Critics Take to the Boards, and Get Slammed

LONDON -- Four London theater critics working as directors are learning first hand what it means to suffer the slings and arrows they usually hurl.

In an event billed as "The Critics -- Up For Review," a south London theater asked critics to direct four plays. Some reviews have been harsh, with -- no surprise here -- the most scathing criticism coming from fellow critics. "We wanted to give critics the opportunity to see what the process involved," said Lawrence Elman, 27, producer of the three-week season at the Battersea Arts Center in south London.

The season (April 11-27) is costing $65,000 but has generated press attention worthy of shows 10 times as expensive -- even if most of the reviews were bad.

Sir Peter Hall, who directs as many as five productions a year, reviewed Canadian writer Michel Tremblay's "Albertine in Five Times," directed by The Times' second-string critic, Jeremy Kingston.

"Kingston decided for reasons I cannot fathom to direct this play," Hall wrote in The Times on April 14. "With great regret, then, I would advise Mr. Kingston not to give up his night job. And I'm sure he'll give the same advice to me."

Michael Billington, long-time critic at The Guardian newspaper, directed two one-act plays, Strindberg's "The Stronger" and Pinter's "The Lover."

For its review of its reviewer, The Guardian enlisted Adrian Noble, artistic director of The Royal Shakespeare Company. "I think he's a very fine critic," Noble wrote of Billington. "... But he's not an artist."

Other participants in the role-reversal were The Evening Standard's Nicholas de Jongh and freelancer James Christopher.

"We're trying to make a very makeshift bridge between two sides with a history of antagonism unmatched anywhere else in the live arts," said Christopher, 34, who directed the season's only new play, "The Shoe Shop of Desire."

As London's most caustic critic, de Jongh seemed earmarked for a comeuppance, and he only made things harder on himself by ignoring the theater's suggestions that the critics try only modest productions. Instead, de Jongh took on Jean Anouilh's "The Traveller Without Luggage," with its cast of 10.

"Obviously, I was concerned for the actors because I thought they were smashing," de Jongh said by telephone from his north London home. "And obviously I didn't want bad reviews."

Royal Court artistic director Stephen Daldry, writing in de Jongh's own paper, said "the play is not up to much" but the critic "acquits himself with credit." De Jongh said that judgment was "perfectly legitimate."

In the end, the most negative response came from the critical community itself -- and before the plays even opened.

"What is the point?" asked Time Out theater editor Jane Edwardes, characterizing the venture as "a grand publicity gimmick."

"Will I review these shows?" wrote The Observer's Michael Coveney. "I don't review amateur theater."

It just showed, in de Jongh's assessment, "how mean-spirited, grudging, ungenerous, and jealous we are as a fraternity. There is no solidarity, just back-biting envy."