I’ll begin with an obvious truth: I am remarkably thin-skinned. I get very hurt at nasty comments, of which I’ve had my fair share over the years. Where reviews are concerned, I do seem to make a habit of rubbing my nose in the dirt. And taking to heart what I find there. Yes, I’m hyper-sensitive – yes, I’m desperately insecure. But then, I’m only twenty-two, I’ve been acting professionally for less than a year, and I’m still trying to find my niche – not just in theatre, but life at large. The last time I wrote on theatre criticism, it was in a purposefully idealistic light, stressing the need for a collective ambition. On this occasion, though, I want to be more personal. How do I, as an actor, take and respond to criticism?
Respond! How critics scoff at the proposal! The standard reply being that ‘AN ACTOR WHO RESPONDS TO CRITICS IS NOT BEHAVING LIKE A PROFESSIONAL!’ This strikes me as nonsense: the knee-jerk defence of those who are too frightened to bob out of the shadows and risk exposure to criticism themselves. I don’t believe that actors should keep quiet out of fear. Least of all the fear that they’ll be punished in some nebulous future review.
Not that I’m suggesting that actors deserve nothing but empty-headed praise. It’s hard to disagree with Nicholas de Jongh’s observation that ‘actors get more praise in ten minutes than most people get in a lifetime’. But it’s harder still to disagree with de Jongh’s reflection that ‘theatre criticism is an evasion of life, a living of life elsewhere’. It follows that many critics despise confrontation. ‘WELL, YOU SHOULD BE MORE THICK-SKINNED!’ is the standard defence. That people who profess to know about theatre can’t make the alarmingly obvious correlation between someone who’s involved in theatre and someone who’s engaged with their emotions is, to put it mildly, worrying.
However, I don’t want to speak from a position of lofty superiority. In the interests of a full disclosure, here’s a far-reaching selection of negative comments about me and my acting. To mix things up a bit, they’re from critics and directors both:
… Occasionally runs the risk of slipping into caricature.
A lack of self-discipline in Swanton’s performance…
… Enough ham to make the production neither kosher nor halal.
Nobody has ever been that mental.
Stop overselling the character!
Throw off all the mannerisms!
… Indulges in facial acrobatics and extreme gurning that is initially amusing but soon becomes irritating.
There is an indulgent and overdone approach to a whole parade of unfunny and unnecessarily twisted gargoyles … the ever-manic James Swanton as Coupler [is] particularly guilty here.
… An absurd, gurning (and, as the front row of the audience can testify) spitting grotesque.
And my favourite (accidentally sent to me in an email by a disingenuously apologetic reviewer):
He was crap, that’s the problem.
There are a few words around which these comments pivot, with boring predictability: caricature, indulgence, ham, gurning, gargoyle, grotesque, guilt (lots of g-words). ‘Oh, here we go again…’ I find myself thinking. I can usually compose my reviews in my head. I sometimes wonder if I’m the ‘wasp cake’ of various different productions: unfailingly drawing attention to myself – for better or for worse – and opening myself up to every kind of attack. How smug I must seem; how full of myself.
This brings me to my major point. A critical attack, everyone seems to agree, is based on something you’ve done – never what you are.
Personally, though, I don’t ever see the difference.
In my case, I don’t think there is a difference.
Whenever I’ve been criticised, it’s been for some form of overacting (a difficult word, but we’ll go with it for now). That much should be clear from the quotations above. ‘WELL!’ the critic might well sniff, ‘IF WE KEEP TELLING YOU NOT TO DO SOMETHING, THEN YOU SHOULD LISTEN FOR A CHANGE! NOT GO ON REPEATING YOUR MISTAKES!’ Yet whenever I’ve been praised, it’s been for exactly the same thing. When I look back on the positive reviews I’ve received (and there are some), they’re pretty well all commendations for going too far, for doing too much, for pushing myself and the play beyond a place of safety and attempting something more heightened. I suppose I’ve been applying Boris Karloff’s mantra on cinema to the theatre for quite some time:
The secret of success in Hollywood lies in being different from anyone else. Find something no one else can or will do – and they’ll begin to take notice of you. Hollywood is full of competent actors. What the screen needs is individuality!
Let’s return to those words flagged up earlier. One critic thought my Friar Laurence ‘risky’ because caricatured; another considered it a ‘marvellous caricature’. Yet another critic praised Scrooge & Marley for allowing me ‘to deliver a goody bag packed with caricatured delights’. ‘Grotesque’ seems to be the word with the most positive capital (it’s certainly a word I’ve pondered at length elsewhere). My Quasimodo is ‘positively stunning in his grotesqueness’ whilst the ‘grotesque contortion’ of my Coupler (lambasted above) is elsewhere acclaimed as ‘flawless acting’ (the sort of egregious hyperbole which actors apparently dream about). For Love’s Labour’s Lost we have ‘James Swanton makes a wonderfully grotesque Katherine’. The latter review consolidates this general critical schizophrenia, in locating the positive flip-side of even ‘indulgence’ (still the word I think most abused in theatre criticism): ‘It’s over-the-top and self-indulgent but the audience loved it’.
You can begin to see why I find critical assessment so aggravating. No description of my acting has ever contained the words ‘subtle’, ‘naturalistic’, ‘restrained’, ‘nuanced’, ‘shaded’, ‘quiet’, ‘kept his head beneath the ramparts’ or anything vaguely comparable. It’s fast reaching the point where I can’t draw satisfaction from the positive reviews. I know what they’ll say before I’ve even seen them. (Let alone the fact that I never quite believe them.) Instead of providing a description of what being in the audience for that show was like – a revelatory practice, and one that largely died out with the Victorians – reviews tend to provide something baser: an opinion. I recall being at a dinner with Howard Jacobson, who expressed an opinion of his own: that opinions were worthless. As time goes by, I don’t think he was far wrong.
A review of my performance in Romeo and Juliet crystallised this for me. It came from the website of Nick Holland, an online reviewer of deathlessly prolific output:
[I] found James Swanton’s Friar Lawrence actively detrimental to the show overall – inexplicably channeling Vincent Price, I found him hard to watch, and he drags out the character’s final speech, making the speedy running time feel as if it’s acquired that lost hour again…
This is about the most venomous thing that’s ever been written about my acting. ‘Actively detrimental’ – ‘hard to watch’. I seriously doubt Mr Holland would have the courage to say such things to my face: the unfailing acid-test for separating judicious negativity from outright nastiness. And cruelty. It does strike me as odd that a man who communicates through such over-the-top linguistic contortions can’t stand my performances, which – by his own admission – are nothing other than over-the-top contortions. Caliban’s rage at his face in the glass, perhaps.
But what stopped me from taking this too much to heart was the mention of Vincent Price, a man who I’ve loved for over a decade. Price was an actor whose performances were, I believe, uniquely good and wide-reaching. I’m more entitled to my opinion (that word again) than most, having sought out over forty Price films: everything from Laura (1944) and Champagne for Caesar (1950) to The Whales of August (1987) and Edward Scissorhands (1990), by way of House of Usher (1960; a film I’ve discussed here) and Theatre of Blood (1973). Having just rewatched The Raven – a 1963 Poe bastardisation, with Price outrageously camp as a medieval wizard – I find it impossible to believe that Price took his screen image seriously.
But what was Price’s screen image? What exactly am I being compared to here? It’s not my Vincent Price (a damned good actor); it’s not the ‘real’ Vincent Price (whoever that was). Rather, it’s an opinion about who Vincent Price was. And an opinion so lazy that Holland didn’t even originate it: that of Price as the deranged old ham, embarrassing everyone by the baseless over-confidence of his performances. It’s the very image that Price lampooned so expertly in Theatre of Blood, playing homicidal thespian Edward Lionheart. If only Holland would watch the film! (Watch, not review.) He might discover he was attacking me with a ghost that Price himself laid to rest forty years ago.
The opinions pound on. I frankly don’t care that Holland considered ripping Romeo’s clothes off ‘a seriously understandable impulse’, or that he is, in general, ‘easily distracted by attractive men on stage’. I do dote for a moment on the virtues of possessing the amiable plasticity of a GQ model rather than a body like an attenuated candlestick and a leering hatchet-face that naturally operates like a morpine-fuelled Crash Bandicoot villain (you see, we can all play childish games with high-colour adjectives). Possibly then I’d have been praised. Whether I want that sort of praise from that sort of man is something else again. I wonder if Holland would have the courage to confront his innumerable pert-buttocked young actors with his fantasies. I’d be interested in their reactions.
I’m left only with the impression that Mr Holland doesn’t know what the hell he’s on about. I’m learning about him, certainly – not least his startlingly original comic insight that priests are invariably child-molesters – but not my performance. I know he didn’t like it; I just don’t know why. But given that I know what I didn’t like about my performance – and we’ll get to that – what’s to be gained from yet another opinion? Sadly, I am what I am. I simply wasn’t capable of a repressed, naturalistic and (for Holland’s benefit) resolutely unembarrassing Friar. No more than Holland was capable of writing something insightful and coherent rather than sniping, odious and swollen with pederastic rumblings. Not at that moment, not in those circumstances. Too bad – for both of us, I suppose.
It’s a shame. I wasn’t swanning about in my days in Romeo and Juliet (or Love’s Labour’s Lost) with a sense of how glorious and earth-shattering and downright bloody definitive my performances were. Quite the opposite. I was wracked with insecurity and the merciless, pettifogging feeling that I was letting people down by not delivering something I was at peace with. Some of this insecurity stemmed from the fact that I’m so rarely allowed to play a human being. I’m forced to quote Karloff again, this time in the person of the aging horror star in Bogdanovich’s Targets: ‘I couldn’t even play a straight part decently anymore – I’ve been in the other thing too long.’ None of this is the audience’s problem. I’m not asking for sympathy here. But I am asking for understanding. I’m not some complacent, over-confident, ego-fuelled monster who constantly needs putting in his place. My other point is purely pragmatic: that there’s no amount of unpleasant things you can write about me that I haven’t already thought or said or even written myself. This critic takes the biscuit, though, trashing not only me but one of my all-time heroes. That’s some sort of achievement.
Nick Holland’s linguistic masturbations bring me to another point. Blogging has a worrying parallel in masturbation. Being a blogger myself, I think about this fairly often, scrolling through endless sheafs of dangling, comment-less posts, all just floating off into cyberspace… At what point do these writings intersect with the human race? It scares the hell out of me. It’s something that always daunted me about the Cambridge University Library. I’d go off in search of an obscure academic monograph – on Monk Lewis or Thomas Peckett Prest. I’d find it by means of the online catalogue, before traipsing past hundreds of thousands of books to read it. I’d pluck it off the shelf; the front papers would instantly inform me that the book hadn’t been taken out in ten, eleven, twelve years. I don’t intend to take it out. All I do is look in the index. Read two paragraphs at most. I’m done in five minutes. And it’s left on the shelf again.
There’s a litany of unbelievably horrid things I could say about Nick Holland. But why bother? What little I know of him doesn’t fill me with rage. I feel sorry for the man. I certainly know I wouldn’t want to be him, any more than he’d want to be me (or rip my clothes off, for that matter). He’s a cautionary example; I want to do my utmost to avoid turning into him when I’m grey-haired and middle-aged. I don’t want my passion for the theatre to disintegrate into a series of tired and cynical detractions from it. Nor do I want to spend my adult years emptying my creative energies into the premature coffin of an internet blog.
We all make our own worlds – some of them remarkably lonely – and then go off and lose ourselves in them. It’s our right to do so. I hope to do so with my acting, once I find my elusive niche. This is all fine and admirable and good – provided we don’t wound other people in the process. Critics can deny the fact that they upset people with their remarks. But such remarks are often so far from constructive criticism that they veer into ostentatious, grand-standing, show-boating cruelty. A shoddy investment of human life.
Of course, that’s only my opinion. We all have the right to an opinion.
It’s that inclusiveness that makes them so worthless.