically relevant sticker on anything that takes your fancy, and in Billington’s own reviews few four-star recommendations have been awarded without one. In his book, however, he turns his back on that fly-by-night world and retraces his sixty years of theatrical experience so as to put his convictions to the test.
Stylistically his book achieves depth of focus by bringing the political, theatrical and personal material into a perspective of long-range, middle-distance and close-up. (Speaking of style, the pleasure of reading Billington would be increased if he did not begin so many sentences with ‘but’.) Read selectively, it amounts to a