On The Third Day / The Seagull
Various venues

June / July, 2006

Well, after my spending last issue’s Prompt Corner jabbering on about Tom Stoppard, Syd Barrett and a dead guy from Cambridge, it’s only natural that, as I write this column, the news should just have broken of the death in Cambridge of Pink Floyd’s founder Roger “Syd” Barrett.  It is, of course, terribly cynical to remark on how fortuitous this has been, publicity-wise, for Stoppard’s play Rock ’N’ Roll, in which Syd is a major (though largely offstage) figure.  Nevertheless, a number of people – including the estimable rock critic Charles Shaar Murray – have done precisely that.  Terribly cynical, but dreadfully difficult to restrain oneself.

Anyway, let’s not harp on this topic.  We have, after all, another artificial media phenomenon altogether to consider.  Few critics have dared to lay into Kate Betts’ On The Third Day: apart from the mandatory Nicholas de Jongh, only Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail has really let fly.  Most of the others have spoken about how callous it would be to so attack a first-time playwright who is receiving her big break, in the form of the only new play currently in the West End, as a result of winning the competition in Channel 4’s quote-reality-unquote television series The Play’s The Thing.  They’ve recounted the judges’ various reservations, both particular and general, in that series; they’ve noted that Betts’ writing is at times awkward and tries to fit altogether too much into the play (eight minutes, by my watch, from curtain up to childhood incest… surely this is a new land speed record?).  But they’ve tried to put a positive gloss on the whole affair, encouraging Betts to write more and develop her craft away from the glare of TV cameras and so forth.


But I can’t help thinking that one reason for all this show of even-handedness and support may be a fear that, without it, the position of the critic is itself further marginalised.  If we don’t get the chance, now and again, to write about new drama in the West End – if that all goes into subsidised houses and round the edges, and the West End is entirely composed of revivals, transfers and musicals – then the critic becomes an altogether slighter figure in the West End.  More of the shows there will either be so blockbusting as to be effectively critic-proof, or will rely on “showbiz” coverage of their glitz and their swanky galas rather than actual consideration of their content.  We need to preserve our territory, and to try in those cases to square the circle in our writing: to do what our editors and our readers (who have been led by our editors’ policies) expect in terms of fitting in with the celebrity-driven mainstream, and yet to include the kind of analysis that will actually be useful and informative in arriving at a judgement of the show in question.

And at the risk of sounding vain, the fact that so few people notice our doing this is a testament to the success of our efforts.  If you could see the strain of these diplomatic efforts, then that would become the salient aspect of our writing rather than the qualities of the production we are covering.  I’m modestly pleased that, in a drinking session the other night with a well-known playwright and director, he began by taking the old standard line that every critic is a failed, frustrated practitioner (citing as one example the failure of Nicholas de Jongh’s effort to win the bet with which he ends his On The Third Day review), but moved rapidly so that, rather than opponents, we became allies in the struggle for quality, respect and generally trying to do right by theatre as a whole.


When reading this issue, by the way, you should take care not to confuse The Play’s The Thing, which is the TV series which yielded On The Third Day, with The Show’s The Thing, which is an altogether more oblique performance/installation at Alexandra Palace.  Similarly, it feels as if every issue since May has included at least two Midsummer Night’s Dreams and one Titus Andronicus; I’ve now begun to distinguish between different productions in the cumulative index, by appending their respective locations in brackets.

A number of reviews also hold that you should not confuse Katie Mitchell’s and Martin Crimp’s The Seagull with Anton Chekhov’s.  I’m not sure I’d go that far, but I would say that there’s a difference between being in the theatre and seeing the play.  Mitchell’s passion for dim lighting reached a point in this production where, if I hadn’t had a cast list in front of me, I would not have recognised even such normally conspicuous figures as Ben Whishaw, Gawn Grainger and Sandy McDade.  (I see that in both his Sunday Express and What’s On pieces, Mark Shenton alludes to Whishaw having made his name in Trevor Nunn’s 2004 Hamlet, but evidently he didn’t make it to the extent where Mark would get its spelling right in either instance.)  Still, you have to admire Mitchell’s foresight: she must have known back in 2004 that she would subsequently have another use for the dilapidated country-house set of her Lyttelton production of Iphigenia At Aulis, which is indistinguishable from the dilapidated country-house set of her Lyttelton production of The Seagull.  Such frugality can be a virtue, and perhaps the money saved might then be expended on turning the lights up to the point of ensuring general visibility.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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