Posted by Vikki in September's Magazine
Vikki Jones investigates… How the National Theatre of Scotland’s Caledonia, a play derided by audiences as “embarrassingly awful” and “absurd and poorly thought out”, managed to rack up a catalogue of decent reviews in the Scottish press…
On paper, this year’s flagship Edinburgh International Festival production was sure to be a hit. A new script by renowned political satirist Alistair Beaton; directed by the pioneering and inventive Anthony Neilson and starring The Thick of It’s Paul Higgins in the leading role, it was looking pretty promising.
Not only that, the subject matter was the kind of self-referential display of Scottish-ness us theatregoers love. In recounting the tale of Scotland’s ill-fated and expensive attempt to colonise the Isthmus of Panama in the 1690s, the play draws parallels with our recent financial and political history with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks.
I for one was disappointed, baffled and, as other online comments from audiences have mentioned, rather embarrassed. The script is informative, but often wordy rather than sharp, yet it feels as though the actors have been instructed to play for laughs no matter what, and if that is at the expense of the story then so be it. The stilted, melodramatic and mostly pantomimic performances come across as uncomfortable for both the actors and the audience, and this is not helped by the lack of personality and humanity provided by the script. The characters lack both colour and depth and so, when the true horror of the losses of life caused by the scheme is revealed, an ending which was intended to be moving and dramatic, feels unnecessary and ineffectual.
That, ladies and gentleman, is my fancy pants way of telling you I thought it were crap. Friends and colleagues have agreed and there has been much mutual rolling of eyes and shaking of heads in our shared dismay. But not so Scotland’s theatre critics who, if you take their star ratings to mean anything at all, seemed to rather like it. Four stars from the List and the Scotsman, three from the Herald and a rather glowing report from Scotland on Sunday – has the world gone mad? Or do those in the know regarding Scottish theatricals know something we don’t?
The star ratings seem all the more incongruous, however, on reading the reviews themselves. In the List, Steve Cramer is willing to forgive the play’s “few rough edges” (only a few?) in praise of NTS’ choice of subject which, apparently, “many other companies have shown a want of courage in avoiding”. I’m sorry to whinge on like a journalism student about the – Who? What? When? Where? Why? – here, but many other companies – who? As for the courageous subject matter, is this really the first time we’ve heard about the power politics of the banking crisis, or have you spent the last three years with your head in a bucket? It all seems to come down to finding a way to justify those stars.
But at least an attempt to justify the award was made. According to Joyce McMillan of the Scotsman, only some of the play’s supposedly comedic moments are “effective”, with others being branded “over-pitched and cack-handed”. And, we are told, the production’s “uncertainties of tone reflect a deep ambivalence within the play itself about the story it tells”. Great! Not even the show itself gives a monkey’s, but I like my ambivalence pretty deep-rooted, so four stars seems fair, doesn’t it?
The Herald manages to provide a little more genuine ambivalence, with Neil Cooper criticising the pairing of a lavish production with pared down theatrical techniques and the badly handled balance of the sentimental and the scathing. But despite resolving that “the play is tugged in too many different directions to ever fully arrive home intact”, there are still three, what seem like rather generous, little stars to go with it.
A couple of the more London-centric papers panned it. The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer was pulling no punches, calling the production a “mixture of sanctimony and incompetence [that] proves well nigh unendurable” and awarding a single, solitary star. The Sunday Times’ Alistair McKay is also unmoved by all this self-referential and self-involved hunting for a Scottish identity. Before opening night, playwright Alistair Beaton, whose difficult relationship with director Anthony Neilson had already been documented in the press, distanced himself by returning to his home in London and stating his intention to make no further comment on Caledonia. Even before the reviews arrived, the mood surrounding the piece from within the ranks seems abundantly clear.
So why are the Scottish critics so unwilling to say what the public and their London-based colleagues are not? It could be something to do with the way in which the production has been funded – £200,000 came from the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, which, over three years, will provide £6million of grants to “showcase Scotland’s creative talent”. With the City of Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Government increasingly strapped for cash and calls for arts funding to be scrapped in favour of spending on health and education, Caledonia is probably not the flagship of Scottish creative endeavour the government had in mind.
Could this praise for mediocrity also perhaps be down to the Scottish theatre community’s desire to protect its newest national institution? The National Theatre of Scotland has now been on the go for four years and has undoubtedly provided the support and finances necessary to take Scottish theatre outside its national borders. However, despite numerous big budget productions, the company has not yet managed to replicate the success of 2006’s outstanding site-specific production, Black Watch. And judging by the online reception to Caledonia, some audience members are beginning to wonder if NTS is ever going to. A guardian.co.uk user hit the nail on the head when they questioned “how long the National Theatre of Scotland can continue making work that doesn’t meet the mark”.
But what, in fact, is the ‘mark’ if our critics will lavish stellar praise on a production even when their choice of words contradicts it? Perhaps the rise of online commentary and reviews about, by and for the general public has given theatre critics the heebie-jeebies. Traditionally, the critic was an academic, regarded universally as an expert, whose views were seldom questioned. If their readers disagreed they might receive the odd strongly worded letter, but largely their judgement would be considered sacrosanct by artists, by the general public and, of course, by themselves.
Nowadays those pesky citizen journalists are everywhere, spoiling the fun by simply writing down what they really think, regardless of whether it upsets those fragile arty types or not. Are the critics taking pity on their subjects? Pandering to a closed community of theatrical bigwigs? Protecting arts funding? Or are they simply trying to distance themselves from the inarticulate mutterings of the riff raff? Whatever their reasons, all these unnecessary sparkles just don’t cut it. Tell us what you really think, because we’re certainly going to tell you .
Pic: Manuel Harlan