By Harry Mottram: Reports from Germany this month that ballet director Marco Goecke had smeared dog excrement in the face of reviewer Wiebke Huster has prompted reviewers to reflect on their Marco moment. Including me.
In The Guardian Michael Billington recalled when he was hit on the head by David Storey after describing his Mother’s Day play as ‘a stinker.’ Just as bad for him was when theatre director Jonathan Miller encouraged fellow dramatists to review plays rather than ‘by nonentities like Michael Billington.’
That’s a bit like getting fellow restaurateurs to judge a chef’s meal in a restaurant rather than a journalist. The whole point is a reviewer is an outside – a reviewer is essentially a member of the public who steps off the street with some knowledge of the subject to give a subjective review. The one rider is that journalists’ copy, or writing, must be read or they will be fired by an editor, so it is essential to include some headline grabbing phrases – and that’s the bit our victims don’t always get. An actor, a director or a chef will accept a rave review and happily quote it in their publicity but throw a tantrum if they are criticised – however mildly.
Famously the Australian musician and comedian Tim Minchin completely lost it when his Edinburgh Fringe show in 2005 was described as “a bog-standard standup with a silly voice and a few good songs” by Phil Daoust. Minchin responded by calling the critic a “fucking poo-face” who “should quit and get a job that you’d be better at / Like killing yourself, you fucking cunt” and “I hope one of your family members dies.” He even wrote a song about Daoust to further vent his displeasure.
For myself I’ve been taken to task by irate restaurateurs, stand-up comedians, actors and dramatists. One actor complained that I had said he looked too well fed on RAF rations to fit into a Spitfire in Terence Rattigan’s play The Deep Blue Sea, and not just complained once but again and again – every time I saw him. After a production of Peter Pan in Exeter I mentioned that Wendy seemed to have difficulty in flying away in one scene – she wasn’t a petite Wendy – but more importantly her harness got snagged and for a time she dangled above her bedroom. Another ticking off from her fellow actors came my way by email.
The acclaimed stand-up Stewart Lee’s agent wrote a long letter to the Bristol Evening Post after I reviewed his show in Weston-super-Mare’s Playhouse pointing out a lot of people walked out. Whether it was the repetitious nature or his material or his less flattering remarks about the seaside town I didn’t comment on – but it was a severe dressing down in newsprint for daring to say the unsayable – that not everyone appreciated the comic. In my defence it was a long time ago when he was still evolving his style.
I have had to fend off accusations of making cheap jokes about restaurant meals such as the ‘hot rolls landed on the plate like Medieval munitions’ at Franks in Cheddar (which was good), or when at the Bank House in Axbridge due to the small portions I suggested it was the first time that ‘I’d lost weight when dining out.’ (Not good.) That got me a long and vitriolic email from the owner. Then there was another angry response from the manager of the Walnut Tree in North Petherton after I wrote that ‘the chicken tagliatelle had a distinct lack of taste, a blandness reflected in the wall-to-wall piped music featuring the Best of the Eagles.’
All pretty mild compared to how my fellow critics have been treated. Adrian Searle had a turd delivered to his front door in a jiffy bag and has been shouted at and punched. Arifa Akbar was forced to apologise to a theatre director for her two-star review. It didn’t work as the director piled on more insults and vitriol. A lesson learnt she said – and I fell for that one as well after my editor encouraged me to apologise to a school drama teacher for the mildest criticism for a musical. (I wrote that the stage in the school hall didn’t help the action due to its structure.) Again all I got was more anger from a paid up member of the thin skinned dramatists of England.
I’ve known critics who have been banned from theatres for writing critical reviews – which is daft – and I’ve been told by press officers on rare occasions that I can only review a show if it is positive. Something I’ve always ignored. One of the reasons I don’t give plays a star rating in Bath Voice if I can help it is as every play I’ve ever seen has some merit whether it’s the lighting, the acting or the set. Very few plays deserve less than three starts – but I feel that people only read a review if they are going to see it or it gets a one star or a five star rating.
Like most reviewers of a play I always get away as soon as the show ends so as not to meet the cast or director in the bar afterwards. It happened once at Exeter’s Northcott where I was surrounded by the cast who demanded to know what I thought. It’s best to smile politely and say you enjoyed the show and escape. Dave Simpson writes how he was punched after one review when he said he’d rather drown in porridge than listen again to the band Slowdive. So far, I’ve not been punched. A quick exit is always the best policy and a race home to the keyboard where your thoughts can spill out – in the certain knowledge somebody won’t be fully happy with your words. Thankfully I’ve not had dog poo wiped on my face – yet.
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