Sunday, 25 January 2015

Good looking actors and voyeuristic critics

IS IT legitimate for a theatre critic to write about an actor's body? That was the provocation laid down by freelance casting director Annelie Powell on Twitter this weekend.

It's worth taking a look at her Twitter feed to see how people responded. It's an interesting discussion.

You can see why it is an issue. As Powell added herself:

At the start of the 21st century, we're all very sensitive about the question of body image. Whether it's a matter of skin colour, disability, gender, age, size or weight, the arguments are repeatedly made that we should accept people on their own merits and not on their appearance. To do otherwise would be prejudicial. In public life, this is the principle we try to operate by.

Should the same apply to theatre? The answer is yes and no. Yes, in the sense that critics should not judge performances on the basis of their prejudices. No, in the sense that everything on stage contributes to the production's meaning and is all potential material for the critic's argument. That includes what the actors look like.
Maxine Peake as Hamlet, Manchester Royal Exchange. Photo: Jonathan Keenan

When Maxine Peake played Hamlet at the Manchester Royal Exchange last year, it would have benefited nobody if a critic had dismissed the production on the basis that Hamlet "should" be played by a man. Equally, it would have been odd for a critic not to mention that Peake was a woman. Her casting was part of the production's meaning. I didn't see that show, but if I had, part of my job would have been to analyse the implications of that casting.

Imagine a production of Tom McGrath's Laurel and Hardy in which a portly actor was cast as Stan and a skinny actor was cast as Ollie. Or a production of King Lear in which Lear was played by a 25 year old and his three daughters by women in their 60s. Those would be legitimate (if eccentric) directorial choices, which any critic would want to engage with. But you couldn't do that without reference to the age and physique of the actors. Although the actors have no control over those attributes, they can't escape them either. 

To stick with Powell's analogy of a job interview, the critic would assess how well the actors dealt with the challenge ("Despite being 65, Cordelia has a youthful lightness of touch"), and would give them credit for what they achieved through their own resourcefulness. Unlike a job interview, however, the critic couldn't deny it was a challenge in the first place. In many cases, not to refer to the actors' physicality would be to miss the point. 

So to answer Powell's initial question, I would say yes, it is sometimes necessary to comment on an actor's physical appearance. But I suspect what she's getting at is something else. This would be to comment on an actor's physical appearance in a way that offered no insight into the production's meaning, no view of how the actor was using their unique physicality, and told you only about the critic's predilections. 

You can see why this happens. Theatre is a voyeuristic artform in which one group of people sit in the dark observing another lot of people. To pretend that isn't the case, to act like you don't have an emotional reaction to these bodies in front of you, is to betray something of theatre's essential quality. On the other hand, if you write like a voyeur, you're likely to give a warped view of the event.

In the 19th century, this was commonplace. Male theatre critics would frequently comment on how attractive they found the female leads, irrespective of the parts they were playing. Today, such writing is widespread in magazines and websites that discuss Hollywood celebrities, but thankfully more rare in theatre criticism. The theatre critic of recent times most likely to share his opinions about physical beauty was John Simon, whose cruel description of Diana Rigg as being "built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses" prompted her, after she'd recovered from the insult, to compile No Turn Unstoned, an anthology of bad reviews.

You can make up your own mind about Simon's defence in this interview which he gave to Kalina Stefanova-Peteva in Who Calls the Shots on the New York Stages?:

We need beauty in the theater. An actress who is genuinely talented but not beautiful should definitely do what she's doing. However, if she were also beautiful it would be a plus. And I would print such a statement, as almost no other critic would . . . Of course, it's even more wonderful if the actress makes you forget that she's not beautiful, if a plain woman can make you believe that she's beautiful with her acting. I'll kiss her feet for such an accomplishment. But it doesn't happen very often . . . I don't see why one shouldn't be praised for being beautiful if one can be praised for being intelligent. Intelligence is just as much of an unearned miracle as beauty.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Why Birdman's Tabitha tells us more about actors than critics

Michael Keaton and Edward Norton in Birdman
THERE has been a lot of good stuff written about the fictional Tabitha Dickinson in the Alejandro Iñárittu movie Birdman. Played by an icy Lindsay Duncan, she is the New York Times critic who threatens to derail a fictional Broadway show. In a city where one newspaper counts above all others, everything depends on her opinion. This adaptation of Raymond Carver's What We Talk About When We Talk About Love stands to live or die on her say-so.

Theatre critics are naturally curious to see how their kind are regarded by others and have been paying close attention to Birdman. When the film was released in the USA, the Chicago Tribune's Chris Jones argued that Tabitha was merely the latest in a long line of fictional critics who exist to serve two narrative purposes. One, he said, is "to render a verdict so the plot actually can end" and the other is:

to serve as a convenient antagonist. And that means that if the artist is to be a lovable if flawed soul, then the critic has to embody such qualities as imperviousness, dismissiveness, cruelty, defensiveness, callousness, conservatism, ignorance, and, in the case of Tabitha in "Birdman," being as she has apparently decided on a lousy review in advance, evil incarnate.

Today, Matt Trueman has weighed in, pointing out in his inaugural column for What's On Stage that the arguments made against Tabitha by the fictional lead actors, played by Michael Keaton and Edward Norton, don't hold water. Just because a critic has less at stake than an actor, he argues, doesn't mean there is no risk in writing a review:

Good criticism always costs the critic something – or at least, it should. It involves risk: not as much as making theatre, sure, but risk nonetheless.

This is all on the nail and, while we're righting wrongs, I'd like to think Jones and Trueman will join with me in taking issue with Gustave Flaubert. He's a big name, to be sure, but the French novelist, whom Norton's character quotes in the film, surely got it wrong when he said "a man is a critic when he cannot be an artist, in the same way that a man becomes an informer when he cannot be a soldier." 

This is one of those statements people are prone to making about critics that sounds persuasive until you think it through. What Flaubert says is possible, of course. Someone could become an informer having failed to be a soldier. But there's no reason this should be true in all cases. Is every informer a failed soldier? Some might be, but why all of them? Maybe they had no interest in the military life and just wanted to give secrets to the other side. Maybe informing is what they always wanted to do. Is that so hard to imagine?

Likewise, there are many critics who have no interest in being artists. The thing they most wanted to be was a critic. Others still are happy to do both. Many switch between the roles of artist and critic throughout their lives. It's not a competition – they're just different jobs.

Michael Keaton in Birdman
This kind of idea about criticism persists, as do some peculiar notions about critics themselves. Tabitha is no exception. Some things about her are believable. It's perfectly possible, for example, to imagine a theatre critic distrusting a movie star who tried to stage a Broadway show. You could also accept she felt personally responsible for protecting the art of the theatre. What is not credible is that this critic would carry such a degree of hatred of Michael Keaton's Riggan Thomson that she would decide to pan his show even before she saw it. And even if that were the case, there is absolutely no way she would admit to it in public. To do so would be career suicide.

But we needn't dwell on this. It's an excellent film but it's not without its unlikely moments. Like the press conference that takes place in a dressing room and the preview performance that's treated like a rehearsal, Tabitha's excessive animosity is a detail we accept because it serves the forward momentum of the plot.

Besides, it seems to me that Lindsay Duncan's character is not in the movie to comment on critics. She's there to reflect on the actors. Before we meet her, they tell us she is an "old bat" who looks "like she licked a homeless guy's arse". These opinions tell you more about the defensiveness of an insecure theatre profession (the major theme of the film) than they do about the critic. Tabitha is just a catalyst for what happens to them.

In their encounters with her, both of the actors come out looking ridiculous. It is true she remains glacial and aloof, but given she is accosted in a bar by two rather needy and aggressive men, she is actually pretty restrained. 

They, on the hand, are desperate for her approval. What they fear is not her, but her rejection. 

The film doesn't take her side, but neither does it suggest she does badly by the skirmish. It's not interested in that. What she's there for is to show up the actors. Thus, when she finally chooses to write a rave review – "The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance" – it is to amplify the movie's Chekhovian sense of pathos. Birdman doesn't need Tabitha to be a complex or credible character; what it needs is for Riggan, like someone out of Uncle Vanya, to be unable to enjoy the moment of critical glory she gives him. As far as the film is concerned, she has done her job, even if it isn't any kind of job I recognise.

About Me

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Follow me on Twitter at MarkFFisher, WriteAboutTheat and LimelightXTC I am a freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers. I am also editor of The XTC Bumper Book of Fun for Boys and Girls: A Limelight Anthology. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide.