This week saw the return the London stage of Death and the Maiden, a play that began life at Royal Court’s tiny Theatre Upstairs back in 1991, before transferring to the West End, then seeing a separate all-star staging on Broadway and a subsequent film version.
So the piece has shown its ability to exist in different forms already; but returning in a West End production headlined by a star who had never appeared on a stage before, some cracks began to show (and I don’t just mean in the auditorium plaster of the newly renamed Harold Pinter Theatre, formerly the Comedy, whose name may have been changed but whose faded charm remains entirely intact; let’s just hope the theatre doesn’t lose more performances, as it did back when The Children’s Hour was playing here earlier this year, when “emergency building repairs” had to suddenly be carried out).
As Charles Spencer declared in his Daily Telegraph review, “Thandie Newton almost entirely misses the flayed intensity, horror and exhilaration that Juliet Stevenson brought to central character 20 years ago. Indeed this strikes me as a classic case of the dangers of star casting.” He went on to say, “Miss Newton simply doesn’t have the theatrical chops for so demanding a role and her tight, strained voice, improbably immaculate hair-do and inability to really let rip and lay herself bare emotionally severely diminishes the play’s impact.”
That’s a view I entirely concurred with; when I filed my review for The Stage the night before his review appeared, I used some of the same words: “Thandie Newton, making her stage debut as the wife, lacks the essential stage chops to make her character’s urgency and distress register with enough contrast.”
It’s a theme that echoes through many of the reviews. In the Evening Standard, Henry Hitchings wrote, “Newton shows us Paulina’s spiralling anger, yet the character doesn’t seem as intriguingly damaged as she needs to, and neither her pain nor her profanity resonates. There’s conviction in her work, but a lack of detail and emotional rawness. These may develop. For now, though, she’s underpowered.”
And in The Times, Libby Purves notes, “The role of Paulina is immensely demanding. She must convey deep hurt, rage, frightening competence but borderline psychosis, bitter commonsense and even mischievous scorn. Thandie Newton, a fine screen actress, is brave to accept it as her West End stage debut, and I wish it was a triumph. It may yet be, as it settles: but maybe it is her commendable determination to project properly for the stage that makes her operate too much on one note.”
So for once several of us are in solid agreement. And the fact of the matter is that there’s a world apart from acting for the close-up of a camera, or even for the close-up of an 80-seater studio like the Theatre Upstairs where this play originated, and an 800 seater West End theatre. It requires a bigger leap, in every sense, and it was possibly cruel and misguided for the producers to subject her to it, or her agent to agree to let her do it. She could and should have started smaller. It’s no accident that when Nicole Kidman earned her rave reviews for appearing in London in The Blue Room, it was at the Donmar Warehouse. It was also there that Gwyneth Paltrow starred in the London production of Proof.
Of course a big enough star name sells tickets. Julia Roberts may have been as out of her depth as Newton when she starred in Three Days of Rain on Broadway, but she stopped traffic every night on West 45th Street outside the theatre, even if she couldn’t get the play started inside it. But is Newton as powerful a draw? Time will tell.
Meanwhile, just the other week I quoted Philip Larkin once telling The Observer, “I count it as one of the great moments of my life when I first realised one could actually walk out of a theatre … I was watching Playboy of the Western World and when the bell rang at the interval I asked myself: ‘Am I enjoying myself? No, I’ve never watched such stupid balls.’ So I just had another drink and walked out into the evening sunshine.”
And now theatrical walk-outs are in the news again, thanks to the fact that hordes of theatregoers - from 30 to 80 a night - are reportedly walking out of the RSC’s current revival of Marat/Sade that opened officially last week. The Daily Mail, which ironically is yet to review the production, has of course gleefully reported the controversy, with one theatregoer telling it, “‘It was utter filth and depravity. The rape scene came just before the interval and many people did not return for the second half. I knew it was supposed to be edgy but it was the worst kind of filth dressed up as quality theatre. They have got it badly wrong. I don’t blame people for walking out. They took it too far this time.”
The Guardian have taken a more considered approach, running a story in which some of their critics reveal circumstances in which they have wished they could leave a show, or even did. Michael Billington points out that, “As a critic, the requirement is to stay the course. The real secret is not to turn up at all if you feel the show is likely to make you want to walk. There aren’t many categories I tend to avoid, but I can name a few: jukebox musicals consisting of a ragbag anthology of old rock hits; scissors and paste adaptations of Jane Austen novels; and (admittedly, a more specialised category, this) shows like the one staged by Romeo Castellucci at the Barbican earlier this year, obsessively concerned with bowel movements. Sometimes, instead of walking out, it’s better not to walk in at all.”
That slightly contradicts a blog he recently wrote, suggesting that reviewers who refuse to cover certain kinds of theatre are doing the art a disservice. He was writing about New York Times critic Charles Isherwood’s decision not to review any more plays by playwright Adam Rapp, and Billington commented, “It’s a mistake for a critic ever to bring the shutters down. In so doing, one denies oneself the possibility of a change of heart.”
I have to admit that in the days when I was a paying customer more often than I am now, I regularly reserved the right to leave and indeed exercised it; but now that I’m a guest of the management more often than not, it is rude to the host to do so, and definitely wrong if you are going to write about it. But once I reached the interval of a dire musical at the King’s Head, which had strangely been much acclaimed at Edinburgh, and approached the producer: I told her I could either stay the course and give it a no doubt terrible review, or leave now. She kindly consented to me leaving on the spot.