It’s part of the chemistry of live performance that it changes from night to night, and no two performances are ever completely alike. But there’s also no escaping the fact that even going to the same show on the same night doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll see the same show: a lot depends on the view, and your relationship to the stage.
Though one is sometimes put in mind of George S Kaufman’s immortal comment - “I saw the play at a disadvantage - the curtain was up” — critics are usually lucky when it does go up; it’s in the producers’ interests to give us the best possible views, though this isn’t always infallible. (I’ve blogged here about problems when seated in side seats at the Donmar Warehouse for instance, or when seated behind people I couldn’t see over or round, at the insufficiently raked Apollo).
At the National’s Lyttelton, the number one national critics are typically seated on the aisles - and since there’s no centre aisle there, that means occupying the extreme sides of the auditorium.
Nicholas de Jongh used to regularly note his compromised views in his reviews, but unless you’re actually “overnighting” (and rushing out of the theatre to meet a deadline), there’s no need to actually be on the aisle. With last night’s opening for Phedre, Bob Crowley’s beautiful design has a wall down stage right - and a profile of a blue sky on stage left. Clearly the National wanted us to see it from the stage left side of the auditorium, since all the major number one critics were seated down that aisle - but that meant there weren’t enough aisle seats to go round. Earlier in the day, the press office therefore rang and asked if I minded having a central seat instead; and far from minding, I actually preferred it. I was seeing the play from the perfect spot in the centre of the eight row - there was hardly a better seat in the house.
But it’s not a seat everyone can have, of course - and I wonder about the poor members of the paying public who end up on the extremes of the stage right hand side of the auditorium. Didn’t Crowley and director Hytner think of them? At least it won’t matter when its screened live into cinemas on June 25 - I assume everyone will have the best views in the house that night, since the cameras will get the best angles.
But going to the theatre also sometimes depends on your relationship to those around you, too - at last week’s opening of Arcadia, a woman seated in the row in front of me had folded her legs onto her seat and her face into her lap for the last half hour of the play - she had obviously given up on the play in defeat, and was toughing it out. But she was also visibly intruding into the seat occupied by Michael Coveney beside her - though she wasn’t his guest - so he had to keep repositioning himself to get away from her. A theatregoer has every right to be bored by a performance, but that kind of visible reaction inevitably has a knock-on effect on those around them, so seated behind her, I couldn’t help but watch this spectacle unfolding when I was actually trying to engage in Stoppard’s complex play and David Leveaux’s fine production of it.
It’s one of the prices you regularly pay, in every sense, when going to the theatre as often as critics do (though we at least don’t pay for our seats, and I suspect the offending woman didn’t either, since that critic’s guest seat was almost certainly reallocated to someone known by the producers when Michael surrendered it). Chronicling such distractions have been a regular feature of this blog’s 1000 editions so far.
So has the apparently contradictory critical reactions a show sometimes gets, and Phedre is the latest - though there’s a four-star consensus so far to four of the major overnight reviews (from Michael Billington in The Guardian, Benedict Nightingale in The Times, Simon Edge in the Daily Express and Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail), Michael Coveney’s one-star review in today’s Independent offers an entirely contrary viewpoint.
On the one hand, he writes of Dominic Cooper, “he’s very good. Everybody’s very good. They’re all just acting in something very bad”, but in the next sentence dismisses the performances again, “the acting is bloodless”. In the next paragraph, he finds that “there are one or two admirable performances.” It’s all, I suppose, a question of perspective. Michael was on the end of the row in front of me - but seems to have seen a different show from the rest of us.