I really must stop reading reviews (and I know that it’s inevitably true that some think that some critics should also stop writing them, too, which I’ll come to in a minute). I missed last week’s opening of the West End edition of Much Ado About Nothing, as I was on a stage myself last week hosting a season of interviews with leading theatre personalities on behalf of the Theatrical Guild (which was founded in 1891 by Mrs Charles Carson, whose husband was the founding editor of The Stage, thus providing a neat link and proving that this publication’s theatrical roots run deep and philanthropically).
So I found out what it was like not through my own fresh first night eyes, but the way the majority of our readers do: second hand, through the reports of my colleagues on the daily and Sunday papers.
And therefore finally catching it last night, I found myself in the uncomfortable position of having many of the productions surprises entirely spoilt by knowing them in advance. Skip the next three paragraphs, please, if you’ve not seen it yet and don’t want to have your enjoyment similarly compromised.
[SPOILER ALERTS FOLLOW FOR NEXT THREE PARAGRAPHS]: So, for instance, Susannah Clapp revealed in The Observer, “Painters and decorators are constantly plying their trade around Robert Jones’s bland pillar-and-cypress design: it’s hard to see why they are doing so until they enable a scene in which Tennant gets himself covered in paint and Tate is hoisted to the skies on a builder’s pulley. The first round of applause on press night was caused not by a person but a jeep, and not even the jeep itself but the warning bleeps it emitted as it reversed.”
So I anticipated the laughs and it wasn’t quite as funny; ditto some of the director Josie Rourke’s own darker interventions lost their power to surprise, too, when detailed in advance, as Michael Billington did by telling us that this one misfires: “Seeking to show Claudio’s penitence over his mistreatment of Hero, Rourke has him attempting suicide at her tomb until she makes a ghostly appearance. I get Rourke’s drift but it kills stone dead the later moment when Hero is discovered to be alive and well.”
Nor can my colleagues even agree about whether another intervention actually works: for Billington, “Rourke has made other changes such as endowing Hero’s dad, Leonato, with a wife instead of a brother: a deft touch since it makes Hero’s disgrace even more disruptive to the family”; whereas for Kate Bassett in the Independent on Sunday, “As for endowing Hero with a mother, this is folly: an extra female character who, firstly, robs Beatrice of her vital role as the slandered Hero’s only comforter and who, secondly, just looks feeble, having no lines to say in her daughter’s defence.”
[IT’S SAFE TO RESUME READING HERE!] Of course, much of the interest in this production lies in the reunion of David Tennant and Catherine Tate from their days as Dr Who and his assistant Donna. Sunday Telegraph’s Tim Walker duly points out, “To have one former Doctor Who star in your cast may be regarded as misfortune, but to have two looks less like carelessness than a blatant attempt to exterminate Sir Jonathan Miller.” He’s of course referring to Miller’s well-publicised dig at Tennant’s casting as the RSC’s last Hamlet, which the good Doctor labelled at the time an example of “an obsession with celebrity” in the theatre, dismissing Tennant as “that man from Doctor Who” as if that’s all he’d ever done.
It was subsequently revealed that Miller admitted he had not been to a theatre for nearly ten years, saying, “I’m not interested in theatre, I never was. I don’t want to go to the West End; I hate travelling, I prefer to be at home with my grandchildren, and just go to Marks & Spencer.” So perhaps that explains why he didn’t actually know of Tennant’s credentials; but what was Walker’s excuse? Before that Hamlet even opened, Walker had written of the RSC’s artistic director Michael Boyd, “This is the man who has got it into his head to cast the Doctor Who star David Tennant as Hamlet to ‘connect’ with modern audiences”.
As Michael Coveney replied in a blog entry at the time, “You’d expect a professional critic to know about David Tennant’s brilliant stage career before he was Dr Who, surely”. (When media commentator Matthew Norman quoted this in his Independent column, he wryly added, “Why Michael blithely ignores the perils of over-research is his business.”)
In his review of the Tennant Much Ado, however, Walker now re-writes his own previous ignorance: “One knows very well that Tennant, before he hit the celebrity jackpot, had enjoyed a perfectly respectable career on the stage, but that — and this is precisely Sir Jonathan’s point — is no longer normally deemed enough to get an actor’s name up in lights in the capital.”
But Walker certainly knows how to get himself out on those quotes boards outside the theatre. Though he’s uncommonly addicted to the one-star pan, he wrote of the opening of the Palladium’s Wizard of Oz, “I would go so far as to say it re-defines what a great West End show is. I am limited to giving it five stars today, but I would say it is off the scale - this is a 10-star production if ever there was one.” And on Monday, Walker found his review of the Tennant Much Ado quoted in the Daily Telegraph’s Mandrake column — which he writes himself, too!
Mandrake was returning to the theme of Jonathan Miller’s previous comments about Tennant, and asks him about Tennant’s return to the Shakespearean stage now. Miller replies, “I received such adverse comments over the Hamlet business, I am not prepared to venture a comment.” But, Mandrake goes on, “Sir Jonathan couldn’t, however, resist saying that he was ‘relieved’ to see The Sunday Telegraph’s assessment of the production, which has been given an Eighties makeover. Its reviewer’s verdict: ‘A cynical and exploitative exercise’.” Much like the Mandrake column itself, in fact.
Mandrake then goes on to pour oil on the fire, stoking it up further by then seeking to source a comment from the Globe’s Dominic Dromgoole, who replies, “The theatre world is a tangled web, and it requires delicate handling,” so chooses not to. But then Mandrake has Dromgoole delivering a broadside to another critic instead: “If you were to dedicate your whole issue to the iniquities of Michael Billington, I would happily contribute a 10,000-word essay.” There are clearly theatrical spoilers, but there’s also spoiling for a fight.