Writer vs Director vs Actor in Edward’s epic battle

Much of the critical reaction to the National’s production of Marlow’s Edward II has been withering, and for generally mild-mannered reviewers, bordering on the vitriolic. Leading the charge is, inevitably, Quentin Letts in The Daily Mail who suggests the ‘the only thing murdered in Joe Hill-Gibbins’s puerile, inept production is the play itself’ (ouch) and is followed, perhaps rather too stridently, by Tim Walker in The Telegraph who found ‘In almost 10 years of reviewingedward ii and gaveston: not your everyday production theatre, I doubt I have been confronted with a bigger load of indigestible old tosh’ and couldn’t help but the boot into the subsidised sector while he was at it; ‘the kind of production that simply could not happen in the commercial West End.’

Many people would doubtless agree with Mr Walker’s final sentence but the despair being aimed less at the National and more with eyes turned pointedly north of the river at the risk-averse nature of the private sector behemoths; happy to suck up the most profitable of the tried and tested subsidised productions before reverting back to a steady rotation between Noel Coward, Alan Ayckbourn and A.N Musical complete with X-Factor star.

If the overt agenda setting of Mr Walker’s column can be ignored– and the reference to‘comrades’ at the National rather says it all – it makes an important point in reminding us that the licence to put on a production this lavish ultimately comes from the public purse.

Joe Hill-Gibbin’s is a talented director who had great success at the Young Vic but his career trajectory is taking a worrying turn towards the excessive. A bright start led to a stint at the Young Vic where he created a stunning yet simpleEdwardII and Isabel revival of Martin McDonagh’s brilliant Beauty Queen of Leenane and directed the only Tennessee Williams production I have ever managed to enjoy (The Glass Menagerie).

He scored an unexpectedly huge hit with the fun but rather too hyper-kinetic The Changeling, which showed a suffusion of talent but equally there were times where a restraining hand might have been called for. It is troubling that on the grandest stage of all Hill-Gibbin’s has not only failed to adjust his style but that the flaws, rather than being flattened in the vast space of Olivier, have only been magnified.

Whilst we must allow artistic companies the freedom to make mistakes, watching Hill-Gibbin’s exuberant production reminded me of the wisdom of Bob Balaban’s protective mother in A Mighty Wind justifying the use of a Shetland pony to play polo on the grounds that ‘if he has to fall, he shouldn’t fall from so very high’.

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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?