Thursday, July 21, 2011

Summer in the City and in the Country

My guess is that Michael Billington has made no secret throughout his career of aspiring to be one of those "national treasures" - public figures who are too prickly or intellectual to have been considered attractive in their early years but who, in their dotage, are generally treated in the media as though they are widely loved - and has cultivated a persona greatly attuned to achieving this status: never too supportive of the avant-garde to suggest radicalism and conservatively disappointed in the art of today, but with a few gentle foibles and preferences suggestive of taste; a generally anti-nationalist, belligerently anti-racist position with just the right touch of xenophobic snapping and loyal patriotism; grumpy enough to make the establishment suspect he really is a closet Tory.

An alert reader directed me to his latest postprandial belch, a review of Much Ado About Nothing. I think the ending rather proves the point I was making above:

But a carnivalesque evening would be better for a touch of self-restraint. In some theatres, actors play to the gallery. Here, they are in thrall to the groundlings.

Well, la di da. Fuck the groundlings! And that's just what impressed Bakhtin about the carnivalesque, isn't it? Its restraint.

But of course, it is the beginning of Billington's review that had the alert reader's steaming to such an extent - well, I'll tell you a little secret: this alert reader woke me up to tell me about this review. Yes, it's true. I sleep with my readers. Not all of you, though. But you should know it's at least possible. In any case, this alert reader was fuming about the following:

On a chill, damp night Jeremy Herrin's production, pre-empting next week's West End version (starring David Tennant and Catherine Tate) conquered its audience. But, although Herrin's production is full of intelligent touches and neatly blends Shakespeare's Messina and Morocco, I found it hard to surrender completely to a show that contains more mugging than you'll find in Central Park on a Saturday night.

Graciously, we might think that Billington is making an in-joke for his New York audience, referring to (and mocking, but perhaps affectionately) the several free productions of Shakespeare in Central Park every Summer: the Public's two productions (this year, Measure for Measure and All's Well That Ends Well) at the Delacorte nestled above Turtle Pond in the centre of the park, and the New York Classical Theatre's productions around the pond at 100th. There is quite a lot of mugging in open air theatre and there's a lot of that going on on any Saturday night in the Summer in Central Park.

(image from

Less graciously, if we suspect he is not referring to the theatrical events in Central Park, we might think it rather odd that the theatre critic for The Guardian hasn't visited New York in over thirty years. And less graciously still, if he has visited New York once or twice since the Ford years, we might wonder about the cultural clumsiness and comic clod-handedness that would have him blurble this sub-sub-Anthony-Lane gag and like it enough not to edit it out. As the alert reader said, it's obvious that he really, really loves his line. In fact, taking a cue from his own sentence, one might say that he surrendered easily to a comic mugging by a bad line.

Speaking of newspapers, I thought I'd share this touchingly and oddly relevant scene from Brideshead Revisited:

Often, almost daily, since I had known Sebastian, some chance word in a conversation had reminded me that he was a Catholic, but I took it as a foible, like his Teddy-bear. We never discussed the matter until on the second Sunday at Brideshead . . . he surprised me by saying: "Oh dear, it's very difficult being a Catholic."
"Does it make much difference to you?"
"Of course. All the time."
"Well, I can't say I've noticed it. Are you struggling against temptation? You don't seem much more virtuous than me."
"I'm very, very much wickeder," said Sebastian indignantly.
"Well then?"
"Who was it who used to pray, 'Oh God, make me good, but not yet'?"
"I don't know. You, I should think."
"Why, yes, I do, every day. But it isn't that." He turned back to the pages of the News of the World and said, "Another naughty scout-master."

Brilliant stuff.


Jeff Strabone said...

It sounds like Billington learned everything he wanted to know about New York but was afraid to ask from Woody Allen's Annie Hall:

You're an actor, Max. You should be doing Shakespeare in the Park.

Oh, I did Shakespeare in the Park, Max. I got mugged. I was playing Richard the Second and two guys with leather jackets stole my leotard.

Jeff Strabone said...

Which raises the question, What kind of person thinks leotards go well with leather jackets?

sw said...

Thank you for remembering that fantastic, and relevant, gag!

Daniel F said...

Billington reminds me more of David Denby than Lane. Both hope that a thorough and entirely conventional knowledge of their subject, and the occasional embarrassing "principled" objection to a new work, will conceal an almost complete lack of insight, style or taste.