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"Wretch! rejoined Nicholas fiercely": An illustration by J. Barnard for "Nicholas Nickleby", 1875. The RSC stage adaptation, condemned by critics, became a massive success

Good theatrical criticism captures a moment that’s unique and would otherwise be fleeting. When asked what his role was as a drama critic, Kenneth Tynan replied that it was “to give permanence to something impermanent”.

When I go to the theatre these days, I feel depressingly often that the critics have seen a different show from the one I’ve been watching. It seems to me that many critics write not in order to express their own opinions but to join a club to which they wish to belong: a metropolitan elite handing down whatever opinions are currently popular or fashionable on the Left.

Breadth of perspective is usually an asset in a critic. However, a reviewer who brings too much “baggage” to a piece of art may end up missing the point, and the strengths, of the work that is before him or her.

The original, 1980 production of Nicholas Nickleby by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the Aldwych Theatre is a case in point. I well remember attending previews and joining in the standing ovations for Trevor Nunn’s and John Caird’s wonderful production. Had I been a critic — at the time I was a director in television — I would have written of it in glowing terms. So I was appalled at the notices it received. The critics en masse condemned it as a literary piece that should never have been adapted for the subsidised theatre, and chose to ignore the production’s bravura theatricality.

There was a deeper, political explanation for their perversity. As all the critics knew, the production had come about because of a lack of funds for the Royal Shakespeare Company. The RSC had been faced with a drastic cut in Arts Council funding at the end of 1979. Instead of putting on two or three new productions in London in 1980, Trevor Nunn decided to put all the company’s available resources into one spectacular production.

To Nunn’s understandable dismay, the national critics chose to use the opening of Nicholas Nickleby not to review the show in front of them, but to bash the government for failing to support the arts financially. Enthusiastic word of mouth from members of the audience and Bernard Levin’s passionate defence of it in his Times column turned Nickleby into the greatest commercial (and, in the end, critical) stage success of the 1980s.

Another revealing case from recent theatrical history is Les Misérables, also directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird for the RSC. Five years after Nicholas Nickleby, this, too, received miserable reviews from most critics when it opened. Underlying the antagonistic reviews was old-fashioned cultural snobbery from critics who believed that the RSC should be devoting itself to high art rather than populist musicals. There was also a resentment that, should the piece be a success, directors who worked for a subsidised company would reap enormous dividends. It was hard to discern how much of the hostility towards Nunn was high-minded scruple and how much of it was mean-spirited envy.

The more intellectual critics, who pride themselves on being able to detect and analyse subtext, tend to become resentful when confronted with a show such as Les Mis, which says exactly what it has to say without apology, or much subtext. They tend to find it crude, bombastic and lowbrow, when really it is just being emotional, emotive and honest.
 
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