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The rumble of the subway train (and my belly)….

In an interview in the Daily Telegraph a few weeks ago, Wallace Shawn admitted to Dominic Cavendish that he is not welcomed in his home territory as much as he is over here: In the US, he said, “few people like what I do.” And, with the Royal Court currently presenting an entire season around his work, Dominic writes that “British theatre’s enthusiasm for him has kept him going”; but then asks him, “Doesn’t he worry about having so much attention lavished on his oeuvre?”

Shawn replies, “Well, people might say the Royal Court have made fools of themselves for presenting a fraud so seriously. I wouldn’t take it too badly because in all periods there must be a lot of artists in order for some good art to be produced. Some of us must be fakes. I suppose if someone said, ‘It has been decided your writing has nothing to offer’, that would upset me. On the other hand, I wouldn’t accept that judgment as final because after my death, others might come along who disagree.”

Last night the Royal Court gave us (yet another) chance to pass judgment on his play Aunt Dan and Lemon that they gave the Court also gave the original production of in 1985 in a cast that included Linda Hunt and Kathryn Pogson in the title roles; it was subsequently revived at the Almeida in 1999, when it featured Steppenwolf actress Glenne Headly and Miranda Richardson. As Michael Billington puts it in his review in today’s Guardian, “On a third viewing, Shawn’s play, for all its darkly mesmerising power, depends on a number of shaky assumptions.”

That’s one of the problems of finding oneself in front of the same play again and again: critics start to notice the holes. I could also add a fourth production to my own experience of the play - I saw a 2004 off-Broadway revival that starred Kristen Johnston and Lili Taylor; but last night I experienced a distraction far closer to home than the traditional rumble of the tube trains from below the Royal Court - namely the rumbling of my own belly.

I had arrived at the theatre hungry - and left it starved of nourishment of any kind. I have managed, over the years, to tune out the sounds of the tube, though when I asked my companion afterwards if he’d heard it last night, he replied, “I heard them twice - perhaps I was thinking of throwing myself in front of one of them rather than listening to a diatribe in favour of Henry Kissinger…”

Another colleague Simon Edge has reported that his companion also answered back even more physically: in his Daily Express review he reports, “My companion gave me a hard kick after an hour, as a rebuke for inflicting this excruciating bilge on him. I’m tempted to sue the Royal Court for the damage to my shin.”

Some friends are clearly never grateful! When I took a friend to see the Naional’s Attempts on Her Life in 2007, he turned to me in the middle of it and said, “I’m going to kill you for this!”, as I reported here at the time.

I took another friend to Hampstead Theatre on Tuesday for the opening night of April de Angelis’s Amongst Friends, and dropped him off near his home afterwards. He’s just e-mailed this morning to say, “I wonder if you saw me fall over when I got out of the car on Tuesday? I had to wait for someone to come by and help me up. Battered, bruised and cut, I am one pair of trousers less and a badly sprained wrist to boot. All this on top of Ms De Angelis’s play!” It was clearly a case of injury after insult.

The reviews confirm that Hampstead have scored another triumph of sorts: these must rank amongst the worst reviews of the year so far. As Michael Coveney noted in his review yesterday on Whatsonstage.com, writing of the design, “How much do they have to spend on these Hampstead sets? There’s more money flying around on hardware than there is time spent on the script, which is jerkily unsatisfactory and wearingly unfunny.”

I sometimes wonder myself if anyone actually reads the scripts before they’re put on at this theatre, but the programme suggests that maybe someone does: there’s a lengthy (four page) interview with the playwright, conducted by the theatre’s literary manager Neil Crutchfield, in it. It turns out the play was actually commissioned by the theatre, and he asks her, “Did the knowledge that you were writing for the Hampstead stage and the Hampstead audience affect how you approached writing this play?”

She replies, “Yes, totally. It gave me the idea that people would want to be entertained and would like a comedy. I also thought they would like something contemporary and sharp. It felt really nice to have that kind of idea, and to have that welcomed.” Sure, audiences always want to be entertained - but it also seems weirdly patronising to assume that a comedy is all that this particular audience would be up for.

She also makes assumptions about who that audience is, and that they’re as regular as she thinks they are: “They also seem to come here again and again and build up a relationship with the theatre. You feel like you’re really talking to them, and they’re not just anybody.”

In fact that audience, if it exists, may vanish into thin air at this rate. As Charles Spencer reports in his review in today’s Daily Telegraph, “Another day, another dud at Hampstead” and concludes, it all makes “for a dismal night at a theatre once renowned for sharp new writing.” Ditto Dominic Maxwell in today’s Times who declares it “jaw-droppingly clumsy and implausible”, and although he credits Anthony Clark’s direction for keeping it “chugging along”, he says, “he shouldn’t have allowed the script to make it to the stage in this form. It’s a bit of a stinker.”

All true - except that both reviews, as was Coveney’s and also Henry Hitchings in yesterday’s Standard, come with two star ratings attached. How much worse would it have to be to get one star?

Maybe they were being kind to the cast - though Maxwell, in fact, isn’t to at least one of them. “You can’t blame the cast. Oh, all right, Helen Baxendale is one-note as the spiky Lara”, he declares, but then praises Aden Gillett, Emma Cunliffe and James Dreyfus.

But sometimes even a good cast can’t save a play: as Lyn Gardner says in her one star judgment in today’s Guardian, “It’s an evening of watching fine actors attempting to do the impossible with the improbable.”

7 Comments

There is such a complete lack of clear artistic vision at Hampstead one wonders how long this will be allowed to continue. The two most recent productions that I've seen, Alphabetical Order and Private Lives , were in theory comedies - but at the sparsely attended performances that I attended - the upstairs was closed both times - there were no laughs. The aging and knowledgable audience was very vocal about their disapointment with each other and a few of us thought: will I even bother to come back here? Theatre's go through cycles of success and failure to be sure, but Hampstead is like the Shaftsbury in need of a "Hairspray" at this point.

I think the Hampstead Theatre hasn't had a decent literary policy (or ability to get andproduce good new plays) for over ten years now. Also I think it's about that long since they had a homegrown West End transfer. Most of the time it seems to be a receiving house for small scale touring productions rather than producing anything new and original, but that's probably due to finances more than anything else.
It's a great pity because I love this theatre - a production of Hedda Gabler in the late 80s made me start regular theatre going.
I reckon new building is also slightly to blame, as it is a pretty good space and they no longer have to work hard on script and production to cancel-out the effects of working in a leaky portakabin.

Private Eye (Edition 29th May to 11th June)isn't very kind at all to Wallace Shawn or theatre in general in an article taking half of page 29.

"Grasses of a thousand colours" is described as "cat shit" and "the hundreds of references to masturbation prove completely unnecessary" since people in the audience "will have picked Wally as a wanker within minutes"

The thrust of the piece is that state-funded theatre produces rubbish and some critics fall for it, poor Henry Hitchings is singled out at the start, he must feel he is being shot at left right and centre as soon as his head is raised above the parapet, followed by Billington later.

It is grossly unfair in many ways, especially taking one “bad” play and extrapolating this point to prove that state funding of theatre is a waste of money, but it is an interesting read.

Let us not forget that, although it was happy to stage Wallace Shawn's repulsive sex fantasies and Caryl Churchill's anti-semitic filth, the Royal Court turned down Martin McDonagh's brilliant and hilarious The Lt of Inishmore, for fear of attracting IRA reprisals. This theatre's tastelessness, immorality, and cowardice are surpassed only by its self-importance.

I have been outspoken in my own criticism of the Royal Court for its Wallace Shawn season, but that last description of Caryl Churchill as anti-semitic is unpardonable. Once and for all, it is not anti-semitic to be horrified by the mass murder of Gazan civilians by the Israeli army – as the many Jewish (and indeed Israeli) critics of those actions will testify.

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Lee Wilson: The Private Eye piece you refer to reads uncannily like Quentin letts' Daily Mail review of the same play, to the extent of having one or two identical phrases. I for one am in no doubt as to who the pseudonymous "Curtain Caller" is - only over why the Eye has indulged his banging on about his imagined bêtes noires.

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So Quentin Letts writes at the Private Eye. Fantastic. At least I know now not to pay attention.

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