Getting personal in reviews

Tara Erraught in Der Rosenkavalier. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Mark Shenton
Mark is associate editor of The Stage, as well as joint lead critic. He has written regularly for The Stage since 2005, including a daily online column.
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A media and Twitter storm erupted last week around a series of reviews of an operatic performance – all of them written by what National Theatre director Nicholas Hytner once called "dead white males" when he was referring to  the existing band of theatre critics a few years ago.

The 27-year-old Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught just opened in a new production of Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne, playing Octavian – a woman dressed as a man playing a woman, and five leading late middle-aged male critics from the FT, Guardian, Telegraph, Independent and The Times had each variously mentioned her physical attributes in the role, describing her as "a chubby bundle of puppy-fat", "stocky",  "dumpy", having "the demeanour of a scullery-maid" and "unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing", by turns.

In the Daily Telegraph, Rupert Christiansen declared, Tara Erraught is dumpy of stature and whether in bedroom déshabille, disguised as Mariandel or in full aristocratic fig, her costuming makes her resemble something between Heidi and Just William." Christiansen also attacked her co-star Kate Royal, declaring that she "has recently sounded short of her best and stressed by motherhood. (As Anastasia Tsioulcas replied on a blog on NPR's website, "Kudos for pinpointing motherhood as the source of Royal's putative shortcomings. She couldn't possibly have been overbooked, or feeling under the weather — couldn't have been any other reason, right?")

A debate was immediately ignited, and perhaps Dame Kiri te Kanawa proffered the best advice to Erraught: "I’d say burn the papers, don’t listen to a single person, go and sit with friends who are absolutely lovely and love you...don’t talk about this and get on with your life."

It's always exciting when critics find themselves taking a bashing for their bashings: we give it out, so should be able to take it, after all. Each time it has happened to me I feel like I've been reminded of something important – not least of the fact that with the power of our words comes responsibility.

And that's exactly what Richard Morrison of The Times has discovered for himself. As he wrote in a follow-up piece,

Several musicians whom I count as close friends (yes, I still have a few) tell me that what I wrote would have upset greatly the promising young singer who took the role of Octavian. I regret that. The first responsibility of all reviewers is of course to tell the truth as they perceive it to their readers, not to avoid bruising the egos of performers. We aren’t in the PR or the counselling business. Sometimes, however, critics — and indeed all journalists, bloggers and tweeters — need a reminder of how much their words can hurt and how carefully they should be used, even when they are expressing their observations and opinions as accurately as they can. I’ve had a pretty sharp reminder this week. Some of the abuse directed at me on Twitter and Facebook in the past few days has been a hundred times nastier than anything I would ever dream of writing about anyone myself.

Rupert Christiansen, by contrast, was entirely unrepentant:

I stand by every word of what I wrote," he declared, while also noting that he was "distressed to learn" that Erraught "has been upset by the hoo-ha around the reception of her performance, though I am sure she understands the value and necessity of disinterested criticism.

But the point here seems to be that the criticism appears to have been far from disinterested; on the contrary, it seems to have been keenly motivated by a set of rigid preconceptions.  As Deborah Orr has replied in The Guardian, "All of these men know that opera is neither literal nor naturalistic. They need to consider the possibility that their own imaginations failed them, because they were too busy assessing a female body to allow a female voice to persuade them of the power of love."

Theatre is also of course about lust. And maybe the opera critics need to admit to theirs, just as Charles Spencer so famously did when he described Nicole Kidman's naked appearance in The Blue Room as "pure theatrical viagra." But then Charlie has always been upfront about his own tastes and peccadilloes: when he reviewed the All New Hurly Burly Show, a striptease burlesque in 2010, he admitted,

In a misspent life I have seen a lot of strippers, ranging from depraved clubs on Times Square that night have been conjured from the imagination of Hieronymus Bosch, to the soullessly graphic entertainment offered by the late Paul Raymond at his notorious Revuebar.

So I, too, am unrepentant about my tweet last week after attending the opening night of Miss Saigon when I publicly asked about star Alistair Brammer, "But why, oh why, has he shaved his chest?" A couple of people were outraged that I thought fit to make such a personal comment. But this was not a review but an informal tweet; I was merely pointing out something that both amused and bemused me. The only thing I am sorry about, though, is that it turns out I was wrong: Mr Brammer immediately replied, "I haven't!!" So apologies to him; I'm going to have to go back and sit closer! (It's one way of guaranteeing repeat attendance!)