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A storm in a classified ad, (non) audience behaviour, and a critic retires after 50 years

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A storm in a classified ad

A storm in a teacup, or at least a classified ad, erupted in New York last week when Scott Rudin lit the touchpaper of a feud with the New York Times theatre reporter Patrick Healy by posting a not-so-coded message within a daily ad posted in that paper for the show.

Earlier in the week the Tony nominations had been announced – and although Rudin’s production of Colin Toibin’s The Testament of Mary was nominated for Best New Play, it had failed to secure a nomination for Fiona Shaw as Best Actress. Within an hour of hearing the happy news of the Best Play nomination, the playwright had received a call from Rudin, to tell him that the show would close five days later.

Healy, reporting this story, said that Toibin, who has another life as an academic, “took the news in stride – commercial Broadway is a brutal business, with only 25 percent of shows ever turning a profit – and went off to his teaching job at Columbia University.”

Toibin is notably sanguine about the news – and praises Rudin.

These are hard calls to make. He was very nice about it. But you know, about 30,000 people will have seen the play over a 6-week run by the time it closes, with a standing ovation every night. In European terms, that’s a huge success. In Dublin I’d be walking around with everyone saying, what an amazing success you’ve had with your play.

But Healy won’t let go and repeatedly returns to ask him directly for his feelings about Rudin (five times in all). And Toibin, to his credit, remains unflustered and refuses to rise to the bait, staying fulsome in his praise of the producer. What was working with him like?

The amount of care and work he did was extraordinary. He was around all the time. There was a moment two weeks ago, after seeing a performance, when I thought a line needed fixing, needed one more thing in it. I said afterward to everyone, I’m sorry but I think we need to fix a line. I began to describe it when Scott turned to me and he just delivered the line as it should have been delivered. It turned out that, at the performance, Fiona had gotten one word wrong in the line. But Scott knew the line by heart – he knew the whole play by heart, I think.

All of which is a testament to Rudin’s remarkable attention to detail, and I think that he emerges with a lot of credit. But last Saturday, Rudin used the ad he pays for in the New York Times to strike back, with the classifieds in that day’s paper stating below the show’s logo:

Let’s give a big cuddly shout-out to Pat Healy, infant provocateur and amateur journalist at The New York Times. Keep it up, Pat – one day perhaps you’ll learn something about how Broadway works, and maybe even understand it. — Scott Rudin.

Ouch! But it says even more about how the New York Times is run nowadays that an ad antagonizing one of its own members of staff can make it into print in its own pages.

(Non) audience behaviour

I’ve written often in this blog about audience behaviour and the responses from both sides of the footlights, from my own toward Bianca Jagger (taking flash photography regularly through last year’s Olivier-winning Einstein on the Beach), to those of the late Richard Giffiths, Ian Hart, Ken Stott to mobile phone intrusions, talkative audience members and disruptive kids respectively.

But last weekend the challenge came at a performance not inside the Gielgud Theatre but outside it, when Helen Mirren and her co-stars in The Audience found themselves competing with the sound of a troupe of 25 gay drummers promoting a forthcoming festival just beyond the stage door.

Magnificently, it seems, Dame Helen took matters into her own hands and left the stage door, in full costume as the Queen, in the interval to demand that they stop. According to the Independent‘s report, she “effed and blinded” at them.

In the Telegraph, there’s a fuller explanation – from Mirren herself.

I’m afraid there were a few ‘thespian’ words used. They got a very stern royal ticking off but I have to say they were very sweet and they stopped immediately. I felt rotten but on the other hand they were destroying our performance so something had to be done.

The drumming just slowly got louder and louder and then settled right outside the stage door. There was just a thin wall between drumming and the theatre so it was unbelievably loud on stage. Paul Ritter and I could hardly hear each other speak and the audience couldn’t hear us speak at all. We were doing this last scene of the first act where the Queen is being told she is going to lose Britannia [the royal yacht], it’s quite an emotional scene. I thought, we can’t carry on like this, they have to stop.

I was so upset from struggling through the scene with Paul that I literally walked straight off stage, straight up the stairs and straight out the stage door and banged my way through the crowd who were watching and said ‘stop, you’ve got to stop right now’ – only I might have used stronger language than that.

They were very sweet and stopped the minute they knew I wasn’t just a batty old woman haranguing them on the streets of Soho on a Saturday night.

Co-star Rufus Wright, who plays Prime Minister David Cameron, posted his own account of the matter on his Twitter account, though they appear to have disappeared now. According to the Independent, he posted,

Just fulfilled a lifelong ambition by bellowing at 25 drummers to shut the f*** up. West End theatres got thin walls. You should have seen Helen. She came out in full Queen costume and shouted at the drummers too. Honestly. It was breathtaking.

A critic retires after 50 years, as the Critics’ Circle marks its 100th birthday

On Sunday came the sad news that Philip French is retiring after 50 years as the Observer’s film critic.   And yesterday, as it happens, the Critics’ Circle marked it own centenary with an event at the Barbican Centre in which the five sections of the circle honoured the lifetime achievements of leading exponents of each of them.

While critics inevitably spend most of their time looking at and after the art of what they criticise, it has also been a time for reflection on our past, present and future, too – a recurring theme, of course, on this blog. As this year’s President of the circle Simon Tait noted in a piece for The Stage,

In this centenary year, critics are facing an uncertain future. In current times we have not only seen reviewing savagely cut in the printed press, but we are watching the press itself dwindle, it seems, inexorably.

What has risen in contrast is the extent of on-line review, and while much of this is amateur, clumsy and potentially damaging to the perception of proper criticism, there is a detectable sign of editorial control and responsibility beginning to have an effect on these online blogs. The temptation is to dismiss them, but critics do so at their peril and many even find themselves contributing, almost certainly without payment, to online publications.

The truth is that this is the future, and if the 440 members of the Critics’ Circle are the past they are also the best: they have the knowledge, the experience and the connections, and serious art imbibers will always want their guidance.

And Philip French himself, who has been one of those best, has advocated the continued role of the professional critic and proved his worth time and again. As The Observer’s report of his departure puts it:

French believes that alongside the growing ranks of online amateur film writers, there should still be a role for an experienced critic. A narrow understanding, he argues, can breed its own kind of arrogance: “No critic should ever say they are bored. It is not enough just to understand a film; you must try to say something of interest or value.

But it is also about knowing when to stop. And commenting on the great directors, The Observer reports him saying: “not all artists have a life-lease on their talent”, and the same may apply to critics: “But at least I am giving up now, while I still have my mind.”

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