National Theatre artistic director Nicholas Hytner has attacked critics by calling them misogynistic “dead white” men following unflattering overnight reviews of A Matter of Life and Death directed by Kneehigh artistic director Emma Rice, which opened last Thursday (10 May 2007, previews from 3 May).

Hytner told The Times today that most of the veteran male critics who wrote for daily newspapers were unable to see past the gender of female directors such as Rice (See Today’s Other News). According to Hytner, “it’s fair enough to say that too many of the theatre critics are dead white men.”

Based on Powell and Pressburger’s classic 1946 film, A Matter of Life and Death follows the romance of radio operator June and war pilot Peter who, having cheated death after jumping from a blazing plane, must plead his case for life in a heavenly tribunal. It’s adapted by Tom Morris and Emma Rice, who also directs. The cast features Tristan Sturrock (as Peter), Lyndsey Marshal (June), Douglas Hodge and Theatre Vesturport’s Gisli Orn Gardarsson. The second production in this year’s Travelex £10 Season in the NT Olivier, A Matter of Life and Death runs in rep until 21 June 2007.

While all reviews were quick to compare the stage version with the film original (in most cases considering the latter superior), the overall critical consensus seemed unmoved rather than scathing, with only two critics conducting a direct assault on the Rice and Morris adaptation.

  • Michael Coveney for (three stars) – “There’s no faulting the ambition, or the exuberance, of this spirited adaptation for the National, in association with Kneehigh Theatre, of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s 1946 movie which was part technical fantasia, part love story and part Shavian debate in a celestial court of law. It is just a little hard, sometimes, to see the point of it all. Morris and Rice create a uniform phantasmagoric world of bicycling nurses – at one point pedalling upside down to reveal a frantic line of threshing thighs and white stockings – and pyjama-clad male hospital patients. The action sags a little in the course of two-and-a-quarter uninterrupted hours, but there’s no question that customers in the continuing £10-a-ticket Travelex season will feel they have good value.”

  • Nicholas de Jongh in the Evening Standard (one star) - “Adaptors Tom Morris and Emma Rice have torn the heart, soul and magic from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger's famous fantasy film of 1946. They have transformed A Matter of Life and Death into a finger-wagging, pacifist sermon, as if victory over Hitler in 1945 was a source of shame not joy. Morris and Rice's adaptation is a glossed-up, flamboyant piece of physical theatre, the film's atmosphere of visionary strangeness sent up by actors climbing ropes, fires burning in buckets, bedsteads on ropes and a line of nurses frantically bicycling while horizontal in bed. Do not ask how or why these nurses are so portrayed, since Rice's production keeps subordinating sense to meaningless spectacle and flickers of comic amusement. Rice's grim, new Matter of Life and Death is fit for mercy killing.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “The 1946 Powell-Pressburger movie, on which this show is based, was an optimistic paean to passion. Tom Morris and Emma Rice, as co-adaptors, have transformed it into a pessimistic assault on the random brutality of war. The result is a fascinating reappraisal of the original work, flawed only by a lack of narrative dynamic. The meaning is clear: war will always triumph over private passions. What prevents this seeming a bleak coda is the way Rice's production brims with an urgent sense of life.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Time (two stars) – “I’m hard-put to explain the nurses who lie on beds pedalling on upended bicycles, but, like the aerial cavortings that follow, they are presumably meant to create a sense of surreal wonder. The piece needs that sense because it is less exceptional than it seems. I liked the stylised ping-pong Hodge plays with Marshal’s June — but not enough to feel I was watching a play that mattered.”

  • Siobhan Murphy in Metro (four stars) – “There’s a slightly overwhelming amount of ingenuity in the staging: fire and smoke, swinging beds, large-scale projections and song-and-dance numbers vie for attention. But the darker messages woven into this tale, strong performances and sharp humour imbue this production with enough heart to ensure it’s more than just high spectacle.”

  • Christopher Hart in the Sunday Times (two stars) – “It might have been great. Sadly, it isn’t. More of an extravagant mess. The overall impression is of a story line struggling to breathe beneath layers of exaggerated theatricality laid on with a trowel. Desperately striving to avoid the plodding and the prosaic at all costs, Rice and Morris achieve not the unforgettable fairy-tale magic and melancholy of the film, but only gaudy spectacle and even silliness.”

    - by Malcolm Rock