Donkeys' Years /  Coriolanus / The Changeling
Various venues

May, 2006

We’re not at all keen any more (and rightly not) to give succour to the view that theatre is part of an imagined citadel of high culture which can be perceived in contradistinction to a more lumpen mass culture.  However, it continues to be the case that the vast majority of critics are middle-class, in culture if not in family background.  In particular, a high number of English critics went to university at either Oxford or Cambridge.  (For no readily apparent reason, most of the fifty- and sixtysomethings went to Oxford, the thirty- and fortysomethings to Cambridge.)  I think this says more about journalistic recruitment channels than about theatre reviewing per se, but occasionally it shows through in our writing.

Cast an anthropologically curious eye, for instance, over the reviews of Donkeys’ Years.  Michael Frayn’s comedy is set in “one of the lesser colleges, at one of the older universities” – in practice, clearly Oxbridge.  (Frayn, as it happens, went to Cambridge.)  Note that the two reviewers who employ the specifically Oxford term “gaudy”, which does not occur in the play – Charles Spencer and Paul Taylor –  are both products of Oxford.  But then the cosy assumptions begin to go awry.  Almost every reviewer, when describing the play’s setting, sticks to the unspecific portmanteau term “Oxbridge”.  However, Nicholas de Jongh (University College, London) opts for “Cambridge”, whilst Alastair Macaulay (Cambridge) goes for “Oxford”, as does Patrick Marmion (whose university background I don’t know).  Does this tell us anything?  Only that some of us (by which I mean me), although protesting egalitarianism, still try to draw conclusions from a person’s university.


I’ve been reminded of my own time at Cambridge (there!) by a number of productions during these weeks, but not usually in so dramatically direct a way as in the case of Donkeys’ Years.  For instance, during my time as a rather muddled postgraduate I did a term’s work supervising some undergrads in Practical Criticism.  (The mind boggles, doesn’t it?)  My tutees included a young Jonathan Cake.  Now, I have to admit that almost all of Jonathan’s acting performances that I’ve seen since then have struck me as very much in the vein of his criticism essays: competent, solid but unspectacular and with the effort showing a little.  I think “assiduous” sums it up quite nicely.
It was a pleasant surprise and a considerable relief, then, to see him in Coriolanus at the Globe, in a piece of casting and characterisation which meshes excellently with his natural predilections.  Kate Bassett (who, as it happens, was at the same college at roughly the same time as Cake) describes his Caius Martius well in her Independent on Sunday review: like “a public-school rugger champ” and an “overgrown adolescent”.  This is the point, and it can be easy to overlook. Coriolanus is often played as an overgrown child, but adolescent is rather more complex. There is a strong element of peer-bonding, such as makes Martius want the approval of Rome even as he is unable to submit to the prescribed civic rituals, in a display of petulance which is more that of a caricature teenager than a big infant.  His homosociality with Aufidius is also a teen-like trait, as – most tellingly, in Dominic Dromgoole’s production – is his response to his family’s embassy: he does not capitulate at once, but holds out as long as he can, trying to prove that he is his own man, all grown-up, before conceding in effect that he isn’t quite, not yet, after all.  A number of reviewers see this production as an unpromising start to Dromgoole’s tenure at the Globe; I’m much more upbeat about its auguries.


An example of sub-editors at work: my Financial Times review of The Changeling, as published, ends by speaking of a performance style “that at times makes the narrative itself hard to follow.”  The FT subs cut the words which had followed that observation: it originally read “…hard to follow, even for those of us who have acted in it.”  I understand absolutely why the cut was made: it looks like a piece of rather precious showing-off or a spurious claim to authority.  My point, though, was that through the Cheek By Jowl presentation I kept remembering lines from the student production I’d been in twenty years earlier, to a far greater extent than I’d expected (I don’t think I’ve read the play at all, and have seen it on stage only once in the interim period), and yet even with such a close knowledge, I still couldn’t entirely keep tabs on what was going on in the final scenes of Declan Donnellan’s staging.

And yes, the student version in question took place at Cambridge, and for some unambiguously precious showing off, it was directed by Sam Mendes. As with my supervising Jonathan Cake, that early experience of being directed by Sam gave me some insight into his skills as a director.  The opening speech of The Changeling is far knottier than it looks, a real devil to make sense of in speech.  (Donnellan trimmed it judiciously.)  Our student Alsemero was not a great acting talent.  But Sam explained that speech phrase by phrase, not simply telling the actor how to deliver it but illuminating each separate element, hanging shifts of intentionality on a comma or a fractional pause, in a way that made its delivery crystal clear.  Through his early years as a professional director, it continued to strike me that Sam was unparalleled in his micro-management of actors and text, but that sometimes he left the big picture to fend for itself somewhat.  (It was his first years of work at the Donmar, in particular Assassins and The Glass Menagerie, that persuaded me to drop those reservations at last.)  And it was Sam’s micro-lucidity that I missed in the Barbican production; instead, Donnellan once again makes psychological space manifest in the physical space of the stage, but in ways that often make a nonsense of any sense of actual location, and while also disdaining obvious cues in the text for physical business (at least two such moments with Beatrice-Joanna’s glove in the opening scene alone being muffed).


That completes this issue’s bout of Varsity nostalgia. I must, however, share one delicious moment from the second-night performance of Donkey’s Years: when two characters onstage reminisce about a third who had been sent to prison, both editorial assistant Hannah and I heroically avoided glancing to our immediate right to see how the line had been taken by our neighbour, Jeffrey Archer.  He didn’t seem to laugh a lot during the evening; but then, his Oxford experience had its own complexities.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

Return to index of reviews for the year 2006

Return to master reviews index

Return to main theatre page

Return to Shutters homepage