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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Vinyl makes us happy, here's why we're buying more of it

This once retro format is no longer the preserve of hipsters and music heads. 

So, vinyl sales are up again, with data today showing that sales of records have exceeded that of downloads for the first time. The forces behind this are a combination of the rational and the fashionable, to quote my friend Jim, a Glaswegian music nut in his mid 40s with a family and a sideline in buying and selling records on online marketplace Discogs. He packages up records to men like him who spent a lifetime in clubs and record shops but don’t go out any more, and who crave the cultural connection and community that music offers. Jim’s Discogs sales spike on Friday and Saturday nights when aging music heads drunkenly add another of his vinyl gems to basket. Sales drop off in January, he hypothesises, because his buyers are too sober and broke to pick up that Can “Tago Mago” UK original pressing in envelope sleeve for £140.  

Music released on vinyl is purposefully, trenchantly niche. It celebrates the fact that music isn’t for everyone: a limited edition pressing of a few hundred copies on Bradley Zero’s excellent Peckham label Rhythm Section International may only have an audience marginally above that number. But that doesn’t matter because there are thousands of niches being covered by record labels and private presses releasing new vinyl onto the market, as well as a mixed economy of places to buy a Guadeloupian zouk reissue (highly recommended) or a limited split 7” from Savages. Established record stores like Rough Trade continue to thrive in parallel to their own digital operations. You can buy vinyl direct from the artist on Bandcamp. The Independent Label Market host events across the UK which transform independent labels into market stall holders where they can sell their fresh musical produce direct to shoppers who have record bags not wicker baskets. It might be pricey, but the high resale value of your new vinyl means you can’t really lose, even if you decide that you spent £20-30 on a duffer.   

There’s also a practical reason for releasing music on vinyl, simply because there’s no point putting niche releases on streaming services because the returns are so low. CD sales are falling – they’ve dropped 84% in a decade in the US – although that hasn’t stopped French band Justice from hedging their bets: their last release “Woman” came on a new format that was one side CD and one side vinyl.

A caveat: don’t take the figures at face value. Record sales are overtaking downloads – but that’s also because no-one buys downloads any more. Why would you when you can stream the new Solange album on Apple Music or get lost in the Bandcamp rabbit hole for happy hours at a time?

There’s also a caveat on the quality thing. People often say that music sounds better on vinyl, and there is some truth in it, particularly if you’re a fan of the warming tones of a lovely crackle – but the argument fails to hold water when you’re talking about buying music on high quality wavs. These files, which contain more musical information than MP3s, which are known as “lossy” files because they literally chuck out a tonne of the sonic information in order to create a smaller file, sound great. But they kill your storage and most laptops and phones start to complain pretty damn quickly if you buy too many – unless like the record-buying hardcore, you’re also shelling out on giga-massive external hard drives. The quality argument doesn’t explain the popularity of coloured vinyl and picture discs either, which audiophiles will tell you sound distinctly inferior to gold-standard 180g black vinyl.  Something else must be going on, and our desire for vinyl tells us something about what we’re missing.

“I think people are bored of a digital way of listening,” says Nina Hervé of Rough Trade. “People want community again. Vinyl is a way of sharing your music with people in a communal space or by sharing pictures of what you’ve bought on Instagram. Records are the opposite of listening to music on headphones, which is a way of not talking to people on a train or in the office. It’s communal.”

Essentially, vinyl is a type of plastic, made from oil-derivative ethylene. Plastic is basically compressed sunshine, the product of ancient forests and the sunlight they absorbed, transformed into a conduit for another ancient human need – music. No wonder it makes us happy, and no wonder we’re buying more of it right now.

Emma Warren is a freelance editor and journalist.