Six of the Best: Scathing Babel Reviews

With the dust beginning to settle around the remains of the ill-fated Tower, it only remains to pick through the rubble for some choice quotes from a set of reviewers who have acted with a singularity of purpose that one wishes might have applied by the eight partner companies behind Babel.

With hindsight it seems horribly inevitable that a production based on the story of the development of languages should be so inchoate in its own messages. Working together like a pack of wolves scenting blood, reviewers of all shapes and sizes have seized on its weaknesses in order to give all concerned a right kick in the Babels.

Given the general tone of respectable politeness that most of my peers exude the only reasonable explanation is some kind of Village of the Damned-style mind control. Tragic of course, but rather than waste the opportunity this humble reviewer has taken the opportunity to gather together the most scabrous, haranguing, bad-temperedly bilious reviews in one easy cut-out and keep article. So do please enjoy.

Six of the best

6. Michael Coveney, What’s On Stage

“The best part of it is the queuing outside (rather like on the first day of a Lord’s Test Match), the bar inside, the gathering in the Pleasance round the corner…”

Well it seems only fair that we kick off with one of the more positive reviews. It is true that a £3.50 for a decent sized cup of red wine, the bar on site proved to be remarkably better value than the eye-wateringly high prices that regularly empties the pockets of punters frequenting the Barbican.  The review does rather go downhill from there…

5. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

“…politically correct, dramatically inert and involves a great deal of tiresome queuing

Ok, scratch that, maybe not everyone liked the queuing.

4. Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies

“…sickly stench of hippyish platitudes and synthetic good will”

Hmm, it really does seem that people were turned off by the do-gooding spirit of the whole affair. Perhaps audiences have become more cynical but I am sure that we weren’t the only ones expressing some sympathy with the guards, particularly when being forced to face protestors with sentiments that sounded like they were agreed by passing around a conch at a commune in the 1970’s.

3. Charles Spencer, The Daily Telegraph

“…we are instructed to “cherish the child that holds your hand.” At this point I thought I might throw up.”

Yes, there really was a backlash against the way the sentiment in the show is presented. Even our muesli-eating friends at the Guardian had problems with it being ‘too politically naïve, too lacking in complexity and texture’. If they hoped it might strike a chord with those issue-conscious Indy readers then, well, bad luck: making the schmaltzy declarations of our shared humanity […] shouted out at the end harder to swallow”.

=2. Eleanor Turney, A Younger Theatre / Michael Coveney, What’s On Stage

banal pomposity” / “self-conscious, low-level, intellectual sloppiness”

A tie for 2nd place as A Younger Theatre and What’s On Stage battle it out for the most succinctly elegant riposte. Turney wins on artful simplicity, whereas Coveney has the edge on bilious testiness.

And our winner is…

1. Matt Trueman, Carousel of Fantasies

“Only the spirit in which Babel was conceived saves it from being irredeemable. In its execution, it ranks as a failure on all fronts, most significantly on the grounds that it fans the very cynicism that it sets out to counter”

Umm, ouch. As an introductory paragraph this pretty much takes the biscuit. In most of the reviews it would take until the second or third paragraph before really laying into the production but Trueman sets his sights on the jugular from almost the first word. In fact the whole effect is magnified by the half-hearted attempt to inject some positivity by referring to the spirit of the production. I remember being in a rugby team walloped by over 100 points against our public school betters, apparently we could console ourselves in the fact we ‘played the game with spirit’. It didn’t console me then, and it shouldn’t console anyone now.

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?