A bad review for the nation's critics from a wounded director

Neither portliness nor middle age is a bar to a critical mind
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The Independent Online

When the two tramps trade insults in Beckett's Waiting For Godot, the ultimate insult is "critic". It is a dirty word, too, for Dominic Dromgoole, the artistic director of the Oxford Stage Company. Mr Dromgoole is a rare iconoclast in theatre circles. In his book he tore a strip off David Hare and Tom Stoppard. But they at least did not give his latest production a bad review. Some critics have, and Mr Dromgoole has let rip.

Critics are, he says, "predominantly... over-educated, portly gentlemen with peculiar dress sense, trying to pretend that they haven't passed retirement age... I doubt that any of them would stoop to taking money for a good review, but they don't half appreciate a barrel-load of fawning... In a profession dominated by old men who have been sitting in the same chairs for 30 years, most of their dreams are dreams of the past, and most of their desire is to return there."

Some, at least, of that tirade in the New Statesman is disingenuous. Portliness is not of itself a bar to a critical mind. And, the slim female critics on The Independent on Sunday, Mail on Sunday and Time Out may give him a mouthful next time they see him. Besides, if Mr Dromgoole really thinks the simplistic, hackneyed point about middle-aged men has meaning, perhaps he should aim his barbs at his fellow directors – at the National Theatre, RSC, Almeida and most other places, including the Oxford Stage Company.

A more pertinent debate to be had about the role of critics is whether they are matched to the increasingly non-theatrical fare staged in theatres. An Evening with Tony Benn at the Old Vic has great moments of comedy, but is not a play, even if it is staged at a theatre. No more was the mesmerising mind-reader Marc Salem, who opened at the New Ambassadors in London's West End this week. But theatre critics reviewed it. One could go on. If theatre critics can review musicals, why can they not review opera? You could argue that not a single theatre critic was really qualified to give a verdict on Martine McCutcheon's singing skills in My Fair Lady. Equally, Richard Jones's production of Lulu at the English National Opera on Wednesday had a theatricality that not every music critic could describe.

Another point to be made about critics in all art forms is that they so rarely share the experience of the audience. How much more they might appreciate the theatre-going experience if they sat in the upper circle occasionally rather than always in the best seats in the stalls.

But at least theatre critics are with an audience, even if it is a clap-happy, friends-of-the-cast, first-night audience. Film critics avoid other human beings. While the rest of the population tends to watch films in the evening alongside family members or friends, film reviewers often watch the movies in the morning, on their own, while the sun is shining outside.

Lord Puttnam, back in the days when he was still a film producer, would always watch his movies with a paying audience. "If 10 people go for a pee at the same time," he said, "then you know that there's something wrong."

¿ While on the subject of having a pee, let us salute Mark Durden-Smith, the co-presenter of RI:SE, Channel 4's new breakfast show. This week he was responsible for a footnote in television history. Mr Durden-Smith was caught short and apologised to viewers saying: "I've got to have a pee."

The wonder is that no one has ever done it before. How does Graham Norton, for example, manage to avoid rushing to the loo after his uncontrollable laughter at his own jokes? A new era has now begun, and media studies courses should henceforth contain a module on bladder control.

¿ There's no great logic as to why the deaths of some celebrities have "tributes poured in" pieces in newspapers and on television, while others receive only the formal obituary notices. The death of Michael Bryant, one of the great English actors of recent decades, deserved more fuss than was made. Bryant's personality was unknown outside his circle of friends and colleagues, as he never gave interviews. But he had a wonderfully idiosyncratic sense of humour. When he played Badger in Wind in the Willows at the National Theatre, the cast was asked by the director Nicholas Hytner to spend a weekend observing the animals they were playing and to prepare talks on them for rehearsals. Directors do that sort of thing, it seems. When it came to Bryant's turn he announced with finality: "I have observed that the badger, both in character and movement, bears an uncanny resemblance to Michael Bryant."

¿ A word to the scriptwriters on ITV's compelling adaptation of The Forsyte Saga. Old Jolyon would indeed have dressed for dinner with Irene. However, in those Victorian times he would not, repeat not, have asked her if she cared to "freshen up".

d.lister@independent.co.uk

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