The Evening Standard Theatre Awards: Comparing Helen McCrory, Gillian Anderson and Kristen Scott Thomas will test the best judges

Here Come the judges. Thank Heavens I'm not one of them

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Next week sees one of the most glamorous and star-studded events in the arts calendar. The Evening Standard Theatre Awards, run by our sister paper, will take over the London Palladium to select the year’s best actors, actresses, directors, designers, plays, playwrights and more. It should be a memorable occasion, making some of us feel if not inadequate then definitely underdressed. And, as with every awards ceremony in the arts calendar, I feel glad I’m not on the judging panel.

How does one compare great performers or great works? The question is even more pertinent in a prize that announced its category winners last Tuesday, the Costa Book of the Year award. Here, the judges will eventually have to compare and contrast novels, biographies, poetry and children’s books. That really does seem to me like comparing apples with oranges, and it’s chastening to think that had the award or Costa been in existence in 1949, the judges would have had to choose between Enid Blyton’s first Noddy book and George Orwell’s 1984.

Perhaps it is better to view all cultural prizes as celebrations rather than contests. But, the arts do tend to go in for impossible comparisons. I recall that the Olivier Awards used to have a ludicrously vague category called Best Entertainment, which one year pitted Jason Donovan against Alan Bennett, almost causing one’s heart to go out to Jason Donovan. Almost.

And, even when the categories are clearer, and the shortlisted artists all plying the same trade, making judgments is mighty tricky. How to choose in next week’s best actress award between Gillian Anderson’s Blanche duBois, Helen McCrory’s Medea and Kristin Scott Thomas’s Electra? All showed great technical prowess and gave not just highly intelligent and illuminating performances, but deeply moving ones. And they are not even the only actresses competing in that category. I think that in the end, the response that counts has to be a visceral one. Which performance had you exiting the theatre in a state of shock, awe and enlightenment?  Artistry cannot be merely the technical. Great artistry goes beyond that to embrace the indefinable, the strange magic called stage presence, which cannot be taught, the curious power and intimacy of a superlative performance, which cannot be analysed. After the technical achievements have been noted, I’m not sure that the judgement on any cultural achievement can be other than a personal and visceral response.

 One aspect that particularly intrigues me about the Evening Standard Theatre Awards is the remark made by Evgeny Lebedev, chairman of the advisory judging panel (and owner of the Evening Standard, as well as The Independent, i and The Independent on Sunday). He noted that it was 60 years since Peter Hall’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot won The Most Controversial Play of the Year award. What a pity that that particular prize no longer exists (indeed I believe it was only awarded that year). The Most Controversial Play of the Year. Playwrights would kill to win that.

Mind you, this year it probably ought to have gone to Euripides.


Let's make the ENO both English and National

I argued last week that the English National Opera must lower its ticket prices and rebrand itself as The People’s Opera. And, of course, it should tour the country. One reader, Amanda Reed, has emailed me with an additional suggestion. She wonders why the company is casting so many singers from abroad in its productions. She thinks that it ought to employ just homegrown singers. It’s not a bad idea. Certainly, being a showcase for homegrown talent would give it a clear selling point, and something that would differentiate it from the Royal Opera down the road. And, of course, it would give a clearer meaning to the words ‘English’ and ‘National’ in its title.

Do we want a cab driver's critique of Adele?

A partnership was announced this week between Spotify and taxi firm Uber to allow passengers to drown out their drivers with personalised music soundtracks. Sounds perfect, doesn’t it? No more enforced discussions about immigration, David Cameron, heavy traffic, light traffic, middling traffic. Instead, just sit back and listen to your favourite music. And yet, I fear the worst, with your favourite music punctuated by remarks from the driver about both music and musician. Not only might he recount how he had “that Adele” in the back of his cab once, he will have licence to interrupt her singing with a critique. Better a mutual moan about the jams.