It is always interesting when the subject of theatre reviews leaves the reviews pages themselves and turn up as part of a larger dialogue elsewhere. I see it as part of the job of this blog to monitor as well as provoke that discussion; and I have twice now already blogged about the reception to Nicholas de Jongh’s Plague Over England, first immediately after its opening, and then again yesterday, after the blatant exhibition of homophobia that was exhibited in the Sunday Times review.
At the risk of beating this subject to death, I return to it yet again today to direct you to some stories that have evolved out of it in the online and print pages of The Guardian.
First, the Guardian online published a blog by John Morrison last Friday, that wondered aloud whether de Jongh’s fellow critics “have left their critical brains behind in the foyer in praising this limp apology for a play”. Reviews, of course, are always a matter of opinion, not fact, and parading his own opinion that it’s a “limp apology of a play” isn’t necessarily evidence of there being a cloakroom for our brains having been on offer in the foyer of the Duchess.
But if The Guardian’s own online round-up of the early reviews insists that “the critical cabal has heaped it with praise”, Rhoda Koenig replied in a letter to The Guardian yesterday, “Your author may know where they meet to confer and cackle, but no one has told me. My review in the Independent the next day described the play as narrow, sentimental, heavy-handed, confusing and based on a false premise.”
Another letter in yesterday’s Guardian by Melanie Jessop - the actress, incidentally, whom we were not allowed to review when she took over from an indisposed Frances Barber in the RSC’s King Lear in 2007 — suggests that we should not have reviewed Plague Over England, either. There is, she suggests, an “obvious conflict of interest that should have made it impossible for them [the theatre critics] to review the West End revival of their critical colleague Nicolas de Jongh’s play Plague over England, on the grounds that it is “club dominated by men of a certain age, more than a few of whom must (please God!) be approaching retirement age, seems to be flagrantly attempting to boost the chances of commercial success of one of their own by encouraging members of the public to buy tickets for a show which they must secretly acknowledge is vain and abject.” (In which case, as Rhoda Koenig has wittily asked me today, “Who is SUPPOSED to review the play, if not critics? Fishermen? Dentists?”)
But Jessop’s assumption is based on several false premises, too - one that Michael Billington shoots down in a Guardian feature today. The conspiracy that Jessop identifies - “to puff a colleague’s work”, as Billington puts it - is a charge that he says is “as insulting as it is ill-informed”. And he proceeds to give plenty of evidence against the accusation. Amongst his points he says, “I’m also sorry to see the resurrection of the old ‘dead white males’ argument, first advanced, and then retracted, by Nicholas Hytner. It overlooks the simple fact that De Jongh’s play was reviewed, both in its initial run at the Finborough and now in the West End, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, by Susannah Clapp, Georgina Brown, Jane Edwardes, Claudia Pritchard, Kate Kellaway and Rhoda Koenig: none of these writers are members of any mythical old boys’ club.”
No, but most are members of the Critics’ Circle (though Rhoda resigned her membership, long before I became its chair, after Toby Young was admitted to the fold); so there is a club that we do belong to. But it is there not to police our collective opinions but to offer a forum to protect and promote the way we work, and provide a formal communication channel between the industry and the critics.
Billington also addresses one of the key questions of how we actually go about our night jobs, and I’m probably asked it more than any others: how well do we all get on, and do we confer over our opinions? Michael is right to say, “Critics don’t work as a team. We arrive separately and we leave in a hurry to get to our desks.” But though the latter is true of the small band of overnight critics of which he is an indispensable part, it’s not entirely true to say, “It’s the opposite of a social engagement: there is simply no time to chat.” We can and we do, both at the theatre (there’s always the interval, and we’re regularly plied with free interval drinks that not only keeps us in a huddle but also actively encourages us to chat) and sometimes away from it, whether electronically or in person. Indeed, one of my favourite jobs of all is convening and hosting regular discussions that are recorded and posted for all to hear on www.theatrevoice.com.
But Michael is also right to point out that critics don’t always fall over themselves to praise a colleague. Far from it: Rhoda Koenig once said in print of Michael’s Pinter biography, “This critic should spend more time at his desk and less on his knees.”
But the blogosphere also proves, as ever, that it isn’t just the critics who are part of this discourse anymore, but the public and other theatre practitioners who can actively participate in it, too. The best part of the unfolding Guardian blog on the play is the fact that Jasper Britton, who was part of the play’s early developmental readings and played the role of Gielgud in the original production at the Finborough last year, has rushed in to defend not only the director Tamara Harvey, who has come in for some public criticism, but also shone some revealing insights into the playwright’s own working processes.
He has also valiantly defended the director against one of the personal charges made against her by one contributor - since deleted by a moderator - and as he says, “I love the internet for lots of reasons but am beginning to hate it for more, not least the fact that gossiping, self-important, snide, insensitive, bitter and twisted little egos and failures can write any old BS about anyone they like. Or that they clearly hate, for whatever reason, arbitrarily”. Britton, who is about to star in a stage version of Simon Gray’s The Last Cigarette at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre, writes like Gray’s stream-of-consciousness reflections on the theatre; and it’s wonderful that there’s a public outlet for them here. If Gray were still alive, I can’t help but think he’d make a wonderful blogger. And I only wish that Jasper takes it up even more seriously!