David Lister: The Week In Arts

It's too early to pass judgement on Blanchett
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The Independent Online

Poor Cate Blanchett. And that's not a sentiment one often feels the need to express. Generally, there are better objects of sympathy than one of the most beautiful, talented and successful actresses in the world. But she has not had a good week. First, her new film Elizabeth: The Golden Age received only middling reviews. Second, and I suspect rather more injurious to her psyche, she has been publicly denounced over her next role, this time a real-life one.

Ms Blanchett is taking time out from film-making to become the artistic director of the Sydney Theatre Company, effectively Australia's National Theatre, a job she will share with her husband, the playwright Andrew Upton. It's unquestionably the top job in Australian theatre. And she will unquestionably bring the company publicity and star appeal. She will also bring it money. Giorgio Armani, who has dressed her for film premiere appearances, has agreed to her request to become a patron of the theatre and will put cash into the company.

Nevertheless, there have been murmurings against Blanchett taking on the role, and this week, one of the actors at the Sydney theatre went public in his criticism. Colin Moody, a former co-star on stage with Blanchett, said he could no longer take the "office politics" and "hypocrisy" at the Sydney Theatre Company, adding that the company had been " importing people asking them to do a task that they haven't a clue how to do". He went on: "An Oscar for acting is not a suitable recommendation to run the biggest theatre company in the country."

The Blanchett appointment, and the row over it, has drawn comparisons with Kevin Spacey at the Old Vic in London. But after some early misjudgements, the Spacey tenure has improved, and there is now an air of approbation and even excitement over what he is doing.

Blanchett should similarly hold her nerve. Both she and Spacey are doing something that does theatre no harm at all – reintroducing the notion of actor-led companies in an age of director-led theatre. The most successful and exciting times in British theatre were (begging the pardon of Hytner, Hall, Nunn and others) the times when Laurence Olivier ran theatre companies. Mark Rylance's artistic directorship at Shakespeare's Globe was another great example of actor-led theatre.

Blanchett is no Olivier, but she does bring an actor's perspective to choice of plays, performers and directors. She also brings star quality, which theatre should not scorn quite as readily as it often does.

So, I support Blanchett – up to a point. While I applaud the idea of her running a major theatre company, I'm less convinced about the idea of them: Blanchett and husband. Of course, just as it is a refreshing change to have an actor-led company in the age of director theatre, so it is even more refreshing to see what a playwright can do at the helm. But I'm uneasy about a husband-and-wife team in harness.

There can really only be one artistic director at the top of a theatre. Will Blanchett be prepared to bawl out her husband when things go badly? (And they do at some juncture even in the best theatres.) Will she be prepared to say no to his choice of new plays? Will they both be prepared to spend time countering hints of nepotism?

Cate Blanchett is a fascinating choice to run a major international theatre company. But maybe she should go it alone.

By royal appointment

Since the attack by the Booker Prize chairman, Sir Howard Davies, on the too-cosy world of book reviewing, I have found myself looking rather more closely at reviews of books I am reading. It is not just fiction that attracts an unhealthy dose of mutual backslapping. Non-fiction is guilty too. I am currently enjoying Tina Brown's biography of Princess Diana. But I was surprised to see a lengthy quote on the back by Dame Helen Mirren, pictured, not normally known as a literary critic.

Dame Helen describes it as an "intensely well-researched and an unputdownable read...written by a superb investigative journalist".

She clearly enjoyed it. And she can't have been displeased by Ms Brown's slightly gratuitous reference in the book to the film of The Queen, in which she noted how she watched Helen Mirren, and what she saw "only increased my awe of her Oscar-winning gifts".

* The former Kink, Ray Davies, gave a memorable gig as the finale to the BBC Electric Proms at London's Roundhouse last Sunday. The title track of his new album Working Man's Café, in which he searches in vain for one, is a typically elegiac lament for a disappearing England, and it was a pleasure to see him perform that and several Kinks' classics.

The Electric Proms insists on a mix of music and so Davies did some numbers with an operatic choir. I suspect he had tongue in cheek as he carried out the policy, and gave those operatic voices "A Dedicated Follower of Fashion" to sing. The soaring sopranos gave their all to lines such as "One week he's in polka dots, the next week he's in stripes".

The programme made much of north Londoner Davies performing at his local venue, the Roundhouse. The compilers probably didn't know that after The Kinks played there in their prime, they turned to one another and, as Davies recalls, vowed: "We'll never play this dump again."