Why do we write what we write? This isn’t the same question as “What is criticism for?”, around which I’ve rambled on previous occasions. Indeed, it may not be a single question at all. There seem to me to be two distinct aspects to the matter: let’s call them the strategic – why a reviewer adopts a particular voice or perspective that runs through their work – and the tactical – the motivation behind a particular piece, or even a particular phrase.
As regards strategy, part of the picture overlaps with all those considerations I’ve mentioned before: it’s a case of the critic triangulating themselves, so to speak, taking their bearings relative to their editorship, their readership and the sense of the culture as a whole, and only secondarily (as previously explained) relative to The Theatre.
These are, I think, more or less background considerations which don’t give rise to conscious calculation. For instance, in addition to the Financial Times I’ve been writing lately for another outlet not reprinted in Theatre Record. (You can find examples on my personal Web site; rather than shamelessly print the address here, I’ll just advise you to do a Google search on my name, whilst reassuring you that I have nothing to do with the nudism site that also mentions. Anyway...) I find that I write in quite a different lexicon for each title, because I see myself in different relations to the respective readerships. But that’s not a deliberate device; it seemed to emerge naturally, and certainly my views and verdicts on particular shows are consistent across the board. Similarly, compare Matt Wolf’s writing for the International Herald Tribune (collected here) and for Variety (not): different pitches for different markets, but the same fundamental critical standpoint.
Sometimes a writer may adopt a perceptibly different print persona. I’m aware that I don’t actually know the people I’m about to cite as possible examples, so I may well be entirely mistaken, in which case I apologise. But I have a hunch that, say, Lloyd Evans in the Spectator and Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail are somewhat self-conscious in their contrariety, as if they’re writing theatre reviews for people who don’t like theatre, and the point of that eludes me. I think there’s also a sense in their columns of épater les bourgeois, even if in Mr Letts’ case les bourgeois appear to consist of anyone with any taste or tolerance for theatrical developments during the past half-century or so. Whether I’m right or hideously, presumptuously wrong, he’s certainly established a voice of his own in double-quick time, even if the net effect is of a series of theatre reviews more closely in harmony with the paper’s overall editorial line than I can recall at any time since the ideological soundness of the now-defunct City Limits magazine. (In contrast, consider the often radical standpoint of Nicholas de Jongh in the pages of the Mail’s similarly rightwing stablemate the Evening Standard.)
More often, though, it’s a matter of individual moments, of isolated instances. These sudden outbursts can happen for a whole range of reasons. There’s “writing for the marquee”: it’s rare, at the level reprinted in Theatre Record, to find someone writing with a conscious eye to having a quotation posted up outside the venue in question, but it can happen sometimes. (And sometimes it’s too blatant to succeed: in my own Marc Salem review in this issue, the scrupulous FT sub-editors have once again denied me the chance to supply the remarkable American mentalist with the quote “Destroyed my religious beliefs – Financial Times”.) I’ll take a lot of convincing that Charles Spencer didn’t know fine well that his phrase “pure theatrical Viagra” would come to be inextricably associated with the 1998 première of David Hare’s Schnitzler adaptation The Blue Room, although he may not have realised how much of a personal albatross it would also become.
Mind you, it’s not unknown for an extraordinary word or phrase to arise from what Tom Stoppard’s criticaster Birdboot in The Real Inspector Hound blusteringly calls “a warm regard for a fellow toiler in the vineyard of greasepaint”, or the kind of response that Claudia Shear’s Mae West would understand as “you’re just pleased to see me”. When younger, I used to joke that, in my own reviews, the adjective “astonishing” was code for “This is a performer into whose costume I should like to get”. I’ve been trying to rehabilitate the word for some time now, but some friends and colleagues won’t let me forget past sins. No doubt they’ll jump with nudge-nudge, wink-wink glee upon my review of Galileo’s Daughter in this issue. And now I’ve mentioned it here, you too may conclude that this column is a forlorn attempt to cover my own hide and regain a shred of dignity.
But wait a minute. For that article of mine is in fact an example of another reviewers’ motive altogether. Sometimes, you see, we don’t simply write for our own editorship and/or readership; sometimes it’s with a notion of our place in the critical climate as a whole. If we have the luxury of writing after the first wave of reviews has appeared, we may be aware of composing a reply or corrective to those other opinions... not unlike Prompt Corner on occasion, only with a slightly more dignified mien. Sometimes, though, we may want to (or may have to) get our retaliation in first, as it were; this means we have to second-guess what our colleagues and counterparts are likely to say, and respond to their anticipated views before we’ve read them. Frankly, that’s what I was trying to do with Galileo’s Daughter: I thought Rebecca Hall would have an unjustly hard time from critics, I thought a bit of modest, albeit ungainly, cheerleading was in order, and so I set about it. In the event, of course, Hall junior’s reviews have been entirely even-handed, and I’m left looking as if I’m carrying an absurd torch and lacing up my stalking shoes. I stand by all the critical judgements in that article, but the way I pitched them amounts to one of the more embarrassingly mistaken calls of my career. I cringe, I squirm, I look wildly about for a large rock to crawl under. Then I remember I still have half a column to write.
(Also on the subject of Galileo’s Daughter, isn’t it nice to see Julian Glover wearing the family beard? That square-cut white bushy growth has long been the trademark of Glover’s younger half-brother, the Mercury Prize-nominated musician Robert Wyatt.)
In any case, that notion – right or wrong – of critical utterances as a whole can lead us to write consciously contrary pieces. At the risk of seeming fixated in a quite different way upon Quentin Letts, I can’t help but read his review of Hamlet in this light. I think he rightly predicted that Toby Stephens’ performance would be generally sniffed at, and so he set out to pre-empt the criticism. He does so with more internal cogency and fewer hostages to fortune than I did over Rebecca Hall, but in the end he looks scarcely less odd in his isolation.
Stephens’ is a Hamlet that demands tights. All those beautiful, rolling cadences, accompanied by all those striking, shapely physical attitudes, really cry out for an actor’s calves to be properly delineated by period hosiery. Stumbling around barefoot in his antic disposition just doesn’t do justice to a delivery like his. It’s an astoundingly (not astonishingly!) mellifluous performance, the nearest those of my generation and younger may get to seeing Gielgud on stage. Unfortunately, it has long ceased to be a Gielgud age. Stephens has always struck me as a comsummate acting technician, but I’ve never got a feeling of any passion behind his technique. It’s the same here.
Nor does the rest of the production counteract this impression... with the sole exception of Greg Hicks’ no less vocally resonant but also visually blood-curdling Ghost. Michael Boyd has worked miracles on the morale and corporate standing of the RSC, and he is seldom less than inspirational when talking of Shakespeare’s relationship with the social politics of his own world and of ours. However, his production here simply doesn’t enact that sensitivity and insight. One or two individual moments aside, there’s no pervading sense of the court of Elsinore as a regime in which every move is watched; Clive Wood’s Claudius and Richard Cordery’s Polonius are devoid of this spymaster dimension. There’s no sense of familial entanglement: I can’t recall the last time I saw the scene in Gertrude’s closet played so devoid of incestuous shadows. It’s not helped in this case by the lack of a sense of place, which in turn is partly an effect of The Tom Piper RSC Set. Piper is an immensely gifted designer, whose trademark used to be versatile magic-cabinet sets on a limited budget. Why the RSC keep asking him for imposing rear walls that do one thing at the climax of the play and only that one thing, and why he keeps obliging, is a mystery to me.
John Doyle’s design for his own production of Sweeney Todd, now in the Trafalgar Studios after being lauded at the Watermill, could almost be an old Tom Piper “Converta-Set”. As a student in the 1980s, Tom worked a lot with Sam Mendes, and it was Mendes’ 1992 Donmar production of Assassins that properly turned me on, not simply to Stephen Sondheim, but to the potential of musicals in general. Doyle’s triumphantly claustrophobic reinvention of Sweeney as a grotesque chamber piece reawakened that sensation. The steeply raked, amphitheatrical auditorium of Trafalgar Studio 1 somehow adds to the experience, as our skewed perspective from such heights somehow meshes with the non-Euclidean angles of the narrative and its moral scheme. There’s even a whiff of a suggestion that we’re sitting in a medical lecture hall, looking down on the dissection of various unfortunates and also of a wider society.
Another refashioned theatre space reopens beneath the arches of Charing Cross. The New Players’ Theatre is scarcely distinguishable from its previous incarnation in terms of architecture or décor; but where the old Players’ staged faux-Victorian musical hall shows and pantomimes from genuine 19th-century scripts, it re-emerges as part of the Off West End venue mini-empire (along with the New End and the criminally underused Shaw) with a show that’s as out of time as Toby Stephens’ Prince of Demark. Snoopy – The Musical, as Robert Hewison notes, puts the wince in “winsome”. This simply isn’t the world in which it premièred in 1975. A song called "Don’t Be Anything Less Than Everything You Can Be" is no longer a pop-personal development revelation, it’s trite psychobabble with an unmemorable saccharin melody. This is a feelgood show, but there's a crucial difference between feeling and thought. Any kind of thought at all will torpedo the experience. And since pretty much everybody who'll attend the show will at some point find some notion or other crossing their minds, that amounts to rather a fatal drawback.
One desperately hopes that the Chichester triumvirate’s plans to push the envelope for their audience will pay off, but unconfirmed word is that sadly it’s not happening. Martin Duncan’s production of Botho Strauss’s sketch-play Seven Doors has more than enough liveliness, and even a little discreet camp in the performances of Steven Beard, to keep cautious Chichesterites entertained without feeling burdened by the Teutonic Weltschmerz. If only the patrons would give it a chance.
Six months after playing Sylvia Plath there in Paul Alexander’s bioplay Edge, Angelica Torn returns to the King’s Head in Alexander’s production of Ariel Dorfman’s Death And The Maiden. The trouble is, as Lyn Gardner points out, she’s still playing Plath.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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