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Features Published 8 May 2017

In Defence of Exeunt’s Mayerling Review

Alice Saville responds to an influx of complaints regarding Exeunt's review of the Royal Ballet's Mayerling.
Alice Saville
Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson in 'Mayerling' at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Alice Pennefather

Natalia Osipova and Edward Watson in ‘Mayerling’ at the Royal Opera House. Photo: Alice Pennefather

“Why do you see it as appropriate for your writer to review the audience?…why have you permitted publication of a defamatory description of an unknown audience member as a ‘tweedy prick’? Surely this person could sue, if he reads this and can prove his case?”

Last week, we had an unprecedented number of emails and tweets directed at Exeunt in response to Anna Winter’s review of Mayerling at the Royal Ballet, of which the above is a small sample. Some were supportive. Most were critical, and of these, several were blisteringly unpleasant, inadvertently hilarious, and/or addressed to ‘Dear Sirs’ (having failed to take the trouble to discover that Exeunt’s editorial team is all female).

Here’s my response. First, I’ll confront the accusation of ageism, which several commenters raised with regards to Anna’s description of a male audience member who “remarked that in several years’ time he hoped to see an all-British roster of principal dancers.” Ageism is an issue we take seriously. The phrase ‘liver-spotted hands’, and other details which identified this audience member by his age, were originally used to add colour and realism to the description of the incident. However, we apologise for causing offence to older readers, and have since edited this passage.

However, from here, our agreement with the complainants ends. As a general principle, we feel it’s entirely appropriate to write about members of the audience. And no, these audience members are not legally entitled to sue for defamation, since we have not published their names or images.

Going to a performance is about so much more than what we see on stage. On the most basic level, laughter or murmurs from the audience are part of the excitement of watching a live performance of any kind, and they add to the sense of ‘liveness’ which reminds you you’re not sat at home in a stained cardigan, with a chipped mug of tea and a ballet DVD.

But more than that, a performance is a social event. A theatre or dance critic isn’t a blandly objective assessor of quality. Being objective about art is impossible. That’s why most of the best critics introduce an element of subjectivity, however small. And at Exeunt, we give our writers the space to lift that veil of critical objectivity a bit further. We’re not The Sunday Times, and we wouldn’t want to be. This means our reviews sometimes contain swearwords and phrases like ‘tweedy prick’. It also means that we’ll admit it if we didn’t ‘get’ a performance, or if something does sing for us, we’ll talk about how it settles into the texture of our everyday lives.

Going to the Royal Opera House can be a contradictory experience, especially if you’re under 30, or don’t have much money. On the one hand, it can be astonishingly, transcendentally beautiful (as the bulk of Anna Winter’s Mayerling review describes). On the other hand, you can feel a bit out of place. I’ve been vigorously told off by the older people sitting around me for trying to eat a snack during the interval – feeling humiliated for behaviour that would be acceptable pretty much anywhere else. The communal areas are taken up by bars and restaurants selling hugely expensive food and drink to very well-heeled-looking people, and it’s easy to feel out of place. This feeling, exacerbated by the comments from the audience members around you, are part and parcel of the experience. Theatre and dance writing is about reporting, as well as critiquing, and to ignore the impact that other audience members have on our subjective experiences of the performance would be a huge mistake.

Our regular readers (hopefully!) understand all this – but they’re not the ones kicking up a fuss. An anonymous informant let us know that the comments originated on a specialist forum called balletcoforum.com Since then, we’ve discovered a forum thread devoted to picking apart both Exeunt’s response, and the credentials of our writer. One poster hunted down her educational background, and proposed confronting her at a future performance.

For obvious reasons, this is troubling – a threat of harassment is much more serious than reporting on the speech of an anonymous stranger.

But I do want to understand why balletcoforum.com ‘s readers feel so strongly, and here’s me trying to do so.

Firstly, I think a huge part of the anger comes from the fact that these readers feel they’re being made fun of, and they’re not used to that feeling. Any number of reviews complain about ‘oiks’ at the theatre, and their propensity to wield hugely offensive items like trainers or bags of chips or mobile phones – and regular clickbait articles stir the fire (Most recently, Time Out New York’s ‘Why does everyone look so sloppy at Broadway shows’). Older, middle class, white audience members are not used to having their behaviour critiqued – even when it’s thoroughly worthy of criticism, as this lone, anonymous man’s comments were.

One response demonstrated this feeling particularly vividly, so I’ll quote it in full:

“I enjoy going to the ballet and opera. I also enjoy football but am unlikely to play bingo or visit a dog track or play darts. What I don’t enjoy is spending my hard earned dosh on trips to Covent Garden so as to provide fodder for a ‘reviewer’ with a huge chip on her shoulder and who thinks her role is to ridicule and insult the audience.

Would you consider it acceptable to treat patrons of so-called working class leisure pursuits in this way?  No?  Thought not.  And just who do you think is providing the money to keep Opera and ballet going other than the very people you wish to humiliate?”

Even with my limited exposure to British telly (not to mention Viz magazine) I’ve noted a rich vein of humour directed at bingo/dogs/darts players. Everyone deserves to be made fun of sometimes, but working class people and minorities are much, much more likely to be the butt of the joke. And that  brings us nicely onto the second reason which these commenters are so unhappy with Exeunt’s Mayerling review.

As this above respondent either doesn’t know, or chooses not to mention, the Royal Opera House receives substantial subsidies from ‘patrons of so-called working class leisure pursuits’, such as buying lottery tickets. The Arts Council, as funded by the National Lottery, currently accounts for 22% of the Royal Opera House’s income.

I’d hope this is obvious, but just in case it’s not: Exeunt is 100% in favour of public funding to the arts in general, and to the Royal Opera House in particular. We’re not calling out individual audience members’ behaviour as part of any kind of wider agenda, and we have a huge amount of respect for both the Royal Ballet, and its dancers – in fact, Anna’s review describes it as “a beacon not just of artistic excellence but relative diversity”.

One individual reviewer, commenting honestly on their experience, is not going to bring the Royal Opera House crashing to the ground. But what might well undermine the building’s future is a culture where people feel like they’re not allowed to say what they really think, or are derided as “chippy” for pointing out that the Royal Opera House doesn’t yet feel like somewhere where people of all classes are equally welcome.

Several members of ballet.co are calling on the Royal Opera House press office to revoke our press tickets, in a hugely illiberal response to a single review that offended them. I think the best way to kill an artform is by suffocating it with bland reverence. The future of the Royal Opera House lies in engaging with people of all ages, from all social backgrounds – as their outreach programmes and cheap ticket schemes are demonstrating. Ballet and opera used to be democratic artforms where courtesans would ply their trade, or revolutionary movements were stirred up – Puccini’s Tosca became an icon for protesters against Italy’s repressive government in the 1900s. If they’re going to feel politically vital again, they need to be surrounded by honest, frank, irreverent debate.

It might be a cliche to call out opera and ballet’s social exclusivity. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t stop doing it until things truly change – as well as going anyway, and loving it, and writing about it, and laughing at the experience when it deserves it, instead of venerating it like the smiling, dead plaster gods that beam down from its gilded ceiling.  

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Alice Saville

Alice is a writer, arts journalist and handicrafts enthusiast. As well as writing and commissioning for Exeunt, she's a regular contributor to Time Out, Fest and Auditorium magazine, and makes costumes for performance.

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