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Mark Shenton’s week: Is body shaming ever appropriate in reviews?

Nick Holder in Uncle Vanya at Home, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Nick Holder in Uncle Vanya at Home, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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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Actors are, believe it or not, like the rest of us: they have to live in their bodies 24/7, not just when they're onstage. But actors use their bodies as part of their characterisations; and because they do so, it might seem fair game for critics to comment on them. Reviewing Nick Holder, playing the title role in a new production of Uncle Vanya at Manchester's Home last week, Matt Trueman described him as "a rotund lothario", whose "size holds him back, but life weighs him down."

That may be a comment on the character, but only as it is played by Holder – there have, after all, been thin Vanyas too. And in fact there's nothing holding Holder back – he's one of our most commanding actors – only misperceptions like this. As he commented to me: "I live in this body – I don’t hang it up like a costume on a rail at the end of the night."

A similar thing happened to Simon Russell Beale playing Hamlet – one paper even ran the headline: “Tubby or not tubby, fat is the question.” Yet it wasn't, of course, an impediment to him interpreting the role. When former Telegraph critic Charles Spencer wrote a feature on all he different actors he'd seen play the role, he declared, "Russell Beale's plump prince was the finest I have seen – beautifully spoken, and blessed with a sense of grief, intelligence, warmth and humour. There was also a deeply moving sense of spiritual illumination in the last act."

Theatres moving into all-day operations

The National and Young Vic are just two theatres that are a pleasure to visit at any time of the day. They're open for business – whether that's tea and coffee, a meal or a visit to an all-day bookshop at the NT – all day long. And it’s a model that is increasingly being adopted by other theatres: the Old Vic's basement Penny Bar is also open all day, while the new Bridge Theatre is also determined to make its foyer space "central to the daily life of our working theatre, and serve as a local hub for those who work around and pass through Potters Fields and the London Bridge and Tower Bridge areas."

So, it was mystifying to have an interview arranged with Hackney Empire's executive creative producer Susie McKenna in their cafe bar one lunchtime last week, only to arrive to find it shut for the day. Never mind that the left hand clearly didn't know what the right hand was doing to arrange a meeting in a shut venue; we ended up doing the interview in the Weatherspoon's across the road. But repeated visits to this theatre have previously revealed chronic disorganisation on such simple and basic matters as running an efficient box office.

I love this theatre with all my heart, but it needs to get its public-facing priorities straight.

Kevin Spacey – from 2000 to now....

How times (and perceptions) change. Seventeen years ago The Independent reported on a lunch at the Ivy that Kevin Spacey attended for the Old Vic, where he revealed he was investing a six-figure sum in the theatre personally, and was one of the figures behind the launch of Old Vic Productions.

Four years later he took over as artistic director, and although he took his time to find his feet, he eventually turned the theatre's fortunes around he received a special Olivier Award to recognise his ‘extraordinary contribution to the Old Vic and to British theatre’ when he stepped down in 2015. Caro Newling, then president of SOLT, commented at the time: "In general his advocacy of London theatre has been a constant boon, and many of us will miss him as a valued colleague."

She must be rueing those words now. As do many of us, now that the allegations of  serial misconduct on his watch have officially emerged. The Stage has already posed a series of key questions that the Old Vic Board must answer about what they knew.

And as Daily Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish has asked in a powerful piece for his paper, the answers could implicate us all.

Feted by the great and the good, often the talk of the town, the Old Vic under Spacey was hailed as a model West End theatre, combining commercial know-how with a not-for-profit ethos. Spacey gained kudos through his ability to gild the stage with himself and other stars, put 'bums on seats', send critics into raptures and also do good in the community." Yet, as he goes on to say, "The way we revere, adulate and often ovate the star-players in our theatre is a contributing factor to the power they wield. We love saviours who ride to the rescue of lost causes, visionaries who break the rules and develop cult followings. We allow fortress fiefdoms to grow. We must be blinded no more.

Accountability matters. And the process the Old Vic is employing to hold itself to account matters too.

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