Thursday, June 3, 2010

(No.96) Critics duelling over "An Ideal Husband"

I have always been interested and frequently amused by the divergence of critics' opinions of the same movies, plays or television programs. One sometimes wonders if they have actually watched the same thing. In the age of the internet anyone can be an arts critic -- and many are. I am an example of this populist, some would say pernicious reality. Sadly it has contributed to a trend which has seen arts critics being dropped from various newspapers in the cause of budget reduction.

Some newspapers pride themselves on having staff critics known for being tough in their criticism. The New York Times employs a group arts critics who regularly review in superior prose what they regard as inferior or (occasionally) superior or merely mediocre. Moreover, and I treasure this resistance to pop trends, the New York Times refuses to join the common practise of ratings plays, movies et al by assigning stars; the critics' reviews constitute the Times' ratings.

All of this is by way of preamble to a recent example of diverging opinions by three Toronto newspaper theatre critics: J. Kelly Nestruck of the Globe and Mail, Richard Ouzounian of the Star and Robert Cushman of the National Post.

Column No. 87 on ("Teddy boys & SS costumes") included three theatrical reviews including the Shaw Festival's production for this season of Oscar Wilde's "An Ideal Husband". Pat and I saw one of its preview performances in April. Nestruck, Ouzounian and Cushman saw the play more recently once it had its formal opening.

Their reviews can be read in full on the newspapers' websites: Nestruck did an initial 'immediate' review (May 27) and then a second (May 28 ); Ouzounian's review appeared May 28 and Cushman's on May 29. Nestruck gave "An Ideal Husband" 2 stars while Ouzounian awarded the play 3 1/2 (out of 4). Cushman does not rate plays by assigning stars.

The Globe critic saw the Shaw presentation of the Wilde play as "mostly disappointing", one in which "Wilde's wit withers in ...(an) uneven production ... too often dry and dull or overwrought". The Star's theatre critic on the other hand saw the same play as "admirably acted, dazzingly designed and smartly staged", a production that is "superbly accomplished, highly entertaining and intellectually rewarding". The National Post's reviewer was less enthusiastic about "The Ideal Husband" than the Star's, viewing the production as having "both wit and passion, though it delivers them in imperfect quantities".

In terms of the critics' respective reactions to details of the play's staging, they also reacted rather differently to (for example) the play's set design, lighting and costumes.

-- Ouzounian declared that the "multi-pillared set lets us know we're in a morality play, not a drawing room comedy. ... (the) daringly operatic lighting treats every entrance and exit as the stuff of high drama".

-- Contrast this with Nestruck's reaction: he refers to a "poorly designed, double-decker set. An awkward industrial obstacle course of railings and poles, the ugly set looks like an unpopular dance club and lit like a dungeon". In terms of the costumes he thought that they were "curious ... (and) simply distract from the action".

-- As with his assessment of the play overall Cushman fell somewhere between his two fellow critics: he described the drawing room set as "a vast balustraded whispering gallery which seems apt in a play that largely hinges on gossip" while he thought the costumes "are, well, eclectically creative".

-- In our comments in column No.87 on we had said that the "two level set is all modern pillars, stairs and iron railings (it looked to me like the anteroom of a second tier Las Vegas casino) ... a few costumes [were] irritatingly inappropriate to the period ... it produced the same reaction as I have had to the stage affectation of dressing up Shakespearean actors as Teddy Boys or SS officers".

In terms of an assessment of the Shaw Festival's production of "An Ideal Husband": as a matter of audience enjoyment Pat and I are more positive about it than was Nestruck of the Globe, rather less enthusiastic than Ouzounian of the Star and perhaps closest in our view to the 'middle' position of Cushman.

Pat and I repeat our earlier judgement (posted April 12): the play is "worth seeing and overall [is] an entertaining presentation".


Information about the 10 plays (including "An Ideal Husband") being presented this season by the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake can be seen at


Alastair Rickard