Reviewing can be a balancing act, with actors saying they want reviews but all too often really meaning they only want good ones. Preferably five star.

if you see something great, things are straightforward. But what if you see something badly acted, incomprehensible or just dull? If you lay into it you feel bad for the actors and crew, who have almost certainly put their hearts and souls into the production. If you don’t, how will your readers know about its faults? And if you just say everything is wonderful, people will soon stop reading your reviews because they’ll learn nothing from them (except, perhaps, that you’re a pathetic people-pleaser.)

I once witnessed an actor lash out (verbally) at a critic who remarked that he didn’t understand a scene in a play, a scene that I must say had confused me too. And if we, as reasonably experienced reviewers, don’t get it, will the paying public fare any better?

A reviewer working for a national newspaper has a huge amount of clout. In 1958 Kennth Tynan was The Observer’s lead theatre critic.  In the summer of that year he went to see Eugene Ionesco’s The Chairs and The Lesson. He was unimpressed. Tynan felt that drama should reflect reality, in particular the social and political issues of the time, and that anything else was self-centered and selfish.

Ionesco felt that these issues were amply dealt with in books and political speeches. To write plays about them seemed to him pointless and empty. He saw the dramatist’s role as an exploration of the artist’s own philosophy, which for him centred around the essential futility of existence. To Ionesco, a critic’s job was to comment on how effective the artist had been in conveying these ideas, not on the ideas themselves.

When he read Tynan’s review, Ionesco responded with a long letter to The Observer, which the newspaper published. Tynan replied, and plenty of other creative heavyweights chimed in too. Some agreed with Tynan, some with Ionesco. George Devine, director of the increasingly experimental Royal Court Theatre (where Tynan had seen the plays) backed Ionesco. John Berger agreed with Tynan. Even Orson Welles got involved, though he seems to have urged compromise on both sides. The discussion raged on (though The Observer stopped printing it) and is now seen as

‘one of the most interesting discussions on this subject ever conducted in public’  

(Martin Esslin: The Theatre of the Absurd)

Now a new play written by Dan Sinclair and directed by Tegan Steward revisits the Ionesco/Tynan row/debate, and uses the Absurdist tradition itself to examine the respective roles of the artist and critic, and to look at what happens when egos on both sides feel unjustly attacked.   

York University DramaSoc’s performance of The Courteous Enemy opens in the editorial offices of The Observer, where the all-female cast is dancing to Irving Berlin’s There’s No Business Like Show Business. Soon David Astor (Jasmine Clarke, who captures the essence of the wealthy but generally well-meaning aristocrat well; Astor is used to everyone being a ‘good chap’ and most things being resolvable over a good lunch), proprietor of the paper, and Kenneth Tynan (impressively played by George Firth as a fascinating mixture of integrity and dissipation) are knocking back the Scotch and discussing the burning issue of the day: Suez. They’re expecting a visit from the incensed Ionesco, but before he arrives they indulge in a bean feast of racism and homophobia that may well have been typical of the time, but unfortunately sounds all too familiar today (and Astor was relatively liberal.)

Astor’s plan to deal with Ionesco is to try reason, and if that fails to threaten to blackmail him with compromising photos of the playwright with ‘Marilyn’ (presumably Marilyn Monroe, then the wife of Arthur Miller, one of the writers Ionesco had labelled ‘representatives of left-wing conformism.’ In other words, Astor will accuse Ionesco of sleeping with the enemy by proxy – or perhaps of just getting at Miller in a time-honoured way.)

Anna Cornish’s Ionesco is about as absurd as they come, with an accent worthy of Allo! Allo! and a temperament worthy of every 1950s British preconception. While Astor does his best to pour oil on these most turbulent of waters by scattering invitations to El Vino’s like confetti, Kenneth and Eugene fight like cats in a sack;

‘He started it!’

‘It’s my JOB!’

Then up pops a puppet theatre, complete with some very funny sock puppets – a reference to Ionesco’s childhood obsession with Punch and Judy shows in the Jardins du Luxembourg

‘It was the spectacle of the world itself, which, unusual, improbable, but truer than truth, presented itself to me in an infinitely simplified and caricatured form, as if to underline its grotesque and brutal truth’

And it’s not just Ionesco who now sits transfixed; Tynan loves it too.

It’s a bit like the football match played by German and British soldiers on Christmas Day 1914, and serves to highlight the underlying commonality between artist and critic. All the rest is just noise, and it’s this that, I think, is The Courteous Enemy’s message; if there’s no existential meaning to life, art is one of the few things that can serve to unite us. Punch and Judy has a plot, but it’s always the same plot. The puppets’ language is virtually incomprehensible; they communicate with one another (and with us), in so much as they do at all, through very basic and mostly violent actions. They are the epitome of Absurdism, but they make us laugh, and really, life is so absurd that laughter is the only thing that will get us through it.

The Tynan/Ionesco argument does not, of course, end there; soon they are back to the sparring match, participating in a nonsensical mock trial, with Tynan stating the case of critics everywhere;

‘I am the guardian of patrons’ pocket money. I have a duty’

and Ionesco presenting a very long argument about a satsuma. When a highly pretentious Samuel Beckett (an excellent Katie Leckey) rocks up, closely followed by none other than Welles himself  (a brilliant impersonation by Ciara Southwood) things go from mad to madder. Astor’s attempt to blackmail Ionesco backfires and he starts to lose the plot (assuming there ever was one…), Ionesco’s contorted logic ties everyone in knots, God talks through one of the playwright’s pigeons and total chaos ensues.

This is a very fast-paced, lively and entertaining production from a talented and well-rehearsed cast. I did occasionally find myself slightly confused at to who was who (it helps if you already know the story, at least in outline), but Sinclair’s script is intelligent and sharp, and Harvey Kitchen’s set design, especially the costumes, add a great deal to the characterisation.  

The audience loved it.

The critics can make up their own minds (if they dare.)

The Courteous Enemy’s final performance is at 5.10pm on Saturday 26 August at Theatre 2, theSpace @ Surgeon’s Hall, Nicolson Street.

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