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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If the SNP truly want another referendum, the clock is ticking

At party conference in Glasgow, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. 

Nicola Sturgeon described Glasgow as the “dear green city” in her opening address to the SNP party conference, which may surprise anyone raised on a diet of Ken Loach films. In fact, if you’re a fan of faded grandeur and nostalgic parks, there are few places to beat it. My morning walk to conference took me past chipped sandstone tenements, over a bridge across the mysterious, twisting River Kelvin, and through a long avenue of autumnal trees in Kelvingrove Park. In the evenings, the skyline bristled with Victorian Gothic university buildings and church spires, and the hipster bars turned on their lights.

In between these two walks, I heard Scotland’s governing party demand a future distinctly different from the one being sketched out in Westminster. Glasgow’s claim to being the UK’s second city expired long ago but I wonder if, post-Brexit, there might be a case for reviving it.



Scottish politics may never have looked more interesting, but at least one Glasgow taxi driver is already over it. All he hears in the back of his cab is “politics, fitba and religion”, he complained when he picked me up from the station. The message didn’t seem to have reached SNP delegates at the conference centre on the Clyde, who cheered any mention of another referendum.

The First Minister, though, seems to have sensed the nation’s weariness. Support for independence has fallen from 47 per cent in June (Survation) to 39 per cent in October (BMG Research). Sturgeon made headlines with the announcement of a draft referendum bill, but read her speeches carefully and nothing is off the table. SNP politicians made the same demands again and again – devolved control of immigration and access to the single market. None ruled out these happening while remaining in the UK.

If Sturgeon does want a soft Brexit deal, though, she must secure it fast. Most experts agree that it would be far easier for an independent Scotland to inherit Britain’s EU membership than for it to reapply. Once Article 50 is triggered, the SNP will be in a race against the clock.


The hare and the tortoise

If anyone is still in doubt about the SNP’s position, look who won the deputy leadership race. Angus Robertson, the gradualist leader of the party in the Commons, saw off a referendum-minded challenger, Tommy Sheppard, with 52.5 per cent of the vote.

Conference would be nothing without an independence rally, and on the final day supporters gathered for one outside. A stall sold “Indyref 2” T-shirts but the grass-roots members I spoke to were patient, at least for now. William Prowse, resplendent in a kilt and a waistcoat covered in pro-indy
badges, remains supportive of Sturgeon. “The reason she has not called an Indy 2 vote
is we need to have the right numbers,” he told me. “She’s playing the right game.”

Jordi McArthur, a member for 30 years, stood nearby waving a flagpole with the Scottish, Welsh and Catalan flags side by side. “We’re happy to wait until we know what is happening with Brexit,” he said. “But at the same time, we want a referendum. It won’t be Nicola’s choice. It will be the grass roots’ choice.”


No Gerrymandering

Party leaders may come and go, but SNP members can rely on one thing at conference – the stage invasions of the pensioner Gerry Fisher. A legendary dissenter, Fisher refused this year to play along with the party’s embrace of the EU. Clutching the
lectern stubbornly, he told members: “Don’t tell me that you can be independent and a member of the EU. It’s factually rubbish.” In the press room, where conference proceedings were shown unrelentingly on a big screen, hacks stopped what they were doing to cheer him on.


Back to black

No SNP conference would be complete without a glimpse of Mhairi Black, the straight-talking slayer of Douglas Alexander and Westminster’s Baby of the House. She is a celebrity among my millennial friends – a video of her maiden Commons speech has been watched more than 700,000 times – and her relative silence in recent months is making them anxious.

I was determined to track her down, so I set my alarm for an unearthly hour and joined a queue of middle-aged women at an early-morning fringe event. The SNP has taken up the cause of the Waspi (Women Against State Pension Inequality) campaign, run by a group of women born in the 1950s whose retirement age has been delayed and are demanding compensation. Black, who is 22, has become their most ­articulate spokeswoman.

The event started but her chair remained unfilled. When she did arrive, halfway through the session, it was straight from the airport. She gave a rip-roaring speech that momentarily convinced even Waspi sceptics like me, and then dashed off to her next appointment.


Family stories

Woven through the SNP conference was an argument about the benefits of immigration (currently controlled by Westminster). This culminated in an appearance by the Brain family, whose attempt to resist deportation back to Australia has made them a national cause célèbre. (Their young son has learned to speak Gaelic.) Yet for me, the most emotional moment of the conference was when another family, the Chhokars, stepped on stage. Surjit Singh Chhokar was murdered in 1998, but it took 17 years of campaigning and a change in double jeopardy laws before his killer could be brought to justice.

As Aamer Anwar, the family’s solicitor, told the story of “Scotland’s Stephen Lawrence”, Chhokar’s mother and sister stood listening silently, still stricken with grief. After he finished, the delegates gave the family a standing ovation.

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, the New Statesman’s politics blog

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood