PROMPT CORNER 25-26/2006
Love Song / The Enchanted Pig / A Family Affair / On Religion
Various venues
December, 2006

I felt a bit of a fuddy-duddy on a number of occasions last month… although perhaps not as antiquated and out of touch with reality as Quentin Letts’ fantastical remarks about the “black polo necks and designer spectacles” in the opening-night audience for Love Song.  Quentin suggests that what may harm the reception of John Kolvenbach’s play is that it’s sentimental.  Not a bit of it: many of us, including myself, are unashamedly great big sentimental old Hectors.  The problem with Love Song is not that it’s sentimental, but that it’s insufferably glib.  Whether you’re a normal urban couple or an agoraphobic basket case, he suggests, the solution is simply to decide to see the world in a new way, and like Tony Blair’s government he equates the mere decision with its actual implementation.  I feel personally insulted by that; as insight and human compassion go, it’s on a par with telling a depressive “Pull yourself together!” and writing them off as lacking moral fibre when they don’t do so.  (Notoriously, “Lack of Moral Fibre” was the standard British military diagnosis of cases of shell shock in World War I.)  I’m sorry to revert to the kind of musical anaysis to which I subjected Tom Stoppard’s grossly overrated Rock ’n’ Roll several months ago, but John Crowley’s production of Love Song has a magnificent soundtrack of three decades of left-field rock music, but what’s the last number, the one that chimes with the author’s message, at the final curtain?  Bloody Supertramp, that’s what.  That’s not sentimentality; it’s slop.

Just by the by, it’s a little surprising to see Charles Spencer, the most well-versed in rock of the main theatre critics, mentioning the likes of Stiles & Drewe and Fascinating Aïda as having written songs for Mark Ravenhill’s Dick Whittington panto, but not spotting that also in that songwriting crew was Jim-Bob Morrison, formerly half of beloved ’90s rock hooligans Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine.


That’s not the only musical remark of Charlie’s that has given me pause.  His review of The Enchanted Pig notes that “the children in the theatre were evidently entranced throughout”.  Not the couple beside me, they weren’t.  Or maybe; it was hard to tell.  They kept chatting, the elder one (possibly ten or eleven years old) checking her mobile phone, and they begrudged me even two seconds to gather up my stuff and get out of their way at the interval and the end, yet they did go wild at the curtain call, and it seemed genuine.  That leaves me with two options, neither of them particularly flattering to them, or to me for coming to such conclusions: either they really didn’t care about the show but were under the impression that raucous to the point of rabid is the minimum response required by way of applause even to an event that didn’t thrill them, or they really did but simply had no idea how to behave at a live event among other people – the old “theatre isn’t like TV” problem.

Do you see now why I don’t like to find myself thinking this way?  All the time we evangelise about the importance, the vitality and vibrancy of theatre, but when it comes down to it we still expect a fundamentally passive response… because let’s face it, Jonathan Dove and Alasdair Middleton’s opera isn’t the whoop-and-join-in kind of seasonal show.  Yet this may be an example of exactly the kind of expansion and outreach that David Lan’s Young Vic is about, which means that I’m being not just a stick-in-the-mud but a begrudger and a hypocrite.  I think I need to work on this one.


I feel less awkward about my response to A Family Affair, as detailed in my Financial Times review.  It drew one of the very rare items of correspondence I get about my writing, from a correspondent who misinterpreted my tentative worries about the characterisation in performance of the figure of Lazar in the play.  I recognise that Ostrovsky's play is pretty egalitarian in its misanthropy.  However, if the character of Lazar as written is indeed Jewish (as his name indicates – a friend better versed in this field than me assures me that, in 19th-century Russia, the very name “Lazar” would be an unmistakable signpost of Jewishness) and there's a suggestion in the writing that his unpleasantness is at least in part associated with this factor, and if in the production he is played in a way which (as I maintain) is open to interpretation as being Jewish, then it becomes a much more difficult and delicate matter to retain the unpleasantness – even amid so many equally unpleasant characters – whilst trying to close off the suggestion of a causal link with Jewishness.  It's specifically this closure-off where I think the current production fails, with potentially very uncomfortable ramifications.  Compare my possible over-sensitivity on this score with Caroline McGinn who, in her review of On Religion, seems to think that Hebrew and Yiddish are one and the same language: even this Northern Irish Protestant recognised what she called “melodious nonsense” as being part of the Kaddish.

There are times when we do ourselves and the cultural discourse in general a disservice by holding our tongues.  I remember in the 1990s, when the National Theatre triumphantly revived Rodgers & Hammerstein's Carousel, Richard Ingrams wrote in his (non-review) Sunday newspaper column about the casting of Clive Rowe in the role of Enoch Snow.  I love Rowe as an actor, but it seems to me now that Ingrams had a point when he noted that, in a story set in the southern states of America less than a decade after the end of the Civil War, if such a principal character were indeed black like Rowe, it would not pass without comment in the social context!  Ingrams, of course, went over the top in the matter, but it’s not the kind of point we generally deem it politic to raise, because the whole business gets quite radioactive when it begins to interact too with our attitudes as an audience – which are generally liberal, but often not liberal enough, and on occasion overly timid as a result of that liberalism being misplaced.  After all, the only way for the debate to progress is for matters to be raised in debate in the first place.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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