I thought it was worth reproducing the Times column in full as this issue's Quote of the Fortnight, not just because it’s a useful (albeit 180º diametrically wrong… because 180º diametrically wrong) obituary for one of the last surviving great playwrights of the 20th century, but also because it’s such an excellent example of the malign craft of the gadfly columnist (he wrote, in his column).
Note the way Rev. Mullen flits blithely between various bêtes
noires, so that by the end he has sneered not just at Arthur Miller
but also at the BBC, Brecht, Shaw, Pinter, arguably Rattigan, and certainly
at opposition to McCarthyism… which last shot does seem a little extreme.
And all in under 400 words, which takes some going. Mind you, Dr
Mullen (not to be confused with his near-namesake, the actor and film director)
does seem to pride himself on being a gadfly columnist, with a CV stretching
back before he moved to his current parish in the City of London, and which
presumably qualifies him to pass judgement on a raft of dramatists.
I’m sorry, I’m getting carried away. It’s not a matter of people talking about things they know nothing about – otherwise where would most of our conversation go? What vexes me is this approach whereby anything that flits into one’s head becomes grist to the argumentative mill. One expects as little of “me-me-me” columnists whose brief is simply to fill space, where the real subject is the writer rather than any particular topic they may apply themselves to; but in areas of greater substance it’s surely not unreasonable to look for a little joined-up thinking, a little development of argument, not just headline-grabbing.
Here’s another example (he wrote, flitting blithely between bêtes noires). One of the local authorities proposing a ban on smoking on public premises is Westminster City Council. Pretty much every West End theatre falls within Westminster’s boundaries. When New York City introduced its smoking ban, it included an exemption for smoking onstage; the Republic of Ireland’s similar ban includes no such exemption, and Westminster officials have stated that they do not intend to include one either, advising instead that actors can use “dummy cigarettes”.
Now, I freely admit to being the kind of nit-picker that gets exercised by the most trivial things in theatre productions: a misplaced vowel in a regional accent, a Russian character crossing themselves Catholic rather than orthodox fashion, or (on Don Carlos’s Sheffield première last autumn, in my FT review) Richard Coyle’s tights. (That last example just necessitated my rewording the previous sentence to avoid an inadvertent nudge-nudge gag about "the tiniest things”.) But I’m far from the only person who gets irked by the pong of coltsfoot-based herbal cigarettes onstage. When the mixture is used to imitate marijuana, fine; I’ve been on the receiving end of that mistake myself. But there’s something about that particular acrid stench; it carries a lot further, persists a lot longer, and is a lot more unpleasant than the whiff of tobacco itself.
And this is where the absence of serious thinking comes in. I don’t think anyone on Westminster council seriously believes that, say, Patrick Stewart lighting up a Lucky Strike rather than a Honeyrose Special in the Apollo during A Life In The Theatre is going to significantly endanger anyone else’s health. I very much doubt that anyone has pointed out to them that smell is the sense most intricately bound up with memory, and therefore the one most liable to disrupt the willing suspension of disbelief at the heart of theatre. I think they’re, at best, just looking for headlines, or at worst being stupidly doctrinaire.
And I think such a shared olfactory experience is a matter of dramatic fidelity in a way that, say, drinking real whisky on stage usually isn’t. (Although I have a friend who has on several occasions performed James Saunders’ short play Triangle, which requires the actor to drink a half-bottle or so of whisky in the space of 40 minutes, with real scotch, and in such intimate surroundings it does make a difference to hear the screw-top seal broken or see the astounded punter next to you offered a slug of the real stuff.) If an actor objects to smoking tobacco onstage, then I think it raises a serious question as to how prepared they are to meet the demands of the role. I don’t, for instance, believe that anyone playing the young woman Jill in Peter Shaffer’s Equus can justifiably wimp out of the full nudity which both script and dramatic situation demand. I remember several years ago in Irvine Welsh’s first purpose-scripted stage play You’ll Have Had Your Hole, homosexual rape was portrayed at prurient length whereas hetero coupling happened between scenes and the token woman even completed her undressing beneath the bedcovers… an absurdity which led two of us in the Leeds audience to guffaw out loud, the other (to my immense satisfaction) being Germaine Greer.
Modes of undressing, in scenes of supposed intimacy and privacy, matter, and need to be thoughtfully staged rather than slyly circumvented. Smoking onstage matters, because it’s something that communicates itself to almost all of us in that space, although not enough to seep into our clothes and our lungs. Suatained and rational thought matters, because without it we get supposedly intelligent people proposing dummy cigarettes or arguing that the House Un-American Activities Committee was a good thing because Arthur Miller opposed it.
(If it helps, consider the foregoing as a conceptual tribute to the other sad cultural loss of recent weeks, the late Dr Hunter S Thompson. I was somewhere around the David Mamet show when the drugs began to take hold…)
And keeping some kind of vaguely consistent idea of character matters, because otherwise you get a package of contradictions like Bo Beaumont/Mrs Overall in Acorn Antiques. Part of the trouble is that Victoria Wood’s TV soap spoof growed like Topsy from its original incarnation as a series of three-minute TV sketches. (Mind you, similar origins haven’t impeded The Simpsons from maintaining narrative and character consistency.) So, for instance, the dreadful acting and hashed exits of Mrs Overall were established well before the extra layer of Bo Beaumont, the actress who supposedly plays here, and a vain old luvvie into the bargain. Bo is, however, not nearly as decrepit as Mrs O, and therefore all these foul-ups make no sense if one considers that it’s Bo who’s responsible for them, and even less if we’re supposed to believe that she’s acting them.
Is this another example of Shuttleworth getting hung up on minutiae? I don’t think so; I think it’s an emblem of the fundamental problem with this three-hour show as a whole, which is that everything, but everything, is subordinated to the momentary gag. Neither Bo Beaumont nor Mrs Overall would use the F-word, never mind sing it; but, for the sake of an Ozzy Osbourne gag, in it goes, several times. Wood fills the latter part of the second act with a number of diverse musical genre parodies just to show that she can do them and get laughs for them, irrespective of what if any sense they make for the show or even whether or not they just hold matters up. (There’s a joke at one point that Acorn Antiques is shorter and funnier than Blood Brothers; funnier, probably, but shorter, certainly not. And someone really should have checked.) We see three separate versions of the show; again, more scope for gags, much less for coherence. If this is simply an opportunity to see beloved characters and performers in the flesh and applaud them (one hell of a lot: on press night, Walters alone got over a dozen spontaneous ovations, which is going it a bit even for a papered house), then fine; but if it wants to be looked at as a stage musical, then it’s frankly a ragbag.
To return for a moment to heroic bulwarks against the Red Menace: I’d always thought it was J Edgar Hoover, but it seems it was actually Ian Fleming in Goldfinger, who coined the maxim “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.” Alternatively, looked at mathematically, three bearings are sufficient to plot a point’s position on a plane surface. And now, at the Old Vic, we have three bearings: Cloaca, a solid if unexceptional production of a play mystifyingly selected for over-exposure on the Vic’s stage; Aladdin, a fine central performance in a show which tried too hard and thus missed the real point; and now National Anthems, for which by and large see under Cloaca. Where that was a slight Dutch play which didn’t travel well, National Anthems is also less substantial than the management seems to have believed, and moreover hasn’t aged well; it was already over 20 years after its first conception when Dennis McIntyre’s play was premièred, and now it’s almost as long again since that time in the 1980s whose greed-is-good materialism the play fingers in its particular twist on another ’80s genre (although principally a cinematic one), the “yuppie nightmare”.
It’s notable that Spacey’s position remains at least as much the story as the play itself: of the first ten reviews reprinted in this issue, eight mention Spacey in the first sentence, a ninth in the first line, and the tenth is Quentin Letts on a hobby-horse. I wrote at the time of Cloaca that we do want to be welcoming to Spacey, who (as Lloyd Evans notes) doesn’t after all have to be here, but this season really isn’t doing anything to make it easy.
Still, let me end on an unambiguously positive note. In the last issue I wrote that, despite being a great big morbid old Hector, I felt no emotional engagement at the death and bereavement in Complicité’s A Minute Too Late. Quite the reverse is true of Laura Wade’s Colder Than Here. It contained no similarities of circumstance whatever to my own losses, and yet I found it resonating deeply and richly, even setting my mind at rest on some specific matters… yet doing so in a way that didn’t allow me to get wrapped up in myself, but kept me wrapped up in the family on the stage. Alone among the reviewers reproduced here, Matthew Sweet holds out against its understated power. (I was almost as impressed, until its final phase, by Winsome Pinnock’s One Under, about which opinion is much more diverse; however, I won’t go into that in detail, since I have a review in the pipeline elsewhere which may yet appear in a subsequent issue of Theatre Record.) And I continue to live in hope of one day, just for the hell of it, seeing Michael Pennington share a stage with his namesake, who’s better known as comedian and actor Johnny Vegas.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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