Tusk Tusk / Death And The King's Horseman
Various venues
March / April, 2009

Sometimes, it’s hard not to give expression to a thought.  Playwright David Eldridge once laid into me in his (now defunct) blog for inferring that many of the views and experiences of the protagonist in his 2004 play M.A.D.  were or had been those of David himself.  Well, the programme notes did hint at as much, and I still think the inferences were reasonable even if they weren’t correct.  But look at an example in the current issue.  Depending on how nosily you read them, several of the reviews of Tusk Tusk note not just that Polly Stenham has returned to the same territory as her début play That Face – children coping with unreliable, unstable and/or downright absent parents – but speculate that this seems to be a territory of especial significance for her.

Now, it’s been noted in Stenham’s defence that Tennessee Williams, for instance, kept coming back to the same themes.  Themes, yes, but not a near-identical situation.  But at this point it all becomes far too tender a subject.  The performance of Tusk Tusk that I attended was followed by a Q&A session with author and cast; my neighbour was surprised I wasn’t staying, but how could that most pregnant, unspoken, unspeakable question even be asked, never mind answered?  I can, though, firmly endorse the plaudits for Jeremy Herrin’s production and the trio of central performances.  I’m no stranger to the sometimes prodigious theatrical abilities of young people – when I went to the Royal Court I was scarcely 48 hours back from the National Student Drama Festival (full review coverage elsewhere this issue; I’ve nothing worthwhile to add to my comments a fortnight ago) – but this is stellar work indeed.  And, for whatever reason(s), we are all on tenterhooks for Stenham’s third play.


Elsewhere, the controversy continues, sometimes at one remove.  When bloggers the West End Whingers wittily framed their review of Death And The King’s Horseman in the form of a 419 (or “Nigerian”) scam letter, a number of commenters accused them of being “culturally insensitive”; the same commenters see nothing worthy of remark in the use of black actors in whiteface in the production.  It’s also worth noting that one of the Whingers’ defenders, in vibrant and enthusiastic terms, was Rufus Norris, the director of the National Theatre’s production.

Last issue I mentioned “the decline and fall of the other fellow’s point of view”.  Another example, though not a pernicious one as such, occurs in Simon Edge’s review of the same play.  “What if there is no afterlife?” he asks. “That possibility goes unexplored.”  Well, why shouldn’t it go unexplored?  The question itself comes from a viewpoint which implicitly presumes that the question ought to be asked, and does so because it implicitly presumes that its own belief system is somehow better than that of Soyinka’s villagers.  But the point of the play is precisely not to grant priority to one belief system or another, but to observe the conflict when neither will give ground.


Quentin Letts, in his review, once more accuses Nicholas Hytner at the National of deliberately programming anti-Christian plays.  Quentin has said this a number of times over the past few years; perhaps one day he will favour us with the slightest shred of evidence to back it up.

In another review, Quentin remarks that he “nearly parked my supper” at the sight of a gay kiss onstage in Spring Awakening.  (It can’t have been the youth of the characters that unsettled him; compare his rhapsodic praise of the teenage Bel Powley in Tusk Tusk.)  Poor dear.  Perhaps he could get some advice on withstanding such horrors from Christopher Hart or Tim Walker.  Tim, meanwhile, has found another group to pontificate about in his review of Parlour Song.  A few facts which may or may not be relevant:  1) Mark Shenton and I have been critical of some of Tim’s writing of late.  2) Mark is built along generous lines, I along positively profligate ones.  3) Tim has vowed retaliation against us.  4) Tim then expends a sizeable amount of his weekly column in musing on the experiences of fat people in the theatre.  Might these facts be related?  I couldn’t possibly comment.  In all fairness, though, Tim wouldn’t be the first person to call me fatty.  Just the first in long trousers.
Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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