Seven weeks into lockdown feels grim, doesn’t it? Being a freelance journalist or critic is much like being a performer. We’re all wondering when the work will come back.
One way I’ve found to assuage my hunger to write about theatre is by committing to write a love letter each week on my website to a production that changed my life. It’s my way of paying tribute to the impact a work of theatre can have and, therefore, the vital importance of renewing our shuttered arts industries.
But the trip down memory lane has also reminded me of the times when the industry – and particularly its critics – has got it wrong.
In the year 2000, teenage me was mesmerised by The Three Birds, a debut play by a playwright named Joanna Laurens at the Gate Theatre in London. The Three Birds was a retelling in fragmented verse of the classical myth of Philomela, who seeks revenge on her brother-in-law after he rapes her and cuts out her tongue. It’s a myth that has proved overly popular fodder for poets and playwrights.
But Laurens approached it with an ingenious interest in how language connects us to, and separates us from, people. Philomela and her sister Procne are exiles from their country, and so Laurens develops a specific set of language patterns to separate them from their new, threatening neighbours.
Everyone who saw The Three Birds seemingly loved it. It won Laurens the Critics’ Circle Theatre award for most promising playwright and the Time Out award for most outstanding new talent. When her next play, Five Gold Rings, opened at London’s Almeida Theatre, it was as if a target had been painted on her back.
Charles Spencer , in particular, seemed on a personal mission to destroy Laurens’ career: she was “piss poor” and writing “freshly squeezed bullshit”. When her third play Poor Beck opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford, he demanded that she “now do us all a favour by taking a prolonged vow of silence”. Spencer got his wish – no more of Laurens’ plays have been produced in the UK.
What went wrong? Laurens was overexposed by the Almeida, who billed her as the next Sarah Kane. This wasn’t an era receptive to verse drama – some of the cast of Five Gold Rings struggled with the verse. And perhaps it simply wasn’t as good a play as The Three Birds.
You’re less likely to do justice to an artist if you haven’t seen their best work
But it also matters that Spencer hadn’t seen Laurens’ first play. Neither had most first-string critics. Then as now, the Gate was generally reviewed by second-stringers; the Almeida by first. You’re less likely to do justice to an artist if you haven’t seen their best work.
One lesson for theatre PRs – this is why it matters to find space for critics who aren’t reviewing a show, but might review your artists next time.
There’s also a lesson here for critics, which is particularly pertinent in lockdown: careers are fragile. Be careful of the talent you force out. Will we be softer touches in the new post-lockdown world? Unlikely. But I hope we’re less careless.