Star-struck and lazy

Time and the exigencies of newspaper production meant that few reviewers were able to group together two theatre productions that opened recently in London, and are a natural fit. It’s a pity, but the British national papers are going the way of American local ones and cutting down the space or even eliminating reviews of every kind – except, it would appear, restaurant reviews.
Longer, more thoughtful pieces are getting scarce. I think part of the reason is a change of attitude of editors and publishers, who now regard reviewing as a service to their readers, rather than seeing criticism of the performing and visual arts (and to a smaller extent, books, wine, food and restaurants) as part of the purpose of putting out a paper or magazine. (Does any reviewer now think that he is recording his judgments for history? I don’t know any critic pompous enough to make such a claim for himself; but it is surely true that in the aggregate, the criticism in the dailies, weeklies and monthlies, as much as the footnoted quarterly publications, is the first draft of the reputations and standings of artists, performers, producers, curators and writers of every sort.)
The proof of the pudding is the proliferation of star ratings attached to reviews. As these grow ever more important, the copy headed by them grows ever more brief. This is logical: if the reader is reading the review solely to find out whether the production or exhibition is worth going to, the star rating tells him everything he wants to know. There’s no need to read any further. The service he’s seeking has been performed: if it’s five stars and the subject interests him, it’s a must-see, and conversely for 0-2 stars. It’s only in the realm of 3 or 4 stars that there’s any need for a more nuanced discussion.
I thank my lucky stars that in the 35 or 40 years I’ve been reviewing, I’ve never had any truck with these lazy symbols that cause the writer such grief.
Were I forced to rate Yaël Farber’s new staging at the Old Vic of Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” I’d have no trouble agreeing with my colleagues who have, nearly unanimously, dished out a rare maximum 5 stars. It is staged in the round, as the auditorium was reconfigured for Kevin Spacey’s brief, but entirely moving and convincing portrayal of Clarence Darrow in David Rintel’s single-character play. Soutra Gilmour’s simple period costumes and plain sets focus the concentration on the dialogue and the actors’ movements. The set is an upper room in a Puritan household in colonial Massachusetts in a village near Salem, furnished at first with little but rows of wooden chairs.
Miller’s wonderfully crafted play shows how human weakness (adolescent hysteria in this case) combines with the nastiest features of religious belief to destroy several good individuals and their entire community. Every other production I have seen of this masterpiece has stressed the allegorical (or satirical – satire does not have to be funny) aspect of “The Crucible,” as we know Miller intended it as a comment on the American political witch-hunts of the 1950s. (The rabid anti-communist frenzy lasted well into the 1960s. I know – I was there.) Ms Farber doesn’t downplay this aspect, she simply lets what Miller wrote speak for itself. Politics are built into the play, in the relation of the elders to the group of girls, and in the clash between the locals and the Colonial judicial authorities – there’s no need to emphasise it by putting the players into contemporary dress or sets.
The cast includes a big-deal movie star, Richard Armitage, but Ms Farber has made an ensemble piece, united largely by the stylised movement direction of Imogen Knight.
The moral of the story seems on the one hand to be the necessity of keeping religion and the state absolutely separate, and on the other that hysteria is infectious and that hysterical or frightened people are easily manipulated by demagogues.
That’s the lesson, too, of Richard Bean’s satirical new play “Great Britain” at the National Theatre. We can feel confident that satire is intended here, because this is a play about the phone-hacking misbehaviour of journalists, because it was rehearsed but not performed until the conclusion of the recent Rebekah Brooks/Andy Coulson trial, and because there are characters in the drama who resemble the defendants and their boss, Rupert Murdoch – sort of.
Part of the cleverness of this piece, set in the posh offices of a trashy British tabloid, is that the playwright has divided up aspects of the characters so that, except for the pantomime-villain Murdoch man, they are distributed among the players. There’s one who looks like Rebekah, Virginia White, played by Jo Dockery, whose only wickedness is to agree to and initiate a paedophile witch-hunt, but who is otherwise just a ditsy dame with curly red hair and a lurid passion for animals, especially horses. If this were the sole Rebekah character, the play would seem to be taking the line that she was innocent on the grounds of incompetence. She simply isn’t clever enough to conspire to hack phones – or to edit a newspaper, even one as mucky and degraded as The News of the World that was closed down by Murdoch. Perhaps that was the reason for the jury’s puzzling decision – but we don’t know yet.
The tigerish (as opposed to Tiggerish) part of the character is played by the real star of this show, Billie Piper as (the wonderfully named) Paige Britain. She bonks only for advantage and combines charm with brutishness – she’s common, but too cunning to let her origins interfere with her ambition. Her part in the plot (such as it is) seems to make her character a composite of Coulson and Brooks. This complexity should prevent the play from falling foul of even the British libel law, while it flouts every standard of political correctness. Bean and director Nicholas Hytner have to be congratulated to the max for the Police Commissioner Sully Kassam (hilariously played with a straight face by Aaron Neil), who is gay, black, corrupt and too stupid to feel naughty even when caught with a rent boy. There is even a little person who sportingly fields a dwarf joke. The play is an equal-opportunities offender, which, for all the tip-top stagecraft, is the best thing about it, as there’s something missing at the heart of it. Maybe it’s just lacking the note of moral indignation any decent person feels when you think of the real-life counterparts of the characters portrayed.

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  1. Neil McGowan says

    Thanks for being the eloquent and articulate eyes and ears of an expat Londoner – now over the hills and far away from even Zone 6.

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