Benedict Nightingale: a life in theatre

The former New Statesman critic steps down.

 

Benedict Nightingale's tenure as theatre critic for the Times is to end in June, after 20 years. But his role as a critic stretches back further than that -- he wrote for the New Statesman from 1968-86, a crucial period for British theatre that saw an explosion in fringe companies, playwrights and performance spaces.

Among the shows he would review over the course of 18 years was Martin Sherman's Bent at the Royal Court Theatre on 11 May 1979. It was the first play to record the persecution of gay people by the Nazis:

The purpose of Mr Sherman's theatrical surprise is, of course, to emphasise to his audiences that these things happened in our time and our world . . . There are times when Mr Sherman's attempts to particularise his horrors seem lurid and extravagant . . . Yet the magnitude of the atrocity tends, justly or unjustly, to reduce such complaints to the niggling niceties of a sheltered mind. How can a critic presume to accuse hell of being melodramatic?

Mr Sherman's aim isn't only to disinter an evil often swamped in our memories by the quantitively still greater wrong done the Jews: it's also to strike a blow for the human, and especially the homosexual, spirit in extremis . . . [The result] still isn't quite the persuasive advertisement for gay pride they may have hoped, but it is something not to be despised, a V-sign defiantly flourished at all forms of oppression.

Another important production was Caryl Churchill's exploration of Thatcher and feminism in Top Girls (1982), also at the Royal Court, of which Nightingale wrote:

What use is female emancipation, Churchill asks, if it transforms the clever women into predators and does nothing for the stupid, weak and helpless? Does freedom, and feminism, consist of aggressively adopting the very values that have for centuries oppressed your sex?

John Barton's provocatively explicit RSC production of Troilus and Cressida in 1968 included Helen Mirren and Patrick Stewart in the cast, but it was Alan Howard's Achilles that caught the most attention:

Barton, exploiting his insight for all it's worth, brings onstage an extraordinary Achilles: a prancing, bespangled queen with dyed blonde hair and shaved legs. When his woman's longing is fulfilled, and this creature meets Hector at an inter-army love-in, he throws open what appears to be a nightdress and flaunts his sinuous torso at him.

Alan Howard brings a sulky intensity to the part and, hissing at his enemies like a cat in heat, is consistently more sinister than he is camp. He successfully fends off the wrong sort of laughter. Indeed, it's a brave performance that might be extremely impressive in another play; but it's also, of course, an absurdly sensational piece of exaggeration. Shakespeare's Achilles is decently bisexual, like Plato's Alcibiades and a million other virile young Greeks. If anyone is to be obviously effeminate, it should surely be Patroclus, the "masculine whore" at the receiving end.

The true eccentricity of Howard's reading becomes clear when Sebastian Shaw's canny Ulysses tells him that he knows of his secret love for Priam's daughter Polyxena. "Ha! Known?" asks Achilles; and at this point Howard writhes, moans and clutches himself in an agony that I, for one, found quite bewildering. Was he trying to suggest that Achilles was painfully torn between two illicit passions? Or that his drag was really an elaborate cover-up for a politically embarrassing crush?

I don't know, and I suspect that Messrs Howard and Barton don't know either. For all its surface brilliance, their conception seems inadequately thought out, either in terms of the character or, which is worse, in terms of the play as a whole.

The Radio 4 presenter Libby Purves will take over from Nightingale when he leaves the Times. This comes at a point when many newspapers are moving away from employing professional, specialist arts critics. Theatre-lovers will wait eagerly to see if Purves can fulfil A A Gill's wish for theatre critics to be "aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining".

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Netflix's Ozark is overstuffed – not to mention tonally weird

Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

The main reason why Ozark, the new Netflix series, feels so underpowered has to do with its star, Jason Bateman (who also directs): a good actor who badly wants for charisma, he simply can’t carry it alone. Watching the first few episodes, I kept thinking of Jon Hamm in Mad Men and (a better example here) Bryan Cranston in Breaking Bad, both of whom played, as does Bateman, characters around which the plots of their respective series turned. When they were on screen, which was often, it was all but impossible to tear your eyes from them; when they were off it, you felt like you were only biding your time until they returned. But when Bateman disappears from view, you hardly notice. In fact, it feels like a plus: at least now you might get to see a bit more of the deft and adorable Laura Linney.

In Ozark, Bateman is Marty, an outwardly square guy whose big secret is that he is a money launderer for the second biggest drugs cartel in Mexico. When the series opens, he and his wife Wendy (Linney) and their two children are living in Chicago, where he nominally works as a financial advisor.

By the end of the first episode, however, they’re on their way to the Lake of the Ozarks in rural Missouri. Marty’s partner, Bruce, has been on the fiddle, and the cartel, having summarily executed him, now wants Marty both to pay back the cash, and to establish a few new businesses in which future income may be cleaned far from the prying eyes of the law enforcement agencies. If this sounds derivative, it is. We’re in the realm of Breaking Bad, only where that show gave us out-of-control Bunsen burners and flesh-eating chemicals, this one is more preoccupied with percentages and margins.

Where’s the friction? Well, not only is the FBI on Marty’s tail, his wife has been cheating on him, with the result that their marriage is now just another of his business arrangements. The locals (think Trump supporters with beards as big as pine trees) have proved thus far to be on the unfriendly side, and having paid off their debts, the only house Marty can afford has a cliché – sorry, crotchety old guy – living in the basement. On paper, admittedly, this all sounds moderately promising. But hilarity does not ensue. As dull as the Lake of the Ozarks when the tourist season is over, not even Linney can make Bill Dubuque’s dialogue come alive. Her character should be traumatised: before they left Chicago, the cartel, for reasons I do not completely understand, pushed her podgy lover – splat! – off his balcony. Instead, she’s fussing about the crotchety old guy’s sexism.

Ozark is overstuffed and tonally weird, so I won’t be binge-watching this one. This completes rather a bad run for me and Netflix; after the lame new series of House of Cards and the egregious Gypsy, this is the third of its shows on the trot to bore me rigid. Could the channel use a hit? Every time my subscription leaves my bank account, I think again that it could.

And now to The Sweet Makers: A Tudor Treat (19 July, 8pm), in which we hear the sound of the “living history” barrel being scraped so loudly, those attending the meeting at which it was commissioned must surely have worn ear defenders. Basically, this is a series in which four confectioners “go back in time” to discover how their forebears used sugar (first, the Tudors; next week, the Georgians).

What it means in practice is lots of Generation Game-style faffing with candied roses and coriander comfits by people in long skirts and silly hats – a hey-nonny-nonny fiesta of pointlessness that is itself a sugar coating for those nasty things called facts (ie a bit of tokenism about slavery and our ancestors’ trouble with their teeth).

Resident expert, food historian Dr Annie Gray, strained to give the proceedings urgency, sternly reminding the confectioners that the sugar house they’d spent hours building did not yet have a roof. But who cared if it didn’t? Destined to be eaten by fake Tudor guests at a fake Tudor banquet, it wasn’t as if anyone was going to lose their head for it – not even, alas, at Broadcasting House. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder

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