PROMPT CORNER 16-17/2006
A Right Royal Farce / Exiles
Various venues

July / August, 2006

What a lot of poor reviews A Right Royal Farce got!  As you know, Theatre Record doesn’t carry reviews’ star ratings, but it’s worthy of remark that even Nicholas de Jongh has never, to the best of his recollection, given a no-star review before.  If I were Ian Herbert, I might at this point embark on a nobly contrarian defence of Toby Young and Lloyd Evans’ piece; but I’m not, so instead I shall simply point out that I told you so a year ago.  The faults of A Right Royal Farce are exactly the same as those of Who’s The Daddy?, Young & Evans’ 2005 farce about bed-hopping at The Spectator magazine: no sense of pace or momentum, direction and performances which generally make Spitting Image look like Ingmar Bergman, and a reliance on jeering rather than wit.

The question is why did so many of us indulge this kind of exercise when it was directed at media folk and a politico, yet turn their noses up when the same approach was applied to the royal family?  I don’t think it’s due to any hangover of feudal allegiance to the latter, not even of the “oh, bad show, when they can’t answer back” kind – we all know that various royal press officers can spin and leak with every bit as much dedication as their political counterparts.  I’m inclined to believe that we embraced Who’s The Daddy? (those of us who did) because of the location of its subject matter: close enough to us that we could seem good sports by chuckling along, far enough away that its mud-flinging didn’t leave any noticeable marks on us.


Not reprinted in this issue, but available on the Guardian’s web site, is a piece written by Young & Evans in that paper’s “Yes, But…” column (renamed from “Right Of Reply”, perhaps in an effort to seem less confrontational or to discourage writers from digging their heels in).  In this piece they profess astonishment at the strength of the negative reaction, protesting that “Everyone laughed on press night, except the critics.”  Perhaps Young and Evans were at a different press night from the one I attended, which was punctuated only by sporadic titters, and those largely of the “I can’t believe this is happening” kind; in fact, Evans almost certainly was – his apparent absence on press night was the subject of some comment amongst our colleagues.

The authors, of course, enjoy the last laugh, professing that the show played to packed houses, and smirk, “this is worrying to us as critics. Our revered profession now looks almost redundant”… thus revealing two fundamental misconceptions: the first being that criticism either is intended or able to influence box-office significantly, the second that popularity equals quality, by which reasoning the Big Mac is the pinnacle of haute cuisine and Heat magazine the zenith of the literary periodical.  Remember: he who laughs last probably didn’t get the joke.


Mind you, I’ve often felt that way about various works myself.  It was, for instance, only towards the end of my third year of doctoral research on James Joyce that it was delicately hinted to me that I might be barking up the wrong tree altogether.  It was with great relief, then, that I saw James Macdonald’s production of Joyce’s Exiles and found it entirely faithful to my conception of the play.  The trouble is that that conception holds it to be dull, stilted and almost entirely unsuccessful.  I admire Joyce’s prose to the point of idolatry (and probably beyond), but it has to be acknowledged that he was not a master of all forms.  His verse was by and large trite and sentimental, and Exiles, his only play, betrays his own immense admiration for Ibsen without showing a similar grasp of what makes for drama.

Contrary to claims in some reviews, Peter McDonald is not either excessively underplaying his part as protagonist Richard Rowan nor slightly bewildered as to what tone to adopt; he is playing the character as written.  Try as I might, I cannot find in myself the enthusiasm that others do for the psychological acuity and explicitness of the dialogue, when it these are vested in characters who are neither real by the standards of drama in Joyce’s day or ours, nor hyperrealistically vibrant as are those in his novels and stories.  I am extremely glad to have had the opportunity to see the play, but I think once may be enough for this lifetime.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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