David Lister: The Week in Arts

Heath was good but Germaine could do better
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The Independent Online

Heath Ledger and Germaine Greer have probably never been brought together in the same sentence before. But in their different ways they dominated the arts agenda this week. And in their different ways they both worry me.

Let's take the case of Germaine first. She has been mortally offended by a new West End play, Female of the Species, which is a thinly disguised – no, make that utterly undisguised – dramatisation of the time Greer was tied up and taken hostage in her own home by a young, female stalker. The play goes a little deeper, as plays usually do, and turns the incident into an exploration of young women's disillusionment with 1970s feminism.

Greer has seen red over this, has denounced the play as an intrusion into a private trauma and condemned it as "threadbare" and its author as "an insane reactionary", before acknowledging that she has never seen it or read it.

From an academic and leading figure in the arts that's a depressing view. What would she think if one of her students denounced a work without having read or seen it? What would she think of one of her students who used "insane" as a term of literary criticism? This week I was at Glyndebourne and read in the programme a superb essay on Carmen written by Germaine Greer. I imagine that anyone who said "I have never seen or heard Carmen, but it is threadbare" would get a mouthful of invective from Germaine.

At the same time, you have to feel for her a little. This was a painful, distressing and traumatic episode in her life; and she understandably winces at it being used for the purpose of entertainment. But she, as much if not more than anyone, uses current affairs and leading personalities to inform her writings. She more than most people knows that theatre is about illuminating the world and our understanding of it. It is not about refraining from hurting people's feelings.

I do suspect though that Greer would have had more people rallying to her cause if she were dead. I haven't seen the new Batman film The Dark Knight yet, though I will be going to the European premiere in London on Monday, and I fully expect in Heath Ledger's portrayal of the Joker to see a performance that will be Laurence Olivier, Marlon Brando and Brad Pitt rolled into one. I also fully expect Ladbrokes and William Hill to stop taking bets soon on whether Ledger will win a posthumous Oscar.

Actually, I do expect his performance to be good. He was a fine, sensitive actor, heartbreaking in Brokeback Mountain, and he is much missed. But the hyperbole around his performance in a Batman movie clearly owes a little to the fact that he is no longer with us.

At the American premiere, his co-stars were asked to comment on his acting, which they naturally did, effusively. But come on, what were they likely to say? "I know he's dead, but I was better than him."

The greatest compliment that can be paid to Heath Ledger's art is that his performance is judged critically and unemotionally, and that he wins an Oscar only if he would have won it if he were still alive. The greatest service that Germaine Greer can do for art next week is to go and see the play about her and write about it critically and unemotionally.

To use the late Bill Shankly's words about football, art isn't just a matter of life and death – it's much more important than that.

RT, phone home

The mobile phone company Orange has made my daily journeys on the London Underground a little less tedious by persuading Rose Tremain, winner of the Orange Broadband Prize for Fiction, to write a tender poem about winning the award, with references to her own life and work. The poem, with such lines as "I am the eyes of my readers on the underground/I am Lev, wounded hero of The Road Home", makes a pleasing alternative to the adverts in the train carriages.

But each time I see the poem alongside Ms Tremain's face and the Orange logo, I find it hard not to think of those two guys who appear before every movie at the cinema urging film stars to plug mobile phones in their next script. Did Rose Tremain have to go through such an interview? "We love your prize-winning book, The Road Home. But hey, how's about renaming it Phone Home! Now we're getting somewhere, Rosie, baby. You ever thought about writing a text message novel?"

* The National Theatre has no bigger fan than me. So I was more than happy to leave my sun-lounger in the garden last Sunday afternoon to take a phone call from someone from an "arts agency" doing a survey for the National of members of its mailing list. The gentleman asked me how many times I went, and what sort of productions I preferred – musicals, classics or new plays. Before I could answer, he went on to ask if I would give a £20 a year donation. When I declined he said goodbye, forgetting about the questions that were meant to be the purpose of the call.

I don't have a problem with the National Theatre seeking donations over the phone. If political parties can do it, why shouldn't Britain's theatres? But it should tell its "arts agency" at least to go through the motions of waiting for the answers to those theatre-going questions before talking hard cash. It would make us punters feel loved.

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