The City / The Taming Of The Shrew
Various venues
April / May, 2008

When I first began writing Prompt Corner four years ago, I often wrote fervently about both the editorial culture that seems to think any “name” of whatever kind, or any “sparky” writer, will serve admirably as a theatre critic, and the utterances of various beneficiaries of that culture.  Lloyd Evans, Quentin Letts and latterly Tim Walker have all loomed large in my self-righteous sights at various times.  And although I still sound off on the subject every so often (I took a minor pop at Tim only last issue), I’ve tried to do so less frequently.  It gets boring to read, and makes me look like an obsessive using Theatre Record to air my personal grouses (grice?) in the fashion of the late, unlamented R Cubed News, a publication which wrung a seven-year lifespan out of Alastair Macaulay’s bad review of the musical Napoleon in the Financial Times.  Moreover, I’m already hypertensive, and if/when I finally have a stroke I’d rather the credit went to worthier folk.  But the editorial climate hasn’t grown any more temperate, and the utterances continue.


There have been glimpses of Quentin Letts going native in the course of his years in the theatre seat, but every so often he mounts one of his hobby-horses – or, more improbably, several at once – and canters back and forth pretending to speak for legions of adherents to Proper Values: godliness, Englishness and… well, I’m reminded of lines written by Brendan Behan in his satirical song The Captains And The Kings: “In our dreams we see old Harrow, / And we hear the crow’s loud caw, / At the flower show our big marrow / Takes the prize from Evelyn Waugh”.

His review of The City is prime Quentin.  He gets in the by-now-requisite pop at the fact that the Royal Court receives public funding (sometimes some things that some people don’t like get some public money – deal with it), seems to feel personally insulted by the play and so resorts to insult himself (and rather infantile insult at that, suggesting Martin Crimp might better be called “Chimp”) and ends with a classical old-England harrumph, “Why should this disgusting play prosper at the expense of real people?”  Fact: Quentin Letts is exactly five months older than me.  But I fear that on this occasion his zeal to speak for the values of the Daily Mail and its readership may have backfired.  At one point he also damns city populations as a whole, as “slack-jawed urbanites”, exalting in contrast the decency and discrimination of “the shires”.  Now, I don’t know, but I’d bet hard money that a significant majority of Mail readers are in fact urbanites or at best suburbanites, slack-jawed or otherwise, whose spiritual home may be the rural shires but whose reality will diverge radically from the pretended norm which underlies Quentin’s remarks.


The reviews of The City also yield one of several characteristic Tim Walkerisms in this issue.  There’s a rhetorical device which I think of as “the ‘Clearly…’ ploy”: in order to shore up a dodgy assertion, simply claim certainty by stating that it is “clearly” so, or words to that effect.  Thus Tim: “It was generally accepted that [Crimp’s] Attempts On Her Life at the National was one of the worst plays to have been put on the London stage for a very long time.”  Generally accepted by whom?  Not by the critics, who were predominantly ambivalent about it (though look at Tim’s review for some more assertion-based material).  Not by ticket-buyers, who gave it solid business.  Not by most of the people I know who saw it: they continue to rave about it even now, to an extent that I find quite puzzling.  (For what it’s worth, I thought it was wildly over-rated, but not as wildly as Tim, and certainly not wildly enough to lead me to invent a majority on my side of the question.)  Generally who, then – General Walker?  Similarly, in his review of Harper Regan, Tim claims that “it is true” (how “clearly” can you get?) “that for some people […] the phrase [“kitchen sink”] conjures up memories of cutting-edge entertainment.”  While I’m in the betting mood, I’d wager that he couldn’t name two living theatre-goers known to him who respond in 2008 in any such way.  (And just to even matters out a little as regards this tactic, I’d also take issue with Michael Billington’s declaration in his Taming Of The Shrew review that “[director Conall] Morrison’s point is clear”: as my own review illustrates, it was anything but clear to me, and several points about his staging cannot be explained by Michael’s critical interpretation.)

I’ve grown to respect Lloyd Evans since my early outbursts, as he does tend to do what any critic worth their salt must do: he backs up his points.  He does not simply state his views, he argues them… “argues” in the sense of corroborating with evidence and/or reasoning, not simply stating them contentiously.  But he does nevertheless strike me quite often as being contrary for the sake of it.  When my esteemed colleague and predecessor Ian Herbert wrote this column, he would deliberately try to even things out on occasion by playing devil’s advocate: either defending a show that had been generally considered to be poor, or laying into one that had been lauded.  And he, too, built his case upon specific evidence.  But that done was in the context of the critical discourse as a whole, as reprinted herein.  It’s not quite the same when you’re writing in an individual, non-meta-publication; then, it looks more as if it’s done simply for the sake of providing writing that’s entertaining rather than necessarily either accurate or informative.

What it’s like

And surely that is what a critic must always aim for, whether they think of themselves as a chin-stroking sage or a champion of [insert your favoured social/political grouping here].  What we must do first and foremost is tell our audience what a show is like. Not whether or not they should go and see it – they can make up their own minds about that, once they know what it’s like.  And if we, or our editors, care more about making a splash, or about arguing matters other than those onstage, or imagine for a moment that the subject is anything but the play and production before us, then we get it wrong, and in doing so we pollute the waters not just for ourselves but for those around us and those to come.

Now, I think I’d better take a couple of aspirin to thin my blood…

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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