Ten years ago, almost to the day, I performed in the press night of a production that wasn’t very good. This wouldn’t necessarily have been a problem, except that the production was at the Old Vic so people took quite a lot of notice of how not very good it was. The ladies and gentlemen of the press, in particular, used some of the English language’s most potent words for ‘not very good’ in their reviews.
That’s the first time I’ve said in any public space that it wasn’t very good, that production. And in fact, in the intervening ten years the only person involved that I’ve seen publicly acknowledge its failings was its director, once in an article and once in a book (he blamed us). People wouldn’t have been very interested in my opinion, it must be admitted. ‘ASSISTANT STAGE MANAGER WITH TWELVE LINES SLAMS BADLY-PACED PRODUCTION OF PROBLEMATIC SHAKESPEARE PLAY’ isn’t a headline which would have sold many papers, even in 2000. I suppose I could have stood on the Cut handing out flyers, but it was a particularly cold spring and I’ve noticed that a lot of drivers aren’t very careful how they take that corner.
I wouldn’t have done, of course. In fact, at the time, I didn’t want to be reminded that it wasn’t very good. The very small audiences in the very big theatre (after the interval the audiences tended to get smaller, which tended to make the theatre seem bigger) were doing that nicely enough. I liked the director, I liked nearly all of my colleagues, I was acting- well, saying twelve lines, anyway- at the Old Vic. Those friends of mine who came to see the show and subsequently wanted to expound at length on how it hadn’t been the best 225 minutes of their lives received pretty short shrift from me; that was the one thing that had been rammed home to me forcibly enough by that point. That, and that going to bed at 5am doesn’t always make for great matinees.
That’s why I was surprised and a little disappointed to hear about the Samuel Ramey kerfuffle. For those of you who don’t know, Ramey is one of the greatest operatic basses around, is by all accounts a thorough good egg gentleman type, and is coming to the end of a deservedly glittering career. He’s also playing a small part in ATTILA, the Met’s first ever production of a rarely-heard Verdi opera.
He thinks it’s a ‘fiasco’, and that the director paid insufficient attention to the concerns of the cast. We know this because he said so- this is where the story takes a bit of a twist- in the comments section of a review of the production on the website of a Dallas newspaper. Disclaimer- we can’t be entirely sure that this comment was left by Mr Ramey, although better-informed people than I am have insisted that it was, so let us for the sake of argument assume that it was.
There is of course nothing at all wrong with a performer expressing disappointment in a production, or in a director. A dear friend of mine was in a film a few years ago which was a great deal less good than he had hoped, a fact which he, ahem, occasionally mentions. And the substance of Ramey’s objection- a lack of attention from the director- is not too controversial either. If the phrase ‘I just haven’t been given any direction’ were banned from the language, coffee and lunch breaks in rehearsal rooms across the world would fall uneasily silent. No, what makes this particular situation noteworthy is that ATTILA didn’t close ten years ago, and is not a film which is done, dusted and distributed; it’s live and it’s still running.
I’m not about to tell someone as distinguished as Samuel Ramey (or indeed anyone) what he can and can’t say, so let’s leave aside the rights and wrongs of that for a moment. What has been noticeable, and dispiriting, in following the story online is his adoption as a kind of Mr-Valiant-For-Truth by people who hated the production, as if this kind of behaviour were an admirable blow struck for artistic integrity. By all accounts, the production stinks. But for that to be said in public by someone who is still appearing in it may strike you as unprofessional, vain and petulant (it may strike you that way; I couldn’t possibly say). You may think it would have been worth waiting three or so weeks until the production had closed, out of respect for an audience who has paid a lot of money and wants to believe that everyone in the cast is straining every sinew in the cause of an artistic event to which they are totally committed (I’m not going to say whether I think that or not). You may even think that somewhere in that cast, among the chorus, perhaps, or the extras, is someone in the same position as I was ten years ago; someone who is aware of the failings of the production but nonetheless has had enough of hearing about them, someone who might feel let down that his or her highest-profile colleague has added to the noise. Getting ready to go on stage in a production you know to be bad is a disconcerting and weird experience, as I know only too well. You may think- it’s a free country- that every other member of the ATTILA company has had that experience made more disconcerting and yet weirder by the senior pro.
It’s one of the more annoying facts of life as a performer that expressing any opinion in public beyond the bland and anodyne is usually met with derision by our dear friends from the fourth estate. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve read some journalist sneering at an actor or singer for daring to have an opinion about politics or current affairs. There’s the Private Eye column ‘Luvvies’, for the moments when actors have trouble describing the difficult-to-describe process by which a performance comes into being (or even when they don’t; a recent edition featured Robert Downey Jr expressing the hope that Arthur Conan Doyle would have smiled upon the film of ‘Sherlock Holmes’ Downey was appearing in- what a wanker, eh, readers?). And the Guardian’s dolt-in-residence recently followed a slagging of Melvyn Bragg’s v/o of a historical documentary by saying that ‘at least it was voiced by someone who knows what he’s talking about rather than an actor’, a comment which caused some consternation among the actors I know who, unlike Lord Bragg, have history degrees. It’s a shame that when, for once, a performer is being near-universally praised for speaking up, it’s for doing something which so threatens to break the unspoken contract he has with the audiences who have yet to see his performance, and the colleagues with whom he will be giving it.