A Matter Of Life And Death / the "dead white males" brouhaha
National Theatre, London SE1
May, 2007

I predicted last issue that the kerfuffle over Nicholas Hytner’s remarks [about critics as dead white males] would have died down by the time I got around to offering my twopenn’orth, and I was right.  But I don’t intend to let that stop me.  I thought the matter could more profitably be addressed in the context of the apparent catalyst for his hissy fit, the allegedly poor reviews given to A Matter Of Life And Death.


First let me have my say on the production itself.  My responses to it at the time were not so much complex as tangled, and I haven’t really been able to tease them out in the interim.  We are now, belatedly, familiar enough with Kneehigh’s way with a story that it comes neither as a surprise nor an exhilaration in itself to see them take an extant tale by the scruff of the neck and give it a vigorous shake.  It’s the artistry of the shake, and what gets newly shaken out, that matter.  And there is a lot of artistry and a lot of freshness in this production.  There are also one or two moments at which the company have taken their eye off the ping-pong ball… and, to be fair, one or two moments at which reviewers have done likewise.

I have two admissions to make with regard to watching A Matter Of Life And Death.  The first is that I found myself reflexively responding with a knee-jerk conservatism: “This is different from the film, therefore it must be bad.”  At least I realised at the time that this was both nonsensical and dangerous.  The opening sequence – “This is the universe; big, isn’t it?” – fails precisely because it is retained from the film, without an effective stage analogue for the cosmic camerawork which originally accompanied the initial voiceover.  Conversely, in the climactic courtroom scene, when I looked around and realised that the Olivier broadly fitted the same amphitheatrical pattern which was such a motif in the film, I enjoyed a moment of wonder all my own, as the staging itself made no such allusion.


Other touches prove dubious not because they differ from the film in themselves, but because they so obviously pander to the exigencies of the company.  For instance, once you decide you’re going to use aerialism, you naturally enrol Gísli Örn Garðarsson, and since he can’t convincingly play a pre-Revolutionary French aristocrat, you have to turn the character of Conductor 71 into something commensurately wacky.  I’m a great admirer of Garðarsson’s, but when the story has to change to fit him, I can’t help thinking that he may have delighted us enough for a little while.  Similarly with the invented character of Conductor 72, worked up from a cameo in the film largely, as far as I can see, because Kneehigh’s company director Mike Shepherd enjoys wearing absurd costumes.  (At least this one wasn’t drag.)  I have no problems whatever with Emma Rice and the company’s visual inventiveness as applied here: not with the bicycling nurses, nor the swinging coital bed, and the ping-pong game seemed to me a perfect moment of Kneehighification of the original scene.

Having got over my initial reactionism to changes of tone or substance, I came to greatly admire the way in which the “trial in heaven” sequence was both psychologically and emotionally repositioned.  We always go on about the exuberance with which Kneehigh stage stories, but we tend not to notice that the other side of this coin is a fascination with the melancholy, the minor-key, the complications and frustrations of those stories.  Converting the propagandistic Anglo-American love-in of the film into a far more complex meditation on the exigencies of war is a masterstroke.  One or two reviewers object that the treatment seems to place a moral equivalence on the bombings of Coventry and Dresden; well, yes, the big picture is one thing, but on the individual human level of the scene, it doesn’t make the victims any more or less innocent or any more or less dead in comparison with one another.


And then the moment that swept my feet out from under me (or would have if I hadn’t been sitting down).  They changed the ending.  This is my second admission: neither from any advance word, nor from the visual leitmotiv of a spinning coin used throughout the evening, did I twig that the ending of this production is aleatory.  (Nor did at least one reviewer, who shall remain Nicholas de Jongh; others seem cautiously to have avoided mentioning it.)

Even having eventually grasped this point, there seems to me to be a fundamental question here: with such a diametrical change of a core element of the original, to what extent can this still be called an adaptation?  Is this – uncomfortable word – any less honourable an operation than Nahum Tate giving King Lear a happy ending?  And if the ending can be changed so utterly at random, this may make a comment about the casualness of war and death, but what point does it also make about the unity and integrity of a narrative?  However, I’ve seen no word on this matter in any review or comment on the production, so maybe this is just me getting carried away with arcana again.


In any case, I on some level enjoyed the complexity, ambivalence, even inconsistency of my responses to the production. And – again, with the exception of Nicholas de Jongh – most of the daily reviews I saw were ambivalent in much the same way.  Which made Nicholas Hytner’s remarks all the more astounding.  It seems to me that he’s actually being rather more guilty of the things he’s inveighing against than are those he is accusing (as is often the case when one flings around accusations of category- or label-based prejudice).

For instance, I see little fundamental disagreement, little difference in opinion on balance, between the review by Michael Billington, supposedly a dead white male par excellence, and fresh-faced filly Kate Bassett, whose openness has been explicitly hailed in other quarters as forming an exemplary contrast to the DWMs.  (This was a moment when the blogosphere really came into its own, with both professional commentators such as Lyn Gardner and Mark Shenton addressing the issue at length and an energising flurry of contributions from numerous “civilians” on various blog sites.)  Kate, in an article for the media section of the Independent, also repudiates Hytner’s claim that this is a matter on which she for one has ever been voluble in private, and most tellingly of all makes a point I alluded to in my own 2005 rehearsal for this row: that DWM reviewers are less likely to be replaced by younger, more open theatre writers than by unqualified celebs or staff hacks who will be devoid even of such allegedly outmoded ideas as those of the old guard.  And how do we define “old guard”?  One blog comment has argued that Mr H’s accusations only begin to sound to sound plausible coming from him because his own generation has succeeded in re-branding 50 as the new 30 and marketing the concept of “middle youth”.

Accusations of misogyny seem similarly mote-and-beam: who is it, here, who’s being sexist and throwing about accusations based entirely on labels?  It both amazes and amuses me that otherwise sane and rational people, who grumble rightly about the extent to which, say, politics is being reduced to a beauty contest and a matter of labelling, will then vigorously indulge in precisely the same kind of reductivism on an issue that happens to raise their own hackles.  (At one point Hytner appears to imply that Katie Mitchell is a lesbian; I neither know nor care, but as regards it being an issue, those comments have now introduced the matter into discourse where previously it simply had not been.  Well done, Nick.)


There is a kernel of real substance here, as regards the extent to which reviewers can be expected to be representative of either their readers or theatregoers as a whole.  But it’s very easy, again, to move from a substantive to a merely cosmetic sense of “representation”.  Yes, it’s a pity that there are virtually no non-Caucasian reviewers, not just in senior positions, but virtually anywhere of significance.  (Of those whose names appear in these pages with any frequency, I can think of only Tamara Gausi and Zena Alkayat.)  Again, though, surely this is not a writer’s fault for being of the background and heritage they happen to be, but the responsibility of those in editorial positions who, frankly, tend to appoint people broadly like themselves.  It seems to me that this is a change that will be effected primarily from the top down.

And as regards being “representative” of theatregoers as a whole… well, yes, all very well for Nick Hytner to point out how the National Theatre’s audience is growing younger and more stylistically adventurous, but in theatreland as a whole a “representative” reviewer would be one who loved musical spectaculars, going to see the same ones again and again, fervently following reality-TV casting series for forthcoming productions and voting for their favourite new talent, and was occasionally lured to a straight play by the prospect of a big-name scalp.  I’m sorry, but there it is.  Even the NT’s own greatest success during Hytner’s tenure has been The History Boys, a production which is both overtly and covertly nostalgic (i.e. it pretends to hark back to the 1980s when its values and mode of banter are closer to the 1950s) and relies on a shared conservatism of values allied with a vein of discreet camp to carry us over its shortcomings, written by a man who is five years older than the oldest of the DWMs.  Its director: Nicholas “When I become a dead white male I will only be hired to do dead white male theatre” Hytner.


The point is not to be representative either of the theatregoers as a whole or even of one’s readership, not in the sense of sharing their taste or even necessarily their aesthetic or cultural context.  The point is to understand what is going on both on and offstage, and to communicate with people.  Again and again I come back to that favourite quote, that theatre isn’t about getting to the right sort of people – it’s about getting to the wrong sort and turning them into the right sort.  Cybernetics, the quasi-scientific study of communication, defines information as the amount of unpredictability in a message: the more you say what someone wants or expects to hear, the less you’re actually saying in any meaningful sense.  This, ultimately, is the grey area in which the burden of Hytner’s remarks is located.  Clearly, we as critics need to occupy sufficient linguistic and conceptual common ground with the people we’re speaking to, in order that we may communicate effectively with them.  But it is all too easy to sound as if one is calling for total congruence, where significant communication would in practice fall to zero and criticism would be no more than a kind of semiotic feedback loop.  The secondary question, then, is: how reliable an indicator of this kind of engagement is the nexus of age/sex/back-ground/etc labels?  Compare matters like speed limits, age of consent and so on: on the one hand, these are convenient ways of plotting a line that we know has to be drawn somewhere; on the other, they’re reductive means which take no account of individual circumstances and become oppressive when (as they almost inevitably are) one attempts to apply them uniformly.

Is it at least useful that Nick Hytner’s remarks opened up a debate?  Well, no, because it wasn’t a debate: it was a brief blizzard of chatter which generated more heat than light and became a creature of the media rather than an exchange of ideas of substance.  Nice try, though.  And it surely was such a try, because the alternative would be that he actually believed the tosh he was saying, and I’m far too charitable to contemplate that for a moment.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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