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No Statues to Critics – Scottish Review of Books

Theatre in Scotland: A Field of Dreams

Joyce McMillan
Nick Hern Books, £14.99, ISBN  978-1-84842-292-6, PP492
by Joseph Farrell

No Statues to Critics

August 10, 2016 | by Joseph Farrell

The late Robert David MacDonald, director, playwright, translator and one of the trio who ran the Citizens’ Theatre in the days which have already receded into myth, liked to say that they do not erect statues to critics. And indeed they do not, but critics play their part in having statues erected or demolished.

If journalism is the first draft of social history, reviewing may be the only draft of theatre history that will ever be written. Of course the great masterpieces will have their bones picked over, broken apart, sucked dry before fresh flesh is attached to them, but the routine plays drafted by estimable, talented writers, which gave pleasure and stimulated thought on what was perhaps their only outing, are given their monument, although hardly an enduring one, solely in the writings of those critics who sat in the stalls scribbling notes to be transformed into a brief notice for the next day’s paper.

A book has greater permanence, and this anthology contains the reviews and reflective articles on Scottish theatre written by Joyce McMillan over the years since 1981, when she first sharpened her quill and occasionally dipped it in blood. A play produced by 7:84 in 2004, for instance, was shot at dawn as ‘unambitious, not radical, not funny, not original and not even very dramatic.’ In her more appreciative moods, she can attain a level of poetic intensity, as when describing a cycle of Synge’s plays as ‘leaving us so much enriched – in our sense of the wonder of life, its terror, sweetness, dark humour and the huge power of language and storytelling to make it bearable.’

Some linking passages occasionally give the anthology the tone of autobiography, with the drawback of that genre, which is to impose a retrospective pattern on an often messy development, hers as well as the country’s. However, it is a stimulating and excellent work which covers the decades when McMillan had the joy – her word – to cover Scottish theatre in what is the most exhilarating and fruitful period in its history. There is no point in the self-delusion that theatre in this country has a glorious past that was suppressed or kept concealed by malign forces elsewhere, but from the late 1970s, writers, directors and actors have set about establishing a nation’s theatre, ensuring that it achieved the central purposes of offering celebratory enjoyment and providing an arena where ideas could be dramatised, debated, presented as narrative and then thrown back to governors by a no-longer passive public.

However, an arena for the Romans was a sand-pit where dust could be kicked in the eyes, where solid blows could be parried, where feints and foils could be passed off as straight thrusts. Here is a role for a sharp-minded critic, and as she shows in Theatre in Scotland McMillan is unquestionably such a one. The task is to pick out the dust from the eyes, and say eloquently – Look! It is said that every theatre goer is a critic, and that the views of a reviewer whose words happen to appear in print are no more pertinent than those of the person in the stalls, but if it is true judgement, it is a dull one. Some views carry greater authority, deeper insight and have greater impact. All professional reviewers will inevitably question themselves about the nature of their trade, and there have been thoughtful works written in recent times by Eric Bentley, Irving Wardle and Michael Coveney. Astonishingly, Coveney’s work had to be pulped when a fellow hack objected to the way he was depicted in the book.

Even in an age of the filmed recording, theatre is an ephemeral art, and if journalism hardly provides an anti-ephemeral levée, it’s all we poor mortals have. ‘Nations are like Tinkerbell in Barrie’s Peter Pan: they only exist as long as we believe in them,’ McMillan wrote in 1991, as the Soviet Union was disappearing and she was addressing the question of Theatre and Nationhood for an event at Tramway. So who believes in a review? What gives it its value? Any future history which wishes to establish what theatre was like in a given age will have to rely on the records provided by reviewers, and that is as true of any attempt to reconstruct developing attitudes to Shakespeare or Greek tragedy as it is for original work commended or slated at that time. This was so both of the masters of the trade in the past, such as William Hazlitt, G. B. Shaw and Kenneth Tynan, and of the more run of the mill scribblers who eked out their own existence by reporting on what was going on when the lights went down. Critics will also be resented. Simon Callow talks of his annoyance at wasting time in the green room trying to explain away unfavourable notices on the grounds that the play in performance is not really so and so’s cup of tea, his annoyance arising from spending time dissecting the views of someone for whom, he says, actors have so little regard. But critics’ views bite, and last.

Every newspaper reviewer recognizes varying, sometimes conflicting, obligations, mainly to the play and to the readers, and must choose the balance between the two. For McMillan, it is clear that her prime obligations are to theatre itself and to her readers. Reviewers should not regard themselves as part of the theatre industry, since that makes them merely PR persons. The trend towards previews, especially in broadcasting, is inimical to independent, critical judgment. A good reviewer is an essayist who hopefully shares pleasure, but who is also called on to deliver judgments which may destroy the joie de vivre of the original theatre-makers. A pity, but the critic’s perspective has to be that of the person who will pay for a seat in the auditorium. Critics have to be, among other things, reporters who convey the news that if you buy a ticket, this is what happens, this is what you will see and hear, this is the topic, this is the approach adopted. They will report that they have seen a play about, say, the plight of red-haired dwarves in the South Seas, and may go on to exercise their power by stating that the work is simply appalling, but they will at least have conveyed the information that anyone with an interest in the South Seas, in dwarves or indeed in red-heads may find something of interest. McMillan is in this sense a reliable reporter, skilled at re-creating the visual sense of theatre productions.

Style has to be in critic’s portmanteau if their material is to be read. McMillan writes with punchy, crisp clarity of language and thought, without extravagant flourishes but with words trailing elegantly in a series of multi-claused, adjective-laden sentences, sometimes leaving readers anxious that the fabric will come undone, like the threads in a fading tapestry. They do not. She described Liz Lochhead’s Mary Queen of Scots Got Her Head Chopped Off (itself a straggling title) as ‘a ferociously iconoclastic re-examination of Mary Stuart’s life and its significance – in sixteenth-century Scots and standard English, fierce poetic monologue, stylised movement and sharp, almost improvised dialogue’. She also praised that play for what it says about ‘Mary and us, about womanhood and about the nation,’ and this judgment exemplifies McMillan’s central strength, which is a combination of the political and artistic perspective, expressed by a search for the social and civic tone beneath the individual drama. Never before was it so true that all theatre is political.

McMillan has shown herself to be the ideal critic for the recent period in Scottish period history, the one who will give future historians the material they will turn to if they wish find how this age was presented by practitioners and received by audiences. The editor of Theatre in Scotland, Philip Howard, who as director was occasionally scolded by the critic, claims that she has ‘an unblemished record in never having failed to spot a great new play’. Come, come. Even the claims of papal infallibility have their limits. Personally I think she under appreciated Rona Munro’s James plays, but then I may be wrong. But so might she.

However, Vicky Featherstone, lately director of the National Theatre of Scotland, writes in a preface that all theatre-makers craved reviews by Joyce McMillan because of her ‘unrivalled passion and hunger for theatre’. Praise indeed. The prime attributes of a good review are intelligence combined with sensibility, an elegance of expression, a refusal of condescension, an ability to recognize the real thing and to say so even at the risk of the patrician scorn of fellow hewers of wood and drawers of water. Neither consistency nor the primacy of personal taste are admirable traits in a reviewer, who has to be able to appreciate all genres from pantomime to Greek tragedy. Criticism, unlike creativity, requires a heightened responsive quality based on imagination as well as intellectual insight.

Imagination is an invaluable attribute essential, not so that critics read into productions qualities which are in their mind and not on the stage, but to identify implications, trends, signals which the theatre-makers had grasped by instinct but not necessarily consciously. The late Kenny Ireland directed Macbeth in the Lyceum in 1999. It was plainly a bold, radical rethinking of the tragedy and, it appears, an ideal combination of the arts of the director, actor and above all stage designer. The roles of Macbeth and Lady Macbeth were downsized to give more space to what are conventionally viewed as the lesser roles of Malcolm and his allies who led the counterattack against tyranny. McMillan interprets the production as ‘bringing a serious Scottish perspective and voice to … that old, tense Anglo-Scottish relationship, bred into the bones of this text (and) still capable of shedding a dazzling light on it, four hundred years on’. Ireland was a fine actor and director, but one wonders whether on reading those words he did not say to himself – What ho! – as a new vision was offered to him on his already sterling work. That is criticism at its best. And I wonder if anyone else detected in John Tiffany’s 2007 production of The Bacchae, dominated by Alan Cumming’s performance of the god Dionysus, parallels with ‘our own political culture?’

McMillan is also a crusading critic, which means that she does not operate, or not only, in the ‘Field of Dreams’ indicated by the subtitle. Her commitment is to safeguard standards in the theatre in the country in which we have our being here and now. She threw darts, mainly poisoned, at the Scottish Theatre Company during its brief life for their inadequate understanding of what their role could have been, and for an ill-advised choice of programme. When they put on Battle Royal by Bruce Daillie in Pitlochry in 1984, she wrote that they deceived themselves into thinking it was ‘simply a harmless piece of fun,’ whereas it was for her ‘reactionary, divisive and fundamentally damaging to Scottish life’. It should be added that she praised the same company when they put on Marcella Evaristi’s Commedia the following month.

She has championed the work of those who attempt to hew out a new path for themselves, or who raise questions of importance for Scotland or for minorities. Her pieces on Peter Arnott, Stephen Greenhorn, or her articles on Suspect Culture, the company established by Graham Eatough and David Greig, now Artistic Director of the Lyceum, were incisive and appreciative from the outset. She has also used her position as columnist to make life uncomfortable for those responsible for the ‘mean-spirited and often disgraceful’ funding context in what Scottish theatre has had to struggle to survive and thrive. She is at ease with comedy and pantomime, but her abiding quest is to uncover a moral seriousness in works of theatre, and woe betide producers who delude themselves that they can  provide a good night out by staging a giggly play where the humour lies in demeaning portraits of women, gays or minorities. They could expect to find their cover blown by a few well aimed jibes or rebukes, and the standard defence of the ‘ironic approach’, routinely trotted out by such directors, is invariably blown away.

I savour her appreciation of the poetry of such classic works as Othello, revivals of Beckett, or of Dominic Hill’s Peer Gynt, as well as her encouragement of positive signs in young writers still unsure of their path. By no means all the reviews are in this spirit, but this is a work on Scottish theatre’s past which is of value for today and tomorrow.

From this Issue

No Belles de Jour Here

by Anni Donaldson

Road to Somewhere

by Todd McEwen


by Alan Taylor

A Question of Trust

by Dani Garavelli

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