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".

G
Show Hide image

Counting the ways: what Virgin and Other Stories teaches us about want

April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection is both forensic and mysterious.

The title story of April Ayers Lawson’s debut collection, which won the Paris Review’s Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011, begins with a man staring at a woman’s breasts. The breasts belong to Rachel, a recent survivor of breast cancer and a wealthy donor to the hospital where Jake works. His attraction to Rachel grows in tandem with his suspicions about his wife, Sheila, who was a virgin when they married. Jake “thought . . . that she couldn’t wait to lose her virginity to him”. It didn’t turn out like that. Sheila was first horrified by, and then indifferent to, sex. But why does she smile at strange men in the street? Why does she come home so late from orchestra practice? The story ends on the brink of infidelity – but the infidelity is Jake’s own.

“Virgin” is a fitting introduction to the animating question of Lawson’s fiction: who feels what and for whom? The narrator of the second story lists the similarities between her and the two women with whom, at a summer party, she sits in a hammock. “All three of us were divorced or about to be legally so. All three of us were artists . . . All three of us were attractive but insecure and attracted to each other,” she begins. A couple of pages later, this accounting becomes more like a maths puzzle that seems to promise, if only it could be solved, a complete account of each woman and her relation to the others. “Two of us were pale with freckles. Two of us had dark hair and green eyes . . . One of us didn’t talk to her mother and one of our fathers had left and one of our sets of parents had not divorced. . . Two of us had at some point had agoraphobia and all of us had problems with depression . . .” It goes on.

Reading the five stories of Virgin and Other Stories, trying to catch the echoes that bounce between them, I caught myself performing the same move. One story is fewer than ten pages and one more than 60. Two are narrated in the first person and one in a mix of first and third. Two have teenage protagonists and two have young, married protagonists. Two protagonists steal works from a public library. Two stories mention Zelda Fitzgerald. Four contain women who have experienced sexual abuse, or experience it in the course of the story. Four are set partly or wholly in the American South. All five feature characters struggling with powerful and inconvenient desire.

Evangelical Christianity skirts the edges of Lawson’s stories. Her characters are seldom devout but they are raised in an atmosphere of fanatical devotion. The 16-year-old Conner narrates the collection’s funniest story, “The Negative Effects of Homeschooling”. “I saw women only at church,” he says. “Though . . . we went to a progressive church, our women looked the opposite of progressive to me: big glasses and no make-up, long skirts and cropped haircuts. You couldn’t imagine any of them posing naked.” He has “hard-ons ten or 12 times a day”, pores over Andrew Wyeth’s Helga Pictures, is furious about his mother’s intense friendship with a transgender woman and obsesses over a pretty, aloof girl from church. In another story, the 13-year-old Gretchen is fascinated by her piano teacher’s sick brother. Surrounded by people talking in religious platitudes, the two teenagers lack a language for their complicated feelings, re-narrating them as love.

The collection’s last and longest story, “Vulnerability”, suggests that this lasts beyond adolescence. The brutal, joyless sex that takes place near the story’s end is all the more disturbing because of the long, complicated sentences of the 60 preceding pages, in which the narrator tries to make sense of her interactions with two men. By turns she desires them, feels nothing for them and wants them to desire her. Yet brutal though the sex is, its aftermath brings a moment of peace that makes the reader wonder whether she should reconsider her interpretation of what came before. Lawson’s stories, at once forensic and mysterious, show how insistent our wants can be and how hard they are to understand.

Hannah Rosefield is a writer and a doctoral candidate in English at Harvard University.

Virgin and Other Stories by April Ayers Lawson is published by Granta Books, (192pp, £12.99​)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge