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Shenton's View

Some of my favourite people and a few of least favourite things

On Sunday night I began the second series of These Are A Few Of My Favourite Songs at Soho Theatre, in which leading figures from different areas of the theatre talk about their lives and careers in the context of some of their favourite songs, some of which are sung live and others played on CD, with all proceeds benefitting the Theatrical Guild.

My guest on Sunday was Simon Russell Beale (who has just coincidentally become a patron of the Guild), joined by fellow Olivier Award winner Leanne Jones as singer (with an extra guest appearance on vocals by season pianist Ben Stock). And listening to Simon, my admiration for the man and his sincerity, honesty and modesty, multiplied the high regard I already hold for him as an actor. This coming Sunday I’m looking forward to welcoming Jeremy Sams, one of the brightest and most eclectic men I know and a true man of the theatre.

It will be apparent to anyone who comes to the talks that I love my job, just as much as my guests so transparently and infectiously do, too. I know just how privileged I am; what a joy to be able to talk to an actor like Simon for an hour and a half in front of a receptive audience. I’m also incredibly lucky to see all his onstage work, and invariably for free. I’ve often admitted that my own theatregoing habits, which are something of an addiction really, would be simply unsustainable if I had to pay for all my tickets.

But I still have my pet peeves, ranging from the small but inconvenient (like box offices that are surprised when you get there because the tickets you had confirmed with the press rep had failed to be communicated to them, as happened as recently as last Saturday afternoon when I went to see the transfer of Abigail’s Party from the Menier to Wyndham’s) to my wider (and now well documented!) intolerance of bad audience behaviour.

And there’s also the bigger problem of there simply being too much to see, but then that’s surely a nice problem to have: how lucky are we, as theatregoers and not just critics, by the wealth of enticing theatre there is to cover? No, I can’t see everything; even when I go every single night, and add matinees, too, many shows get away.

Particularly the ones that come and go fast: I would have liked to have seen Three Kingdoms last week at the Lyric Hammersmith, for instance, if only to see where I stood in the widely contradictory press reactions that stretched from Quentin Letts’s no stars review in the Daily Mail (“this show is magnificently bad, laughably awful, a real honking turkey (if turkeys honk)”) to the Daniel B Yates in the online-only Exeunt giving it five stars (“One of the best pieces of theatre, anywhere, you are likely to see this year”).

Maddy Costa, a regular Guardian arts writer who didn’t review it for them, has engaged in a dialogue via her blog about it that starts from the position, as she put it to playwright Simon Stephens in an e-mail she reprints to him, “Holy fucking Christ I’ve had some intoxicating nights in the theatre but that was really something else.”

In a separate Guardian blog, she characterises the dichotomy in reactions as clearly splitting “between newspaper critics who - you guessed it - are resistant to the work, and online writers who embrace it fervently.” But there’s a problem: “Such is the prevailing hierarchy of criticism, however, online writing is still essentially classed as word-of-mouth, while only the reviews published in mainstream media carry real weight.”

Not having seen the show, I cannot say where I personally stand on the debate; but it’s one of my least favourite things in dialogues like this is how selectively the data is presented. Actually, inconvenient though it may be to Costa’s argument about newspaper resistance, Dominic Cavendish in the Daily Telegraph, Paul Taylor in the Independent and Claire Allfree in Metro all gave it thoughtful three-star reviews.

Each of those reviews, of course, had to work within traditional print restraints; even the longest of their reviews — Dominic Cavendish’s in the Telegraph — ran to only 466 words; the others were even shorter. Costa, in her Guardian blog, refers the play’s “excess”, and suggests that the same excess “that exasperates critics required to distil Three Kingdoms down to a brief 500-word review is inspiring and thrilling to writers with unlimited space in which to tease out its complexities”; and it is revealing that her personal blog entry stretches to some 4,115 words by contrast.

But more is not necessarily better. I’d rather read 466 words of Cavendish, who distills plot, critical analysis, influences and atmosphere into those words in a way that makes me sorry I missed it, than over 4,000 words of blog analysis that comes to praise Stephens but ends up burying him. The occupying of an apparently higher moral — or supposedly better critical — ground is a different type of arrogance to the suggestion that the ‘traditional’ critics must have got it wrong because she hasn’t agreed with them.


The blogger Catherine Love has wrote a rather excellent blog piece, reflecting on her own experience of writing a "proper" 400-word review, here:

It is perhaps even more telling that she has subsequently written a second blog piece about her experience of going to see the play *again*:

I think it says something about Three Kingdoms that so many people (myself included) choose to spend not three, but six hours in its company and many more hours writing about it.

*"has wrote"? Jesus, Haydon, get a grip.

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Interesting that your first quote from Maddy's blog, the one about the split itself, is one I took issue with. One of the problems is that to all too many younger writers - and, alas, even to some old enough to know better - age equals reactionism bu tnot experience: it's inconceivable to them that dissatisfaction with 3K might be due, not to "resistan[ce] to the work", but to familiarity with the approach and ability to compare it with other similar instances, to its disadvantage.

The result is yet another instance of the irony - which I used to find amusing, but am now increasingly bored by - that those making accusations of prejudice are in fact the ones much more palpably demonstrating it. But hey, four legs good...

Mark, I can't help but to feel that you're being a little short sighted with regards to Maddy's comments on Three Kingdoms. It is not a matter of those who are right, and those who are wrong in this instance, but instead understanding the difference that an online outlet compared to a print/mainstream outlet can offer.

We need to accept that where the mainstream critics are resigned to a space of no more than 500 words, the online outlets have the freedom to explore, in depth, and at length, the work without restrictions. It may not be to your taste, but there is a certain need to accept and understand what these outlets can offer, not in opposition, but rather to compliment that of your fellow critics.

There was a general wave of wanting to discuss at length the varying topics, issues and nature of Three Kingdoms which couldn't be solely achieved from the mainstream critics. Their jobs are not to further discussions but often to be the point at which the discussion ends, it is the readers choice to ultimately make a decision. The online outlets however have flourished in debate, discussion and in depth analysis in understanding how Three Kingdoms can be seen in light of British Theatre. It is not a question of who is wrong, and right, but rather in using the strength of each medium to engage directly with an audience.

Whilst you may not agree that reading 4,000 words on Maddy's blog is not suited for yourself (and this is perfectly acceptable), it would be shortsighted to not observe the similarities that you strive to achieve in this very 'Shenton's View'. Where a concise blog every fortnight stretching several thousand words may be more to my taste, your daily blogs attempting to gauge the temperature of our theatre may equally not appeal. The similarity here being that in the last two days your blogs have already totaled 2241 words, which given how often someone like Maddy posts on her blog, will put you quite easily on par with words, if not you greatly over the mark.

This clearly isn't about the same tiresome argument of print vs online, but rather in us having clarity as to how both of these mediums can work together to engage our readers and audiences further. There is only so long we can hold onto the old models of criticism, and you yourself, whilst ever proclaiming to be a traditional critic have embraced the digital age with this blog. If ever there was someone who should be championing the work of online outlets it is yourself. Where would you be able to tell your loyal readers of your favourite people and audience behaviour if not through a 865 worded blog, which, for some reason I can't see being printed alongside your usual reviewers for The Stage or Sunday Mail.

Let's not get petty about who is right and who is wrong, let's celebrate the opportunities that the online outlets give to the work of shows such as Three Kindgoms which clearly have struck a nerve at the heart of our audiences.

There are a few things that strike me. Firstly (though I can't see Andrew Hayden fitting this category) I do think many bloggers are less experienced - less weary perhaps - and thus in a position to get more from a show like 3K than a Billington might, simply because it feels newer.

2nd - that trying to write a short newspaper review, within 24 hours, about a hard-to grasp and impressionist piece such as 3K might actually taint the experience. Might stop one being able to appreciate it. It would be frustrating both during and after which would then affect the review itself.

3rd - this is small but important: Mark didn't see the play. So what he wants professionally and personally is some quick overviews. That's common sense. The long stuff - at least the way it has been written on this show - is for those who have seen it. It is exclusive. And that's fine.

4th - only a modest handful of people will read many long, woolly pieces like Maddy's and certainly won't for most shows. Most individual productions don't merit it (not to devalue them). That said, occasionally a show like this will come along that long-form criticism is made for: not definitive but questioning, almost chairing a discussion for its reader. This was one of them. I think one of the joys of the net is that I've been able to read all sorts of views on the play, even though I went last minute on my own and have spoken directly to just one person who also saw it.

5th - there is a paucity of theatre like this. Seeing Big & Small then this in one month makes me feel - as I think Matt Trueman discussed eloquently - that we make theatre in an incredibly limited way. A valid and often excellent way. Nevertheless limited, Realistic, naturalistic. Those of us who have seen one or both are having to grapple with this (re)awakening and that includes perhaps especially those who are becoming the next generation of theatre writers. It's like being given a food we had forgotten existed yet now have a burning hunger for. The net - with its potential for more words but also with its sharing, linking, commenting - is the perfect place to explore this.

6th - that kind of Pauline experience, we will hold it close to us, protect, treasure. To then read a 3 star review from a critic stings, smarts - it reduces an experience that has left us vulnerable and gushing to simply that day's new opening. Ego bruised, the enthusiast fights back.

May we live in exciting theatrical times.

5th - there was

4th -

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"We make theatre in an incredibly limited way" - in the immortal words of Tonto: What you mean "we", white man? Even when trying to be reasonable and even-handed - and succeeding to an admirable extent (that reads as hugely patronising, but I don't mean it that way) - Jon, you can't help letting in the kind of axiomatic generalisation that taints so many of the arguments - and, pace Jake, there is at least as much of argument in postings as of analysis and attempt to grasp - on this particular subject.

That's a knotty and inelegant sentence, but if you gnaw at it, it does make sense, honest.

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