Oi. Leave it out

The war between critics and artists continues. Last week, Steven Berkoff banned the Sunday Times's John Peter from seeing his work. Here the playwright and actor gives his reasons why
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The Independent Culture
"The effect is of a high octane monotony... The whole thing is oddly old-fashioned, like a Victorian touring company displaying its actor-manager". John Peter's demolition in the Sunday Times of Steven Berkoff's Coriolanus, the latest in a long line of critical assaults, finally provoked Berkoff into banning the writer from his productions. Here he expands on his remarks in last week's issue of The Stage.

In my reasonably objective review in The Stage of John Peter's work I decided it might be apt for one usually on the receiving end to review a critic for a change, which I did, carefully sticking to the subject of his execrable prose style. I also referred to a common critical malaise, a form of visual blindness; an inability to recognise, unless obvious, symbolic or physical language in the theatre. This can be as complex and rich as verbal language and takes a play out of its simplistic naturalistic setting.

My article was taken up by a Rebecca Fowler, who rang with a series of questions, seemingly intelligent and well meaning, but alas allowed herself to fall into the journalistic graveyard of cliche. "LUVVIES DECLARE WAR ON HOSTILE THEATRE CRITICS." Luvvie? It's a worn-out joke purveyed by the brain-dead. Is a "luvvie" one who performs Coriolanus six times a week? To keep one's mind on total alert for some three hours per night along with the voice and body is an ordeal before it becomes a pleasure. It has worn out and sent to mental homes more actors than one would care to imagine. Actors and other members of the theatrical profession were commonly treated as only one level above vagabonds or people of indifferent virtue until Henry Irving led the profession into the respect that it deserved. "Hell hath no fury like a luvvie scorned..." How clever of the journalistic profession to set the clock back a century and hold them up to ridicule once more. I never knew that suddenly I was a "luvvie", or that I have been scorned.

What I objected to was a crass, prejudiced review as predictable in its venom and idiocy as the morning post. I dislike the idea of someone who is so diametrically opposed to my work (for reasons of culture atrophy, orthodoxy or plain, dumb ignorance) continuing to review me, for what reasons I cannot tell. For many years Mr Peter has hauled his body across the wastelands of England pursuing me with the obsessiveness of one whose joy seems to be in lacerating me. He wryly says that he knows of no critic today who is "deliberately destructive." Try this for size: "Sink the Belgrano - a play for retarded adults..." I expect he thinks this is informed and reasonable criticism.

Literalism demands only that we painstakingly reproduce the banalities of what we see in the mirror. But we live and thrive in an age of diverse art forms, andare sloughing off the painful predictability of the naturalistic theatre with its devices and machinery. To do this it has been necessary to evolve theatre forms more symbolic both in writing and staging. If critics were to use the same standards as they use for theatre - if they had not been taught by their betters to interpret the interior images of Picasso's mind - they would consign most 20th-century art to the dustbin. Since much theatre is simple- minded in its staging and message, it has not been deemed necessary to accord it the same respect as the novel - which generally is reviewed by a fellow writer at least partially sympathetic to the form and content of what he is reviewing.

It would patently be absurd for one or even two reviewers to be cognisant with the plurality of 20th-century literature. In the theatre, the critic becomes more important than what he reviews, and what doesn't fit into the mindset of a conservative reviewer is deemed bad, retarded or junk, and what does fit is equally accorded bloated and posturing affirmations, since it happily did not stretch the reviewer's mind too much. One is not always looking for praise, just a sense of understanding of what one is trying to do, and, if this understanding is absent, try not to scowl, rage and insult - merely send someone whose antennae are more sensitively attuned.

n Berkoff's 'Meditations of Metamorphosis' publ by Faber & Faber (August 7) pounds 7.99