Trumbo / Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert / The Last Cigarette
Various venues
March, 2009

And so the controversy about controversy rages on… “rages” being the operative word.  For a few years now I’ve been meaning to put together and hawk around publishers a proposal for a book to be entitled Shut Up And Listen: The Decline And Fall Of The Other Fellow’s Point Of View.  Because it seems to me that socially, politically and to an extent even artistically, we have lost (or, worse, discarded) the ability to accept that there may be more than one valid perspective on any issue.  Just look, as I’ve suggested, at the comments posted online to Mark Ravenhill’s article from which the Quote of the Fortnight is extracted; you can find them at stage/2009/apr/06/caryl-churchill-seven-jewish-children.

It seems that the most complex notion we can manage now (not that any of those commenters do manage it) is the wildly fallacious one that, because everyone has an equal right to an opinion, all opinions have an equal validity and an equal right to be treated as valid.  This results in some people howling about censorship or oppression at any whiff of criticism of their personal views.  But that’s the thing about freedom of expression: it applies just as much to people we don’t like, and to people who may not like us or our views, as it does to us.  People who criticise our criticisms are doing no more than we are doing ourselves; to wish to deny them their rights, or to elevate ourselves and play the noble martyr merely because someone has said “Boo!” to us, is both arrogant and ludicrous, and whenever we behave like that, we deserve everything we get in response.


There are signs of hope, though.  I’m just back from this year’s National Student Drama Festival (full review coverage next issue).  Now, in the past I used to gird my loins against almost annual outbreaks of, at best, prickly opposition in the daily discussions and the pages of the daily Festival magazine Noises Off, at worst outright witch-hunts.  These were usually sparked by one or two outbreaks of forthright criticism, and usually consisted of hysterical proscriptions against anything but “constructive criticism” (i.e., implicitly, “criticism we’re prepared to listen to” – it’s effectively a circular definition).  Over the past couple of years, however, an altogether more open and progressive spirit has manifested itself in the Festival community as a whole.  Festivalgoers, whether involved in a production staged during the week or not, seem on the one hand much readier to offer criticism that is engaged rather than opinionated, and on the other to accept and even embrace and seek such criticism.  The result has been a much more joyous week as well as a much more productive one.

In these pages, Aleks Sierz’s review of Trumbo strikes a similar note of complexity by pointing out apparent inconsistencies in Dalton Trumbo’s own behaviour.  Of course, one man’s complexity is another man’s hypocrisy, but let’s be charitable and remember Walt Whitman’s lines: “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”


However, simplification seems more and more to be the order of the day.  Compare the film and the stage musical versions of (The Adventures Of) Priscilla, Queen of The Desert.  The latter has gained a clutch of warm reviews for, as far as I can see, flattening and sometimes downright traducing the former.  The odd thing is that, as Mark Shenton has noted on his blog on The Stage newspaper’s web site, press advertisements for the show have been engaging in a little flattening of their own: not just the usual business of selective quoting (including a phrase from Michael Coveney’s two-star Independent review, but a batch of ads inexplicably downgraded Simon Edge’s (itself inexplicable, for me) five-star rating in the Express to a mere four!

Finally, an item of correction and clarification.  In my Financial Times review of The Last Cigarette, I note that the decision to have the three actors playing unrepentant smoker Simon Gray only pretend to smoke cigarettes themselves is “problematic”.  (The word was an editorial choice; originally I had used the same word as Charles Spencer, “cowardly”.)  I’ve since heard – though without confirmation – that the no-smoking decision was imposed by the venue authorities at Chichester, much to the displeasure of director Richard Eyre and the cast.  The Health Act 2006 allows an exemption from no-smoking regulations for stage performers where “the artistic integrity of the performance makes it appropriate for them to smoke”; surely if ever there were such an instance, this is it; and surely, too, other health and safety regulations can’t have changed so much in the last two years to justify Chichester imposing a smoking ban even on a stage adaptation of The Smoking Diaries.  I shall be interested to see what happens in this regard on the show’s London transfer at the end of April…
Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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