Friday 7 August 2015

Shorts: Wretched, rash intruding fools

[985 words]

According to Forbes: “the year’s most eagerly-awaited London stage performance may well have sounded the death-knell for that most revered, loathed and – let’s be honest – egotistical of all journalists. The theatre critic.

Sensationalism aside, it is a claim worth investigating.

If we accept Mark Shenton of The Stage’s oft-repeated maxim that “[c]ritics are, first and foremost, a consumer guide to the theatre” then what place does a critic have at a production that sold out on the day tickets were released; where people camp outside the theatre overnight for the chance to buy one of the £10 day seats? So, yes; in terms of the popular misconception of what a critic’s job is – to say whether a production is good or bad so people can decide whether or not to buy tickets – it is clear, at least in the case of this Hamlet, that the game is up.

Mercifully, that isn’t the job at all. The point of criticism is, yes, to describe the event, but also to offer context and elucidation, to share the experience of the critics’ theatregoing in such a way that the reader who sees the play feels additionally enriched for having read about it too, and that the reader who can’t see the play feels at least adequately briefed, not only on whether it’s good or bad, but also about how a production speaks to our culture, and what it’s saying.

More than this, as Walter Benjamin observes, “The critic is the strategist in the literary battle.” Criticism is political. If you don’t believe me, have a look at Kate Maltby’s star-rated review of the first preview of Lyndsey Turner’s Hamlet at the Barbican for The Times.

[For the avoidance of doubt: I HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW YET (apart from anything else, it hasn't opened). The following is based on *reading* and *prior knowledge*.]

On the face of it, you could be forgiven for thinking that The Times – in an effort to have their cake and eat it – have simply hung out a young, inexperienced, very right-wing freelancer to dry, protecting their chief critic Dominic Maxwell from breaking the embargo, but at the same time generating a vast amount of publicity for themselves with a review of the preview so remarkably stupid that *everyone* is talking about it.

But really, her review is much worse than simply an idiot looking at a thing and failing to understand what it is. “This is Hamlet for kids raised on Moulin Rouge” she asserts, on the basis that Hamlet is shown listening to Nat King Cole’s Nature Boy. Seriously? Does director Lyndsay Turner’s work as Katie Mitchell’s dramaturg in Cologne, the presence of Sergo Vares from perhaps the most celebrated European collaboration ever seen in the UK, Three Kingdoms, and Leo Bill, also from the Secret Theatre company (not to mention Turner’s own Posh), Katie Mitchell regular Anastasia Hille, and Rudi Dharmalingam of The Orestia, The Events and The Seagull, not suggest that what’s she’s up to deserves a bit more thinking about than writing off as a Hamlet for infant Luhrmanphiles? Of course it does, but Maltby’s purpose is to belittle the very idea of a director interpreting a play, and instead make the entire thing sound like a series of cheap tricks, mistakes, and misunderstandings.

“The production is squarely aimed at those Cumber-fans, right down the the indefensible decision to open with Hamlet’s soliloquy ‘To be or not to be’...” Why “Cumber-fans” would want an “indefensible decision” at the beginning of this production is not explained, and Maltby’s bold assertion that Hamlet isn’t thinking about killing himself at the beginning of the play is rather undermined by the fact that the first time he speaks directly to the audience in the play (as written), within three lines he’s telling us that he wished “the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter”. Much more stupid, though, is the idea that moving “To be or not to be” is even unusual. In Thomas Ostermeier’s production of Hamlet – also seen at the Barbican; only three and a half years ago – the soliloquy recurs throughout the play. In Lithuanian Oskaras Korsunovas’s production “To be or not to be” comes only at the end. Across Europe – including the UK – the text of Hamlet is cut, reshaped, and rearranged, to create a best possible version of the play for its time. It is *extremely rare* to see the full text. But, moving a key soliloquy, especially one which is now so famous that it virtually dissolves the meaning of the production around it when it is spoken, sounds to me like a characteristically intelligent strategy on Turner’s part.

Maltby’s conclusion – “It’s a wasted opportunity: pure theatrical self-indulgence” – even contradicts the rest of the review, which repeatedly claims that it is the fans who are being indulged. It also deliberately invokes that famous time when Telegraph critic and misogynist Charles Spencer reduced Nicole Kidman to her ability to give impotent old men erections.

If the Times review is useful at all, it is as an object lesson in how criticism is political. As a Conservative, Maltby is stuck between despising the public – repeatedly implying that this Hamlet has somehow been cheapened in order to appeal to the degraded sensibilities of the great unwashed – and a traditionalism which sees recent innovations as innocuous as playing a pop song and shifting a bit of text as “indefensible”.

So has this Hamlet sounded the death-knell for criticism? I’d say quite the reverse. Just as the production has created a vast interest around one of our language’s greatest plays, so too has it created the best opportunity for our critics to prove that they are better than mere star-ratings; that at their best they can make productions vivid for those absent, offer interpretations and arguments for those present, and most important, keep culture as a fight worth having.


Anonymous said...

I would hardly call moving a major speech from Act III to the very beginning of the play as "a bit of text". It has been done before but is considered controversial. I haven't seen the play yet myself so will have to reserve judgement, but don't belittle a valid piece of criticism because you dislike the rest.

Poly Gianniba said...

Playing devil's advocate: belittling productions by referencing an actor's fandom occurs on a regular basis, I can easily bring up half a dozen examples from most broadsheets - and left progressive journalists do it on a regular basis. After all, the biggest problem of the left is snobbery (I say that as a firm leftie and a firm snob).

The point I am trying to make: critics say stupid, unsubstantiated, banal things all the time. And they should be challenged, but they are not, not on a large scale, unless a production is high profile, at which point they are hung out to dry. While the paper has its cake and eats it too (as you brilliantly put it). I can't help but think that the freelance journalist, as part of a very vulnerable workforce, has everything to lose while the paper has everything to gain. As a leftie, I have to take their side, and defend their right to say ... (and all that). And at the same time, shit all over the paper if I can.

What I am saying is not in opposition to what you are saying. It's an addendum.

Also, if there is ever a death-nell for theatre criticism, it won't be announced on Forbes. It will be sudden death, we will never see it coming.

And finally, Sergo, sweet love, it was such a pleasure seeing him on stage again.