Life After Scandal / The Masque Of The Red Death / Macbeth
Various venues
September / October, 2007

A couple of times during this issue’s fortnight of openings I’ve had to think afresh about what it is that reviewers are expected to write, and which criteria to employ.  The first occasion came during the interval of Life After Scandal, when a colleague buttonholed me for a rant about what he saw as the inherent fraud of the verbatim theatrical form.  Strictly speaking, it’s a breach of protocol for me to name the colleague in question, but a perusal of the reviews should leave you in little doubt (hint: look for descriptions such as “spurious… blather… vacuous gimmickry”).  Simon (oh, damn!) seemed to be angered that verbatim theatre simultaneously does and doesn’t edit: that it pretends to neutrality whilst necessarily trimming its material according to the editor’s particular aims.  As a journalist who continues on a daily basis to write news and general features as well as reviews, it really shouldn’t strike him as either a surprise or a peculiar structural failing that this happens even with reportage.

I also felt uncomfortable that the axe he was grinding seemed to be about the entire genre rather than the individual play.  Of course, there are types and flavours of all kinds of work that each of us gets on with awkwardly, but part of the reviewer’s job is to try to get past that and write to a readership that may not share our particular foibles.

Speaking out

Or is it?  Simon had what amounted to a strong belief that verbatim was by its nature working against producing good, stimulating, truthful theatre.  He was, as far as he was concerned, trying to advance the cause of theatre in general by speaking out against a deleterious influence on it.  What’s wrong with that?  (OK, he’s wrong in his view, but apart from that…)  We can see other reviewers pursuing agendas, say, against strong language or alleged atheism, or in favour of more social realism; I’ve written in the past about a reviewer arguing that a particular play should not have been staged because he felt it glorified an evil political system; twice in the past month I’ve found myself getting extraordinarily angry in reviews I’ve written for the Financial Times, about instances when it has seemed to me that productions have, as it were, commandeered dead people to endorse their particular positions for commercial or artistic cachet.  (On each occasion, the worst of my tirade has been cut before publication.)

Certainly, we must remember that tastes differ, but there will always be times when we’re just so fired up that we have to let it out.  And it can also make for better, or at least more entertaining, reading when we so palpably have something to say and care so passionately about saying it.  When I get into conversations with taxi drivers and tell them what I do, I usually call myself “a professional opinionated git”.  There are times when that’s a valuable way to be.


Conversely, I’m currently engaged in an exchange on one blog site where I’m being accused of rank hypocrisy for giving The Masque Of The Red Death a warm review when I admit on that site that there were things I didn’t get out of the show.  “And that [I wrote there] was precisely because I did obey the company’s exhortation to explore for myself.  When I heard noise coming from one direction, I quite often went in the other to see what might be hidden, and on virtually every occasion, for me, the answer was nothing.  (The first three doors I tried during the evening were all toilets – who knew BAC had so many?)  Fair enough, that was partly my decision and partly bad luck. But when you exhort people to allow for a plurality of opinion and experience, it cuts both ways. It is perfectly possible to come out of The Masque Of The Red Death and say with all justification that you encountered nothing substantial, and virtually nothing even recognisable, in terms of intellectual or emotional content.”  I continued that I wrote the review I did “because I’m prepared to trust that such content is there.”

To some, this makes me a hypocrite who wrote a rave review (well, judge for yourself) in order to be part of a critical consensus (if such a consensus exists – again, you be the judge).  I thought I was exercising the kind of responsibility so often enjoined upon us to report when our individual response to a production is at odds with the majority.  In this case, it was a matter not just of response, but of actual material encountered or not.  So: damned if we do, damned if we don’t.  Nobody said it was going to be a bed of roses.  (It certainly isn’t in some of that older West End seating.)

In my review of the Chichester Macbeth reprinted in Issue 11, I wrote that “when [Patrick Stewart] even slips up on verb agreement, it suggests that he is not listening to himself”, at least on the press night.  I was shocked to find on its transfer to the Gielgud that he is still saying “Good things of day begin to droop and drowse,/ Whiles night’s black agents to their preys doth rouse.”  Granted, English verb conjugation at the time was slightly more inflected than it is now, but it’s hardly obscure that “doth” is singular and “agents” plural.  I’ve never seen a text that rendered the line as “…doth rouse”.  This may look like a pedantic point, but I can’t help but see deeper implications.  In fact, I find it hard not to conclude that a man lauded as one of our outstanding current classical actors either regularly doesn’t listen to himself or doesn’t even know how the language works.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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