When critics go to war

Ding, ding seconds out. The gloves are well and truly off in a good old fashioned spat playing out in the funny pages between two men who represent the ancien regieme of theatre criticisms and an award-winning director with a reputation for bold reinventions of the classics.

In the blue corner are those two critics who embody the establishment and who might require dynamite to remove them from their seats of power; Michael Billington of the Guardian and Charles Spencer of the Telegraph.

And in the red corner is one of the mostly highly regarded female directors, who has put on versions of Shakespeare, Ibsen and Brech and is a twice winner of the Olivier Award for Best Director.

Round 1:

Deborah Warner’s latest production opens to distinctly mediocre reviews across the board. There is general frustration at the need to update a play that is regarded as one of Britain’s finest comedies. Charles Spencer goes to town, calling it inept and awful and finishing off by announcing that Warner should be served with a theatrical equivalent of an asbo.

Round 2:

Warner responds to Spencer in a Guardian comment piece. She argues that plays are meant for updating and that there is no problem by placing it overtly in a modern setting so that they can appeal to new audiences. However critics are to stuck with their preconceived notions of what these plays should be and, with their pining for the past, can be held culpable for stopping a different audience from embracing the theatre.

Round 3: 

Billington counter-punches by tartly claiming that some plays work with updating and some do not. Moreover it is incredibly patronising to suggest that younger people require a play to be updated for it to be a success; they may be perfectly capable of making the leaps of imagination required.

Round 4:

Determined not to let sleeping dogs lie, Deborah Warner refers to the two critics as two complacent toads crouching on their nest. This vivid image conjures up pictures far to horrible to contemplate but it is fair to say that the exchange hit a nerve or two.

Round 5:

Spencer gets in the last word so far, outlining the Telegraph some of the reasons that he has managed to get so far under Warner’s skin. Apparently, like all good feuds, this goes far back into the mists of time. Spencer had taken exception with the casting of a women as Richard II and panned the production as a result. However it seems that Warner has never taken criticism lightly and like all good thespians, she consulted Shakespeare until she found the perfect expression: Patience is stale and I weary of it. Unfortunately she hadn’t counted on Spencer to return the compliment in kind with Things past redress are now with me past care. It seems relations, and possibly reviews, have soured since then.

Are there lessons to be learned from all this?

Never fight critics on their own patch – seriously do you expect to win a war of words played out in the broadsheets? Clearly someone has never read The Art of War? If you must fight, and fighting should always be a last resort, then always ensure you do so on terms that favour you. How about the next production being Throne of Blood, and how about making audience participation this time?

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