Issue 18, 2011
I regularly remark on the way my large size influences my behaviour in theatres. I always try to obtain a seat on the end of a row, not out of old-fashioned adherence to the convention that critics should sit on the aisle, but because that way the poor person behind me has a chance of seeing past me, and I impinge on the space of only one other neighbour in my own row. This latter point is especially relevant in theatres with bench seating rather than individual seats. Most such venues have unreserved seating, which makes things much easier, but on a few other occasions I have, however reluctantly, overspilled my mid-row allocation. I'm usually terribly embarrassed about this, so much so that it takes me an age to work up the courage even to look at my neighbours to apologise to them. This is why it took me far too long to realise that, at one matinee at the Donmar Warehouse, the elderly gentleman I was in danger of edging off the end of Row C was Harold Pinter.
Pinter has now been given what is, in some respects, the ultimate accolade of having a West End theatre named after him, as reported in Story of the Fortnight opposite. Alas, it means that the old joke has finally been laid to rest: it was first mooted years ago that the Comedy Theatre be thus renamed because of Pinter's long association with it, to which Tom Stoppard remarked, "Have you thought, instead, of changing your name to Harold Comedy?" The joke is delicious because, despite the dark humour that runs through almost, but not quite, all Pinter's plays, it still seems such an inappropriate name for him. Alas, we shall no longer be able to use it; on the whole, though, it is probably better to be immortalised in a theatre name than a punchline.
Leaving aside financial and/or administrative benefactors, the only other recent theatrical figures to be so commemorated so close to their own heyday — indeed, each during his lifetime — have been Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud. Aside from these giants, the gesture seemed to be moribund in the West End (in stark contrast to Broadway) until 2005, when the Strand and the Albery were respectively renamed the Novello and the Noel Coward. (The latter instance erased another such commemoration, of director Sir Bronson Albery.) Some venues have paid tribute of this kind in the naming of their subordinate spaces, as with the Maria (for designer Maria Bjornson) and Clare (for director Clare Venables) studios at the Young Vic, and the Hampstead Theatre's increasingly used Michael Frayn Space.
But there seems to be something in the British — or, more particularly, the English — sensibility that feels this sort of thing is a little ostentatious, like naming a street after someone. Our continental European neighbours are much less reserved in this regard, and rightly so; on my trips to Ikea in Berlin, for instance, I regularly pass across Hildegarde-Knef-Platz. No doubt the recently deceased German comedian Loriot will soon become as much a part of geography as he now is of history.
For we find it all too easy to forget... or sometimes too convenient. When I received an emailed press release for the "UK première" of Marsha Norman's Night, Mother at the Old Red Lion (see p944), I couldn't restrain myself from sending a mail in reply pointing out that it would indeed be the British premiere... apart from productions at Hampstead in 1985, the Chelsea Centre in 1995, the Etcetera in 2006, Greenwich Playhouse last year and at least one Edinburgh Fringe outing. The only response I received was a repeat mailing of the same press release, unaltered, a fortnight later. I couldn't help but conclude that what might at first have been simple incompetence was now active mendacity.
Elsewhere, other issues have been raised. I found myself in fairly heated debate online with a British East Asian blogger who was alleging that, by not casting any Asian actors in his production of The Golden Dragon, director Ramin Gray was being racist. (as is all too often the case, this attribution of motive and attitude took place without the blogger in question actually having seem the production.) She complained, "they chose a Chinese setting to what, represent the'Other'?" The entire point of Roland Schimmelpfennig's play is to investigate perceptions of otherness — in particular, racism — which is precisely why the five-strong cast play characters that differ from themselves not only in ethnicity but age, gender and even species.
To a suggestion that Chinese actors were "required" by the production since a Chinese setting and characters were similarly "required" (although the likelihood is that, in the German context in which Schimmelpfennig is writing, the "Chinese" figures are more likely to be Vietnamese), it seemed to me that all the arguments about "requirements" re Chinese characters apply equally to the majority of the characters being ethnic German yet "defined" by British actors. They apply equally to the "requirements" of gender. And as for the characters of the ant and the cricket ... I Obviously that's a reductio ad absurdum. But what, then, is it that privileges or prioritises Chinese ethnicity as a requirement here above other portrayals in the same text and production? I don't think there is anything. I think that's the point. And, once again, I do think that watching the production is really a minimum requirement when claiming to know why someone else has made this kind of decision.
ERRRATA: In Issue 16–17, Libby Purves’ Times review of The Two Most Perfect Things was mistakenly credited to Julie Carpenter, and Paul Taylor’s Independent review of Parade to Michael Coveney. Apologies to all of them, and to you for misinforming you.Ian Shuttleworth ! firstname.lastname@example.org