March 8, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The reviews of John Peter

One of the problems of occasionally buying the Sunday Times is that I’m forced to read the reviews of theatre critic John Peter. Now, admittedly Peter only gets about 100 words for his Sunday Times reviews, but that shouldn’t prevent them from rising above the senseless rubbish he writes, informed by prejudices and ideas of what Shakespeare should be. This week, he reviews the Tobacco Factory’s Julius Caesar and the Leicester As You Like It, both of which he gives three stars with a variety of criticisms.

His remarks on Caesar annoy me, though for relatively subjective reasons. He suggests the actors needed "another week’s rehearsal to get properly into their characters", yet seems to have completely missed the subtleties of the actors’ performances. Peter knows exactly what he wants his actors to do, and tuts when he doesn’t get it: his review thus focuses on what the actors didn’t do rather than what they did. Leo Wringer "doesn’t tackle Brutus’s agonies of treachery"; Clive Hayward doesn’t explore Cassius’ "streak of hysteria" and Simon Armstrong’s Caesar "is entirely without the imperious charisma his senators so much resent". I won’t go into my own opinions on the performances (they’re in my review); my concern is that Peter has already decided what he wants from a performance and doesn’t appear to watch what’s actually happening in front of him. I utterly despise this kind of ‘checklist’ reviewing, where you go in with pre-established criteria and judge a production by how far it meets those criteria.

Peter’s other bugbear is with verse-speaking, and he gives the final section of his review to a searing critique of Alun Raglan’s "badly rushed and coarsely mangled" speech. Frankly (and I recognise this is subjective, but I don’t care) Peter is just wrong about this. Raglan’s performance was hugely impressive and erudite, his verse speaking powerfully dramatic and carefully controlled, reaching extraordinary heights during moments of rage and passion. It’s comments like this that reinforce the growing impression I have that Peter simply doesn’t watch or listen to the productions he’s sent to.

His review of As You Like It is, to my mind, even more problematic, for similar reasons. Firstly, the checklist. "This is a forbidding play, so it’s a pity that the final masque is cut". What? I’m not sure if he means that the masque would have offset the forbidding nature of the production, or if he thinks that it would have contributed to the forbidding nature of the play which the production had not achieved. Whatever he means, it’s a particularly ridiculous comment considering that the masque was replaced with a four-way multi-cultural wedding ceremony that served the function of the masque with style and resonance. Then he bemoans that the epilogue was cut, "which Ifeachor could have delivered with a seductive panache". Not only is he complaining about textual cuts (which is something critics need to get over), but he’s even directing the play’s finale in his own mind! This strikes me as unbelievable arrogance and presumption in a critic. Bemoaning a performance that could have been a bit better is one thing, but actually fantasising over missing scenes? From my own subjective standpoint, too, I felt that the ending we were given gave the ending of the play a wonderful sense of harmonious closure; I personally think an epilogue would have spoiled what Supple and the company had created.

His reading of individual characters is, again, oddly skewed. "Tracy Ifeachor is a beautiful Rosalind, shy and watchful and definitely not of a coming-on disposition". I refer you again to my own review; but it’s certainly not opinion to note that Ifeachor’s Rosalind was, in her own costume, unusually confident and fiery considering her cultural background and the tyranny of the court (especially compared to the more reticent Celia, who Peter sums up as "frisky and funny, girlish but mature", suggesting that she was the livelier of the pair which is simply not true). To suggest that Rosalind was "not of a coming-on disposition", when this Ganymede physically threw Orlando down, kissed him passionately, rolled with him on the floor and took the top position when they came to a rest, again appears to show that Peter was simply not looking at what was in front of him but at the production taking place in his own mind.

Lastly, it’s the language problem again. "WS’s language has its own music, and it needs more clarity and less speed than it’s getting here". While it’s not explicit, he appears to me to be hinting at the fear expressed by Lyn Gardner about critics’ responses to the production’s multi-accented cast. His suggestion here is that the actors were not applying the correct level of clarity to Shakespeare’s language; which demonstrates Peter was bringing in assumptions, yet again, about the way Shakespeare should be spoken. If you couldn’t understand the actors, just say that – don’t qualify it with your own biases pertaining to Shakespeare’s "own music". Shakespeare’s dead, he’s not here to speak it himself. Every production has its own music – listen to that and judge it on its own merits, not on the outdated ideas that there’s a way it "should" be spoken.

Rant over.

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