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Michael Coveney: Yet more critic bashing, on and off stage

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When Adrian Lester played Hamlet, the Daily Telegraph suggested that he was wrong to do so as the character was Danish and presumably white. No doubt, and rightly, the review rankled and partly fired up the new play, Red Velvet, written by Lester's wife, Lola Chakrabarti, in which he stars at the Tricycle in Indhu Rubasingham's debut production as artistic director.

Lester's identification with Ira Aldridge, the 19th century American black actor who was dislodged from playing Othello at Drury Lane after replacing Edmund Kean, runs deep. You can feel it when, at the start of the second act, the reviews of Aldridge's performances are recited among the cast.

Aldridge was widely renowned for having a voice much deeper and better than either Kean or Macready, but the Spectator voiced an opinion that outweighed such considerations: "An African is no more qualified to personate Othello than a huge fat man would be competent to represent Falstaff... English audiences have a prejudice in favour of European features, which more than counterbalance the recommendations of a flat nose and thick lips."

This sort of reponse worked in reverse when it came to Olivier's Othello at the National, the greatest I've ever seen (or will see). The critical fracas surrounding it was prompted by the sight of Jonathan Miller in the audience at the Tricyle last night; Miller inclined to the Alan Brien view of that performance as insulting to negroes - classified in Brien's Sunday Telegraph notice as "West Indian bus conductors" - in its cultivated deep voice, swaying hips and prowling bestiality.

It's such a difficult area, this; we are assuming for the moment that only black actors can now play Othello. But the character's a Moor and there was nothing even vestigially racist (in the sense of giving offence) in the performances I've seen by Ben Kingsley, Paul Scofield or Michael Gambon, only the latter two "blacking up." 

At the end of the new play, Lester "whites up" as King Lear, sombrely and vengefully (the character is on the point of death), like some grotesque Samurai warrior, face caked in white, beard and white wig in place. Is this a defiant racist (in the sense of anti-racist) gesture? Or is it an admission of defeat: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em? The play is unclear on this.

There's nothing an audience likes more than to see critics put in their place, and Red Velvet does this pretty well, and not just in the review-reading scene. But times do change and I don't recall too much dissent when Lester played a ground-breaking Rosalind for Cheek By Jowl, or the first black Henry V at the National Theatre for Nicholas Hytner (who will direct him as Othello next year).

He's a magnificent actor, full stop, and there an end. Personal remarks have led to another bust-up, this time between critics themselves, as Ian Shuttleworth has laid into Quentin Letts for the latter's remarks about the glittering audience, and Christopher Biggins, at the first night of Bully Boy at the new St James Theatre.

I'm with Letts on his right to review the audience - and to be rude about them - as well as the actors (when I started out on the Financial Times, I was asked by my arts editor if I wouldn't mind reviewing less of the former and more of the latter when I next went along to Chichester); the theatre's a social event with the audience as paying equal partners. In so many ways, as any actor will tell you, an audience defines the event on stage.

I do, however, query Letts' judgement of Biggins as a shallow fool. Simon Callow laughs just as loudly at first nights, and he's the opposite of that. And Biggins I can categorically vouch for as the very opposite, too; he's a highly intelligent and perceptive person, incorrigibly committed to creating a different impression altogether; and he's far more steeped in theatre lore, wisdom and practical knowledge than most critics, Letts included.

But Letts' review had a rhetorical purpose, for which he deserves credit. He deliberately contrasted, over 350 tightly organised and vivid words, the subject matter of the play (post-traumatic stress disorder and physical disability among serving soldiers) with the first night fervour of a brand new theatrical enterprise. In his way, he did full justice to both the play and the social occasion of a first night, and millions of people read the review.
I'm wary anyway of critics bashing other critics, even when I do it myself. No single critic is immune to charges of laziness, ignorance or sheer stupidity. We all have our moments. And who cares what critics think about each other anyway? It's the kind of pointless, incestuous activity that can only win critics an even lower place in the public esteem than they already occupy.

One or two of them even wrote a letter to an arts editor demanding that Tim Walker of the Sunday Telegraph should be relieved of his duties. On whose behalf, I wonder? Their own, the theatre's, common human decency's? Of course, they were ignored; any editor worth his or her salt who receives complaints about a critic knows that the critic in question must be doing something right. And one or two of the complainants have been badly singed and winged in the aftermath. Oh dear, which of us shall be saved...


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