The Emperor Jones / Cyprus / On Ego / Ubu The King
Various venues
November/December, 2005

I’ve used “contrarian” as a term of mild disapprobation here before.  Ah, but it’s different when it’s me that’s being contrary.

Sorry.  I noticed, when proofreading this issue (contrary to appearances, it does in fact happen), that my reprinted reviews are often at odds with the predominant currents on this batch of shows: underwhelmed by The Emperor Jones, more enthusiastic about The Rubenstein Kiss and Cyprus, not to say the very space of Trafalgar Studio 2.  (I walked in and thought, “This is Pleasance Upstairs from the Edinburgh Fringe”; nothing wrong with Pleasance Upstairs– I’ve performed there myself.)  Individual instances are part of the territory, but when a consistent trend appears to emerge, it gives pause for thought: in the words of Ian Fleming, “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”  I know that one of the aims of these columns is to try to provoke a second thought – the other Ian, for instance, is not infrequently given to defending otherwise comprehensively mauled musicals – but that’s within the context of the totality of critical discourse between these covers.  A stand-alone newspaper review is a different matter; when one is repeatedly in the minority, is it time to reassess one’s views?

By and large, no.  While stopping this side of Olympian pronouncements, a reviewer ought to be confident in the validity of his or her opinion: confident that it’s based on accrued knowledge and experience which tempers and informs personal taste (by the time you read this column, I shall have seen my 350th show of the year), confident that one’s viewpoint is informed and considered.


Note, though, that I spoke of the validity of opinion, not the rightness.  In matters of opinion, “right” is as subjective as anything else, unless it can be borne out by specific facts.  There are those who believe that this can be done in the field of theatre reviewing: that critics, say, who sneer at a musical which goes on to run for ages and coin it in are by definition wrong in their judgement.  This is, of course, tosh.  If quality and success were the same thing, the Big Mac would be the greatest haute cuisine in history, The Mousetrap would be the acme of the dramatic art, Barbara Cartland would have been a multiple Nobel laureate, and Tony Blair would have ushered in a new golden age outside his own head as well as inside.

To put it bluntly, reviewing isn’t about whether people will go to see a show, but whether they ought to.  Even the most scholarly criticism of a play, which might anatomise its textual and subtextual allusions, place it in a social, political and/or historical context or even subject the script to minute linguistic analysis to determine a question of authorship, is implicitly evaluating its worth as a piece of drama which justifies and repays such attention.  Indeed, reviews should periodically challenge their readers by including the unknown or unexpected.  Look at it from first principles: you want to know whether you should go to a play, then you need information that doesn’t chime with your own tastes and predilections, otherwise you’ve already made up your mind.  Cybernetics, the science of communication, defines “information” as the amount of unpredictability in a message.  If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: if it doesn’t tell you something new, it’s not being informative.

That, in turn, abuts on to the question of why people go to the theatre, what they want to get out of the experience.  A look at the blockbusters’ box office receipts might suggest that principally they look to be entertained, impressed, dazzled, challenged a little bit but not too much: that they don’t necessarily look for “information” in that sense from a play.  But that strikes me as a patronising interpretation, one that implies that “real”, “difficult” plays are inherently “better” than musicals.  Of course, this isn’t the case: food for thought may or may not be rich, but there are also the matters of how it’s prepared and how digestible it proves to be.  Surely the one part of the experience in common across the spectrum is the basic aspect of live performance: of feeling oneself in the same time and place as these other living beings whose travails are being played out on the stage, of being in a community with the rest of the audience, with the performers, and ultimately with the characters themselves.  (Hence, for instance, my profound problems with the design of The Woman In White, which both in its concept and in the visual grammar it emplys seems to me to run directly counter to this basic tenet of theatre.)


A reviewer can’t judge a play on the terms of its audience as a whole, because that audience as a whole hasn’t seen the show yet (or hasn’t yet had the full range of opportunities to stay away).  One must therefore judge it on its own terms and those of theatre and society.  If my vague recollection is correct, Robert Hewison claims once to have closed a play (I can’t remember what it was) by remarking in his review that, for a piece which positioned itself as intimately bound up with issues of the Jewish experience, it was more than a little tactless to open on Yom Kippur.  Such things do matter; they indicate whether a production is really engaging with the world as it may claim to do.

So, am I more right or more wrong to have been uncertain what The Emperor Jones means in 2005 as much as welcoming a beautifully acted, directed and designed production of it?  Or to see Cyprus not just as a play with a rather hackneyed structure but also as one of the more articulate dramatic comments to date on the climate and uses of intelligence-gathering in this brave new world?  I’m neither, of course: I give my opinion, and my reasons for it, and it’s up to the reader how they read it.


Information, in the cybernetic sense, is at the heart both of the content of On Ego and of the approach of Mick Gordon’s new company On Theatre.  Gordon and neurologist Paul Broks contend in this piece that the self is a fiction, an illusion created and re-created by the brain from instant to instant as it processes and shapes the bundles of stimuli it receives – the information.  As regards the company, Gordon’s vision is to follow up the pieces he fashioned during his time running the Gate, Intimate Death and Love’s Work (the latter of which he subsequently remade in Tashkent with new Uzbek vox-pop testimonies), with a series of dramatised essays.  On this showing it’s an approach that could be very fertile indeed.  He succeeds in not simply putting a debate in characters’ mouths or moving them around as obvious metaphors for the conflicting viewpoints, but rather of presenting a kind of object-lesson as to what the whole business can mean in practice.  Well, in slightly fantastical practice, since the action involves a teleportation experiment… but this also offers a passing sidelight on a question which has bedevilled science-fiction writers and cognitive philosophers alike for some decades: if one were to be atomised in a teleporter, where would the “I” go?

Indeed, one of the more interesting things in what’s already a mighty interesting piece of work is the fact that, ultimately, it doesn’t in fact dramatise the debate at all.  As I say, it takes one particular viewpoint and illustrates that; the debate occurs entirely within us as we watch it, because this “bundle theory” conflicts so radically with out ingrained instincts that we do indeed each have a continuous self, an “I” – the play’s final moments only attain the poignancy they aim for and require because at heart we are all “ego”-ists.  But Gordon neither patronises on the one hand nor lectures on the other.  In some ways it reminds me of the infectious enthusiasm of Phelim McDermott in a number of Improbable Theatre productions, but here involving a readiness to play around with big ideas rather than with ways of staging.


And now, my opening gambit in a round of the parlour game of Humiliation, in which the aim is to cite an example of one’s own ignorance regarding something that every other player knows.  I’ve never really got Ubu.  (I’ve been mistaken for David Thomas of the rock group Pere Ubu, but that’s another matter altogether.)  I’ve never seen a production that successfully enacted what is claimed to be the continuing relevance or universal applicability of Jarry’s character’s thuggish tyranny… apart, that is, from John Clancy’s Fatboy on last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, but that so tailored its material to a specific analogy (Fatboy/Ubu = the worst aspects of contemporary America) that it can be discounted here.  So, the darkness of the play has never in practice come across to me.  What’s left?  Filth and smut, portrayed with vast exuberance but not, to my mind, actually much flair.  It’s the difference between, say, comedian Jerry Sadowitz and someone on the terraces at Millwall FC.  David Greig’s version and Dominic Hill’s production didn’t do anything to change my mind.  The moment in the evening that most surprised me was seeing the shoulders of John Peter, two rows in front of me, shaking with mirth as an incontinence nappy freighted with chocolate mousse landed at some velocity in his lap.  For the rest, I’m inclined to agree with Michael Billington as regards the play being “kept alive through artificial respiration”; whilst I wouldn’t go nearly as far as Nicholas de Jongh in his Standard review, I fear I rather understand his perspective.

When seeing shows with my Theatre Record hat on, I tend not to make full review notes.  More fool me: I know I came up with a snappy (and not unkind) epigrammatic description of Almost Blue while watching it at the Riverside, but now it come time to trot it out, I can’t for the life of me recall it.  Maybe I shall do so at some point during the four weeks before the double issue which will bring Theatre Record’s 2005 to a close.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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