Several times a year in these columns I find myself musing on what it is that we do as critics, and how and why we do it. For once, though, I’m taking my cue from other people’s thoughts in the same area. The stage adaptation of Theatre Of Blood has a curious and complex relationship with its reviewers… only natural, you might think, when it concerns a mad actor-manager bumping off those scribes who gave him bad notices. But it goes far beyond that.
The show really allows us to both have our cake and eat it. Look at the number of reviews that both indulgently chortle along with the idea of us getting our (possibly) just critical deserts and yet at the same time note that the reviewers portrayed onstage are hugely different from those sitting in the stalls. (Absolutely: I’ve no idea where they may have got the idea of a fat, hirsute critic with a dubious predilection for student actresses.) The original 1973 film version was even more wildly inaccurate, portraying critics with names like Solomon Psaltery living in South Bank riverside penthouses or Chelsea townhouses with servants. Would it were so, he wrote from his rented basement flat in Ladbroke Grove.
It’s the distancing effect of that thirty-odd-year gap that enables the play to face both ways at once. It can blast away at its caricature reviewers whilst pretending that they’re from another age and so don’t bear such close relation to those watching it: same species, more archaic specimens, perhaps. (Although the Improbable Theatre boys did discuss their approach with one of the major reviewers at an early stage in the production process. And, on the press night, the line “A critic begins to resent an actor [to whom] he has to keep giving bad reviews” was fervently clapped by one individual in a critic’s aisle seat; I was on the other side of the auditorium, so I couldn’t see who it was, but I have my suspicions…) Above all, the play can pretend that actors and critics are in the same business; as I keep saying, we’re not. But the play can engage in lengthy debate about the purpose and function of criticism as if it weren’t now simply a very subordinate part of the business of selling papers.
Of course, the chronology allows us to look not just at a different kind of criticism, but a different kind of theatre. At the climax of the second act, with the last surviving reviewer in his clutches, the crazed Edward Lionheart suddenly goes into what would seem to be a parody of that movie convention, the “Since you’re about to die, I shall explain everything to you…” speech. What would seem such a parody, that is, if it didn’t veer off into a debate about the alleged conflict between the old-style actor-laddies and the new-fangled graduates in polonecks as to who should be steering theatre and whither. The narrative catalyst for this torrent is that the aforementioned reviewer has been offered a job as literary associate at the new National Theatre then (in the story) being built, and institutionally in transition between the Olivier and the Peter Hall eras. And, lo and behold, the auditorium lights come up, so that suddenly we’re not in the crumbling, derelict Victorian playhouse of Rae Smith’s design any more, but in the grey concrete citadel itself. The debate is immediate.
Immediate, my bum. Several reviews have responded to this episode firstly by ignoring the fact that it just cocks the dramatic pace up – no onscreen villain’s final gloating would go on for a fraction as long as this does – but more surprisingly by claiming that it shows the National Theatre can poke fun at itself, can take criticism even on its own stage. I’m astounded that this idea has even been given the time of day. To me it seems obvious that, far from a spirit of Maoist self-criticism, this is pre-emptive stuff: pretend to criticise yourself in order that you can control the critical agenda and forestall any serious, savage moves from outside. It’s classic repressive tolerance, with an unhealthy dollop of “see what good sports we are” smugness. Most bizarrely, it’s fundamentally at odds with what has hitherto seemed the spirit of the National under Nick Hytner. I enjoyed much of the rest of the evening, but the implicit self-congratulation of that segment simply stuck in my craw.
The production will enjoy such success as it does with general audiences largely because they will recognise the stereotypes of actor and critic. No matter that that type of wildly over-the-top actor-manager (who, in Jim Broadbent’s excessive performance, is not just a prime ham but the whole piggery, from downwind) was extinct even at the time in which the play is set, never mind today; there’s enough in common with the current cliché of the self-regarding “luvvie”. And no matter, either, that the portrayals of critics are just as radically at odds with reality.
Or are they? When reading one response to the show (which didn’t take the form of a review and so isn’t reprinted here), I think I finally glimpsed a curious truth. Those who regularly devour Theatre Record from cover to cover will have realised that a few of us critics take a certain pride in contrariety. And when those writers choose to foreground this supposed rebelliousness, they usually do so by setting up a straw man of the liberal, chattering-class type, which they then stand against. No such cosy cabalising for them, they claim. And it’s precisely this kind of ivory-tower, out-of-touch Olympianism and self-indulgence that’s portrayed in Theatre Of Blood, and which utterly fails to stand comparison with reality. In fact, the self-regard and the blithe ex cathedra pronouncements of most of these contrarians conform far more closely to this stereotype than anything in the perspective or manner of those they claim to be nobly opposing. In short, it’s those who think they’re kicking against the pricks who are in fact inadvertently doing most to reinforce the false and outdated image of the critic. It might also be argued that a number of these phoney rebels are not by either trade or vocation arts writers, but have taken on the gig for a while, faute de mieux or for a bit of a lark, and consequently that when they move on, as they will, their reactionism and trivialism may leave the well poisoned for those of us who remain.
Here’s an example of the difference between the image and the reality of critics: Billy Elliot The Musical has been rapturously received (the quotation on the cover of this issue is from Charles Spencer’s review), but although everyone acknowledges its political content, not one of us supposed lefties explicitly praises it. Well, then, I will. It strikes me that a significant part of the success of Lee Hall’s stage script is that it changes focus from his screenplay. Where the film used the 1984-5 miners’ strike as a grim, poignant backdrop to the individual story of Billy’s quest for self-expression, the musical juxtaposes the two equally in the foreground. This makes the show more affecting, as it allows the script to carry a broader message about change as a whole, about moving on from long-ingrained attitudes, conventions and assumptions. But “moving on” isn’t synonymous with “progress”. Sometimes, as with the Thatcher government’s premeditated destruction of the mining industry, such change is malicious, callous and utterly devastating. Sometimes, as with Billy showing that there can be life beyond the pit, and that ballet isn’t just for upper-class poofs, it can be warm, welcome and affirming. But neither view obscures or dominates the other.
To be honest, I was unsure for much of the first half whether Hall had indeed adopted such a twin-focus strategy, or whether I was indulging in wishful thinking. What convinced me was precisely the bit that some others are most sniffy about: it’s not that the show includes a number looking forward with joy (as many of us still do) to Thatcher’s death – it’s that I think Hall and Elton John set out quite deliberately to make it one of, if not the most memorable number, the one you come out of the theatre singing. That’s exactly the sort of cheek we need. Indeed, I think this may in time be seen as a successor, a generation on, to Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers, as a musical that successfully combines entertainment and feelgood with a moving sense of social and class commitment to particular ideals. Its sexual politics are a different matter: both dead mum and best-friend Michael the winsome pre-pubescent drag diva are disappointingly facile figures. But this is a show to be proud of… even in a nationalistic sense: it’s not simply the storyline that makes it British to the marrow, but the fact that its effing and blinding moppets will surely never be allowed on to Broadway unless their mouths are scrubbed out with Swarfega.
Elsewhere, in brief: Rufus Norris’s Almeida Blood Wedding has divided opinion . I’m firmly in the positive camp, because I think he’s found a way of transcending what for Anglo-Saxon productions (and audiences) is the problem of Spanishness. He uses his international cast (pretty much every one of whom at some point or other hum or sings snatches of song from their own individual heritage) and an abstract stage design to set the play outside any location in this world. He universalises it, setting it in some kind of realm of the Jungian collective unconscious, in which events may not always follow logically, but none the less unfold with the unsettling inevitability of that particular kind of disturbing dream. In many ways it’s probably the finest Lorca I’ve ever seen. Compare and contrast with Tim Carroll’s Jungian mess of a three-man Tempest at the Globe: yet another instance of approaching the play in a spirit of “let’s see whether it’ll bear this approach”, the ill-advised experimentation of seeing what it does to rather than for the piece. It’s often an interesting essay on the play, but you need an intimate familiarity with text and story in order to be able to follow what’s going on.
David Eldridge, who adapted Festen for Norris’s stage production,
has finally turned me into an unambiguous admirer with his Incomplete
And Random Acts Of Kindness. Close reading of the reviews reveals
a few of us who discreetly write with experience of clinical depression,
and a few who seem quite uncomprehending of it – the latter being, I suspect,
those who look for a specific cause for protagonist Joey’s breakdown, as
if the inner universe of the mind were a Newtonian one.
Everyone is taking the opportunity afforded by The Philadelphia Story to give an end-of-term report on Kevin Spacey’s first season at the helm of The Old Vic, and the consensus is that, well, there’s no need to institute special measures quite yet. Roland Schimmelpfennig’s The Woman Before seems often to be on the brink of saying some interesting things about human attachments and obligations, until a final ten minutes or so that retrospectively turn the whole business into a modern urban Medea told in a cut-up non-linear style, and all the more ho-hum for it. At Chichester, David Warner’s Lear is immensely impressive in his ruination, but doesn’t establish himself as an unreasonable bellower in the first place; John Ramm, meanwhile, is unobtrusively becoming something of a treasure in classical roles such as the Fool here. And, odd though it seems to say so, I fervently hope that we’ve overlooked a number of reviews for Song Of The Goat Theatre’s remarkable Chronicles – A Lamentation at the Pit. Sure, it’s only 40 minutes long, and inhabits that interdisciplinary no-man’s-land, but for only one newspaper to review such a mesmeric piece is shameful and heartbreaking.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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