A Fitting Tribute to David Lan - English Alive
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A Fitting Tribute to David Lan

Dan Lan

A Fitting Tribute to David Lan

31 January 2018 brought to an end the 18-year-long reign as the Artistic Director of the Young Vic Theatre in London of one of English Alive’s most illustrious alumni, David Lan (EA 1967, 1968, 1969, Westerford High School).

To top it all off was the Special Award for Services to the Theatre which was conferred on him by the Critics Circle on 30 January 2018.

This accolade from today’s working theatre journalists formed a fitting part of David’s Farewell. He says he will remain to look after the plays in the repertoire which are part of his last season, but in all other respects the Young Vic will now be run by his successor, the actor turned award-winning British playwright Kwame Kwei-Armah. David handed over to Kwame what he called simply ‘the best job in the world’.

After school at Westerford, David graduated from the University of Cape Town, while all the time featuring strongly in the Department of Drama, as actor, stage-manager, director, playwright. He then attended the London School of Economics, followed by a year living and working among the freedom fighters in the Chimurenga War in Zimbabwe. This resulted in what became the standard text for academics in social anthropology, ‘Guns and Rain: Guerrillas and Spirit Mediums in Zimbabwe’.

As a playwright David produced the following original plays: ‘Painting a Wall’; ‘Desire and other plays’; ‘Sergeant Ola and His Followers’; ‘Flight’; ‘Plays One’; (with Caryl Churchill) ‘A Mouthful of Birds’; ‘Tobias and the Angel’ libretto; and ‘The Ends of the Earth’.

In addition, he has had published the following ‘versions’ (translations?) of plays: ‘Anton Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya’; ‘Giovanni Verga’s La Lupa’; ‘Euripides’ Hippolytus’; ‘Euripides’ Ion’;

His Awards are prodigious: John Whiting Award 1977; George Orwell Memorial Award 1983; Three separate and different Laurence Olivier Awards, especially the Achievement Award for an Outstanding Season at the Young Vic 2003; In 2013 he received the CBE in the Queen’s New Year Honours.

We laud David’s achievements to the skies and wish him well in his ‘retirement’ – he is quite unlikely to withdraw from all association with the theatre. As it is, he is a Consultative Director of the Performing Arts Center at Ground Zero in New York.

Here are the two of David Lan’s poems selected for the ‘English Alive 50’ anthology.

In the very first edition of ‘English Alive’ in 1967:

A sad and tired fire

A thin taut wire runs through the house in which I live;
and I must walk along it, holding my arms outstretched
to keep my balance. For if I fall, if the slightest fly
lights on me, and I stoop to brush it off and then try
to stand again, the wire will bend and snap. To be again
as I was before, I must knot the burning thread and make
it tighter still. Therefore it will break again.

The only way in which I can end the pattern of this life
would be to cut it off at either end. But even that would not suffice,
for where it was, a screaming violin would sound –
and that is just as difficult to walk along as wire.

So I will always step this way, along the stiff and tightened chord.
Unless I leave this place (perhaps I will return – but leave it now)
and let the tension slacken with one less weight on it.
But if and when I do return, will I find it as it was?
Or will that world, betrayed by one false foot that slipped,
based upon the ashes of my time, be a sad and tired fire?

In the 1969 edition:


from your window
watched the city
curl itself toward the sea
all afternoon beside you,
now my fingers stretch to find you
and though I feel you
just beyond their tips
they close
enclosing nothingness and air.
Now I would be deep
in the warmth of your memory
smiling unexpectedly
as your laughter wakened in me,
had we
inside a sound that rippled through
an afternoon that thinned around us
all afternoon


Photo by Linda Nylind for The Guardian