Theatreland duel: critics and director go to war

Jun 7, 2011
Venetia Rainey

A vicious argument is unfolding between Deborah Warner and two feisty theatre critics

Theatreland is in the throes of a very public spat after a well-known director broke the cardinal rule of 'never respond' by calling two critics "complacent toads crouching on their nests".
Deborah Warner's new production of Richard Sheridan's 18th century play, The School for Scandal, has been receiving mixed reviews since it opened at the Barbican over a fortnight ago, with critics divided over whether her loud and garish update works or not.
But for Michael Billington and Charles Spencer, old-time theatre critics for the Guardian and the Daily Telegraph respectively, the play was unequivocally bad.
Deriding the production as "vulgar" and "striving for contemporary relevance", Billington took issue with Warner's "heavy-handedness", and gave the play only two stars.
Spencer went even further, accusing Warner's ideas of being "dim and tawdry", and dismissing the play as "relentlessly over-emphatic" and "arrogant and inept". He finished his review by calling for the director of the "modish tripe" to be "served the theatrical equivalent of an Asbo".
The reviews were standard fare for such experienced theatre critics, negative, but not unusually harsh given Warner's reputation as an award-winning director of Shakespeare, Brecht and Ibsen. However, the gloves came off when Warner chose to respond by writing an article last Wednesday in the Guardian.
In a thinly veiled reproach to the critics, she said that plays needed to be updated, and that "if they lose charm in some critics' eyes, then maybe the world has changed".
"Criticise as you will," she warned her detractors, "but be careful not to put off the new audience. This work may be for them, not for you."
Billington hit back in the same paper by throwing down the gauntlet: "My hunch is that Warner has spent too long seeking to reinvent the classics. If she wants to speak directly to the young, why doesn't she, just for once, stage a play by a living writer?"
Apparently riled, Warner then gave an interview to the Independent on Sunday in which she came up with the "toads" line and argued that "some of our theatre critics have been around for a very long time".
Now Spencer has joined the fray, insisting that he welcomes Warner's reaction "because theatre needs the occasional good bust-up". Referring to "Billers and me", he insisted that while critics may be mostly white and of an older generation, they are also a "remarkably varied bunch, with wildly differing tastes".
"A decent critic should try to inform and entertain readers," he said, "but perhaps above all save them the trouble and expense of wasted evenings out." Ouch.

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