It’s good to see that David Hare is at last cultivating a sense of irony about his own, notoriously skin-thinned, reception to theatre reviews, even if he’s not toned down his own self-importance that puts himself as the central character of his new play The Power of Yes that opened at the National Theatre last night. (At least he doesn’t play himself this time, as he did in the pair of complementary documentary plays Berlin/Wall at the National and Royal Court earlier this year; Anthony Calf does the honours this time instead, and even takes steps out of the company line-up to take a solo curtain call at the end for his efforts).
There is, of course, a strong dramatic reason for including himself: the play is subtitled “A dramatist seeks to understand the financial crisis”, and follows his own attempt to grapple with making sense of it all.
But there’s a key and very revealing exchange where he talks to a financial journalist (from the FT - one who, like many he spoke to in researching the play, “firmly refuses to be identified”), and she tells him how “bankers decided that because they were working in an ice-cream factory, they could help themselves to as much ice cream as they liked. They came to believe that they made the money, not the company. And they’re wrong. They make money for the company. But that ‘s what they refuse to accept.”
Hare replies, “What do you mean, they don’t accept it?” And she answers, “They just don’t accept it”, before asking him, “Do you accept it? When you write a play and the critics say it’s crap. Do you accept it?”
Hare immediately responds, “Of course not. Of course I don’t. I mean, absolutely not. Why would I? They’re wrong. They’re always wrong.” And she asks, “Well, exactly. So how is this different?” Hare in turn says, “Once you go down that path, accepting what critics say, grovelling to an audience, God, then you might as well shoot yourself. It’s an end to self-respect.”
And the financial journalist responds, “So? So? How are playwrights different from bankers? Isn’t this about self-belief? A certain self-belief? Isn’t that necessary? Isn’t it necessary? To a banker? To a playwright.” And he replies, “Sure. Of course it is. But even a playwright knows there’s something called reality too.”
And today, of course, reality strikes for Hare as the morning papers deliver the overnight verdicts of last night - but if the critics are always wrong, surely that means that the Guardian’s four-star review by Michael Billington is also wrong? But it’s good to notice that The Guardian have taken the unusual step of elevating the review to the front page of the paper: this is not just a play about the last twelve months or so of Britain’s economic meltdown, but is also now making news itself. Newspaper critics are also journalists, and last night we were on the frontline to report on the play formally for the first time.
At least the Guardian didn’t jump the gun this time, as it did when Hare’s response to the Iraq war Stuff Happens opened in 2004 and they sent in a bunch of political commentators and other interested parties to review the first preview. But last Sunday, Richard Brooks, arts editor of the Sunday Times, took it upon himself to pre-empt his own paper’s critic (whoever it might be - last Sunday, there were no fewer than five different contributors to the theatre review pages) in his weekly diary column in The Culture section.
He quotes a banker saying in the play, “Don’t write that bankers are shits, because you’ll be writing what people already think. And it will be a very dull play”, and then declares, “It’s an accurate prediction”. Actually, that’s not the precise quote in the play, but a paraphrased version of it; don’t expect arts journalists to quote precisely, either, should be the motto, but then this is the paper which uses a so-called interviewer who doesn’t even take notes or uses a tape recorder when he’s interviewing someone. I’m referring, of course, to AA Gill, who as I blogged here last year admitted as much in an interview piece - by an intriguing coincidence, the subject was David Hare!
But at least, also, no one has yet said that The Power of Yes is crap, though Paul Taylor in a two-star review in today’s Independent is possibly worse, echoing Brooks - he labels it as “a tad tardy and more than a mite dogged and dutiful”, and declared that “it’s honourable, lucid, tenacious, and a little dull.”
David Hare will, no doubt, feel that review is entirely wrong; but will he go into battle against it? I hope he has learned from his lessons on Broadway back in the late 80s, when Frank Rich, then the theatre critic of the New York Times, dared to voice his disapproval of Hare’s own Broadway production of his play The Secret Rapture in 1989.
A very public spat resulted. But critics always have the last word: as Frank Rich wrote in the New York Times when he gave up the post of the theatre critic in 1994, David Hare “was infuriated when I wrote that he had mutilated his own fine play The Secret Rapture by miscasting and misdirecting the New York production. (The play had been beautifully staged by Howard Davies in London.) Hare wrote an open letter to me that he distributed to the press, arguing that it was part of my job ‘to insure the survival of the theater’ and ‘support … the continuance of the serious play on Broadway.’ I wrote back that ‘my responsibility’ was ‘to be honest with The Times’s readers,” who were too smart to follow any critic with blind Pavlovian slavishness, but instead extrapolated according to their own tastes from a familiar critic’s point of view. The dispute made for great copy and landed me on the front page of publications ranging from The Wall Street Journal to Variety (where Hummler wrote a tendentious story with a classic headline, ‘Ruffled Hare Airs Rich Bitch’). Hare was seconded by Andrew Lloyd Webber, who, though I had never met him, told reporters that I had not liked the performance given by his wife, Sarah Brightman, in The Phantom of the Opera, because I was bitter about my own pending divorce. (Webber’s divorce from Brightman was yet to come.) When 60 Minutes did a segment about me, Hare and Lloyd Webber were both heard from, with the latter delivering, in the correspondent Morley Safer’s words, an ‘unprintable tirade’ off-camera, questioning my ‘integrity, sexuality and sanity’.”
But talking of sanity: the scariest personal revelation of all last night was David Hare’s own statement about his own banking affairs: that he keeps his own money in a post office account. The thought of him somehow queuing up at the post office to do his banking defies belief. I’m sure that his wife Nicole Farhi runs her fashion empire with bigger banking support….