Mark Shenton’s week: Critical duds at the National, or just dud critics?

Yael Farber's Salome, at the National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton Yael Farber's Salome, at the Olivier, National Theatre. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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To get one set of largely negative reviews is perhaps a misfortune; to get a second round is starting to look like carelessness. The National Theatre is having a conspicuous run of failures right now in its largest auditorium, the Olivier, and it’s not pretty.

Every artist and theatre must have the right to fail. Just the other week, I spoke to director and producer Jonathan Church, who has run three prominent regional theatres at Salisbury, Birmingham and Chichester over the past 20 years, and is now presiding over the summer festival at Bath Theatre Royal, as well as acting as an independent producer. He sagely put it: “As one gets older and perhaps a little wiser, however much we want to believe every time you make work it is going to be wonderful, you and I know that really special work comes along less regularly than you want it to.”

I’ve previously highlighted the round of one-star reviews given to Salome, and Matt Trueman’s devastating comment in his review for WhatsOnStage, “Bring me the head of Yael Farber, and, while you’re at it, a side dish of whosoever commissioned this dross.” Now, as Trueman again has remarked in his review for DC Moore’s Common, which opened last Tuesday (June 6), “The Olivier is facing a double-dud summer. Salome was infuriating – pretentious, overblown and indulgent. Common is merely skewiff – never boring, always baffling.”

Trueman opens his review by quoting former NT supremo Richard Eyre’s diaries on the auditorium: “In his diaries, the Olivier comes across as a nightmarish antagonist – a ‘giant mouth’ demanding a diet of big, meaty hits; the sinkhole that could swallow the organisation whole. It’s so hostile a theatre that Eyre likens it to ‘a watering can that doesn’t hold water’.” And his review concludes by remarking, “The Olivier is still hungry.”

And Trueman is joined in his displeasure by a more predictable source, who fulminates even more strongly. Quentin Letts writes in the Daily Mail: “Pointless swearing, olde-worlde speak, lesbianism, incest, colour and gender-blind casting, pagan fertility rites, ooh-arhh accents, an incomprehensible plot and a mechanised, talking crow: is Common the worst show yet staged at the Royal National Theatre?”

Even before these and other reviews appeared, I could smell trouble – not least when one of the last previews the Friday before it opened was suddenly cancelled, to give the company stage time to work on it without an audience.

But also in an age of citizen journalism and invitations to readers to comment, Time Out’s listing for the show was accompanied by brutal vox pops. Philip M notes, “I’ve seen so many plays at the National that it’s inevitable that there have been some duds – indeed, you could contend that risk-taking requires it – but there have not been many, and I remain very impressed with the theatre. Common, though, clearly enters the dud group. It was dreadful. Embarrassing. It should close now, freeing the theatre for other plays… so, a dud. No problem – duds happen and the National will continue to shine – but please don’t let the season run its course just because the schedule says so.”

Time Out theatre editor Andrzej Lukowski was, in the circumstances, much kinder: “I kind of admire its total otherness, though at the same time it’s hard to shake the sense that something must have gone wrong for the NT and co-producers Headlong to allow it to happen… I could never quite work out whether Headlong boss Jeremy Herrin was sympathetic to a text that was always meant to be this weird or a heroic salvage job on something that had failed to live up to commission, but at best his production – beautifully lit by Paule Constable – has a wild rural menace and genuine sense of the other. It’s still hard to understand why Common wasn’t bashed into shape a bit more. But if it’s a folly it’s a impressively uninhibited one, with an elemental intensity to its ridiculousness.”

I was away in New York last week, so missed the opening myself; but whereas I also missed Salome and counted myself lucky to have done so, reviews like the ones that Common has received have doubled me down on a plan to see it. I need to make up my own mind. Not that I don’t trust the critics I’ve read; just that the reviews have intrigued me enough to want to actually see it for myself. So perhaps they’re not quite as bad as they seem.

The Katie Hopkins of theatre criticism

It goes without saying that we don’t all share the same tastes. It’s why, as a wise friend once said to me, there’s vanilla and there’s chocolate – and why Baskin-Robbins famously promises 31 flavours. Some of us like all of those flavours – for a critic, that’s probably a good thing, as we have to see a wide range of work: a classical revival one day; a new play the next; a musical another day.

So I don’t rule out anything from my theatrical diet. There are some things I inevitably prefer to others; my own speciality is musicals and I’ll search them out anywhere. So I naturally found it particularly galling to find them summarily dismissed by critic Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times in his June 4 review of On the Town at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre.

He began his review by stating: “A lot of people say they hate musicals. Actually, quite a lot of people say they hate theatre as well. Intellectually curious, well-educated, Booker-prize-reading people. Theatre just annoys them, and musicals annoy the veritable dickens out of them. In principle, I’m rather on their side with the musicals thing. I mean, men dancing? In costumes? I’d really rather be up a mountain, or in the pub, or watching programmes about Hitler on the Yesterday channel. Sitting and watching musicals, especially traditional, non-ironic musicals, is no occupation for a self-respecting person.”

But then his stance softens: “And then, one evening, sitting there folded double in your little red-velvet midget seat, you find yourself pleasurably bouleverse by some unexpected delight. Hairspray? Loved it. Priscilla, Queen of the Desert? Laughed myself silly. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s latest, School of Rock? Seen it three times. So maybe people who say they hate musicals are much like feminists who say they hate men. They just haven’t found the right one yet.”

Double ouch! Not content with upsetting musical fans, he’s also deliberately trolling feminists, too. And since trolls want nothing more than for us to be outraged, perhaps I should just let it pass. But his lazy journalism won’t let me: he openly doesn’t bother to even find out the names of the characters he is referring to as he describes the plot. “One element of slight complexity arises from the fact that one of the sailors, Chip or Chuck or something, wants especially to meet a girl from a beauty contest whose poster he’s seen on the subway.” Actually, the character is called Gabe; the other two sailors are Ozzie and Chip (so he gets one of their names right, but not the one he is talking about).

So, if he can’t pay the show proper critical attention, why should a reader pay his words any attention, either?