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Mark Shenton’s week: Coming to terms with a rare dud from Ivo van Hove

Jude Law and Halina Reijn in Obsession. Photo: Jan Versweyveld
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Last week’s opening of Obsession at the Barbican was rough for me: I was mightily relieved that I wasn’t reviewing it myself, as it was hard on the night to come to terms with the fact that it was the first Ivo van Hove production I’ve ever disliked intensely.

Read The Stage review of Obsession

But a week later, and having read the reviews of my colleagues, I realised I was far from alone in my disappointment. It was, as ever, Susannah Clapp who granted me permission to mourn but not give up. She wrote in the Observer: “In one corner David Hare: the least likely of dramatic Brexiters, suspicious of concept directors and an ‘overaestheticised’ European theatre. In the other corner, a cohort of awards and fans. How should classic dramas be staged? A fierce focus of this debate is the Belgian director Ivo van Hove. The truth – difficult to face in this adversarial, un-nuanced age – is that you don’t have to sign up for one side or another. Artists can slide from marvellous to terrible in a year. You can be on the side of a shakeup – which I am – and yet know that some things don’t work… Obsession is, I hope, one of the worst shows I’ll see all year. Treacly slow. Rhapsodically self-absorbed. Stiffly written. Resorting to ready-baked romantic cliche.”

Two decades in the job

Talking of Susannah Clapp, next month will mark the 20th anniversary of her first appearance as the Observer’s theatre critic – how that time has flown. The paper is inviting readers to ask her questions, and have quoted me saying of her: “Susannah Clapp would be top of my personal list of critics I most like to read – there’s no one who writes with such punchy, poetic grace and style in the business today. She also has great taste and a sense of adventure, often going off the beaten critical track.”

Two more New York critics depart

While Susannah Clapp’s reign at the Observer is testament to the benefits of longevity, last week saw not one but two New York theatre critics departing their jobs in the same week: Linda Winer, theatre critic of Newsday since 1987, has resigned, while David Cote, Time Out New York’s theatre editor since 2003, has been laid off following ‘restructuring’.

Winer stated her reasons: “I still love reviewing, but chose not to go in Newsday‘s inevitable new directions”. In an interview with American Theatre, she amplified that. As well as a reduced word count on reviews (she now has just 400 words), “with the new digital world, there’s too much stuff I don’t want to do. There’s a lot of item listing, hot stuff and New York City picks and flash and buzz, photo galleries and listicles and all that. And there’s a push toward more feature writing”.

At Time Out New York, David Cote has had to face the same sort of challenges over the years, but in a separate interview with American Theatre, said: “I was able to weather all the changes over the years with blogging and social media, as our online presence increased.” He’s sanguine about his departure now. “The truth of the matter is, the way these things happen is they call you in and they say, ‘There’s been a restructuring and there’s no place for you’. They can’t really tell you what that means. I’ve said this, and it might not be good news copy for you, but I have to be sort of grateful to Time Out for allowing me 17 years to be a theatre writer and editor. It was an amazing run. And it’s not over – I intend to keep writing about theatre. But I had 17 years. And that’s extraordinary.”

A few years ago Michael Riedel – a theatre writer for the New York Post, which itself no longer has a regular theatre critic – remarked that “being a member of the New York Drama Critics’ Circle these days is like being in a revival of Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None”. Its numbers are shrinking still further.

TV and London stars on New York stages

Recently in New York I was able to see two of the stars of my favourite current TV series, The Good Wife, on stage on consecutive nights. First, I saw Mary Beth Peil starring in the Broadway musical version of Anastasia, then Josh Charles in Annie Baker’s The Antipodes. Next up, Cush Jumbo, who plays Lucca Quinn in the seventh series of the show and is also the star of its spin-off, The Good Fight, returns to the London stage to star in DC Moore’s Common at the National’s Olivier from May 30. I can’t wait to see it.

Meanwhile, two London musical theatre stars who’ve recently taken Broadway by storm have also announced their next projects. Michael Xavier, currently reprising his performance as Joe Gillis in Sunset Boulevard on Broadway opposite Glenn Close, isn’t coming home any time soon: after that show ends on June 25, he will segue straight to starring in Prince of Broadway, a musical celebration of the six decades and counting career of Broadway director/producer Hal Prince, that begins performances at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J Friedman Theatre on August 3. I only hope we’ve not lost him to New York forever.

But at least we’re getting Killian Donnelly back: fresh from reprising his Olivier-nominated turn as Charley Price in Kinky Boots in the original Broadway version of that show, which he leaves on May 25, he’ll be straight home to take over as Valjean in Les Miserables – a role he’s previously played as a swing from June 12. That definitely warrants a revisit.

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