The Pain And The Itch / Angels In America / The Lord Of The Rings
Various venues
June, / July 2007

Perhaps enough attention has been paid for a while to provocative remarks about theatre critics.  I said last issue that, this time around, I expected to address A.A. Gill’s remarks in The Sunday Times of June 24 (available online at arts_and_entertainment/stage/theatre/article1961473.ece), but I’m not sure there’s that much to say.  It is an article that berates critics for ill serving their subject, written by a man who consistently foregrounds himself in his own writings, and indeed on this occasion got the front cover picture of the paper’s Culture section; that wants us to be more like critics the most recent of whom (Harold Hobson) died 15 years ago and stopped writing regularly 15 years before that, a lifetime ago in journalistic terms.  It exhorts us, in effect, to care less about content and more about style.  This is no way to stem the tendency in mainstream cultural journalism – and, indeed, culture – towards precisely such superficiality.  But the real core of the policy is that the ideal is to be more like Adrian Gill himself.  Well, as Jack Nicholson remarked in a movie whose name unfortunately escapes me, “I’d rather stick red-hot needles in my eyes.”  Gill is a professional gadfly rather than a critic, so in many ways the perfect response to his yapping is to ignore it.  Alas, I’m not that well disciplined.  Still, one firm slap on the gadfly and let that be.


I am worried that I may have suffered a major sense-of-humour failure over The Pain And The Itch.  The obvious assumption would be that I identify too much with the liberals being baited.  However, on the contrary, I couldn’t for a moment find anything in these gross caricatures to give me any insight into any actual group or type or tendency of people.  For me, it failed as satire because its target was not remotely identifiable enough in real-world terms.  On that score, the most prominent instance of Dominic Cooke’s professed new Royal Court policy of bourgie-baiting scores lower than any of its smaller-scale predecessors this season, whatever Quentin Letts’ fantasies to the contrary.

As regards fantasies, I think all too many of us were imagining that really was Boris Johnson up on stage in Angels In America; Mark Emerson’s unkempt blonde mop lent him a disturbing resemblance to everyone’s favourite gaffe-prone Tory front-bencher.  But, well, we needed something to keep us amused.  I think I’m prepared to venture an overview of Daniel Kramer’s directorial tendencies now, as follows.  He takes a strong position against repressive tolerance: of youth counterculture in Hair, of gay people in the sixty years since the era portrayed in Bent, and even the bare decade and a half since Angels In America was fully premièred.  The mainstream believes itself tolerant of such groups, and so pays little attention or makes little effort to interrogating the at-best-patchy reality behind such smug self-congratulation.  Society needs to be woken up, needs to be made to confront such groups in graphic and vocal manifestations.  Unfortunately, in practice, Kramer seems all too often to equate this with turning characters into screaming queens, regardless of sexuality: Kirsty Bushell’s Harper in Angels, for instance, is a gibbering cartoon more or less from beginning to end. 

In any case, Kramer’s limited tonal range (one high-pitched note) here coincides with a pair of plays that have not aged at all well once one steps beyond the, for want of a better word, euphoria of their arrival in the theatrical and cultural grey of the early 1990s.  Now, it would be very easy to dismiss such criticism as resulting from homophobia, whether conscious or not.  But what’s interesting is that the review which most forthrightly pins the shortcomings of play and production alike is by Simon Edge, who spent several years as an editor in the (now, alas, effectively defunct) serious gay press.  There is no homophobia, no “self-hatred”, no insincerity to meet reader profiles, no anything of any such kind in Simon’s review.  He’s just calling a turkey a turkey.  Interesting, too, that the Scottish reviews at the beginning of the collection, from the production’s run at the Citizens in Glasgow, remain much more positive about the plays.

Artistic integrity

The final day covered by this issue was the day on which regulations came into force banning smoking in enclosed public places in England.  I’m immensely relieved that, as I had hoped, an exemption is provided “Where the artistic integrity of a performance makes it appropriate for a person who is taking part in that performance to smoke”.  This has the potential to turn local authorities into artistic arbiters, having to rule on “artistic integrity”.  More likely they will simply presume against permission to smoke.  Neither option is helpful.  I suggest a simple, obvious criterion: if smoking is explicitly included in a script, it is by definition integral to the author’s artistic vision.  End of problem.  Certainly, I’m glad to say that I have seen no problems arise so far; I record only one instance of frustration at the smoking of a foul-smelling coltsfoot herbal cig onstage instead.  Fair enough, actors may have reservations, but really, especially when the artistic-integrity exemption is being invoked, the least you could do is observe that integrity in its olfactory aspect as well.

There were various points during The Lord Of The Rings during which a number of us wondered whether we had been passively smoking an altogether different mixture.  My review is reprinted later in the issue; I merely note here that at one point, as the cheery little hobbits gambolled across the stage in their flesh-coloured shoes with tufts of hair affixed to the tops, I couldn’t help recalling This Is Spinal Tap: “And oh, ’ow they danced, the little people of Stone’enge…!”

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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