Only last week I was writing here about a Variety review of Kiki and Herb that spoilt many of the jokes and narrative surprises by repeating and revealing them. But Kiki and Herb were only here for one night only, and the proportion of the audience who actually read that Variety review was probably negligible.
But don’t critics have a responsibility to keep the surprise they’ve enjoyed alive by not repeating it in their review when something unexpected happens? There’s a moment – or two – in Nicholas Hytner’s new National Theatre production of Much Ado About Nothing that possibly the biggest, laugh-out-loud funny belly laugh of the year, but it was made all the richer for not expecting it.
In my own review in yesterday’s Sunday Express, I said that “Hytner’s production is unmissable, too, for some big visual laughs that I won’t spoil by describing here: you just have to go — assuming you can get a ticket, that is.” In Charles Spencer’s Daily Telegraph review, he said much the same thing: “The director also has a brilliantly comical coup de theatre up his sleeve in these great scenes of deception. I long to describe it but it would be unfair to do so. Suffice it to say that I just hope these two great actors don’t catch colds during the run.”
But there are no such inhibitions to spoiling the surprise in reviews by Paul Taylor in The Independent, Michael Billington in The Guardian, Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard, Benedict Nightingale in The Times, Susannah Clapp in The Observer or David Benedict in Variety (the latter of whom points out a similar effect in Hytner’s Lincoln Center Twelfth Night). In the Independent on Sunday, Kate Bassett gives it away, too, but prefaces the revelation by saying, “Skip the next couple of paragraphs if you’re going to this show and want a surprise”.
This seems to ackowledge the treat in store, but gives it away anyway. I’m only glad that I was able to see it without reading those reviews first! Mind you, it is sometimes impossible to avoid the avalanche of information about a show in advance of seeing it, and catching Anthony Neilson’s God in Ruins, a contemporary re-write of A Christmas Carol on Friday night, some weeks after the opening, I wish I hadn’t known that it the cast had had all of 19 weeks to rehearse it. It made it seem even more desperate as a result; and especially in the light of the Arts Council cuts that are hitting venues up and down the land, remarkably profligate for the RSC to have spent so much time and money on this process for a play that is receiving just a six-week run at Soho Theatre. Of course, you can’t measure artistic achievement against the number of people that see something; less than 3,000 people saw the original Royal Court Theatre Upstairs runs of Sarah Kane’s early plays, yet they have cast a long shadow over the theatre that followed during the 90s.
But Neilson, who admitted in a long Guardian piece that he thrives under pressure and that his working method is “about channelling pressure - the more pressure, the better. It fires me up, otherwise I’m very prone to prevaricate. Anything I do has got to have some feeling behind it, and that feeling should be quite intense”, may have been given too much time as a result here. One of his cast, Brian Doherty, said in the same piece, “Nothing seemed to happen for a long time. That can be very unsatisfying because you finish working and you’ve no idea what’s been achieved.” Another actor in the company, Ryan Gage, added: “Some days, Anthony would turn up and say, I haven’t got anything I want to show you, there’s nothing new to explore. As a creative person who needs material to be able to do something, that was really frustrating.”
So even the actors sometimes found it hard going. And Neilson himself, according to the Guardian’s reporter, has “come to the conclusion that 19 weeks is a long time to spend on a single play. Two months ago, he still felt that there was merit in having the time and space to sift and reject ideas. But last week, he confessed that doing this over such a protracted period had resulted in ‘tenser situations than I would normally encounter. People think that with devised work, the longer the better. But that hasn’t proven to be the case for me.’”