Salome / As You Like It / The Tempest
Various venues
June / July, 2010
I often remark here on the subjectivity of criticism: the way we consciously filter those aspects of a production that we consider worth writing about, and unconsciously filter what we actually see and hear in the first place.  Does this mean that reviewers are unreliable, no more to be trusted than anyone else?  No, it doesn’t: our filters are based on a wider range of experience, probably also on experience built up over a longer period; we are aware of our subjectivity and work to minimise it where we realise it may amount to prejudice, and to acknowledge it in lesser cases.  At least, that’s what we do if we understand our work and our duty to readers, and take them seriously.

Sometimes these filters are the product of culture and conditioning.  I recently discussed Jamie Lloyd’s production of Salome with a friend; I, whilst not championing it fervently, noted (as I do in my FT review) that it was in keeping with the usual Headlong aesthetic of radical re-envisioning of a classic text, much to her amusement.  She is German, and works in a theatre culture which not only feels free to re-interpret works with much greater latitude but tends to feel that not to do so is cowardly.  (Indeed, she recently found that in a staging of one of her own plays, the director had decided that one of the two characters was to be played by an alpaca.  That’s right, the llama-like South American camelid Vicugna pacos, live onstage, playing a New Yorker.  She hardly batted an eyelid... the writer, that is, at this staging choice; neither of us saw the alpaca’s performance.)  And sometimes they are the result of a simple slip of memory or association, such as Quentin Letts hearing in The Comedy Of Errors “an echo from” Richard II, which according to most Shakespeare chronologies was written between one year and seven years later.


But if you really want to see subjectivity in action, look for a batch of comparative reviews like those of The Bridge Project’s second year offerings As You Like It and The Tempest.  Almost all of us agree that neither of these is among director Sam Mendes’ more sensational productions... but when it comes to which of the two is better, we grow fractious.  Is As You Like It a more meritorious production because it does not shy away from the chills running through the play, especially its earlier acts... or is it doing the play a disservice because in emphasising the shadows it compromises the work’s comic, affirmative core?  Is The Tempest more to be admired for staging it explicitly as a series of Prospero’s invocations and manipulations in his magic circle, or reproved for cutting and unbalancing the original text?  (I am sure that neither of these dimensions – the darkness of one play, the selectivity of the other – would be an issue for my German friend.)  Two other points, however, were pretty much beyond dispute: we didn’t find convincing Mendes’ use of Ted Hughes’ argument that The Tempest consciously recapitulates As You Like It’s themes of father/daughter exile and usurpation, and we found Stephen Dillane frequently inaudible.  Disdaining stagy oratory is one thing, but disdaining making oneself heard is something else again.

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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