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Archive for the ‘critics’ Category

What do people go to the theatre for? I lay awake at night considering much more trivial issues, but that is kind of question that I allow to prevent me from doing productive work.

I mean there’s all sorts of things – we like a bit of novelty, a bit of heart-swelling get in theresong, a jaw-dropping spectacle and whatnot, but what is this fundamental thing that draws an audience in – you can see them doing it despite themselves. They’ll tell you it’s narrative – but what do they know? Only believe what you see with you own eyes. The narrative is a side-effect of something else. Isn’t it that we have natural curiosity, out of self-preservation, and ambition (and evolutionary necessity if you like it like that), to understand how other people see the world? It’s part of our social development. And you can see it by watching real people, or you can have it served up in a convenient (well, usually) package by some people you’ve paid (through the tax system, and by ticket) to observe and report for you in a contrived vehicle, that will put that perosnb through strain and strife (or examine something much subtler in detail). So we get these plays in which we can understand why people do what they do. Or even if we don’t understand, play out possible consequences. And maybe we feel a tiny bit safer or more knowledgeable.
We’ve also found that we can produce mind-spinning, eye-brimming, mobile, pulsating art in the same environment. Why we don’t do both more often is known only to the wisest, and possibly some of the most cowardly.
I went to see Hoipolloi’s Floating at the Pit, which wasn’t quite as good as I was hoping it would be, but still worth a much belated recommendation – it asks some great questions and then plays in the sandpit for a while, very pleasurably, without really returning to them. I believe they’re doing more in the same vein, which may be good news. It’s an affectionate satire on ridiculous and impenetrable performance artists making hopefully profound experimental theatre – and they succeed in making it both funny and relatively successful experimental theatre. It’s not quite profound yet, but I think they want that. They did an extended joke about ‘microtheatre’ which tried to communicate an experience to the audience through fragmentary sensations. Which seems to me what great writers,great theatre makers of all sorts, do in words and through implication.

I did also see the universally praised Saint Joan – which is nearly as good as you might ask a production of St Joan in the Olivier to be. It’s pretty long and it’s not a totally flawless ensemble, but Marianne Elliott keeps things going with some nice movement, song and big symbolic gesture. It’s a confirmation that she’s very very tasteful in her selection of content – a terrific judge of how much is enough, and perhaps that the theatre of symbols is on its way back – it’s got big-time appeal to a big audience here.

Our Joan I was a bit disappointed, though, that this, and the production in Bath of Pygmalion (which I haven’t seen – what travelcard zone is that in?), were seized on by Shaw champions as evidence that he’s neglected. I’m only me, but from what I saw and what I’ve read of him he seems to be as successful as a playwright can be who has no real talent or instinct for writing plays. The plays are explicitly, deliberately and insistently dialectical. They mainly seem to be interested in presenting a man having an argument with himself (and fitting in his drollest thoughts on the subject), rather than being any sort of meaningful engagement with the mysteries of life. I was pleased that the characterisations in Joan weren’t as schematic as I’d expected – frequently the chap said exactly the opposite thing to what you expected – but I never felt that this was because they thought it, I always thought – oh, that’s clever, Mr. Shaw. Just like he wanted me to.
I mean you’re welcome to put on Shaw plays if you like that sort of thing, but don’t go pretending that he’s not banging on or that he’s a breath of fresh air. Saint Joan has a production that is working incredibly hard, and, frankly, against the text, to keep some fire in it – to show that the windy rhetoric is being generated by passionate lungs rather than by a narcissistic pen. Well done for making Shaw work for us – not well done Shaw. A victory for the director’s theatre…?

And to return to the discussion of the characters of reviewers, I had the rare pleasure of picking up a copy of the Sunday Times and looking at the St Joan review – I think it might be the first time I’d given a thought to a man called Christopher Hart, who seems to have a brilliant technique of targeting his imagined reader – writing for the man who doesn’t know what he doesn’t like. Hart wades out bravely into the stalls, wearing his ignorance pulled right down over his eyes, in case he accidentally finds himself thinking about what’s in front of him. It’s a heroic and touching sight: ideal reading for the theatre-goer who doesn’t really want to go and doesn’t want anything too interesting when they do.

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I had a little flippant nibble over on encore about the ‘Hytner vs critics’ debate that is exercising folk. I think that if theatre directors are willing to stick their heads above the parapet then those of us who are anonymous owe it to them to back them up bygloves are off exercising significantly less courage. Hytner has had lashings, massages, bouquets and backlashes for his own productions from all over since his tenure started, and it’s been pretty clear that they’ve been largely political statements on the part of the critics (who would like to be in favour of or against trends like Tom Hardy, celebrity casting, £10 ticket deals, revivals, new plays or whatever he’s doing) and rarely much to do with what the experience is actually like (frequently poor in my experience, but hats off to the man for his programming). This has certainly extended to productions by other directors at the NT – there have been plenty of reviews aimed at ‘Hytner’s NT’ rather than involving themselves with the specific production.

shadow of a boySusannah Clapp, not someone whose reviews I set my compass by, has written pretty well on this here in the Observer. She thinks the battlefield is to do with Billington and Spencer being left behind by the developing language of our theatre-makers. It’s surely true that stodgy writing, tedious, uninspiring characterisation and lengthy rhetoric is more tolerated by our literary-trained critics than is the odd flash of indulgent spectacle (that kneehigh, de la guarda or frantic assembly might be prone to). I’m interested in who the critics think they are and what they think they’re for. Obviously de Jongh writes with his obituary in mind, hoping to be remembered as the executioner of Shaftesbury Ave. Lyn Gardner writes as the champion of the promising newcomers – she has an amazing (and utterly excellent) capacity to put more and more faith in more and more youngsters, sending them on with glowing notices to the altar where Spencer, Billington and Nightingale will dismiss them as not yet fully formed (and send their overextended producers reaching for the overdraft facility).

And the critics have their own narrative presumably – waiting for productions to live up to the superb one in their head; or hoping to chart a moment of development; or standing guard over the old traditions and values. Someone pointed out that the critics, like your dad with his record collection, are stuck in their generation’s idea of what good theatre is – what they loved when they were 13 or 16 or 21 or whenever they fell in love with it. It’s true, I suppose, and they’d be right to say the same about the practitioners. Is it just me or do both Tom Morris and David Farr keep getting comments about how their work resembles the early-80s theatre-in-education and physical work that may very well have inspired them? Not much wrong with that either – genuine influence is how ideas germinate.

I’m loath to come down on Spencer for being unreconstructed in his attitude to physical theatre (if he is – I don’t read him much) – that’s his perspective and regular readers will know it. He’d be doing his job well if he acknowledged that it wasn’t his cup of tea and he may not be reviewing it well for those who like it. Sometimes critics do this but not nearly enough. I mean he shouldn’t be pretending to like things if he doesn’t. He should just be prepared to accept he’s unable to judge them on their own terms. The debate shouldn’t be about the age of the critics, nor the specifics of their gender bias. It should be about them being open about their bias. “I’m not a fan of Nick Hytner’s NT repertoire but I really liked this production of xxxxxx”, perhaps we should read. They can still build their personality-cults.

The other side of the debate is about the democratisation of criticism – Billington’s response has a rather pompous line about the independence of his voice, as if he was artistically inviolate. I rather liked the Guardian’s scheme of inviting butchers to see plays about butchers and so on – they are always a good read. the london paper and the independent sometimes do ‘you do the reviews’ slots which usually seem to have mates of the production raving about something – it seems very open to abuse. So I suppose the reviewing bloggers, with their own personalities (like West End Whingers), have a real role to play here. Especially if the theatre marketing departments and (perhaps?) the critics themselves start to take them seriously. The best reviewers are the ones about whom you know a bit more, so you can react to their opinions.

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