Coyote On A Fence / Hamlet / Oleanna /
Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads / Follow My Leader
Various venues
April/May, 2004

William Goldman, in his book Adventures In The Screen Trade, famously propounds the single most reliable rule as regards predicting big-screen success: Nobody Knows Anything.  As if to emphasise that this is also true of theatre, scarcely have I written in the last Prompt Corner that “West End shows... hardly ever fold before Theatre Record can collate and reprint their reviews” than it happens for the second issue in succession.  Bruce Graham’s Coyote On A Fence at the Duchess, like Simon Gray’s The Holy Terror at the Duke Of York’s, lasted just three and a half weeks after its opening night.  And once again this isn’t a terrific surprise – certainly not enough to justify the Evening Standard’s traditional mid-May “West End in crisis” article, although they ran it anyway.  (Average attendances, wrote Nick Curtis, are only 67%, “on a good night”.  What on earth does that mean, “average... on a good night”?  What are average attendances on an average night?  But I digress...).

Graham’s American death-row drama didn’t raise my hackles the way Gray’s mad-publisher muddle did, but it was fairly clear that it simply didn’t have a hook for audiences.  Not in terms of “scalps” – neither Ben Cross nor Alex Ferns is a big enough name to attract significant numbers of punters, although they’re likely to recognise one or both faces once they’re in the theatre.  Not in terms of big issues: the question of capital punishment is largely settled on this side of the Atlantic, and we respond to American dramas on the subject (in whatever medium) as instances of a particular thematic sub-genre rather than as contributions to a debate.  And not in terms of entertainment pizzazz: Graham hasn’t written big yoks or big thrills, just a thoughtful piece of work... although I fear that, in the character of Bobby Alvin Reyburn, he doesn’t subvert the redneck-racist-retard stereotype enough to get away with buying into it in the first place (I doubt whether Pennsylvanian Graham’s play has been or will be staged south of the Mason-Dixon line, at least not outside liberal-arts campus towns).

I’m confident that the production worked well in its original space, the studio of Manchester’s Royal Exchange (the reviews of which run can be found in Issue 07).  But in the West End – even a venue like the Duchess which seats fewer than 500 – it’s simply over-exposed.  I’m not sure whether to applaud producer Matthew Mitchell for taking such a chance, or to scratch my head and wonder why he didn’t know better... for this is surely an instance where Goldman’s Law doesn’t apply all that rigidly.

Freshly thought

Few such risks attended Trevor Nunn’s first production of Hamlet in over thirty years, and none have survived the reviews.  Casting all characters on the young side may not have been a marketing strategy aimed at the teenage set-text demographic, but it certainly hasn’t done any harm on that score: even by the second-night performance I attended, the youthful character of the house was well established.

As for the artistic success of the production, well, I’m not quite in the a-star-is-born camp with the likes of Nicholas de Jongh and Charles Spencer, although clearly Ben Whishaw should be able to parlay this gig into a more than respectable c.v. for an actor of his age.  I am full of admiration for the way Whishaw – and Samantha Whittaker, who’s been given a somewhat raw deal from the critics as Ophelia – make their lines sound absolutely new-minted: freshly thought, never mind written.  (It seems to have been considered churlish to point out that some of this freshness comes at the price of losing much sense of the verse.)  They give utterly compelling renditions of their characters.

I’m just not sure that their characters are Shakespeare’s.  John Gross, master of textual exegesis, cuts straight to the chase when he opens his review with the observation that “We know how old Hamlet is.”  The Gravedigger’s line in question is often cut – indeed, in my experience more often than not now – but this is usually in order to allow some leeway in the other direction rather than as a result of casting a prince appreciably younger than Hamlet’s explicitly stated 30 years.  John makes a plausible case for there being some ambiguity, even confusion, in the writing as between the more youthful and the more adult elements of Hamlet’s thought and conduct.  In the end, though, I believe it’s the latter that win out; in my view, it’s easier and more dramatically satisfying to gloss the immaturities of the character when playing an older Hamlet than to take the opposite approach.  Similarly, I’m afraid I can’t in the end believe that Whittaker’s schoolgirl, boom-box-playing Ophelia would go mad and drown herself over her maltreatment by Hamlet; she’d take to her room for several weeks and listen to a lot of Amy Studt, is what she’d do.

It’s absolutely not intended as glib disparagement when I say that as Hamlet and Ophelia, Whishaw and Whittaker make a phenomenal, epochal Romeo and Juliet.  However, whilst I was immensely impressed with the accounts they gave of their characters as individuals, what I felt wanting (though, in all fairness, many older than I didn’t) was the leap from the individual to the universal.  Late emotional developer though I am, these two didn’t speak feelingly to anything that’s still within me.  In that respect, I’d nearly be inclined to attribute more success to Tom Mannion’s Claudius, who shows genuine concern and conscience at a number of points, almost as if Claudius thinks he’s the protagonist of the story.  No quibbles here, though, at the praise of Imogen Stubbs’ Gertrude as the performance of her career to date; it was moreover a joy to see Rory Kinnear, recently such a comic delight in the RSC’s Shrew/Tamer diptych, show that he can also add considerable heft to his more “serious” work.


I invited a much younger female friend to accompany me to David Mamet’s Oleanna – almost literally one of my students – in the knowledge that it would be a delicious conceptual gag, especially when we had the traditional flaming row afterwards about our interpretations of the play.  I’m afraid, though, that Lindsay Posner’s production let us down by just not being either sparky or contentious, and we ended up earnestly, amicably agreeing about the imbalance in the writing, with Mamet’s argumentative sympathies on one side and strength of character on the other, but in turn without plausible linear development to back the latter up.

As Carol, the student who over-interprets her lecturer’s patronisation, Julia Stiles gives three excellent performances, one for each act, but she and Posner aren’t up to bridging the gaps in characterisation that Mamet sloppily left between those acts.  It’s also instructive to compare and contrast Stiles’ performance, especially in the first act, with that of Gillian Anderson in The Sweetest Swing In Baseball (also Issue 07).  Like Anderson, Stiles is superb at “reaction-shot” acting; unlike her, though, the younger actor hasn’t figured out how to adapt this skill to the stage, and rather than toning down the discreet twitches and mugs she keeps them going the whole time until they stop being discreet – once you’ve spotted them, it’s hard to take your eyes off them.


This isn’t helped by Aaron Eckhart’s anodyne performance as lecturer John.  I completely missed the alleged sexual tension that some reviewers seem to detect merely in his being younger than the character as usually cast.  On the contrary, John seemed to me to be already rooted in a kind of arid self-regard where process and trappings, domestic as much as professional, matter less for what they are than because they’re What One Does: when he calls his wife “baby” over the phone the problem is not, as Carol implies, that it trivialises and infantilises her, but rather that it’s plainly without any kind of feeling behind it at all.  And as for his delivery of Mamet’s fragmentary, stop/ start dialogue...  It’s difficult to convey this on paper, but let me try: at one point, I heard Eckhart deliver the single word “The...” not as a dangling, bitten-off abortion of a sentence, but as a one-word line in its own right, rather as one might say, “Yes.” or “There.”  Or, in this case, “Wrong.”

One insight I did carry away from this production: several years ago, I had the unpleasant experience of being fly-on-the-walled, of having seen broadcast a TV programme all about a vain, venal, generally disreputable hack who unfortunately happened to have my name and face.  The utterly fictitious storyline was the creation of ten months in the edit suite aided by judiciously nudging voiceover remarks from the programme-maker.  When I complained to the Broadcasting Standards Commission, the broadcaster’s defence was in essence, “Well, Mr Shuttleworth did indeed say these things,” to which my response was (in excruciating detail) yes, and the show wrenched them out of their context and confected its own.  The reason I pick at this old scab now is that, throughout the second act of Oleanna, I listened carefully to Carol’s accusations against John, and found that this is exactly the strategy adopted there.  The wild rhetorical and ideological exaggerations don’t begin until the final act; in Act Two, Carol’s indictment is on the face of it entirely factual, just decontextualised... accurate without being true.

Ideological ogres

In its way Oleanna is already a historical work, at least in Britain.  On its original production at the Royal Court in 1992, there seemed a genuine prospect that the American-campus strain of political correctness would be imported here.  In the event, though, it never happened to any significant degree; in the UK today, the various forms of the term “PC” have no positive meaning in themselves, being used entirely pejoratively (as in “It’s political correctness gone mad!”) in what are usually specious attempts by the illiberal to justify their illiberality.  The ideological ogre portrayed here is no longer one which threatens us.  Certainly not in comparison with the pernicious, insinuating racism peddled by Alan in Roy Williams’ Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads.

It’s a timely revival for Williams’ play, as the loathsome British National Party stands on the verge of possible gains in next month’s local and European elections; it’s also a welcome opportunity for more people (myself included) to see it than could be accommodated in its original 2002 run in the National’s temporary Loft space.  And the play’s a fine piece of work, examining the various vectors of conscious and unconscious racism in modern Britain.  Ultimately, though, it’s more an important play than it is an excellent one.  It’s certainly not agitprop, but it does line its pieces up in a fairly obvious way to engineer the set-piece exchanges demanded by the subject matter.  We forgive the obviousness, but we shouldn’t deny that it’s there.


For obviousness, though, Alistair Beaton’s Follow My Leader currently goes unchallenged on the London stage.  Yes, Bush’s and Blair’s conduct over Iraq offers an embarrassment of riches to the satirist, but this is another kind of embarrassment altogether.  Jason Durr does a fine cartoon Blair, and Peter Polycarpou enjoys his various segments, but Stuart Milligan resembles George W Bush less than he does Joe Don Baker, and overall I’ve seen more complex Punch and Judy shows.  A small point, but I think a telling one: in a production tailored both towards updates as events unfold in real life and towards its particular company, and one in which both the female members of the cast, as it happens, are black, can you guess which major political figure behind the Iraq campaign is neither portrayed nor even mentioned during the entire show?

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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