Sunday 18 January 2009

Old news

Over the Christmas holidays there were a couple of things that almost tempted me back to a keyboard to post a response. The first was Theo Hobson’s staggering review of the Lyric Hammersmith’s Cinderella in the Sunday Times. It’s been a long time since a single review has made me quite so cross. It’s worth quoting at some length:

“At first, this retelling feels a tad overclever. The physical theatre is energetic and assured, but will my daughter be able to follow it? Why is Cinders Chinese? Who is this aimed at? Soon, though, the familiar story is gripping, and has a surprising new depth. Cinderella takes refuge in fairy tales — is she a bit unhinged? Her gradual enslavement is credible (partly thanks to certain recent news stories) and there’s a serious, epic feel to her exile from love. The use of a Chinese actress helps us to believe in both her subjugation and her exotic otherness.”

Hang on, did he really just say “The use of a Chinese actress helps us to believe in her subjugation”? And “exotic otherness”? My God, he actually did. I’m also especially taken with “Why is Cinders Chinese? Who is this aimed at?” as if the next question in sequence is “The Chinese?”

It is beyond appalling that almost a decade into the 21st century the Sunday Times can still employ someone to review theatre who finds colour-blind casting worth bringing up at all. Not a word on Elizabeth Chan’s performance. Hell, not even a namecheck; she’s just “a Chinese actress”. Indeed, Hobson uses up so much of his word-count registering his surprise at this non-white Cinderella that he has virtually no space left to describe the play. Frankly, if I were editor of the Culture section, I’d sack him.

The other thing was the ongoing saga of the West End Whingers’ visit to the unreserved seating of Kilburn’s glamorous Tricycle Theatre. “The Tricycle was the recipient of the Award for Worst Seating in last year’s Whingies and it is looking a dead cert that they will steal the title this year too. But before judging, the Whingers wanted to get the full picture of the awfulness of the seating policy. So they took a trip up the Jubilee Line to Kilburn on Saturday afternoon to take in the matinee of Joe Orton’s Loot.”

Their subsequent amused description of punters trying to find seats in something that, turned on its side, would have resembled “a live version of Tetris” attracted the humourless ire of Tricycle’s marketing manager Elly Hopkins: “Thanks so much for your comment on our website. All your comments duly noted, ignored and binned - as the Tricycle is such a ghastly experience for you we would hate to put you through any more agony, so maybe it would be better for your blood pressure if you confined your theatre going to the West End - as your blog implies!”

It is a remarkable own goal. As Ian Shuttleworth comments:
“What kind of representative of a theatre publicly tells a couple of moderately influential bloggers that the venue is interested neither in their patronage nor their feedback, and pretty much advises them to stay away? Did it not occur to you that this might make both you and the Trike look humourless and offhand, even contemptuous? And if you’re not posting on formal behalf of the Tricycle, aren’t they going to be unpleasantly surprised to see the impression you’ve given of them? Such a loss to the Diplomatic Service, Elly…”

Mark Shenton was similarly surprised by the outburst:
“As critics like Ian and myself here read, write and contribute to blogs regularly, there’s a lesson to be learnt here that they’re not to be treated with this kind of contempt, and perhaps proves in a stroke that the contempt of the theatre and some of its officers for its audience only starts with its unreserved seating policy, but far from ends with it.”

Having so far spent the whole week in theatres with unreserved seating – the Soho on Tuesday, the Pleasance on Wednesday and the Southwark Playhouse on Thursday (Ok, I spoilt it on Friday by going to the National), I must confess I don’t have half as much of an animus against unreserved seating as the Whingers, let alone Mark Shenton, who seems to imply that the Tricycle’s unreserved seating policy constitutes the “comtempt of the theatre... for its audience”.

Indeed, quite the reverse is true. Someone – I think it was Peter Bradshaw, but I can’t find the blog (if anyone can, do please leave the link below) – once made the point that reserved seating in theatres was the most nakedly stratified division of audiences imaginable, and was based solely on how much money they had. The argument for unreserved seating, then, is clear; theatres which hope to have any kind of left-wing credibility adopt it (it is no surprise therefore that the most prominent unreserved venues are the Soho, the Tricycle and the Traverse), while for smaller venues, having any kind of differentiation in seat prices would simply be a) silly and b) logistically burdensome.

It was during a particularly arduous audience scramble into the Traverse last year that the parallels of the two respective political allegiances stuck me – reserved seating is theoretically capitalist: it is coldly efficient and privileges the rich; unreserved seating, conversely, though theoretically fairer, is inefficient and frequently a complete shambles – kind of like big-statism in a nutshell. Then again, the analogies slip slightly when confronted with the easy access and plentiful space of the Southwark Playhouse or, say, Riverside Studios. Conversely pretty much any West End press night you care to mention will routinely go up ten minutes late because of blithering idiots who don’t go in before the show’s stated start time, cannot find a row, cannot apparently read a seat number, and by those who somehow magically know that they are in the middle of the row and so leave it until the last minute before trying to take their seats causing everyone to stand up as the shuffle slowly past.

Yes, I know theatre is meant to be all groovy and all about being in the same room as other people experiencing the same and, y’know, enjoying some sort of common humanity and so on, but, seriously, have you been to a West End press night? It takes a pretty special sort of play for me to feel the slightest shred of fellow feeling for anyone else in the room after the amount of fuss everyone has made just sitting down.

Anyway, rather than ending in a big old pile of grumpy, three other things I came across more recently, all very much in the miscellaneous camp are:

Forthcoming (in May) – there’s the Annual Address to the Society for Theatre Research given by outgoing society chairman, former editor of Theatre Record, and globetrotting president of the IATC Ian Herbert. The address, entitled Look Back in Languor, will apparently take the form of readings from Ian’s “old school exercise book in which I set out to report on a year's plays and films before taking up my place at Cambridge.” In 1958.

Secondly, I recently came across this website which links to Postcards.... If anyone can tell me where it’s based, which language it’s written in, what they’re actually saying and why on earth they might be interested in Postcards... I’d be most grateful.

Lastly, I notice that saucy literary blogger Hitchcock Blonde has moved in round the corner from Postcards Central. Crumbs.


Unknown said...

Well, it's Greek, but unfortunately my only skills are in regard to the Ancient form of the language. Were it a blog about naval battles or the behaviour of goatherds, I'd stand a fighting chance with it: but I'm pretty sure it's not. The second paragraph of the current post contains the words 'phraseology' and 'cinema' and (if I'm not mistaken) the phrase 'I don't know'. As such it is already a more interesting read than certain theatre blogs we could mention.

Anonymous said...

One thing about your remarks on seating: they assume that pretty much everyone is pretty much the same size, and that that size is pretty much the size allocated in the seating.

As regards the first part of that, I'm living proof that it ain't so. Being both tall and wide, I (and people of my build) tend to create restricted-view areas for the folk immediately behind. (Even in a moderately raked auditorium, John Peter can get quite lost behind me.) For me, being a considerate sort of chap, this leads to a preference for sitting on the aisle (so that there's at least one side round which folk can peer) and, in a less than step-raked auditorium, towards the back. With reserved seating, this is more possible; with unreserved, I'm often forced into the middle of rows to endure the all-too-familiar whispered conversation, "Oh dear, are you all right? Can you see?" behind me.

The second part is that I choose the end of bench seating so that my bulk can overhang into mid-air, rather than encroaching on the space of folk on both sides of me. Again, if I'm not on the end of a row, this can lead to embarrassment for me and awkwardness for all three of us, me and both neighbours. Soho and the Donmar are particularly intimate breadth-wise (although my worst experiences have been on the non-bench seating at the Cottesloe). In fact, my only direct contact with Harold Pinter was to apologise at a Donmar matinee a few months ago for taking up so much space that he was precarious a couple of places along on the end. He, in that way we all knew and loved, glowered eloquently.

All these experiences are lessened by far in that, as a reviewer, I usually get allocated seats and, wherever possible, aisle seats even in otherwise unreserved venues and even if not on formal press night. But if even someone as spoilt as me registers the problems, then imagine how significant they must be for civilians.

Anonymous said...

Ooh! Ooh! Have you Googled Theo Hobson? According to his web site, he's "a theologian who believes that Christianity must move in a post-ecclesial direction". Now, it would be absurd to argue that theologians have no place reviewing theatre (hi, Chris! - not Chris above, other Chris! - though hi, Chris above as well, just not saliently! - I mean, "hi" not saliently, not "above" not saliently... shut up, Ian). However, it could be argued that a progressive theologian might be able to bring a certain perspective of ecumenism to bear upon the casting of a production. Lord knows (ha!) what he would have made of the pantos at Hackney or Stratford...

Anonymous said...

We love you dearly, Andrew, and respect you despite your acceptance of the validity of - nay interest in, nay appetite for - "post-dramatic theatre".

But on this occasion you push us too far:

"Someone – I think it was Peter Bradshaw, but I can’t find the blog (if anyone can, do please leave the link below) – once made the point that reserved seating in theatres was the most nakedly stratified division of audiences imaginable, and was based solely on how much money they had."

There is so much wrong here:

The smallness of the Menier, the Tricycle etc means there is no need to have different prices for different seats. They can all be the same price. So you can drop your class war for the moment.

All we ask is that:

a) when booking early for a show we might be rewarded with better seats than if we had left it to the last minute. This, surely, is simply good manners on the part of a theatre.

b) more importantly: that we might be allowed to sit with our friends. I realise you might find it strange that we have any (perhaps, indeed, it is we that are delusional) but surely it's not too much to ask that 10, 8, 6 or even 4 people going to the theatre together might be permitted to sit together.

Andrew Haydon said...

West End Whingers,

You make a reasonable point. And you're quite right, I've pointlessly conflated "reserved seated" with "different priced seating" which is just wrong.

So, no, in theory I don't have anything against reserved seating - despite having a secret fear of The Organised - if it's all the same price.

JohnnyFox said...

I've long harboured a desire for theatres to adopt a semi-reserved seating system in that you can select a price/part of the house and be allocated your ROW, but that on arrival at the theatre, patrons must FILL UP FROM THE MIDDLE WITH NO GAPS.

First come, most centrally seated, last come, on the end of the row - and, most importantly, no bruised corns, spilt wine, tumbled carrier bags and crushed umbrellas as the latecomers shove past you during the overture (or, if it's something unmusical at the Cottesloe or Old Vic, during the pauses between speeches).

Any takers?