To read the book is to swim in someone else’s memory, unsure what is real, and what has been damaged or retinted by the passage of time, and by the memoirist’s ability to dramatise. Lan writes in that risky tense, the historical present, but readers who think themselves allergic to it should take some form of literary antihistamine and jump in. The book’s disarray of scenes and tenses, its slippery use of time, has a purpose. Lan is linking memory with theatre, and theatre with life. The narrative is constantly reconfiguring itself, like the auditorium of the Young Vic. He intercuts a drama on stage with a drama in his life, using dozens of quick-fire scene changes. Madame Ranevskaya, as she mourns her drowned son in Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard, is spliced with his own mother, grieving his brother’s death from polio. Disconcertingly, he never employs a trio of asterisks – a literary black-out – to indicate the break between fiction and memory. Threads of recollection, truth and trickery are tightly interwoven through the book, linking the uncertainties of remembrance past with the uncertainties of theatre: the illusion of a reality that can seem more real than real life.
The acclaimed former artistic director of the Young Vic begins these lyrical reminiscences in South Africa, chronicling his sexual awakening and emerging interest in the stage. But he is never bound by chronology, instead dealing with his work thematically and impressionistically. Heartfelt, inspirational and evocative.