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Shouts and Murmurs – February 20, 2024

Hello, and welcome to Shouts And Murmurs, a weekly email for paid supporters of The Crush Bar, written by me, Fergus Morgan. This week, though, just to show anyone who is not yet a paid supporter the quality content they are missing every Tuesday, I have decided to send it out to everyone. To always get it straight in your inbox, you can sign up via the button below.

This week, there is a bit on two censorship storms – both a bit spurious but one more worrying than the other – plus round-ups of the reviews of a whole host of shows that opened in the last week, from Sarah Snook in The Picture Of Dorian Gray, to Matthew Baynton in the RSCs new A Midsummer Nights Dream, to David Greigs new play Two Sisters in Edinburgh. Then there are some links to a few theatre-related interviews and features worth reading elsewhere.

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Previously in The Crush Bar:

Theatre’s toxic relationship with Twitter/X is distracting from the industry’s real worries.

People got worked up about two forms of censorship this week, both fabricated, but one more worrying than the other. Firstly, comments made by actors Ralph Fiennes and Matt Smith about the existence of content warnings resulting in a shock-free, sanitised version of theatre prompted a deluge of tedious, tub-thumping takes online, the general gist of which was that the arts industry was infected with woke freaks who refuse to let anything exciting or experimental happen on stage anymore.

I like Ralph Fiennes and Matt Smith. I dont think they are bad guys at all and I do not think they would like to be associated with this kind of rhetoric: see last weeks issue of The Crush Bar. I do, however, think they are mistaken about how content warnings work and why they are necessary. I also think that there simply is not a problem here. No-one is being stopped from saying anything on stage and no-one is having their evening ruined because they have to walk past a sign with some vague information about the story they are about to witness. I go to the theatre all the time and I am lucky enough not to have to worry about content warnings – and I genuinely cannot think of a single instance of one spoiling the show I was about to see.

Much more alarming was the second censorship storm of the week, which came after Arts Council England updated some of its policies to advise the organisations it supports that activity that might be considered overtly political or activist and goes beyond your companys core purpose could run a reputational risk that would breach funding agreements. The Guardian goes into more detail in this briefing.

Many were quick to raise their concerns about this policy update. What exactly were ACE saying? Were they saying that a subsidised institution that did anything explicitly anti-Tory, or anti-union, or pro-Palestinian, or pro/anti-whatever, would be de-funded? Did that include the actions of individuals working for that institution? Who would be the judge of what was considered beyond a companys core purpose?

Again, I am not convinced that there is any real risk of censorship here. The truth – as emerged in a statement subsequently released by ACE, and by ACE boss Darren Henley when he spoke to BBC Radio 4s Front Rowis that the funding body was simply clumsy in the way it presented a revision of its relationship framework, revision actually resulting from arts organisations approaching ACE for guidance on how best to navigate the choppy seas of social media, rather than a top-down diktat:

Over recent years, we have all, on many occasions, seen individuals and organisations working in the cultural sector subjected to aggressive attacks for the art they have presented, the positions they have taken, or statements they have made. In this context, and in response to requests for guidance on navigating this environment from a number of leaders of cultural organisations, we refreshed our framework on managing reputationalrisks.

Of the many, many opinion pieces published in response to all this, the only one really worth reading is from Lyn Gardner in The Stage. She explores the fraught relationship between ACE and its organisations, and how open to misinterpretation its updated policies are. Most importantly, she points out that it is no wonder these policies provoked such concern, in a world in which the arms length principle of state subsidy for the arts has already been eroded by Nadine Dorries, and in which this Tory government is intent on whipping up culture wars to avoid electoral oblivion:

Maybe this is simple clumsiness on the part of ACE and no more than a storm in a tea cup, but in the current climate, Im not surprised that people have reacted so strongly and feel the need to be alert.

So, perhaps Im wrong, actually? Perhaps the thing we should really be worried about is why we are so quick to get sucked into damaging, delusional debates about censorship – and everything else – that distract from the genuine problems of underfunding and inaccessibility? Perhaps it is the first furore over content warnings – a problem that does not exist, suddenly worked up into a distracting, divisive debate – that we should be worried about, just not in the way Fiennes and Smith think?

Sarah Snook in The Picture Of Dorian Gray.

A lot of big shows opened in the last week, and I wrote more than I meant to in that bit about censorship above, so we are going to race through them pretty quickly.

In London, Australian import The Picture Of Dorian Gray – a one-person adaptation conceived by Kip Williams and performed by Successions Sarah Snook – was showered with four-star and five-star reviews. They praise Snook for her extraordinary performance – she plays all 26 characters – but are most taken with Williams mind-boggling, multi-media staging and how it makes Oscar Wildes 1891 novel relevant for our age of filters and face-tuning. Only a few reviewers find fault with it.

a true high-wire act, not only because of Snooks fleet and fabulous performance but also because of the accompaniment of screens, pre-recorded footage, live film crew, and orchestration of technology that is as dazzling as it is complicated

Arifa Akbar, The Guardian

Across the Thames at the National Theatre, Emily Burns revival of Dear Octopus received three-star and four-star reviews. Some critics are surprised by how moved they were by Dodie Smiths portrait of a pre-war family. Others predictably find the 86-year-old play a bit dated. Everyone agrees that Burns staging, Frankie Bradshaws design and Lindsay Duncans lead performance are excellent, though.

It is what it is: a slightly soppy, unfashionable play whose 90 years are showing. But Burns and the cast honour it, and find truth in it

Tim Bano, The Independent

Also in London, John OFarrell and Luke Sheppards Geldof-endorsed jukebox musical about Live Aid Just For One Day is dramatically shallow but exhilaratingly staged. Doom-happy director Yal Farbers production of King Lear at the Almeida Theatre, with Danny Sapani in the title role, is everything that Kenneth Branaghs take on the tragedy was not: well-acted, thoughtfully conceived, and atmospherically staged. And Rhianna Ilubes debut Samuel Takes A Break at the Yard Theatre is a sharp, spiky satire about colonialism, tourism and more, set in a former slave fort in Ghana.

In Stratford-Upon-Avon, Ghosts Matthew Baynton makes for a brilliant Bottom in Eleanor Rhodes magic-filled staging of A Midsummer Nights Dream for the RSC, even if the lovers are a bit lightweight. Goldfrapps Will Gregorys provides a trippy soundtrack, too. In Manchester, Phoebe Eclair-Powells Bruntwood Prize-winner Shed: Exploded View is a dazzlingly constructed, deftly directed and deeply disturbing play about domestic violence. And in Edinburgh, David Greigs new play Two Sisters is either a moving exploration of adolescence, ageing and regret or a mid-life crisis masquerading as a play. I saw it for The FT and Im afraid Im in the latter camp.

Content warning: next weeks Shouts And Murmurs will feature a review round-up of Matt Smith in Thomas Ostermeiers version of Ibsens An Enemy Of The People.

  • A reluctant legend. Irish actor Marie Mullen won a Tony Award in 1998 for her role in Martin McDongahs The Beauty Queen Of Leenane, and recently starred on Broadway alongside Hugh Jackman in The Music Man. She spoke to Lauren Murphy for The Times ahead of Marina Carrs Audrey Or Sorrow at the Abbey.

  • The pressure of the second show is, now weve been given a platform, what do we want to say? Toby Marlowe and Lucy Moss found fame through Six, the student project that became a blockbuster musical. Last week they revealed their second show, Why Am I So Single? and chatted to Anya Ryan about it in The Times.

  • We were in love with each other on that stage. I spoke to Jessica Brown Findlay about her career so far, appearing opposite Andrew Scott in Hamlet, and starring in Ostermeiers An Enemy Of The People for my regular interview slot in The Stage. She also spoke to The Telegraphs Claire Allfree, but read my one first, please.

  • It is so precisely and carefully written. You feel it more bodily than intellectually. Actor Blythe Duff and director Joanna Bowman spoke to Mark Fisher in The Scotsman about the Scottish premiere of Caryl Churchills Escaped Alone later this week.

  • I guess on the spectrum, Im probably something of an isolate. Star of The Crown Tobias Menzies is in America for the New York transfer of David Farrs stage adaptation of Thomas Vinterbergs movie The Hunt, which originally ran at the Almeida Theatre in 2019. He spoke to The New York Times Alexis Soloski.

  • Also interviewed: David Haig ahead of The Minority Report; David Wood on a career in childrens theatre; composer Gus Gowland in Jason Wards Substack.

  • Sarah always talked about her plays being about love. This month marks 25 years since playwright Sarah Kane died, and Natasha Tripney has spoken to several people involved in productions of her extraordinary playsBlasted, Cleansed, 4.48 Psychosis, and more – for The Guardian.

  • One time, I was driving my car and thismelody just dropped out of the sky. Hadestown returns for a long-awaited London run this month. I chatted to composer Anas Mitchell, director Rachel Chavkin and designer Rachel Hauck, all three of whom won Tony Awards for the show, about its extraordinary, twenty-year journey from rural Vermont to the West End for The Stage.

  • British theatres survival is reliant on a hugely increased subsidy which now feels unlikely. This weeks lament about the state of British theatre comes from Ben Lawrence in The Telegraph. He is right about some stuff, like the long legacy of Covid, and wrong about other stuff. Im not sure that any real line can be drawn between disputes about trans rights and theatres financial woes, for example.

  • Were operating in a landscape where a finished script has as much chance of being your winning ticket as a lucky dip-selected six numbers on a Saturday night. Writer and broadcaster Nick Ahad has responded to news that Colchesters Mercury Theatre will be using a lottery to decide which new play it will produce with a examination in The Guardian of how tough things are for theatre writers now.

  • We had been frustrated by the theatre scene here and we wanted to do something new. Det Fersche Compagnie is a theatre outfit based in The Faroe Islands that will be presenting its show Castle Of Joy at the Barbican next week. Natasha Tripney has spoken to the company and surveyed the history of Faroese theatre in her Substack Cafe Europa, which you should subscribe to if you havent already:

Small islands: Det Fersche Compagnie’s Castle of Joy and the theatre of the Faroe Islands

Welcome to Caf Europa, a weekly newsletter dedicated to European theatre. Hello to anyone who arrived here via Fergus Morgans excellent new cultural round-up Shouts and Murmurs. If you dont already subscribe, Id highly recommend it. In a similar vein, if you find this newslett

Read more

a month ago 2 likes Natasha Tripney

I went to the cinema last week to see Andrew Haighs new film All Of Us Strangers, starring Andrew Scott, Paul Mescal, Claire Foy and Jamie Bell. It is a beautifully shot, devastatingly moving piece about parenthood and loss and lots more. I find it baffling that Scott in particular has not been nominated for every award going, and I very much recommend you catch it in the cinema while you can.

Thats all for this issue of Shouts And Murmurs. Ill be back in your inboxes on Friday with your regular issue of The Crush Bar. Thanks again for reading. A quick reminder that to get Shouts And Murmurs in your inbox every Tuesday, you need to sign up as a paid supporter.

If you want to get in touch with me about anything at all, just reply to this newsletter, email me at [email protected], or find me on Twitter/X, where Im @fergusmorgan.

Have a good week.