A positively bumper issue after two, shall we say, svelte ones. By the ’eck, but the fellowship has been writing a lot of late. And not just them. I have the honour to be one of a mere handful of people in the western world not to have been asked by the Guardian to write a few hundred words about David Hare’s Iraq-war play Stuff Happens. But hey, we’re only theatre critics – what would we know about it?
You’ll find over a dozen pages about Stuff Happens in this issue, and around 40% of the pieces are not written by regular theatre reviewers. The vast majority of these were commissioned by the Guardian, who managed to get first-preview tickets for a raft of folk from former weapons inspector Scott Ritter to ex-BBC chairman Gavyn Davies and Tory harridan Ann Widdecombe, as temperate as ever in her judgement of the play.
I know it looks like sour grapes and just trying to protect one’s own territory, to get all het up about the ethics of asking gratuitous celebrities to review theatre… because these people may be mostly politicians or otherwise once-interested parties, but in terms of theatre, they’re civilians. (The Independent sent former Beirut hostage Charles Glass instead of, not as well as, Paul Taylor to review both Stuff Happens and Embedded; Glass, though, has a family involvement in theatre through his son – I remember seeing a strong student production a few years ago of Frank McGuinness’s Someone Who’ll Watch Over Me which Glass Jr directed as a way of coming to terms with his father’s experience.)
The rationale, as far as the editors are concerned, is that the play is news. Well, fine: rather than marginalize your theatre coverage (or tear it in pieces as The Times has just done once more, now running occasional lead reviews on the news pages of the main section of the paper whilst relegating the routine coverage to the compact T2 section), why not trust the reviewers you employ to be the ones who actually pass opinions on plays in your pages?
Ah, but that would have entailed waiting until the official press night. Stuff Happens officially opened on 10 September. Its first preview was on 1 September. The Guardian’s jury were in print on 3 September. What’s that all about, then?
Again: it’s news. Once in a blue moon, theatre is important enough for the main hierarchy of the papers and magazines to pay attention to it, and at that point, the people they pay to specialise in that area are suddenly worse than worthless, because they’re hamstrung by protocols about official press nights. And news won’t wait. Really? “If we didn’t do it, all the others would”? Not if someone set a retributive example: if, say, the National Theatre banned the papers in question from covering any of their productions for a period afterwards, pour encourager les autres. Ah, but that would entail the NT cutting off their own nose to spite their face.
We’re not above that kind of mutilation ourselves, of course. When the Guardian’s conduct caused a kerfuffle, Michael Billington was called upon to write a defence (not reprinted here) of the very behaviour which had so trivialised him and his work... before, mark you, he had had the chance to review the play himself! He did his best to sidestep the matter, and turn his article into a broadside against the very convention of extended preview runs. (His argument, though, is suspect: the policy he advocates of staging one or perhaps two preview performances in front of “friends” of the theatre, firstly, would give those involved in the show no sense of appearing before an ordinary audience, and secondly, it simply wouldn’t fly in terms of the vast majority of theatres in the UK, not least the entirety of the West End where the most protracted preview runs tend to take place. It might work in an American culture with a far stronger tradition of theatre subscription… yet, in the event, preview runs in the States are routinely even more extended than here.) But he never managed to dispel the sensation that here was perhaps the UK’s most respected theatre reviewer penning what was in effect The Joys Of Christmas – A Turkey Writes. It’s deplorable of the paper to have required it of him, and dispiriting of Michael to have acquiesced. The whole business simply demonstrates once again how contingent the entirety of cultural content is to newspapers’ short-term pell-mell story-chasing.
What? The play? Hadn’t we established that that’s incidental? Oh, very well, then. It works, both as theatre – despite its talky structure – and as argument. Notwithstanding la Widdecombe’s fulminations, it’s noticeable that Hare does give airtime to both sides of the argument, albeit that he also perceptibly allots the most powerful “slots” in the evening to the leftward, anti-war position. Hare’s writing, and Alex Jennings’ portrayal, of George W Bush as more gnomic and resolute than we normally think may change the opinions of a number of Britons. Over here – and, to TR’s American readers, please don’t shoot the messenger at this point – there’s a view of Bush as what Lenin would call a “useful idiot”, a not-entirely-knowing front for the neocon axis led by Dick Cheney. The Bush of Stuff Happens – again, please forgive me – is less a fool than a knave.
Hare’s writing and Joe Morton’s excellent performance (the first star of Terminator 2 I’ve ever seen on stage) make Colin Powell a kind of tragic hero, his flaw being conscientiousness. I do hope that, when he leaves the upper echelons of government next month (as he surely will, one way or the other), Powell manages to overcome his soldier’s reverence for the chain of command and writes a memoir as revealing as it could surely be. And a final, trivial observation: as he appears here, actor Ian Gelder really does bear a remarkable resemblance to Donald Rumsfeld… what a pity he’s playing Paul Wolfowitz.
In many ways, the finest of the month’s war plays is Frank McGuinness’s version of Euripides’ Hecuba. Some reviewers have felt that it lacked the overwhelming power they looked for. I found no such lack. McGuinness has rendered a spare, sheer rock-face of verse: not jutty and difficult in the sense of complexity (he’s candid that his approach was simply to cut out everything he didn’t understand immediately, on the grounds that most spectators wouldn’t either), but in that it gives no respite. I read a draft of the script as preparation for an interview with the writer: the verse is composed of short, simple lines, but it absolutely refuses to be skimmed or speed-read – every syllable demands to be given its full marmoreal weight.
Contrast with Embedded, which had an even rougher critical ride here than in New York. I don’t see a lot to disagree with in its reviews (although, for instance, it’s a pleasant surprise that even though the masked scenes between the neocon cabal are written as political panto, their performance elicits some surprisingly adept mask-work from the actors). I found it often hilarious. Not intentionally, of course; nor for the sentimentality of the “human interest” plot strands… which adopt exactly the same tone-over-content emotional strategy that the play claims to decry in its thinly fictionalised version of the Pvt Jessica Lynch story.
What I found amusing was the production's subconscious, puppyish desperation to push the right buttons. Plainly, it's not setting out to preach to anyone other than the converted, but it does want to shape its audience's thoughts and attitudes, and it wants to do that by assuming a kind of generational authority. The demographic it aims to connect with is that of the thirty- and fortysomething opinion-formers: the middle-youthers… the generation in power in Hollywood, in fact: ironic for such an ostensible Tinseltown maverick as Robbins.
Forgive me for approaching from such an unwonted angle, but this eagerness is indicated most tellingly by the evening’s use of music. Yes, the hell of the battlefield might be signified (unsuccessfully) by using hardcore, thrash-metal and a token blast of Public Enemy. But this is a production that calculatedly programs its pre-show music to include Bob Marley's "Redemption Song", The Clash's "Know Your Rights" (and how ironic is it when the Riverside make their no-photos-no-phones announcement over that!) and the like. And, with deep and entirely unintentional irony, Bob Dylan's "Masters Of War" is deployed in exactly the po-faced way that Robbins himself satirised a dozen years ago in his film Bob Roberts. This production is explicitly dedicated to the late Joe Strummer, and the musical programming leaves no doubt that it's not the folk-punk activist of Strummer’s final-years renaissance, but the spiky Clash icon. Robbins has written a gout of teenage spleen. Unfortunately, he's done it at the age of 48: old enough to know better, and far enough to the left in his own political culture for him to indulge in the comforting illusion that people are criticising it because they're evil rightists rather than because it's just poor work.
As regards the culture of film pervading our theatre, a remarkable but easily-missed example is thrown up by The Woman In White. I don’t intend to address the writing or performances (except to note that playing guess-the-rhyme with David Zippel’s lyrics is a game that quickly palls, because one always wins effortlessly). It’s the design that pulled me up short.
Part of me regrets having been so eager to tell my “designed to buggery by William Dudley” story several Prompt Corners ago, as this is clearly its perfect context. I’m pretty sure, though, that what Bill Dudley did here was mostly just react with ill-advised enthusiasm when some “consultants” came along to suggest that most of the work here be done by computer graphics. The physical set consists simply of a curved, rigid cyclorama with a section which trucks forward on occasion; against these are projected a series of high-grade but still only almost-real CGI vistas. (Only almost? Put it this way: when the opening scene revealed a signalman’s cabin and a railway tunnel – though no actual tracks – I looked at the graphics and thought, “Ah, the Hogwarts Express’ll be along in a minute…”) And, unless Mr Dudley is far more skilled and versatile than I give him credit for, I doubt he did much of the actual coding and rendering himself.
No, the odd thing (apart from the regular and irritating flaw in synchronizing the projected images with the movement of the physical objects; you’d think that after all those previews[!] they’d have had enough opportunity to correct that fault… and if it can’t be corrected, then why knowingly adopt such an imperfect technique in the first place?) is the way the graphics are used. Almost every scene begins with a bird’s-eye view or a mock crane shot, closing in over 15-30 seconds on the immediate location where the scene itself is to take place. We often note when young authors who have grown up on TV and movies write plays with too many, too short scenes and an excess of blackouts and set changes – in other words, with a screen-oriented structure, which betrays an ignorance of the differences necessitated by a physically immediate medium such as theatre. However, what we have here, for the first time in my experience, is the habitual use on stage of the “establishing shot”. And they’re very nice pictures, but they’re unnecessary and downright suspicious on stage. They suggest either a director who doesn’t know how to work in theatre (which I rather doubt is the case with Trevor Nunn), a deliberate desire to distract us from shortcomings elsewhere, or a straightforwardly cynical never-mind-the-quality-feel-the-width approach to wham-bam spectacle.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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