Saturday 8 September 2007

The Wolf is just crazy for representations of himself...*

Mixed Bag

As you will have noticed, following the over-productive splurge last weekend, posting rather dropped off this week on account of going back to my week-on/week-off day job. I shan’t bore you with details, suffice it to say that it involves some pretty anti-social hours which largely prohibit theatre-going (except matinees – see: The Emperor Jones). It also involves reading a lot of newspapers, summaries of newspapers, and some very odd magazines (both consumer and trade). As a result, I wind up better-informed but often depressed about: the state of the country, the state of its economy, health issues, or, most usually, the appalling rubbish in some of our nation’s newspapers...

Standards (double)

The snippet which caught my eye today comes from page 11 of the Daily Star:
“Model Danielle Lloyd and Big Brother bitch Charley Uchea compete for the title of Dumb and Dumber on tonight's charity edition of the Weakest Link.”

To fully appreciate this slight, if jaw-dropping, item, one must know that Danielle Lloyd is a regular on the pages of the Daily Star through her “glamour modelling” work. One must then remember that Danielle Lloyd was one the three young women involved in the Celebrity Big Brother racism farrago. Those with an eye for detail may also wish to recall that, in spite of the relish with which the Daily Star roundly traduced Danielle’s co-CBB housemate Jade Goody, the paper dismissed any charges against Lloyd herself almost out of hand. Fact fans might also like to note that “Big Brother bitch Charley Uchea” herself was on the receiving end of a racial epithet during the series that has just finished.

Tactless or pointed?

Meanwhile, over at the Daily Telegraph grumpy opinion-former Simon Heffer is fulminating over the newest ravages of modernity in his Saturday round-up. Under the unambiguous heading “Don't hire anyone who is on Facebook” (scroll down) the incorrigible Tory pumpkin rages against the “overgrown children” who are wasting a reported 233 million hours a month by looking at Facebook while they are at work instead of working. His solution is strong medicine indeed. Employers are urged to “see whether prospective employees are signed up to this service, and not even to ask them for an interview if they are.”

It is tempting to wonder what has prompted this outburst. It is also interesting to ponder what would happen were the policy to be applied retrospectively; perhaps in Simon’s own workplace. After all, the Telegraph would be a very different creature without Matthew D’ancona, Sam Leith, Harry Mount, Bryony Gordon, and Damian Thompson – all of whom have Facebook accounts. The question is, is Simon trying to tell everyone something?

Pointeder and Pointeder

Staying with the Telegraph, David Cameron - trailing a live online interview session with readers of the paper on Tuesday – has the following to say:

“I know, that many Daily Telegraph readers want answers to some simple questions - about what our party stands for today, and about what Britain will look like after five years of a Cameron government... I have campaigned on new and - for some, unfamiliar - issues such as the environment and our quality of life, the NHS and the causes of crime; because I have said that gay people who make a commitment to each other should be valued in the way we value other couples who commit to each other; because I have argued that businesses should take their social responsibilities seriously; because I have tried to create opportunities for women and black people to get on in our party, many of you think that I'm not really a Conservative at all.”

Pretty damning stuff. I wonder if he’s thinking of anyone in particular; possibly someone without a Facebook account...

And on to The Wolf*

Firstly, thanks to everyone who made comments under my recent post on critical distance. I’m still thinking about it, and I’m not sure I’ve got any closer to working out what I think.

Alison, Australia sounds like a crazy place. All the critics are women? And they have relationships with artists, you say? Inconceivable! Actually, it was really refreshing to hear you say that. It at least demonstrates that another model is not only possible, but up-and-running somewhere. I have to confess Lyn's piece on critic/artist relations did provoke further soul-searching.

One of the things I think I ought to clarify is what I meant by “friends” or “know”. Or whatever. Happily, this also bleeds into a new topic that seems to have bubbled up on the blogs this week.

Let me start by saying, there’s nothing so wretched as trying to define how well you know someone, or to quantify how good a friend you are in someone else’s eyes - so bear with me when I sound especially awkward in the forthcoming couple of paragraphs. Another pair of similarly awful things is name-dropping and the idea of “fame” and/or “success”. I mention this as a plea of mitigation before launching into something that I really hope won’t turn into an article which should be called...

My Famous Friends


Part of the reason I was interested in what critics should do with artists who were their friends (or acquaintances, or whatever – I don’t want anyone to feel I’m staking claims on them here), is that at this year’s Festival a lot of people I know seemed to be doing spectacularly well. People with whom I was at University, or knew through the NSDF, or through friends were starting to appear on critical A-lists: Third Angel (featuring Lucy Ellinson, who was the first person I ever directed in a play, way back in 1998) were part of the British Council showcase season; Unlimited Theatre (who I’ve also known since Leeds) were much-garlanded for their show The Ethics of Progress; Richard Hurst (who I was introduced to a decade ago in Edinburgh) achieved West End transfers for two of the five Edinburgh shows he directed this year ( ); and Tom Basden (who –deep breath – I first met when he was in my friend Sarah Punshon’s 2001 Edinburgh ADC production of Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary); fellow blogger and erstwhile theatre critic Dan Bye (who incidentally is Sarah Punshon’s husband, and even before that was my friend at Leeds University)’s longstanding company Silver Tongue also gathered warm reviews for The Man Across The Way (currently running at Theatre 503).

Actually, a lot of other critics do have the same problem - not whether to avoid meeting new artists whose work interests and excites you, but what to do about longstanding friends or acquaintances whose work you can’t ignore. After all, these are longer-standing friends and acquaintances. When I was researching Raw Talent I was continually surprised by the number of critics who had appeared in productions which were selected to appear at the festival: Michael Billington (as director), Nicholas de Jongh (actor), Jane Edwardes (actor) and Dominic Cavendish (actor) all made appearances. I was even more surprised by who had appeared alongside them. Michael Billington has blogged before about acting with famous Oxford contemporaries. But how many people [unless the photograph was completely inaccurately labeled – which is entirely possible] knew that Jane Edwardes was at university (Manchester) with Anthony Sher and Bernard Hill and appeared in a production of ___ with them at the NSDF? Or that Dominic Cavendish played Claudius in a post-modern version of Hamlet directed by David Farr alongside a young Ben Miller (Armstrong and Miller, etc.) as The Dane? Ian Shuttleworth has certainly written before on the subject of being directed both by Sam Mendes and Roxanna Silbert, and on the legions of Cambridge actors with whom he appeared during his seven years there.

As I concluded last time, it needs must boil down to honesty. One gets a renewed sense of how hard that must sometimes be reading a very young (i.e. younger than me now) Ian Shuttleworth being honest about a production of Troilus and Cressida directed by his Cambridge contemporary Sam Mendes.

I want to be “typical”

Moving on a bit, to some of the questions that the responses to that Critical Distance argument for me, I’d like to start by noting two contrasting pieces on criticism. The first, by Lyn Gardner, asks simply “What separates theatre critics from other theatregoers?” The second, by Ian Shuttleworth for Theatre Record in 2004 looks at “the strategic - why a reviewer adopts a particular voice or perspective that runs through their work - and the tactical - the motivation behind a particular piece, or even a particular phrase.”.
Lyn asks: “How do you balance knowledge and previous experience in a way that is useful and provides context, but which doesn't create a barrier between you and the actual piece of work you are watching?”

This is a beautifully weighted way of putting it. Following on from reading her piece on critical distance, in which she argued “knowing too much about a production can be as disadvantageous as knowing too little... I try to avoid programmes for the same reason. I want to review the show, not the talk; what the theatre-maker is doing, not what they've told me in great detail that they intend to do.” The question this threw up for me was: if you've already seen umpteen Hamlets, why *not* read the director’s notes in the programme for the umpteenth-plus-one? I’m not sure that knowing what a director intends is any greater or lesser obstacle to really *seeing* the play as having seen a million previous version. It’s different, and of course I completely understand the impulse not to read programme notes – at least until afterwards.

The question also relates to the point Statler raises about trying to represent a “typical theatre-goer” - who might well read a programme before the show starts as part of the experience. This “typical” standpoint relates in part to what Ian Shuttleworth is discussing in his piece, and to the brief misunderstanding in the comments section between what Alison was deploring and Statler was actually standing for as regards the position of critic as “ordinary member of the public/typical theatergoer”. As Shuttleworth suggests, in 2004 there were at least two critics writing regularly for national publications whose basic positions were various shades of philistine skepticism (my words, not Shuttleworth’s). Statler’s position is clearly not that.

Screw “pretentious”

I am a little wary of reviewers who claim that they have a better claim to represent “ordinary/typical” people than other reviewers. Although all those who actually buy tickets (and indeed, don’t go to the theatre every night of the week) do make their case several notches more effectively. My problem, I guess, is that ultimately, if one is being honest, it is hard to gainsay how universal your own experience of anything might be. Indeed, trying to do so can potentially lead to problems.

After all, there’s nothing more frustrating than a critic who suggests: “I loved this, but I’m not sure you proles will really get it” – unless it is a critic who says: “Well, I didn’t much like it, but I bet all you common folk will lap it up.”

Actually, worse than both is an intelligent critic who – at the very least – understands a work’s merits, quite possibly enjoys it, and then feigns ignorance and damns the whole things as “pretentious crap.” That, I think, is unforgivable. If one has understood and enjoyed some pretentious crap, then one should have the guts to admit it (and indeed drop the pretence that it is “pretentious”– probably the most over-used and irritating word in Arts criticism - or “crap”).

If you want an example of two wildly differing approaches, compare and contrast Chris Goode’s description of Apollo/Dionysus with Johann Hari’s from a year earlier.

It would be wrong for me to argue that I think Johann is being in the least bit disingenuous. I don’t doubt that he saw absolutely no merit in the piece whatsoever. But his article enjoys swallowing in a rather nasty brand of sneering philistinism, which I’m sure in other contexts he would utterly deplore. And I would suggest that the reason for this is because he is writing about himself as much as about the work, about his reaction to it, and with the purpose of being funny at the expense of the piece. I know it’s not a review but a personality piece, but it does rather illustrate exactly what no review should ever be.

Stop. Stop. Please stop

I think I should probably leave it there. It’s not like anyone else can possibly have read this far (my sincere apologies if you have).

Last word, as ever, to Ian Shuttleworth. Not quite on the subject – but from the same article as previously quoted:

“When younger, I used to joke that, in my own reviews, the adjective "astonishing" was code for "This is a performer into whose costume I should like to get". I've been trying to rehabilitate the word for some time now, but some friends and colleagues won't let me forget past sins.”

*The title of today’s mammoth post is taken from To a Wolf by Luke Kennard (another friend - sorry) from his first collection of poems The Solex Brothers. A fuller explanation can be found here. I intend it to allude toward and slightly ironise the apparent fact that theatre critics do sometimes seem to love talking about theatre criticism almost as much as actually talking about theatre.

“The wolf is just crazy for representations of himself.
‘Here’s a picture of you, wolf.’
‘Great!’ cries the wolf.
‘Here’s a story about you.’
‘Give it here!’ cries the wolf.”

Quite right too. It is an imperfect art and who better to sit around and work out what it all means and how we might make it better.


Anonymous said...

To combine the topics of people one knows, hostages to fortune, journo-authorial persona AND a couple of the names you mention:

Sam Mendes thought for some time in the early 1990s that, as theatre editor of the now-long-defunct London listings magazine City Limits (Lord, how deep-historical is that now, that I have to explain it!), I was waging a vendetta against him by running consistently negative reviews of his productions.

In fact, I was trying to do precisely the opposite: after my own review of Troilus And Cressida which you linked to, I made a point of assigning the next Mendes show to another reviewer, who happened not to like that one, and so on; I was always looking for someone without "form" for disliking Sam's direction, and what happened was an unlikely but nevertheless true chain of coincidence.

We made it up (or he forgave me) after I raved about his Glass Menagerie on its transfer to the Comedy Theatre. Then Johann Hari fucked it up for me, destroying my relationship with the single most prestigious name in my contacts book.

Johann contacted me, knowing that I had been a Cambridge contemporary of Sam's, looking for comments about his reputation there for inclusion in a newspaper profile piece. I gave him a couple of quotes, in positive contexts. Johann then spun them in a diametrically opposite direction in the piece as published. In a magnificent piece of double-standards, he fully attributed the quotations to me, whereas the profile piece itself was published without any author credit.

I immediately mailed Sam (who was in his final days at the Donmar Warehouse) explaining what had happened, but have had no response then or since. I believe that to this day Johann has no conception that his conduct may have consequences for other people. I fervently believe that he needs to acquire some.

As for giving me that last word... a nice touch (y'bastard!) for an entry that begins by decrying the double standards of a particular outlet :)

Statler said...

Plenty to think about there, although my immediate reaction was to do a search of "View From The Stalls" for 'pretentious' which thankfully produced no hits. However I'm more than a little concerned to discover that my only use of 'astonishing' was in relation to "An Audience with Sir Alex Ferguson".

Anonymous said...

...and of course the fact that in my earlier comment I refer to Messrs Mendes and Hari by their first names is an implicit claim to familiarity, even as I vent my spleen upon the latter with some force. I suppose that makes me more pretentious, in the literal sense, than most shows to which the name is applied... I mean, what do the name-callers think the shows are pretending TO?

... said...

This is why I'm inherently distrustful of any critical opinion I read or write. So instead, if there's something that I think I might like I'll briefly scan a variety of reviews whilst trying not to take too much in, go and see whatever it may be, and then read the critical views after to see if we all agree. Too many times have I watched something and constantly been looking for the same things that the critic noticed and I've found it's been a major distraction from the piece.

It's why the simple star rating system is such a blessing and a curse.

Unknown said...

Slightly concerned that you're concerned about "name-dropping" your friendship/acquaintance/whatever with any of us at Unlimited. You need to get some more 'famous' mates. Slightly tragic that your name dropping amounts to a couple of people that no-one else has heard of.....

Spurred by your tangential musings on programmes, we at the world famous Unlimited have often included a section in our programmes (always beautifully designed and printed on recycled paper of course with no stupid adverts for stupid stuff you'll never buy from organisations you'll never remember and given like party bags at kids parties for free yes FREE to anyone that wants one) titled "How To Watch The Show". Sometimes for new work that seems like it might be helpful. Example: for our 2004 show Zero Degrees & Drifting....

"...So here you are sitting in (semi) darkness waiting for our show to begin. Hello. Thanks for coming. There's no interval so you might want to put ice cream or beer out of your head straight away. And the theatre you're in is very well thought of, so hopefully your seat's comfortable and you have a good view of us. And if you're on a date, relax, you look great.

How to watch Zero Degrees and Drifting? Well we made it for you. Think of it like: a good book / a drive through a snow storm / a new job / a brisk walk / a home made greeting card /or looking into someone else's brain and realising its not that dissimilar to yours (delete as appropriate after 90 minutes).


Of course, some people might well just think that's quite pretentious.

p.s. apparently Melanie Wilson is "simply astonishing" according to a review on Culture Wars....

Andrew Haydon said...

Re: the astonishing Ms Wilson - Yes, Jon, that hadn't escaped my attention either. I can assure all concerned parties that it was merely a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the useage in question and that my feelings toward the lady are strictly critical.