Of course, theater critics should speak out, but not with low blows | Catherine Bennett
Rthe last evenings of Revenge of a Blonde, presented at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, are, at the time of writing, sold out. While great for the production, it limits opportunities for audiences hoping to demonstrate their support for a show whose cast has been collectively shamed by a top critic: “The superstructure of the stage teeters under the weight of loosely choreographed gyrations the company.”
Production opened to generally review approvalwith the ObserverSusannah Clapp gives it four stars: “Everything is as bright and pink as bubblegum.” But the theater, stung by “the insensitive language of a review”, issued this warning: “We expect everyone to comment with respect and sensitivity and those who decide not to do so will no longer be invited to return to our theater” .
At the Tony Awards last week, where she picked up two awards as the co-creator of the huge hit SixLucy Moss, Revenge of a Blondewas emphatic: the examination had beenunacceptable”.
The incriminated piece would be the one, entitled “Not so pretty in pink”, by the Sunday time theater critic, Quentin Letts, a veteran of various scraps with understandably offended theaters. In 2018, the RSC said its suggestion that a much-loved actor was cast because he was black amounted to “obviously racist behavior”.
While he had a series of reservations about Revenge of a Blonde, Letts seemed particularly unimpressed with the cast’s appearance, citing the “more bodied and non-binary actors”. So much so that it’s not clear that any alignment, binary, would have been acceptable unless it met its body mass requirements. “Fat mates of the world,” he wrote, “let’s take Harvard first, then we take Brenda Hale’s former seat on the Supreme Court.”
While it may be small consolation for the performers at Regent’s Park, they haven’t been singled out for disparagement, not even on the grounds that Letts doesn’t like the way they look. In fact, they are in excellent company. A few years ago, the critic defended, with even more elaborate insults, those who dismissed a young opera singer as insufficiently attractive to The Rider of the Rose. The young “roly poly” singer had, Letts said, “the figure and face of a good pork pie” and looked “like she’d been to the cookie barrel.” For critics to not feel equally uninhibited in their responses would, he said, be the victim of “Leveson-style censorship.” You understood that anyone interested in freedom of expression should defend to the death, even if they recoil from fat-shaming, the right of this provocative critic to disqualify performers for being too tall or too black or too old or for repeatedly speaking in what Letts calls “whine scottish accents”.
In reality, the name-calling could hardly be better calculated to arouse sympathy, even among the usual creative freedom zealots, for outraged theaters. Even though, as critics’ resilience proponents often point out, Byron was mean to Keats, mean critics have been challenged to a duel before, Henry James survived the boos and, more recently, Kenneth Tynan has always annoyed actors. On the one hand, if the horrible Tynan was also threatened with ban it was also recognized that he loved the theater. And while the “fat” are still eligible for the pillory, Equity’s view that critics need its educational guidelines — particularly on race, but also on writing in general “with sensitivity, empathy and understanding – seems momentarily less condescending.
Except that when you look at the other reviews for Revenge of a Blonde, or even critics for almost any theater today, warning all critics of their delinquent insensitivity seems about as reasonable as threatening an entire class with detention while a single kid is texting. On the contrary, the reluctance of many critics to reject all but the most terrible productions, a trend heeded by cautious theatergoers, has only deepened, post-pandemic, in what sometimes appears as a unlimited tenderness towards a child in convalescence. And if it’s sometimes hard to tell, reading between the lines, whether a piece lasts so long it’s totally unbearable, or has earned all of its stars (“shine moments!”) for the effort, or is only likeable if you like that sort of thing, many patrons probably still share the reviewer’s relief that the theater is back.
Comments on social media can be instructive here, just as they alter the conclusions of ungenerous reviews. “Always grinning from ear to ear in utter joy” (with the now redundant advice “get tickets”) seems pretty typical of the Revenge of a Blonde reviews from paying customers.
As revenge for insulting writing, this kind of public success is probably more useful for the theater than the potentially counterproductive exclusion of its author would be. Although he had not been invited to a press evening (following a long Savagery by Kristin Scott Thomas), Letts, then the Daily MailThe reviewer, however, got a ticket, with the resulting review published under the heroic title “The Man They Couldn’t Gag”. No one, absolutely no one, would stop her from asking what’s so wonderful about Scott Thomas’ cheekbones.
For the public too, it could be unfortunate that this latest skirmish turns, on the one hand, into a testimony of the martyrdom of the culture wars and, on the other, into a vindication of Equity’s approach to correcting critics. . How, if they undertake to criticize, invariably, “with sensitivity, empathy and understanding”, can critics, when it becomes essential, warn the public? I think of my own incredibly narrow escape last year after seeing Moira Buffini’s single star Manor at the National Theatre. Since Letts has too often cried wolf, audiences depend, theatrically in extremis, on more nuanced voices doing their cultural duty. Does, say, the Guardian‘s Arifa Akbar were able to conclude, if they dutifully empathized with Buffini, that the “gross”, “goofy” acting was “a little less than a turkey?” And if not, isn’t the public also entitled to a little kindness?