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Pungent Peak Criticism

Theatre Critic Book

Robert Brustein , Yale University Press , December 5, 2008
Theatre Critic Book by Robert Brustein Robert Brustein occupies a position between theatre practitioner and commentator. He is founder of the American Repertory Theatre and the Yale Repertory Theatre but also a critic since 1959. He has a gift for phrasing that is lethally good and his book titles give an indicator of their flavour. They include “Seasons of Discontent”, “Making Scenes” and “Dumbocracy in America.” This latest collection of essays and reviews, mainly reprinted from “the New Republic”, is in character.

The central part of the collection is given to reviews of productions, fifty-five in all. A first task of criticism, far from its only, is evocation. Brustein is in attendance at some remarkable events. Not only is Al Pacino doing Arturo Ui but the company includes Steve Buscemi, Chazz Palminteri, Billy Crudup, Paul Giamatti, Charles Durning, Dominic Chianese and John Goodman. Ui rises in power but in Pacino's performance, says Brustein, “he never loses that sense of sallow, melancholiac penury.”

He is at a strange “Salome”. In Oscar Wilde's reworking Pacino again is Herod. Marisa Tomei is an urban Salome, David Strathairn is Jokanaan and Diane Wiest is Herodias. The acting styles are all odds. “All in all” the critic signs off “this “Salome” is a worthy enterprise by actors committed to the stage and not afraid to look foolish on it. I came away admiring their grit, their courage and their lunacy.”

Critics are enjoyed for their consistency of personality. Brustein's aesthetic preferences are clear-cut but not dominant. Description comes first. He admires Complicite's “Mnemonic”, not least for “its sheer theatrical wizardry. “Instead of separating audiences into an educational caste system, it shows how we can use our minds to explore experiences common to all.”

He makes the contrast with Stoppard. “The Invention of Love”, his play on Housman, has been forged in research in the Bodleian and British Library with a result. “There is not enough plot here for twenty years of action, but there is enough erudition for a fortnight.” He is not kind on Simon Russell Beale's Hamlet. “While Beale captures the cuttingly ironic and quotidian aspects of the role he never touches its touches its tragic side.” He compares the playing to Addison deWitt in “All about Eve.”

Brustein is an audience member. He records ticket prices, physical discomfort and an excess of length. He is not charmed by six and a half hours of Mnouchkine. “What it lacks is a reasonable aesthetic, a sense of economy and form, an overarching unity. What it needs, in other words, is a dramatist.”

The writing always zings. Of Caryl Churchill she has “emerged as the most plastic English playwright of her generation- more versatile than the minimalist Harold Pinter, more profound than the intellectual skywriter Tom Stoppard, more unpredictable than the locked liberal David Hare.” Critics may be read for opinion but they are not read only for opinion. They are writers and are read for the flair of their writing. The reading of “Millennial Stages” is an unbroken pleasure.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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