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‘Fresh from my triumph last week in advocating that influential restaurant critics should be compelled to dine at an establishment twice before writing their reviews, I’m grateful to The Old Vic’s artistic director Kevin Spacey for providing the springboard from which to launch my campaign for the two-visit theatre review.’
Marcel Berlins wrote the above in The Guardian [19th April, 2006] following the media furore over the early closure last Saturday of Arthur Miller’s final play, Resurrection Blues, at The Old Vic, and Kevin Spacey‘s tenure as artistic director.
I have always believed that more than one review by two or three different people, in any one outlet, is the least required to give a production the best chance of life, and its potential audiences the necessary feedback to make an informed choice – one man’s meat is, after all, another woman’s poison.
Most of us, however much we love going to the theatre, rarely have the time and money to read all sources for theatre reviews – round-ups with quotes fail to give a true idea of a review’s import: a little like selected quotes for theatre hoardings. Our choice is, on the whole, limited by the view of one man or woman, however knowledgeable or erudite. And sometimes that erudition gets in the way.
I’m pretty sure, mind you, that contemporary critics would baulk at seeing something twice, as Berlins is suggesting – ‘huff puff, can’t have people thinking it takes two goes to do our job’. And I happen to think it’s unfair to put someone through something they hated first time round! I know I’d hate that, paid to do so or not.
Much better, surely, to have reviewers of different ages and gender covering the same production for one publication. Setting aside the practical and economic factors of such a system, you’d be surprised at how strange an idea this seems to the publicity crowd. ‘Single Critic as Arbiter’, as C J Sheridan once put it in my hearing, is the prevailing ethos on too many fronts.
And yet think: as a theatre goer, how often have you enthusiastically booked for something that came highly recommended by review and been confounded by the resulting offering? Or been dragooned into seeing something you would not otherwise have chosen, which your newspaper’s critic has sniped at, and found yourself entirely enchanted? It’s not as rare as some might think.
It can be no surprise to anyone, therefore, that we read about or hear so many actors complaining about how much they find audiences enjoying something the critics have rubbished. I’m thinking particularly of The Creeper, so recently at the Playhouse with Ian Richardson. No, it was clearly not the best play or thriller in the world and yes, some kept moaning that Richardson should have been giving his Lear (who cares? – a great actor is a great actor) but it was something that audiences were clearly getting enormous enjoyment from and there should have been more than ‘I can’t be seen to enjoy this nonsense’-type coverage.
The critical reaction had an undertow of mean-spiritedness and this high-falutin’ approach to what constitutes entertainment was enough to ensure that after a successful regional tour, The Creeper opened on 9 February and closed on 18 March when it should have continued to 22 April. I can’t believe there are not many more theatregoers in the London area, just as in the regions, who would have been keen to see an old-fashioned, camp thriller with a great cast. Sorry, your chance was removed by the pen of someone whose tastes, opinions, background and preferences bear little relation to your own.
So. It’s not often possible to ensure diverse opinion with the publicity machine working as it does. It’s even more unlikely when a production is only playing for two to three weeks. But as it stands, the overnight review means decisions are made that lead to some entertaining productions being pulled ahead of time, as much as some are deservedly pulled early.
Perhaps it was inevitable that Resurrection Blues would fail to ignite, no matter how well thought out or cast, but in truth, we’ll never really know. Just as we’ll never really know (and do we have the right?) what was going on behind the scenes that led to American actor Jane Adams walking out of the production before it closed, after allegedly executing a rehearsed push of fellow American Matthew Modine that was so hard he [almost?] fell off the stage.
If there is blame to be apportioned – and why should there be, anyway, when the best approach is surely to learn and move on – perhaps it should ultimately be laid at Robert Altman’s door for sticking to a promise made to Arthur Miller that he would direct his last piece, sight unseen. But how far back do you go? Should the late, great playwright himself be blamed for a reputation that can dazzle judgment?
A learning curve for all who were caught up in the potential, it seems to me, but not reason enough to question Spacey’s decisions or suitability for the post.
It was clear from the start that the critics had it in for the Hollywood actor when he accepted Sally Greene’s offer to run The Old Vic. It’s extraordinary how parochial this country’s theatre commentators can be. We should have been thankful that someone with Spacey’s pulling power and acumen was willing to take on the theatre, which has a notoriously troubled recent as well as glorious past history. Few have or are giving Spacey credit for what he has achieved, as C J Sheridan pointed out a year ago after bad reviews for The Philadelphia Story failed to prevent box-office takings of £1.2 million. Since then there has been a successful repeat of Aladdin with Ian McKellen and the huge draw of Spacey himself as Richard II.
Spacey, defending his position and decisions, has conceded that the press night of Resurrection was struck by spectacular first-night nerves. A cast that also included Americans Maximilian Schell and Neve Campbell found ‘James Fox…fluffing his lines’, according to R&V critic, Evie Rackham, who also found it ‘hard to tell what Schell was up to, his delivery was so odd; he was either going for the comedy element with strange timing or he, like Fox, was having a bad line night. The cast seemed to be from the Wave The Arms Round For Impact school of acting’.
The production was pretty universally panned but, if we are to take on board what Spacey has said (and friends referred to by Marcel Berlins who saw it on other nights), after going back to the rehearsal room and playing it in, the show improved and critics giving it a second look might have revised their opinions.
This may not have been enough to prevent the rot in this particular instance but a more considered approach that is not centred on the one press night, and gives rise to varied opinions, might at least have meant the production could have played its final week with respectable audiences. In any case, let’s not forget that we’re talking about a planned run curtailed by only one week.
The cast rehearsed until they “finally got to a place where the play was being delivered and delivered well”, the actor later told Michael Billington in a specially requested (by the theatre) interview after Billington questioned Spacey’s position by earlier writing, among other comments, that ‘Without the classics, the Old Vic is a farce’ and that ‘Resurrection Blues is simply the latest in a series of duff experiences’. (Are we really to be so constrained by what we think works best in a particular theatre? Simply because The Old Vic is known for its acclaimed productions of classics in the past, does not mean it can’t work for many an other type of production.)
Inevitably, the major newspapers put in their tuppenny.
“But every company has this experience once in a while without getting crucified. This happens all over town.” Indeed it does. Spacey is quite right to doubt whether he and the theatre are being judged “on a level playing field”. Of course they’re not. But he was always aware of the risks and not unfamiliar with the workings of those in the British media and their propensity to run only with “their own agenda and opinions.” And he has made it clear that he’s here for the duration, whatever his other commitments.
Wouldn’t you be willing to bet that if Spacey’s reign thus far had been a complete commercial and financial success, the same critics and commentators would be decrying the fact that it’s an American in charge and why it was allowed to happen? God forbid us Brits should not have someone to be jealous of or pick upon.
Quite rightly, Spacey gave no quarter when it came to apologies, in spite of what others felt he owed for giving us a theatre that will be dark over the summer. Good God, give the man a break! He’s made this beautiful theatre a viable proposition again. And if some of the better known critics had cleared their heads of expectations, good or bad, we might have had some more rational appraisals of earlier productions like Cloaca and National Anthems, about whether they would appeal to audiences and not whether they happened to appeal or not to any one individual critic who already spends too many waking hours on the ‘Kevin Spacey’ question.
A different approach to this whole reviewing business is needed – a sea change – in order to give theatres and productions an ice cream’s chance in hell. There has to be a way this can be allowed to happen, wherever possible, for the health of our theatre and the satisfaction of audiences.
Sarah Vernon © 2006
Originally published on R&V 20-04-06
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