Lorca is Dead (and behind the scenes, I thought I was too)

I don’t particularly want to relive this, but I think it’s important to get it out in the open.

My review of Belt Up‘s Lorca is Dead for The List, which you can find on List.co.uk, here on my blog or in issue 664 of The List magazine, is not the first review I wrote of that show. Compare and contrast the version I originally submitted to The List:

I admit it: I wanted Lorca is Dead to be a repeat of Belt Up’s five-star masterpiece The Tartuffe, and that was very wrong of me. Earlier this year at the York Theatre Royal, the company permanently retired The Tartuffe by killing off its protagonist, Orgon Poquelin; but Lorca is Dead sounded similar enough on paper that I dared hope for another zany laugh-a-minute anarch-o-thon to fill the void.

The two plays share a writer, Dominic J Allen, and both centre around a group of artists with a loose grip on reality (in this case the Paris Surrealists). The larger-than-life characters, plays within plays within plays, and stream-of-consciousness storytelling style that characterise Allen’s writing are all present in both cases. In Lorca is Dead, however, he uses those tools to create, not wacky hijinks, but unease, unrest and melancholy. Someone has, after all, died.

That isn’t to say there are no hijinks at all; there are, courtesy of a dangerously egomaniacal Salvador Dalí, but they’re denounced by all as disrespectful, and cause much of the aforementioned unease. Dalí’s plot to rewrite the history of the Surrealist movement with himself at the centre, using the time machine Antonin Artaud created to help tell Lorca’s life story, is just one of the play’s many parallel threads. The Surrealists re-enact Lorca’s life story, passing him like a baton amongst themselves and the audience; meanwhile the movement is succumbing to infighting caused by political, philosophical and personal differences, exacerbated by Dalí.

So much happens, and continues happening, all at once, throughout the play, that not everything gets a sufficient airing, and the pace drops occasionally when two threads intersect and the ensemble can’t change direction fast enough. But whatever the play’s flaws, at least it isn’t what I wanted: more of the same.

Shortly after this review appeared on List.co.uk – but thankfully well before it was due to appear in print – I received the following email from James Wilkes, one of Belt Up’s artistic directors.

from James Wilkes
to Matt Boothman
date 12 August 2010 16:08
subject Re: Preview

Hi Matt

Just caught your review of Lorca. Could you retract the statement about the two plays having the same writer, this is factually inaccurate. I wrote The Tartuffe, Dominic J Allen wrote Lorca. We are two very different writers aiming for different ends.

Thankyou very much for your support for The Tartuffe but as a company, we appreciate reviewers commenting more on what the plays are, not what they’re not. I hope you can find the time to return to the play with a more open mind.

James Wilkes
Co-Artistic Director
Belt Up Theatre
www.beltuptheatre.com

Which was like a kick to the solar plexus, for a number of reasons: realisation I’d screwed up professionally in a way that didn’t affect only me; realisation I’d done an injustice to a company whose work I’ve always enjoyed (and with whom I’d had, I think, as cordial a relationship as a reviewer can have with artists); realisation that I’d have to re-review the show that night, which happened to be my busiest night of the Fringe so far (including the Lorca is Dead re-review, I wrote six reviews that night – or rather, the next morning, as I was reviewing comedy and typically arriving back at my flat around 1:30am).

Once I’d caught my breath I sent this email back:

from Matt Boothman
to James Wilkes
date 12 August 2010 19:23
subject Re: Preview

Dear James,

I’ve contacted my editor about the offending review and it should be removed from the site soon. I will be rewriting it in its entirety tonight. I hope you’ll accept my sincere and unreserved apologies for the error.

Upon leaving Lorca is Dead, I realised I had approached the play with certain preconceptions, and felt that it was important to disclose this and address the effect it had on my reaction to the piece. I realised that in taking this approach I ran the risk of failing to discuss the piece on its own merits; clearly I allowed that risk to get the better of me, and as you’ve pointed out, the preconceptions I identified were based on wrongful assumptions from the start. The review was a near-total failure on my part.

I’m sorry once again for failing your show, and I hope my second attempt to review it will do it justice in a way we can all be satisfied with.

Best wishes,

Matt Boothman
Freelance Arts Journalist

To my relief, James responded not long afterwards with this:

from James Wilkes
to Matt Boothman
date 12 August 2010 20:47
subject Re: Preview

Hi Matt

Cheers for this. The ensemble really appreciate it.

Let me know if you’d like to come see the show again.

Once again, we really appreciate your response.

Best,

James Wilkes
Co-Artistic Director
Belt Up Theatre
www.beltuptheatre.com

I was going to write some kind of homily off the back of this: something about the damaging effect of preconceptions on theatre reviews; or about reviewer hubris (“I know this company’s work really well,” I thought; “I don’t need to double-check who wrote what before basing a whole argument around it”); or about artists’ right to reply to reviews.

But I don’t think anyone needs me to spell out the lessons to be learned from this incident. Just don’t do what I did.

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