Well, everybody else has had their twopenn’orth on Mercury Fur, so I’m not going to be left out. I don’t care that it leaves no space for me to pontificate on the likes of Breathing Corpses (much better than most people say), The Lunatic Queen (much worse: even my own FT review was cut to be more charitable) or Insignificance (another solid piece of directorial work by Sam West, but one which suggests that the real spark in his Sheffield tenure may lie in programming rather than in helming individual productions). This is my space, and I’m going to be monomaniacal. Hey, at least this time the connection with matters theatrical isn’t tenuous...
Miranda Sawyer’s column seemed more pertinent as a Quote of the Fortnight than the online interview with author Philip Ridley I mentioned last issue, but I still recommend listening to the streamed audio version of it at www.theatrevoice.com.
There seem to me to be two main issues raised by Ridley’s play, and both have as much to do with responses to it as to the play itself. The first aspect is one that I need to approach from a personal perspective, which is this: watching it, I suddenly felt old. Not because of the events portrayed, or because of my own response to them, or because I did or didn’t “get” the play... but because of the rest of the audience’s response to it. It has been, in effect, the occasion of a possible flip to the right as regards my stance on the issue of fictional portrayals of extreme material and their possible desensitising effect on their audience, in particular their younger audience.
Ridley has a clear and passionate belief in the (for want of a better term) redemptive value of story, which shows through in numerous instances here as it does in various of his other works. Telling each other stories is how brothers Elliot and Darren manifest their love for each other in a world where more normal expressions thereof have died. Elliot and his gender-bending boygirlfriend Lola reconnect with their feelings for each other by recounting the tale of how they met. Darren more or less seduces newcomer Naz by telling him a drug- and memory-warped story of the JFK assassination. And, of course, the Party Guest's ultimate turn-on involves an entire fantasy narrative about the Vietnam war and torturing a child-Elvis-informer. All of these moments show the value of story to our inner lives – not always to ennobling, but certainly to intensifying effect.
At one remove
Or is it? I’m fumbling a little here, but I think that this faith in the power of story works at one remove from the story itself. As Ridley depicts their effect, the sub-stories recounted are the catalysts for the deepest human emotions which may be otherwise lost or repressed, but they're not in themselves the location of those emotions: they remind characters of their own lives and experiences, but don't excite responses towards the recounted events or figures themselves... whereas, say, the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear seems to me to operate on both those levels at once, as we respond to both the event depicted and to our individual associations with that event.
Indeed, I worry that in order to work in this catalytic way, the stories in Mercury Fur (not unlike some parts of the work of Sarah Kane) in fact require an absence of direct response: that the bigger story of the play as a whole only works if the subordinate tales don’t excite such a response in themselves. This is the nub of my sudden qualms about desensitisation. I saw and heard a number of audience members who continued to chuckle not simply through the subsidiary stories but through some of the climactic enacted events as well; and this didn't strike me as wildly aberrant in the circumstances, such that I could write off those people and their responses.
I don't think John Tiffany’s staging of the play in traverse is with a view to making us confront our desensitisation. Nor do I think that this is an example of a sophistication in modern, or postmodern, responses to a work, that it can be taken straight and “ironically” at once; I don’t think those chuckles, at those points, leave room for arguing that there’s a direct response going on at the same time. Ridley seems to think differently: in that Theatrevoice interview, he contrasts some vintage anti-critic invective (of which more later) with assertions that younger, less crusty ’n’ fusty theatregoers grasp his approach more instinctively.
I don't believe that this argument – what Jim Morrison of The Doors once summed up in song as "the men don't know but the little girls understand" – holds true as regards the content of a work. It may have some validity as regards style or form (e.g. the non-linear, physical-energy-based experiences of the likes of Frantic Assembly, whose Steven Hoggett was sitting opposite me at the Chocolate Factory). But Mercury Fur is structurally conventional – it’s a linear narrative – so Ridley can only be referring to the actual content. Surely that interpretative ground is much, much more common to us all. We know almost instinctively how narrative drama works, and we surely understand the events in a narrative such as this one in largely the same way as one another. That way may often be figurative, but surely we always perceive narrative firstly as narrative.
It seems to me, therefore, that when Ridley says what he says about understanding his play, all he can be referring to is the aspect of desensitisation... of, if you like, a kind of partial and selective flippancy towards enormities. But how selective, how truly conscious a process, is it? Or how much, on the contrary, is it a subconscious process that has been gradually conditioned in us and is therefore neither as partial nor as intellectually informed as we might like to claim? As events in the play move to a climax, maybe Ridley’s point is intended to be that such a one-remove response, such desensitisation, can't be maintained, that you have to enter the tale itself... but I think the audience response rebuts that, and it's seeing that response that has worried me. (Indeed, I think even the dedication of the published playscript is problematic: "For Rod Hall – I love you so much I could burst into flames". The last line is from one of Elliot and Darren’s brotherly rituals in the play, the culmination of an escalating series of declarations such as “I love you so much I could kill you and kill you”; Rod Hall was Ridley's agent. But to couple such a reference to love and violent death with a dedication to a man who was murdered last year in a frenzied knife attack... well, either Ridley didn't make the connection, or he did, and neither option strikes me as especially savoury.) [NOTE: apology for this point published in the following column.]
I desperately don't want to embrace the argument that, for instance, the proliferation of screen violence has a causal relationship to the increase in societal violence. But suddenly it seems to me to be a disquietingly more persuasive case, and repudiating it appears to be more of a matter of faith than hitherto: absence of evidence is not evidence of absence. And that awareness that the Puritans may have a case makes me feel old, and Tory, and Paul Johnson, and all kinds of things that I don’t want to be. But what if they are right?
This leads on to the second main strand of “matters arising”. This one is more directly related to Miranda Sawyer’s quotation. Ridley, on Theatrevoice, is impressively bilious about critics as a whole (“blinder than a bagful of moles”), and also crassly malicious: yes, all very well to laugh about Charlie Spencer tripping over a sofa, but after having been led in through an unaccustomed entrance and directed by flashlight through a labyrinth of passages which turn out to be part of the set, then out on to a main playing area which is in semi-darkness and represents a derelict, furniture-strewn flat, the odd caught toe doesn’t exactly represent egregious myopia, does it? Sawyer puts the matter of alleged fogeyness more succinctly and less pugnaciously: “Where are the theatre critics that speak for me and those like me?”
She both does and doesn’t have a point. Where she doesn’t is in implying that the problem is generational. Look at the coverage of Mercury Fur in this issue, and you’ll see that among its defenders are the mature voices of Carole Woddis, John Peter, Paul Taylor and (though he won’t thank me for such a categorisation) Alastair Macaulay; some of those least persuaded, such as Kate Bassett, Matthew Sweet, Brian Logan and (at the upper limit age-wise) myself, are from the same generation as Sawyer. Nor could it be argued that we relative youngsters picked up our fogey manuals on the way in... well, the other three of us may lapse occasionally, but only occasionally, and Brian is surely free from all taint on that score.
But that phrase “relative youngsters” alludes to what will shortly be a serious problem, if it isn’t already. We, the bunch of us in our mid-thirties through to early forties, have been plugging away for years, and with the exception of Kate, any of us has yet to land a spot as principal reviewer. The number-ones, meanwhile, have been around now for a fair old time. In his recent public lecture on the history of Theatre Record, my esteemed colleague and predecessor Ian Herbert pointed out that our very first issue in 1981 contained reviews by Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Nicholas de Jongh, Sheridan Morley and Benedict Nightingale. While Michael B. is the only one still writing for the same publication, the point stands: room is simply not being made for the next generation to come through, in a way that did happen more often for our predecessors.
Don’t misinterpret this as advocating mass enforced retirements. It’s hardly blameworthy, after all, that these people have written so cogently for so long. I’m just saying that it has, ahem, deleterious ramifications. And it’s now having a knock-on effect in that, as we the early-middle-aged await our turn, there are hardly any junior-level openings for those who are younger than us. How many others like Kieron Quirke are getting significant exposure? Precious few. There’s a risk that my generation will come to look like Prince Charles, too old and generally too shop-soiled to be seen as palatable successors to our respective thrones when they become available... with the added complication that, in our cases, there are no Prince Williams around for the argument that the crown should skip a generation. In ten to twenty years, there could be a profound crisis in criticism.
Not that that’s likely to matter a jot to the editors. Appointments to major theatre review seats in the past year or so have included an eclipsed politico, a parliamentary sketch writer and an Oxford chum of the editor. What these three have in common is not a keen theatrical insight, but that they are names to entice their respective organs’ readership. Even the appointment of Sheridan Morley to the Daily Express seems to have been not so much due to his experience and acuity (not to belittle those in any way), but to his simply being Sheridan Morley; I think the way that paper has pratted about with his daily and weekly coverage over the past year bears grim testimony to this view. This kind of short-termism is simply bringing about a situation in which, in years to come, newspaper theatre reviewing’s life support system can be switched off with equanimity. And editors will think that they’re only being realistic, or even merciful, not acknowledging that it’s their negligent treatment that brought about the decline in the first place.
In the meantime, where are the theatre critics that speak for Miranda Sawyer and those like her? We’re here, speaking to you in the hope of establishing a dynamic dialogue rather than simply being expected to conform to your own views, which after all you already know. Isn’t it more interesting to be challenged occasionally than to agree all the time? Look at those Mercury Fur reviews, and see whether they’re merely dismissive or whether they argue their point. Argue back on the same substantive basis. That’s what makes it fun. And it’ll also, if we’re lucky, keep the activity of criticism alive for longer.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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