Race and the history of theatre criticism

I’m quoted in playwright Naomi Obeng’s lengthy article for The Stage‘s special issue on theatre and race this week, guest edited by Naomi with actor Emmanuel Kojo.

You can read the article here – although The Stage is usually subscription-only, a free registration will let you read all the new articles on race. It was great to talk to Naomi about Ira Aldridge, nineteenth-century women theatregoers, and the astonishing contradictions of some people’s make-believe: Oberon has just made himself invisible yes, King Duncan has a black son no. You can find Naomi on Twitter here.

I’d love to hear what you think about the article, and the special issue in general – do let me know!

[REVIEW] Twelfth Night, dir. Simon Godwin, National Theatre

Doon Mackichnan as Feste, Tamsin Greig as Malvolia. (c) Marc Brenner.

Appropriately for a play that begins with a shipwreck, Simon Godwin’s Twelfth Night at the National Theatre left me with a lingering sinking feeling. The production is a watershed (I’ll stop) in cross-gendered casting, with Tamsin Greig’s Malvolia creating a mannequined Miss Hardbroom that kicks over the traces of Sir Donald Sinden, Richard Briers, Sir Nigel Hawthorne, et al. Less prominently, Doon Mackichnan plays Feste as a principal boy-turned-raver, and Imogen Doel carries equal opportunities to its logical conclusion by having to make the best of Fabia[n] – which she does very well, despite dialogue like ‘Sowter will cry upon’t for all this, though it be as rank as a fox’, a line so bad it merits mention in The Art of Coarse Acting. My problem is that this production, lauded for its celebration of race, sex, and gender, inadvertently uses cross-casting to tell a deeply homophobic story.


twelfth-night-doon-mackichan-as-festeimage-by-marc-brennerOn the surface, there’s much to like. Soutra Gilmour’s inventive set unfolds from a ship into an endlessly rotating pyramid that’s somewhere between Illuminati shout-out and a tomb by Canova. There’s a jacuzzi in which Phoebe Fox’s Olivia becomes a floozy (mourning garb replaced by a red bathing suit), any number of zooming cars and motorbikes, and a salmon-pink fountain that delights the audience by spurting symbolic jets on cue. The costumes are similarly witty, with Mackichnan’s Feste flaunting a sea-green tribute to Princess Beatrice’s pretzel-themed millinery.

Daniel Rigby as Sir Andrew Aguecheek and Tim McMullan as Sir Toby Belch. (c) Marc Brenner.

There are also some excellent performances. Excluding Greig, chief of these is Daniel Rigby’s pink-suited Andrew Aguecheek, who, as Bertie Wooster with a manbun and an energetic vogue for disco, overshadows Tim McMullan’s Sir Toby, a rat-bitten roué.

Oliver Chris’s Orsino is the first truly loveable one I have seen, a superhero Prince Charming whose spoilt temper is sublimated into boxing, and who takes the audience into his confidence with winning ingenuity. He tussles readily with Tamara Lawrence’s Viola, an unusually even-tempered, cheerful heroine whose tendency to take all the verse at full pelt robs her bittersweet dialogues with Orsino of all their self-concealing pathos. She calls her situation a ‘barful strife’ but laughs her way through the first two acts, until the joy of being mistaken for a still-living Sebastian (‘Prove true, imagination, O, prove true’) yields the first moment of emotional connection.

Twelfth Night - Oliver Chris as Orsino, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, image by Marc Brenner.jpg
Oliver Chris as Orsino and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner.

This is a production where love electrifies and mobilises: Olivia gyrates to the onstage musicians’ elevator music, while Viola wriggles and hoots after Orsino gives her a kiss to deliver to Olivia. Ultimately, these are twins whose highest priority will always be each other; Daniel Ezra’s pugnacious, sexually opportunistic Sebastian (an excellent performance) seems bemused by both Antonio and Olivia’s devotion, but adores his sister.


Twelfth Night - Tamsin Greig as Malvolia, Tamara Lawrance as Viola, image by Marc Brenner.jpg
Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Tamara Lawrence as Viola. (c) Marc Brenner

And then there’s Greig’s Malvolia. Every time she takes centre-stage, she brings with a consummate skill in verse-speaking that is sometimes absent elsewhere. Godwin’s production seems uneasy about the text: switching pronouns and honorifics in line with gender leaves characters ‘lady’-ing each other in the manner of vintage Coronation Street, but more important is the overriding feeling that the text is an impediment to the evening; a struggle to be overcome. One oddity is that Lawrance plays Viola with a London accent, while Ezra sounds West African; while they can’t be visually or acoustically identical given their biological sex, giving them such different accents is a baffling test of audience credulity.  Monologues are largely galloped through, Belch supplies ad-libs (Maria is a ‘dirty little girl’) but loses lines that illuminate, including Olivia’s revealing reluctance to ‘match above her degree’ by marrying the count Orsino. This is key to the psyche of the only Shakespearean heroine who uses her last line to insist she pays for her own wedding. Greig gives an electrifying performance, beginning as an obsessive-compulsive spinster, all angular bob, geometric gestures and gym shoes.

Every sympathetic Malvolio incurs tragedy when his passion is mocked; Greig intensifies this, partly by being pitched against an unusually unlikeable gang of ruffian sots, and partly through her bewitching incredulity when she believes her love for Olivia is returned. Her cross-gartered yellow stockings are tights with a pierrot jacket, the latter removed to reveal a primrose bodice and hot pants. Blindfolded and bound, her bare skin increases her vulnerability, and the denouement completes her humiliation – worse than her imprisonment is the realisation that her employer does not, after all, share her feelings – something this single-minded Olivia reveals with remarkably little sympathy.

Twelfth Night - Oliver Chris as Orsino, Daniel Ezra as Sebastian, image by Marc Brenner.jpg
Oliver Chris as Orsino and Daniel Ezra as Sebastian.

Greig is an accomplished comedian, whose wit and timing provide all the necessary laughs before the swoop to tragedy: she is an hilarious and heartbreaking Malvolio, and this Olivier production a worthy forum for her talents. Simply making Malvolio’s desire for Olivia same-sex does not necessarily make Twelfth Night a homophobic production, or even a more homophobic play: poor old Antonio must necessarily watch his beloved pair off with Olivia. And there are some genuinely gender-queer moments of light-hearted comedy – Orsino, on his last lines, accidentally snogs a cheerfully acquiescent Sebastian.

Tamsin Greig as Malvolia and Phoebe Fox as Olivia.

The wider tone disturbed me. Antonio is probably textually gay; this Malvolia pines for her mistress. But Twelfth Night stages a third great losers in love: Antonio, Malvolio, and Sir Andrew – and in Godwin’s production, Sir Andrew is also queer-coded, from his pink clothes and long, frizzy hair to his penchant for cuddling up to both Sir Toby (much to the latter’s disgust) and to the teddy bear Orsino gives Olivia. This is troubling not because it queers a Shakespearean icon, but because it does so via unimaginative stereotypes, as if Agucheek’s incompetent flirting and cowardly duelling mean only one thing. Rigby is an accomplished comic, but the net result is a production with three queer characters, who are also the three to end up humiliated and alone.

Also disconcerting is Orsino’s suddenly-averted gay panic when Viola turns out to be a girl, not a boy: a common moment in productions, but especially jarring when Oliver Chris’s Orsino had shown so little sign of desire for his page. In a production more sensitive to queer identity, the denouement might feel more ambivalent, but clichés abound. The Elephant (an Illyrian tavern, and Antonio’s intended lovenest) appears as a gay nightclub, in which understudies for The Village People hear a black drag queen perform Hamlet’s ‘To be or not to be’ speech as a torch song. This showcases Emmanuel Kojo’s considerable singing talent, and provides an enchantingly funny moment when Rigby’s Aguecheek instantly corrects his ‘Now, sir’ to an ad-libbed ‘Sorry, miss’. But the interposition of another play’s text only reiterates this production’s discomfort with its own, and the gratuitous, glamorous drag queen affects an inclusivity the production doesn’t really possess. Elsewhere, the straight characters’ homophobia is largely played for laughs, and despite Greig’s brilliant, innovative performance, this ‘genderfluid’ Twelfth Night ends up feeling straighter than ever.

 Twelfth Night will be broadcast live as part of NTLive on 6 April. For more information, including the programme of education events, see the National Theatre website.


REVIEW: Madame de Sade | theatre writing & why I love it

Deborah Findlay and Judi Dench in Madame de Sade. Judi Dench is not actually playing Mme de Sade, which is a bit confusing since everybody's come to see her ANYWAY.

Yesterday afternoon I turned down a ticket to see Judi Dench in Madame de Sade, in the names of diligence and economy, and yesterday evening I was sitting in the Royal Circle at the Wyndhams watching her all the same (thank you Krishna). My mother, when I rang like dutiful daughter, to say “Do not ring me this evening, maman, for I am AWAY to the CAPITAL, what yes of course the coursework essay due tomorrow’s done, BIEN SUR”, said first “Er, I don’t think she’s on, darling” and secondly, also without thinking, “the reviews have been dreadful“. She then did rather rectify her mistake by saying but OF COURSE Judi Dench, Frances Barber, I would cross water to see it, hurrah for your friends, and my wrath was appeased. Mum’s first remark can be explained as follows: Dame Judi, while leaving the Stage Door last Friday fell and seriously sprained her ankle (does she not have people who PREVENT THIS?), but was back onstage four performances later. I had managed not to say anything so absolutely ungracious as ‘but is she on?’ before getting to the theatre, though I did ask the attendants as soon as we arrived. And she was.

I can’t be objective about Judi Dench. I do objectively know and may even concede that Harriet Walter is my all-time favourite actress, but I don’t love her like I do Dame Judi. I realise this is the fourth play I’ve seen her in, and I adore her. She makes me clutch my hair like a tiny Liverpudlian girl during Beatlemania, I have watched every episode of As Time Goes By AND the Trevor Nunn musical version of Comedy of Errors (in which she doesn’t sing. Beautifully. No, it’s really good, no it is, shut up, you don’t know what you’re talking about, it is INTENSELY HUMMABLE and records an early example of Roger Rees being doe-eyed. For history), AND oh god, I adore her. So it’s pleasant for me to report that, once again, she was very, very, very good.

Despite being on a cane (she took three steps in, I thought, oh – I wonder if the cane’s part of the character or from the fall? She took another three steps and I thought my GOD, the woman’s both a saint and in agony), and looking raw with pain at the curtain call, she continues to be both emotionally and technically brilliant. You hear every whisper as a whisper, every note in every word.

The problem about greatness, about really great acting, is that in writing about it, you either have to deny your perceptions of the actor, or that actor’s humanity. I can tell you that Dench has amazing vocal technique; although the Wyndham’s acoustics are stunning, like all Delfont Mackintosh theatres (we were in the back row of the Circle and had perfect sight & sound – after visiting the Prince Edward and sitting way back in the stalls, I’m inclined to think you just don’t get a bad view in a Mackintosh theatre), Frances Barber shouts and Rosamund Pike has to heave to make herself heard. I can tell you that she moves beautifully, even on a cane, that her characterisation is believable and understated. I can relate my confusion that her character’s NOT Madame de Sade, but Madame de Montreuil, a baffling revelation since the whole play is of course clearly about her. But none of this will do, because what I want to tell you in big gold-black letters is that JUDI DENCH IS NO WOMAN BUT A GODDESS, except it’s no truer of Dench now, than it was of Siddons, as seen by Hazlitt.

But does it matter? Certainly, the passages where Tony Sher writes of his ‘red-gold sickness’ in encountering (and adoring) the work of Olivier are among the most embarassing in literature. Certainly even Harriet Walter gets a bit earnest and painful when she describes writing on acting as ‘writing on water’. Certainly a lot of now antiquated Victorian theatre criticism seems sentimental and florid. But it’s the only way, absolutely the only way – theatre writing must try to be experiential, because theatre is experiential, and because accounts of dramatic art have to make that art live in way that accounts of poetry or prose never have to do. Texts themselves will always be there, but after a production closes, even if there’s a script, the reviews are all that remains.

I would rather read one passionate (positive or negative) critical review of a play then ten dispassionately calm ones. I would rather write the same; but, crucially, even though there’s a certain angry satisfaction in telling the truth about a theatrical atrocity that’s robbed you of three hours of life, the best reviews in the world (for me, at least) are those where you come out of a theatre both inarticulate with LOVE  (convinced it was genius, convinced there were stars, convinced you’ve just had a LIFE-CHANGING EXPERIENCE) and half-desperate with the desire to articulate it. I am not a good critic yet, because I can’t articulate the joy nearly as easily as the rage, and because my own studies in criticism and journalism have taught me to trust my enthusiasms far less than my mistrust. I think this is true of us as a culture, and certainly of an academic culture — as an undergraduate, the last thing you should ever say is ‘I like this, it’s good’ in an essay, and post-1980s theory especially (while very valuable) teaches us to ‘other’ the text, the performance, to pick apart its biases, to suspect ourselves of misinformation, to mistrust and subvert. And then suddenly, at M.St, the beloved tutor looks round at his twelve students, dumb in the face of some immortal literature and says, despairingly, “Well, do any of you LIKE it?”. And we go, “Oh. Yes. …does it matter?” and he despairs, and we enthuse, and we progress.

This is one of the things I love about graduate study; although I had a very free undergraduate experience in terms of what I studied, never before have I been given so much freedom to pursue my own interests (which is, of course, the point of a Masters degree). We all embrace our own interests more than previously, and I know I am more emotional now when discussing my work, or theatre, than I used to be. Correction: I’m more openly emotional. But then, I’m studying the period where Hazlitt called Siddons a goddess, when Wilde wrote poems for the roles Langtry played, when Terry (note: people should feel v free to buy me this) and Irving were goddess and god, and when Edward Gordon Craig could write of the latter as the last of the Immortals without anybody calling ‘daddy issues’! (note: I do tend to do this). It was an era when people did a lot more crying. Not that I’m suggesting we should weep over our research, although most Oxford grad students will find that at some point this comes naturally. I’m also more inclined to trust my emotional responses to theatre, having realised just how much I’ve seen. I made a list today. Excluding pantomimes, my own shows, and, um, things I saw before I was four (and also those dreadful Theatre-in-Education things school inflicted on me, because they are Just Wrong), I have seen 111 different stage productions: 28 Oxford student shows, 39 RSC, 33 non-RSC dramas or comedies and 23 musicals. Some of these productions I saw more than once. Divide that by the nearly-eighteen years since I was four, and that’s.. a lot of shows and rather a lot of money and goodness if my parents are reading this they’ll probably rethinking their mode of raising me. Or possibly NOT, since they’ve always held the very sensible attitude that life is too short not to go to the theatre, because going to the theatre is essentially better than anything else in the world. Except world peace, and first love, and a cure-all vaccine for cancer and AIDS. But after that.

Anyway, Judi Dench is superlative, and so is the rest of the cast, even Rosamund Pike. This is a very good thing, since Yuko Mishima’s script, as translated by Donald Keene, is… well. If you stop and think about it for too long, the dialogue is dreadful: the first few lines between Deborah Findlay and Frances Barber, in particular, are quite dangerously bad. You can generally forget this, given the beauty of acting and design – Dench enters as a coffee-cream Miss Havisham, bewiching and a little terrifying, while Frances Barber is just unbelievably sexy. Everybody gets through several dresses – Dench’s are the best, although Rosamund Pike’s last and Barber’s first are close competitors (later, she looks too much like a Disney princess to be quite believable) – and several wigs. Impressively for a stage show set 1780s France, only two of the wigs are very stupid – Frances Barber’s second (which nobody could have made me wear), and Pike’s first. This, an enormous blonde sphere of curls, has the unfortunate effect of making her look exactly like an idiotic china doll, a performance she definitely does not give. By comparison, I doubt the heap of hair she wears in the last act is her own, but it does at least look vaguely human. The sound is the best I’ve ever heard in a theatre, and even if some of the stage effects are a little too cinematic for my taste (SURPRISE BARBER is projected onto the back wall shortly before the finale), the overall effect is stunning – a grandeur to match the cast.

All the actors grew on me, although I was extremely prepared to be won over. It’s a testament to the quality of the performances that you do get some idea of the prior relationship between de Montreuil and her daughters, the free-spirited Anne and the saintly Renee (Pike), wife to the imprisoned Marquis de Sade. The Marquis, unfortunately, so dominates the script that everything about the de Montreuil women is conveyed without words, even though their relationship is far more interesting than the precise configurations in which the Marquis has been whipped by or whipping whom. I’m reminded of the Bechdel Test, which originated in a 1985 Dykes To Watch Out For comic strip called “The Rule“. This is a feminist movie-going concept in which a female character will only go and see a film if it fulfils three conditions —

1) It contains at least two women, who

2) talk to each other

3) about something besides a man.

….Madame de Sade, for most of its 105 minutes (I know, a cheek at the price, but it does feel like a full-length play), does not obey the third part of the rule. It’s true (I’m now wondering which Shakespeare plays do, and which do not. Richard II does, just. Much Ado does. AMND does, I think; LLL does, well, but not for long). But Pike is a revelation. Findlay is as good as she always is. Frances Barber is stunning, and Dame Judi Dench is the greatest actress of her generation and you should go to see her being goddess-like in the gold picture-frame of the Wyndham’s stage. I say this even having waved feminist objections around, because there are no men and six amazing women in this (occasionally shockingly hot) play on a West End stage and this may NEVER HAPPEN AGAIN. DENCH. BARBER. FINDLAY.

Side note. Oddity on leaving the theatre: black-and-white picture of Joe Orton, in all his bug-eyed glory, looking simultaneously sixteen and sixty while “watching rehearsals for Entertaining Mr Sloane at the Wyndham’s theatre, 1964″. That play in that cream confection of a theatre? Can’t decide if I like the thought or not.

Brief Love’s Labours Lost update: M. Omkar tells me he has nearly finished cutting the script. This makes me very slightly nervous. Suspect will have NO LINES left. We are to send in measurements soon. Slightly concerned. My bust, though not considerable, is presumably bigger than that of a twelve-year-old boy.