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27 January 2010

Benedict Nightingale: a life in theatre

The former New Statesman critic steps down.

By Sebastian Gillies

 

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?

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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”.