We live, of course, in a world of snap judgements and fast decisions; though writers, actors and directors may have slaved over their work for weeks and months, if not years (in the case of the writers), critics typically arrive for a 7pm curtain up – and by 9.30pm or 10pm, their encounter with and experience of that performance is over. And then they have to rush to judgement: in the case of the “overnight” critics, whose reviews will appear in the very next morning’s papers, that’s literally so, since their considered opinion will typically have to be delivered by 11pm.
Of course, some of us have a little longer to consider our verdicts, but there’s nevertheless a “judicial” side to the process as my use of the word ‘verdict’ indicates; we’re not talking shades here, but a simple guilty or not guilty, or to apply another metaphor, we’ll give it the rule of thumb – in this case, a thumbs-up or thumbs-down.
There isn’t much time, in other words, to acclimatize yourself to new experience – but you have to (try to) be open to them when they come along. The history books are, of course, full of critics who famously got things wrong when they were first confronted by them: a Daily Telegraph critic, watching Ibsen’s Ghosts for the first time at its British premiere in 1891, called the play “an open sewer, a hideous untreated wound, a filthy act performed in public, a leper’s hospital with all its windows and doors wide open”. An Irish literary critic declared his countryman Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot to be play in which “nothing happens, twice.” Both plays have, of course, become theatre classics.
So it was that many critics got it “wrong” again when confronted by the work of the late Sarah Kane for the first time, when her play Blasted was premiered at the Royal Court. The Guardian’s Michael Billington has even publicly admitted, “Sometimes one gets it hopelessly wrong…. I made an idiot of myself over Sarah Kane’s Blasted.” (What he originally called “puerile tosh” he later decided was a work of “moral seriousness”, and he wrote her a letter to say so. He subsequently said, “I just regret we never had a chance for a rapprochement, or for me to say to her face what I’d said in the letter. ‘I got your play wrong.’”
A few weeks ago, when Anthony Neilson’s The Wonderful World of Dissocia opened at the Royal Court, I reported here on some of the contradictory responses it had elicited, from out-and-out raves (five stars in Metro) to my own more critical one. A lively debate followed on the blog itself, to which Neilson himself contributed; one correspondent, who was bipolar themselves, wrote to say how accurately the play reflected their own experience: “as someone who has been diagnosed with BiPolar and sought out its positives to lead an engaging and fulfilling life you and your superb actors really caught the nub of the dynamic of what it is to be mentally ill”. It made me resolve to see the play again.
Neilson and I have since been in private correspondence; and since that correspondence was private, I won’t quote from it. But he took a lot of trouble to explain his impulses for writing it in the way he did. Of course, the play is ultimately what you see on the stage itself, and it lives or dies by the lived experience of watching it, as much as the lived experiences that it is in this case reflecting, rather than what the author says about it. But I nevertheless appreciated both the seriousness with which he had clearly approached the subject – and the seriousness he also attached to the criticisms I had reported and others here had also felt.
And seeing it again on the last day of its London run on Saturday – though it now continues on tour – I have to say that I’m not about to do a Billington and change my mind entirely; but at the same time, I now see more clearly what it was trying (and in my view, not entirely successfully) to achieve. After a first act that takes you directly into the landscape of a woman’s disturbed mind that operates like a dream (or nightmare) of the imagination, the second act is a documentary-like study of her treatment in hospital after a breakdown.
For me, the first act – despite flights of comic invention and imagination – never really gels. While one of my colleagues wrote that it was “the funniest play seen in Sloane Square for a very long time”, I barely laughed. By contrast, however, seeing the second act again I very nearly cried. Not, as at the first time, from an excruciating sense of boredom or alienation, but from feeling completely engaged in the story. Part of this could be mood and context – you do not come to theatre, however, hard you try, as a blank slate, but lots of things will influence you there. In this case, and I’m absolutely not blaming my guest (who had a self-evidently even worse time than I did, as he wrote in response to my original blog), but his highly critical opinion of the play started to rub off on me.
But I still take responsibility for how I responded; and I have to say that by the end of it, I was so frustrated that I could not wait for it to end that first time. And as a result, I managed to miss the power and poignancy of what it actually achieves, particularly in a closing moment of exquisite staging and writing. [Spoiler alert: Should you be planning to catch the play elsewhere on its tour, skip the rest of this paragraph]. As the woman whose life we have been following recovers I hospital, we see her embracing a moment of tenderness with a soft toy bear; and the stage – which has been a clinical white throughout this act – is suddenly flooded in glorious coloured lights; she is literally finding colour in her life again.
And I found much more light – and shade – in the play as I watched it this second time. Of course, most people don’t have the luxury of seeing a play more than once, and it should ‘deliver’ the first time around; but sometimes one just doesn’t get it in one viewing. Critics, of course, have a duty and a responsibility – we create the public ‘record’ of the play, and my review is now part of that record in a way in which this blog is not.
It was an accurate review of how I felt about the play at the time I wrote it; but seeing the play again has made me think about it some more, and it has been an instructive, even chastening, exercise. I wouldn’t say I “got it wrong” the first time — with theatre, and with the reviews it reflects, a recurring theme of this blog is that there is no right and wrong, just moments and opinions of them caught in time — but that the experience changed on a second viewing. The play may or may not have (each perfomance in the theatre is unique, too); but I did.