Plague Over England
Duchess Theatre, London WC2
Opened 23
February, 2009

Gosh, it’s a season of controversy and no mistake.  Following hard on various outbursts about people liking anti-Semitic plays, liking anti-Muslim plays, liking gay plays, now comes one about… er, liking a play by a colleague.  A number of bloggers have decided that the positive reviews given to Nicholas de Jongh’s Plague Over England are due to friendship, freemasonry or some other flavour of solidarity.  In one case, Guardian blog author John M Morrison suggested that we might have been unduly swayed by the positive reaction of the biased opening-night audience… though why reviewers whose job is not to be influenced by such partiality should succumb on this occasion and not on others, he didn’t explain. 

Now, it’s true that a number of these comment-posters have seen the play and really not liked it, and it’s true also that I wasn’t exactly wild about it myself, but I’d really need to see some compelling evidence to make me buy into a theory of conspiracy rather than cock-up. As it is, people seem to be asking not, “Why are these opinions and those so different?”, but rather, “Why are those people so wrong?”


And it seems to me that above all that kind of working backwards in order to justify a conclusion is not a critical approach to take, and so it’s really very unlikely to yield any meaningful results about why critics write what they do.  Because interrogating one’s own response is part and parcel of the work of any reviewer worth their salt: not just reporting the event and their response/evaluation, but trying to understand the mechanisms and causes, and where possible to communicate those.  It’s the routine discipline of organising our thoughts and feelings in an articulate, synoptic way and on such a scale that makes a difference.

Take Michael Billington's Plague review – poor Michael, having become the personification of the old guard and with everything he writes now jumped on.  But look at what he actually says here: "De Jongh realises that plays work best when private and public worlds intersect [...] the play is almost too neatly symmetrical [...] one or two of the fast-flowing gags[...] have seen better days [...] De Jongh captures, with vividness the contradictions of the 50s. On the one hand, the climate of repressiveness; on the other, a louchely subversive sub-culture [...] expert re-creation of an unlovely period in English life".  All those remarks seem to me to be to a significant degree analytical and/or exegetic rather than simply subjective responses. I don't think the actual reviews bear out the claim that people were responding or operating in a different way to this play than they usually do.


Meanwhile, the other disputes rumble on.  Elsewhere online you can find one scheduled panellist on one of the National Theatre’s England People Very Nice discussions explaining their withdrawal, apparently because the protesters won’t be accorded equal status and time.  Well, what about the same status for the rest of us?  Freedom of speech is not the right to say as much, wherever and whenever one wants, nor is the denial of such unlimited licence censorship.

The anti-semitism-of-Gaza-plays allegations continue, too – see the Go To Gaza reviews in this issue.  I find John Nathan’s review quite disturbing.  He writes that “for the second time in as many weeks, I have opted to dispense with the star-rating system we use for indicating the quality of a production” – which makes clear (or perhaps glosses) what had not been so at the time, that he did not award Seven Jewish Children a zero-star rating.  John continues that this is because “for the second time in as many weeks, my job as a theatre critic has shifted from primarily judging whether a play is any good, to whether it is anti-Semitic”.  No, it hasn’t: what has shifted is the way you have approached the job in these cases.  I’m aware that I risk sounding anti-Semitic myself here, but I don’t see a lot of difference between John taking this tack as regards these plays and, say, Quentin Letts judging a play in terms of the Daily Mail’s social and political agenda rather than on the interaction between the drama and the critical individual.  I rather think it’s a dereliction of the job, and one that devalues it for all of us.  Sorry, but there it is.
Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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