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Encore Theatre Magazine
::Front Page::

:: Monday, November 13, 2006 ::

Whose Standard?

The Evening Standard Award nominations are out. Most of the categories are uncontroversial enough. But the Best New Play nominations are:

Frost/Nixon by Peter Morgan
Rock 'n' Roll by Tom Stoppard
The Seafarer by Conor McPherson

Frost/Nixon is fair enough. It's a very artful distillation of that famous encounter which gives the material weight and substance. The Seafarer is much harder to defend. It features, without doubt, some of the most utterly delicious acting this year. Jim Norton (pictured on the left) alone was worth the price of admission - a rich, wholly imagined, endlessly inventive comic performance. The wonderful sequence where Nicky arrives and is put in charge of the whiskey bottle is fantastic. Norton as Richard, amused by the anecdote that Nicky tells, gets increasingly desperate for a drop of the strong stuff, and his smile fixed on his face while he blindly and surreptitiously sticks a finger in his glass to see if it has been filled. Karl Johnson's long-suffering Sharky gives emotional weight to the show, his discomfort and genuine concern for his brother making a perfect foil for Norton's blind braggart. It's a hugely enjoyable evening. As a play though, the Faust plot that gives the evening its shape is a dreadful load of old cobblers; totally meretricious, a plot off the shelf, completely meaningless and vulgar. A flashily unthought-out piece of playmaking. The rest of the play is so enjoyable, we wish he'd found some other principle of construction than reaching for a hand-me-down myth.

But why is Rock 'n' Roll here? Well, it's obvious: because it's by Tom Stoppard and the critics are all in awe. But, Jesus, can't they see? It's such a bloody awful, boring evening. It's so wordy and pompous and half-baked. The ludicrous notion that rock 'n' roll is the real spirit of revolution: how on earth are we supposed to take that seriously faced with 'Welcome to the Machine' and 'Welcome to the Jungle'? With the horrible corporate rock of a 1990s Stones tour. Aren't we all bored now with Stoppard's utterly undigested research being spun out to us? The absurd subplot of the wife, purely and nakedly a function of Stoppard's etiolated intellectual structure. The pitiful mystification of Syd Barrett as Pan. Encore liked Syd as much as the next man (as long as that next man isn't Stoppard) but let's get a sense of perspective here. He made good music for a couple of years, and his decline was as sharp and total as Stoppard's musical taste.

The problem is that our critics have developed a very bad habit. Everyone understands that it must be hard to be a critic; you need to write your review, based on a single viewing, within an hour. And of course, we need them to do that, because a review needs to come out early in the run. But this means that many reviewers clearly spend the evening thinking how to write the review rather than watching the play. The more waspish of them - yes we're talking about you, de Jongh - sit thinking of witty ways of using the play against the company. But all of them look for messages and subjects that they can expend a paragraph or two on. Billington is the biggest culprit here, usually spending more time on the fucking social problem that he has detected in the play's subject matter than he does on the design and lighting about which he rearely has anything to say. But it's universal. And what this means is (a) plays like Rock 'n' Roll which drone on and on and on about a range of topics (what is revolution? how have we mistranslated Sappho? what is the history of the British left?) get full marks because basically they have half-written the review for them; (b) plays that do not have clearly identifiable social issues, or are deliberately ambiguous in their references get very bad ones.

The obvious example of the latter - and it's the most astonishing omission from the list - is Mark Ravenhill's The Cut (pictured). The play was slammed by the critics, absolutely hammered. And why? Because - outrageously - Ravenhill refuses to explain exactly what he is saying. He doesn't spell it out for the benefit of the critic who fancies an early night. In fact it is pellucid, clear, beautiful and haunting. It displays a new vigour and precision in Ravenhill's use of language. It sets out a political scenario with insight, wit and vigour. Who can forget McKellen's state torturer, eating his evening meal in the emotional cool of his marital home, asserting, with unconscious irony, 'I'm a good man. At the end of the day I'm a good man'. But The Cut is not on the list of nominations. A major play by one of our most important writers is ignored because it doesn't pander to the critics' working conditions and refuses to compromise its artistry just to make their lives easier. It is an extraordinary situation, since it is the play of the year so far, and will, Encore predicts, be considered one the plays of the decade. There are countless other examples of critics demolishing plays because they can't reduce their complexity to a single banal propositional sentence. After a week in which it took Berlin's Schaub├╝hne to give London its first proper vision of Blasted on a main stage (the Court 2001 revival was a sorry affair), we should be reminded that the play lack of a single, obvious, stitch-it-on-a-cushion-cover, give-it-to-a-character-to-say message is what lay behind the critics' original ridicule of the play. It's a shameful situation.

Frost/Nixon would get my vote having seen all three. It's historical and political power gave it gravitas the other two just marginally lacked.

Just grateful Caryl Churchill's new play is not up there. Drunk Enough To Say I Love You at the Royal Court is excrutiatingly tedious.
What about Simon Stephens' 'Motortown'? I agree that 'The Cut' was unfairly slated by many of the critics. They praised the acting while laying abuse upon the script, when I thought if anything the script was not done full justice by Deborah Findlay at least on the performance I saw. It was, however, a curiously old-fashioned play, reminiscent I thought of some of more political French plays of the 1950s. 'Motortown', on the other hand, was fiercely contemporary both on the page and in production. And, talking of productions, the greatest of the year has yet to find a London home - John Tiffany's astonishing 'Blackwatch'.
It certainly wasn't one of the best productions of the year, and - by any qualification criterea other than those of The Standard - it was a play of 2005, but David Harrower's 'Blackbird' has a rare sense of wholly unsentimental humanity that makes it one of the plays of the year. I predict that in 20 years time somebody will direct it in an unshowy way and its true merit will be more readily apparant
I agree about Motortown. A great evening - but a lasting evening? Well, we'll see. Blackbird doesn't count as a 2006 show, unless you think Scotland's a preview for London. Black Watch will be in London next year, of course. Watch the Imperial War Museum for details!
Is it the Standard's remit to only deal with London shows? If so, it excuses the omission of Black Watch, Realism, Unprotected, amongst others, but not The Cut or Motortown, which incidentally I do think has lasting resonance - the final scene between Danny and Lee in particular. I look forward to a decent production of Blackbird, though it's by no means a 2006 show, nor is David Greig's astonishing 'The American Pilot' though it deserved to have a much longer London run.
As I recall, in 1999 (the year when there was no play deemed sufficiently good enough for the prize) Simon Gray's The Late Middle Classes would have won had the Richmond Theatre been decreed to be in a part of London, not Surrey. The qualification for the Olivier is even sillier, where plays at the Court downstairs are permitted, but those Upstairs disallowed.
If The Late Middle Classes had won, that would have been a sorry statement about British playwriting. I saw that play 7 times for professional reasons, and it got worse with every viewing. Wasn't 1999 the year of Grieg's The Cosmonaut's Message to the Woman in the Soviet Union play?
True. Cosmonaut was 1999. The judges who decided that no play worth the title had been written were Susannah Clapp, Nicholas de Jongh, Benedict Nightingale, Jane Edwardes, Paul Taylor, with Max Hastings chairing. Total arseholes for that decision, unfortunately, even though I usually have time for a couple of those people.
Ah those critics are the devil's minions! They 'slammed' Pool(no water) as much as they did the cut and for similar reasons; inability to read between the lines, to burst the convention bubble, wake up Mr. Billington, it's time to wake up!
pool (no water) was tedious and the movement wasn't properly integrated with the sorry excuse for a plot. Ravenhill's prolific but uneven. He always has been. He also tends to write things that already seem dated (or at least he has since Shopping and Fucking, which in my view has now dated enormously precisely because it was so self-consciously contemporary at the time).
sadly, the critics were mostly right about 'the cut'. it's fine (preferable, i think) to write a play that leaves itself open to interpretation, rather than explaining itself - but it still needs to create some tension, somewhere, give some sense of life, have coherence (of character, of metaphor) within itself - and 'the cut' had none of this. it was dead, and boring, and didn't make much sense, whichever way you looked at it. ravenhill's best work recently was his play for the connections season at the nt
I'm devastated to have to agree with city slicker's assessment of caryl churchill's latest. it's shrill, blunt and most surprisingly, shockingly simplistic. it's also deadeningly unfunny. plays almost like tony kushner, at his mind-numbingly blunt best, had a go at writing a caryl churchill play. incredibly disappointing.
And who wins Best Play? Rock and bloody Roll of course. Sadly predictable. It's an indictment of the state we're in. And, yes, sadly Caryl Churchill's new play is a huge disappointment.
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