Celebrities in a modern freak show

'What people really love to see these days is a celebrity briefly and uncertainly revealed by turning up in an unfamiliar medium'
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The Independent Online

"As wooden as a toothpick." "The triumph of hype over experience." "A case of more style than substance." "Her range of emotions would not have discredited a retiring clam." "Her performance was stiff, without much passion, and less than convincing." Lordy me, but how disobliging the British papers have been to the lovely Jerry Hall, whose nightly 20-second disrobing as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate at the Gielgud Theatre is currently the most talked-about coup de theatre on the London stage.

"As wooden as a toothpick." "The triumph of hype over experience." "A case of more style than substance." "Her range of emotions would not have discredited a retiring clam." "Her performance was stiff, without much passion, and less than convincing." Lordy me, but how disobliging the British papers have been to the lovely Jerry Hall, whose nightly 20-second disrobing as Mrs Robinson in The Graduate at the Gielgud Theatre is currently the most talked-about coup de theatre on the London stage.

Bitch, bitch, bitch. "I can reveal that Sarah Bernhardt's reputation is safe," sneered Michael Billington in The Guardian. "The trouble with having endless legs and almost equally extendable arms would seem to be that you do have to have some idea what to do with them between delivering the lines," advised The Times with laborious sarcasm. "As an American you would have thought she could at least have managed the accent," said the Mirror condescendingly, "but through the two-and-a-half-hour play she goes from Texan to English to vaguely American - when you can hear her talk." "The nudity was handled in the best possible taste and devotees of 'celebrity skin' would be advised to look elsewhere," murmured the seen-it-all voluptuary from The Independent.

One must commiserate with Ms Hall on having this unchivalrous rabble inspect her body, her voice, her walk, her hair, her bosom, her Agent Provocateur undies, her map of Tasmania and her errant ex-husband (who sat in the front row of the Gielgud audience, sucking Murraymints) instead of taking her seriously as an actress. But one must point out that she's in excellent company. She is the latest victim in a fine theatrical tradition of vituperative knockabout that reached its heyday in the reviews of West End and Broadway shows in the Fifties and Sixties, when Kenneth Tynan, John Simon and their peers took a delight in rubbishing the physical liabilities of performers.

It was a very Mrs Robinson moment when Simon reviewed Diana Rigg's fleetingly naked love scene in Abelard and Heloise and described her as "built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses". Of Elizabeth Taylor's Kate in the Taming of the Shrew, he remarked, "Just how garish her commonplace accent, squeakily shrill voice and the childish petulance with which she delivers her lines are, my pen is neither scratchy nor leaky enough to convey." Ungallant to a startling degree, he once compared Barbra Streisand's beauty to "a cross between an aardvark and an albino rat surmounted by a platinum-coated horse bun".

A flood of poison-penmen joined in this sport down the years until you can recite their put-downs from memory. The critic in the Denver Post who, reviewing a production of King Lear that starred a former matinee idol called Creston Clarke, opined, "Clarke played the king as though under the momentary apprehension that someone else was about to play the ace." Bernard Levin suggesting that Moira Lister (in The Gazebo) "speaks all her lines as if they are written in very faint ink on a teleprinter too far away to be read with comfort". The nasty piece of work who declared, of a histrionic Antony and Cleopatra, "Tallulah Bankhead barged down the Nile last week as Cleopatra - and sank."

The most incisive critic in the end, though, is the little girl who piped up during a matinée performance starring Hermione Gingold, and inquired, "Mummy, what is that lady for?" It's the key question. For what neither Ms Gingold, Ms Bankhead or their spiritual sister Ms Hall is about is drama. Whether Jerry can act or not is simply not an issue (when Dolly Parton once played Juliet in a Tennessee production of Romeo and Juliet, a local radio DJ observed, "Ah don't know if our Dolly kin act but she sure's hell kin lean over a balcony") and it is folly for critics to start awarding her points for projection, range, technique and stage business, as if she were some Webber Douglas ingénue. She is part of a modern freak show called What the Hell Are They Doing Here?

The London theatre is full of it at the moment, and, whatever you may think of Nicole Kidman or Kevin Spacey, it's got nothing to do with acting. It's a form of incredulity following the revelation that figures from modern mythology-land - the Olympus of Hollywood, the Parnassus of TV - can come and mingle in our midst, and remove their towels for our inspection. Having the fresh-faced youth who played John-Boy Walton turn up in the cast of Art, or Jason Priestley in the starring role in Side Man are not moments to savour in the history of dramatic acting. They are slightly weird manifestations of the What the Hell... tendency, though less peculiar ones than encountering Madonna drinking Guinness in a Spitalfields boozer, or Vinnie Jones posing in a tuxedo and a stretch limo in Beverly Hills. Ms Hall and the others are public figures caught briefly out of their natural element and duly monstered for their pains.

It can get dangerous. When JK Rowling left the desk where she writes the Harry Potter stories to join a train at King's Cross and be a celebrity, she found herself in the midst of a lot of barging and shoving, as punters and their children struggled to get near her. A woman died recently when the radio station WMRV-FM in Binghampton, New York, promised that pop singer Britney Spears was about to show up and 100 people piled into the small studio.

Writers at literary festivals are chronic exponents of the What the Hell Are They Doing Here? syndrome. It goes against nature to find Arthur Miller or Norman Mailer wandering around the bosky lanes of Hay-on-Wye, after speaking to an audience about the weather or Tony Blair or post-feminism. Despite the magisterial talents of some literary folk (Malcolm Bradbury, Claire Tomalin) it remains a long-standing puzzle why audiences should wish to see authors - by no means the most conversationally adept or personally charismatic of human beings - attempting to behave like chat-show guests (or worse, hosts) instead of getting on with writing books. But readers do. They queue in the rain for hours to clap eyes on Alain de Botton.

Sometimes the What the Hell... tendency gets a little too barmily transmedial - as when Will Self became an art exhibit in a public gallery, or Björk wound up in a Lars Von Trier movie, or when Russell Crowe or John McEnroe attempted to be guitar heroes, or Mo Mowlam tried to tell rude jokes on the Graham Norton show - but the principle is firmly established. What people really love to see these days is a celebrity briefly and uncertainly revealed - humanised, unbuttoned - by turning up in an unfamiliar medium, a new place, a public role.

To see a star shining in your backyard. To find Marlon Brando fetching up in EastEnders, or Joey from Friends at the Groucho Club, or Jerry Hall flashing her tits at you for £18. A century ago, you would have paid the equivalent to see Sarah Bernhardt, the legendary French actress, coming to London to play Hamlet with a wooden leg. It would have been a similarly foolish and heady freak show, similarly unconnected to the ordinary forms and functions of authentic drama. Much the same. Only not as much fun.

j.walsh@independent.co.uk

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