After an often frustrating week at this year’s National Student Drama Festival, I’ve been a little exercised with The Question Of Criticism. As happens every few years, a sharp word or two in that Festival’s discussions or daily magazine gave rise to a frenzy of “We’ve nothing against constructive criticism, but this negative stuff is not just hurtful but improper.” And, of course, once stated, the position was deemed proven, so that the list I compiled and the Festival magazine published by way of rebuttal, consisting of choice gouts of vitriol from the most recent issue of TR, may as well not have existed; I felt like Arabella Weir in the Fast Show sketches – “Hello, can any of you actually hear me?”
This delusion persists, even amongst those grown-ups who ought to know better, that theatre reviewing has obligations to theatre and its practitioners. As I’ve said before, we’re simply not in the same profession: we’re journalists. Most of us carry on in this line of country precisely because we care, and care passionately, about theatre; we highlight its shortcomings because we want them to be rectified and/or avoided, we inveigh against stinkers because we don’t want audiences to be put off theatre altogether by such an egregious experience. (And in extreme cases, of course, it’s positively an act of mercy to put a wildly deformed production out of its misery.) We may feel loyalties to theatre, but they’re not integral to the work itself – part of the calling, you might say, but not of the job.
Hence, when confronted with poor fare such as The Fortune Club or Four Nights In Knaresborough, it’s not with glee or malice that we report its deficiencies. Dolly Dhingra’s British-Asian scam/heist play has been very poorly received, with only Aleks Sierz and Helen Chappell finding significantly kind words for it. For once, my natural generosity is incapable of letting me join them. Dhingra spends too long on the narratively flaccid character set-up, and doesn’t do it adequately anyway: : "I'm not a type, I'm an individual!" protests one of the protagonists in what one hopes is a moment of authorial irony, but fears it isn’t. And one of the characters simply vanishes from the author’s sight before the dénouement.
And yet I suspect that the play might have been salvaged by a more vibrant production. Sam Marlowe and Lucy Powell are a little sniffy about Kully Thiarai’s direction, but I think it deserves more particular indictment. She elicits performances which are by turns exaggerated cardboard cut-outs and static wooden fixtures. Unnecessary movement sequences (including an anticlimactic Act One finale) are inserted, and surely it should have occurred to someone that using a live mobile phone for the climactic phone conversation might lead to interference with the PA system. (Unless, of course, the noise was deliberately included on the tape, in which case it's a joke that doesn't work but just annoys.) I must, to my shame, admit to being unfamiliar with Thiarai's work; I was astounded to find the long and substantial CV for her in the programme, culminating in her current joint artistic directorship of Leicester Haymarket. I would never have believed that someone so experienced could helm such a weak production.
Similarly with Four Nights In Knaresborough. After Piers Ronan and Demetri Alexander went to all the trouble of setting up a production company, and state candidly in the programmes that they did so in order to generate acting work for themselves, it feels cruel to be unsurprised that they find little employment elsewhere. But it’s not a vicious observation. Neither is a bad actor; it's just that, in such an oversubscribed profession, there will always be more than enough who are better. Two such are their fellows in the cast, Ken Bradshaw and Peter-Hugo Daly.
The disparity is exacerbated by director Peter Farago allowing each of the central foursome to find his own playing pace and register. Even when a couple of them coincide in pace, they don't as it were march in dramatic step. Ronan delivers every line with the same gung-ho cadence; Alexander gabbles, swallowing entire syllables and rendering the rest into a consonantal stew; Daly is a slow volcano, usually dormant but threatening, occasionally spewing red-hot; Bradshaw alone finds a range of performance to match that of his character's mixture of devious intelligence, martial pragmatism and frustrated longing. This is not individual characterisation; it's lack of focus. Still, one can pay Farago's production the backhanded compliment that it matches the eccentricities of style and pacing in Paul Webb’s play.
John Peter accurately anatomises the things that are missing from Howard Davies’ NT production of The House Of Bernarda Alba (about which Ian Herbert also writes at the back of this issue); however, not even Michael Billington notices the full extent to which David Hare may simply not have been concerning himself with these quintessentially Lorquista aspects. In the first interval, my companion began fulminating against it for not engaging in a dialogue with the world of 2005 in which it is being staged; a few minutes into the second act, I realised with a start of excitement that of course it was doing precisely that. It’s not just the Spanish Civil War that Hare is evoking in his unadorned version of this family drama of imperium and self-determination; it’s contemporary geopolitics. His script is the continuation of Stuff Happens by other means.
Political consciousness also helps illuminate Danny Morrison’s The Wrong Man, and not just the play and production. Publicist Dan Pursey remarked to me that Morrison, a former Sinn Féin luminary, had taken to referring to him as “P O’Neill”; I couldn’t stop giggling as I explained to Dan that that’s the standard pseudonym with which the IRA sign all their press statements.
And a final example of how criticism can indeed get things wrong: in last issue’s Prompt Corner, I made some unflattering inferences from Philip Ridley’s dedication of his play Mercury Fur to his late agent, Rod Hall. Philip has written to point out that the dedication was settled some time before Rod Hall’s murder, and indeed referred to one of Rod’s favourite lines in the play. I drew entirely the wrong conclusions, and I’m happy to acknowledge my error and to apologise sincerely to Philip Ridley and to anyone who may have been disturbed or offended by my suggestion.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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