Philip Hensher: Respect the critics' sober judgements

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The Persians, according to some ancient historians, made decisions twice: once when they were drunk, and again when they were sober. According to the playwright Timberlake Wertenbaker, the theatre critics who have just panned her new play about Degas only half-followed this practice and forgot the sober part.

The press night for Ms Wertenbaker's The Line was held last Monday. Subsequently, it got the sort of reviews which are usually termed "mixed", and Ms Wertenbaker went public on the reasons why, she believed, the critics didn't get the latest product of her genius. The Evening Standard theatre awards had been taking place most of the afternoon, and she suggested that some critics had been enjoying themselves too much. "It is [a] difficult [play], you have to pay attention to it ... They weren't all drunk but it's hard to get through something like that [a long awards ceremony] without being tired."

Alas for Ms Wertenbaker, at least two critics who found her play a terrific bore are well-known teetotallers. I haven't myself seen this new play, which stars Henry Goodman as Degas, so I can't report on whether it makes more or less sense when sober than when drunk.

I will say, however, that Ms Wertenbaker has form. On one occasion, I discovered with alarm that there was to be no opportunity to take a stiff drink before returning for the second half of a play of hers for this horrifying reason: there was no interval. I can't now recall quite why the play seemed to me to require an alcoholic stimulant to be borne with. But it seems unlikely that it was on the grounds of excessive excitement.

Critics are generally a harmless bunch, and I don't believe that anyone should start suggesting that they take a breath test before starting to review anything. They are human beings, not inspectors with clipboards, and should probably aim only at being rather better informed and somewhat more alert than an intelligent and engaged member of the audience. I would never think of reviewing a novel while sitting at a desk rather than in an armchair, and though I would never come to a conclusion about anything while actually drunk, I might conceivably have a glass of wine in the evening while reading.

In the case of theatre critics, they have a pretty scrupulous code of ethics. It amazes me, considering the awful rubbish they have to sift through, that they sit there, bright-eyed and taking notes. On the rare occasions they fall asleep in a play, or can't bring themselves to come back after the interval, it makes it into the newspaper as a small scandal. If Ms Wertenbaker wants to promote her play as one that you have to be stone-cold sober, well-rested and intellectually highly alert to understand, that is her prerogative.

I don't mind, once in a while, knowing what a gently oiled critic made of this earnest stuff. And I hate to break this to Ms Wertenbaker, but not all her professional colleagues in literature wrote their imaginative work after two glasses of Evian water and a sustaining bowl of Bircher muesli. One would never recommend it as a creative support, but quite a number of writers have produced some of their best work while absolutely rat-arsed. Literature is full of heroic drinkers: John Cheever, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Malcolm Lowry, Waugh, Patrick Hamilton.

I would never dare to say this of Ms Wertenbaker, but there are, too, some writers who start making perfect sense only when the reader has had his evening G and T. Which of us has not suddenly thought, in bibulous circumstances, that Ronald Firbank or Boublil and Schönberg, say, are the greatest geniuses on earth?

Some critics, in fact, were rather generous about Ms Wertenbaker's Degas play. She should probably take praise where she can get it, and not inquire too closely.

Frankly, Shilpa puts our own celebrities to shame

Hurrah for Shilpa Shetty, the Indian actress who has made a career being dignified and ladylike in British reality shows. She married a wealthy London divorcee this week, a Mr Raj Kundra. Asked if she was gold digging by the 'Times of India', she said: "Let's be positive. Raj is experienced and hopefully won't make the same mistakes again. We [sic] are used to a certain lifestyle, and it's practical to choose a spouse who can at least match those luxuries."

I find Miss Shetty's frankness refreshing and rather appealing. One always thought there must be a reason why people put themselves through the horribly humiliating experience of a reality TV show. If she had the ultimate aim of finding herself a rich and charming husband with big houses and a bottomless bank account, that is entirely understandable and respectable. It was the awful thought she was only doing it because she wanted to be famous from China to Peru that one always found rather low.

Our own hapless celebrities marry some multi-millionaire or fellow celebrity who seems to be doing rather better than they are from time to time. But they always have to say that they are helplessly in love, that they giggle together like teenagers, and other fundamentally undignified statements. How much better to say, like Miss Shetty, that she greatly looks forward to her new husband buying her stuff.

Let our children's minds roam free

I wonder what sort of a place Oxclose Village Primary School in Washington, Tyne and Wear is. Last week, a teacher was suspended for her creative writing task. Explaining to a class of seven-year-olds the attacks on the World Trade Centre before they were born, she asked them to imagine their parents had been killed in a terrorist attack, or, according to other reports, they had never met their parents.

Kiddies wept, according to parents, who asked: "How can she set young children this kind of essay?" or said: "My little girl was in the class but has been too upset to talk about it." God save us. Health and safety regulations go quite a long way already in this country. When they apply to the exercise of the imagination, then let us all give up. They should never be allowed to be worried, to think of endangering themselves, to run a risk, even in their heads, to hear stories in which anyone suffers any negative consequences. Children are not allowed even to think about the dark things which lurk in the woods that have fed the Western imagination for centuries; and if seven is too young to think about such things, then these children will never be allowed to let their terrors play themselves out, harmlessly.

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