To revisit a previous topic, albeit from a different angle: I was on a discussion panel last month about criticism, semi-inspired by the National’s current production of Theatre Of Blood. During the discussion itself it seemed that my fellow panellist Lee Simpson was growing more and more taciturn, perhaps taking exception to what he thought of as navel-gazing about criticism. After the formal part of the proceedings had ended, he protested in conversation that the thing about Theatre Of Blood that the critics hadn’t got was “IT’S A STORY!” Nothing more: no fiery polemic or grand manifesto, “IT’S A STORY!”
And yes, sometimes we get carried away over-analysing shows… but then again, who’s to say what amounts to over-analysing? Shakespeare, after all, would no doubt be astounded to find himself at the core of such a theatrical and scholarly industry, but if the plays and poems have so much content, how can it be wrong to look so closely? If a work looks likely to repay study, why not give it that study? Simpson and Phelim McDermott’s version of Theatre Of Blood is a more complex creation than the film, and arguably more so than most plays, not least in that it deliberately stages an argument about the direction of theatre whilst being performed in the very citadel of one particular approach to it, and furthermore emphasises this fact. But even if it didn’t go to such lengths of engagement with its subject matter, would it somehow not be legitimate to look closely at such a work? How often do you hear a composer protesting of their work, “It’s just a tune,” or a painter “It’s just a picture”?
I’ve quoted before the remark that the function of criticism is “to explain culture to itself”: that applies to individual works as well as to broader streams of discourse. And yet it feels terribly arrogant… literally: we are arrogating to ourselves the position of declaring upon the very meaning of a work of art, even more than the artist. There’s an air of vanity and self-aggrandisement about it: that somehow, despite not being involved in creativity ourselves, we are the real arbiters of it. But strip this issue of its emotional resonance, and it turns out to be nothing more than the standard way that any act of communication works.
Take an everyday conversation: you want to convey something to me; you say something, which may be a little different; I hear it and understand something which may be a little different again. Sometimes I may misunderstand what you said… but sometimes, too, I’ll be able to put it in the context of other remarks by you or by other people, or to infer things from your tone or your body language. Those may be things that haven’t occurred to you; they may even be things you’re trying to conceal or at any rate would rather they didn’t come to light. Put like that, it sounds terribly complex, but it’s no more than we do dozens of times a day without thinking about it. So why should the dialogue between a work of art and a reader/viewer/etc be looked on as any different from that, as any more egotistical or improper? “IT’S A STORY!” and nothing more? I’ll be the judge of that: not necessarily because it’s my job, but because I’m interested and aware. Each one of us will be the judge.
The Shaughraun, now, that is just a story. Or was before director John McColgan got his hands on it. McColgan’s production for the Abbey Theatre, and to a large extent Boucicault’s play itself, indulges pretty much every stereotype that dogs the Irish; indeed, the very foundation of the Abbey was declared to be in opposition to this kind of melodrama (although, as far as can be ascertained, neither Yeats nor Lady Gregory ahd ever actually seen any). If the term on this issue’s front cover puzzles you, think of, say, Paddy Moloney of The Chieftains doing the folk equivalent of scat-singing along to a traditional jig: “Ahhh, dee-deedle-idle-eedle-idle-iddly-idle-UMM!”
It’s easy to remember that McColgan was the director of the Riverdance stage show. In fact, it’s hard to forget, since he insists on interrupting the action to have a bunch of supporting players fling themselves around in energetic traditional ways (although they seldom wear the serious expression of many Irish dancers, which makes it look as if their lower limbs are autonomous and the person is a little surprised and disquieted at all the shapes being thrown below their waist). The Irish are feckless and sly; the main Brit is nice but dim. I heard a colleague expressing incredulity at how Irish audiences could have taken this production to their hearts at the Abbey, given how shamelessly it plays up to all the clichés. This seemed a fair point, until I remembered how fond the English are of Gilbert & Sullivan. I suspect Boucicault’s work does much the same: simultaneously affirms and subverts – indeed, many of the virtues one might discern in a work of postmodernism, only a century and a quarter before that term became modish.
However, work that’s so close to the national bosom doesn’t always travel well, and this production hasn’t set the West End alight. I saw a midweek matinee performance immediately after press night, but even making allowances for the lack of grapevine word and the low custom of such houses, I think a grand total of 80 spectators in the stalls of the nearly 900-seater Albery augurs ill. Patch the dog didn’t seem 100% behind the production, either: far from stealing the scenes he was in, his somnambulant performances were apparently the result of ennui on leaving his native soil; auditions were consequently held for a native pooch to replace him.
Another thinnish house, though on nothing like the same scale, at the second night of The Postman Always Rings Twice. Not all that surprising, when you think about it: it’s a decade and more since the high water mark of Val Kilmer’s Hollywood career in Top Gun, The Doors and whichever Batman movie it was; there’s an entire generation of young film- and theatregoers, then, who simply don’t consider him a big-name scalp to be collected. And, it must be said, on the strength of this production, they may not be wrong. His performance has been looked on as sluggish or soporific; really, though, he’s simply indulging in that particular kind of low-key, undemonstrative naturalism beloved of a number of American actors, particularly screen actors who find themselves on the stage. It simply happens not to mesh with the rest of Lucy Bailey’s production.
I was moderately fond of this show when I saw it in Leeds with Patrick O’Kane in what’s now the Kilmer role (although I still can’t bring myself to believe in Charlotte Emmerson as a siren who drives men to extremes, just as I couldn’t in Bailey’s production of Baby Doll a few years ago). In the Playhouse, though, it does indeed feel lumpier. To an extent this is a function of the theatre configuration itself. Even though most of the action is framed within a (yawn) CinemaScope-proportioned box set, there was both wit and impact when it broke out of the frame, as it were, in the amphitheatral thrust space of the West Yorkshire Playhouse’s Quarry house. Put the same design on a proscenium stage, and everything remains framed, most of it doubly so. Moreover, Bailey and designer Bunny Christie showed no sign whatever of having reconsidered the set for the Playhouse’s different sightlines. When two of the moments of greatest tension in the second act are a courtroom scene in which the accused is invisible to several dozen seats and a fight which the same audience members can’t see at all, this is not just unfortunate, it’s incompetent.
When the same comparison strikes a number of reviewers independently, it could be worth taking notice. There’s a further significant example of this phenomenon coming up in the next issue, but in the mean time, consider how many times Michael Sheen’s performance in The U.N. Inspector is compared to Rik Mayall. Fair enough, Mayall played the counterpart role in Gogol’s original on the same Olivier stage twenty years ago, but that’s not usually ground enough for such detailed likeness as is remarked on time and again in Sheen’s case. The facial expressions, the very cadence patterns when he speaks, all suggest Mayall.
Farr has come in for some flak for losing Gogol’s deftness of touch. (Indeed, it’s quite a novelty to see Michael Billington berate a show for having too much social relevance…) What I think he’s given insufficient credit for is the unblinking darkness of his final half-hour, in which earlier instances of comedy are one by one pushed beyond the point of laughter as we’re confronted with a bunch of despots and wannabe-despots who will stop at nothing to maintain their own power. It stops being a satire and becomes a simple indictment, more outspoken than, say, anything the British government itself has said about the current Uzbek regime. When Kenneth Cranham’s president comes to the front of the stage and yells at the audience, “What are you laughing at? You’re laughing at yourselves!”, it feels overdone for a moment, but we are indeed complicit in a national and international state of affairs where the vast majority of such tyrannies aren’t even spoken about plainly, never mind counteracted. This is our world, all right; good old us.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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