Along with the rest of ArmitageWorld, I’ve been tracking the opening preview reviews coming in from blogs, Tumblr and Twitter. Naturally I focused on Richard Armitage as the touted star of the production. How did he do? Does he have the chops to be a headliner? Responses ranged from “brilliant,” “outstanding,” and “[left me] crying and shivering,” to well – underwhelmed. A tweeter stated that as a lead, RA was “weak.” The former reaction didn’t surprise me; the later responses have me a little concerned. Was it an accident that the superlatives poured from fans who have a vested interest in seeing their man succeed; and the not so glowing comments issued from those who simply viewed RA as part of the ensemble? If so, what would the critics say on press night? Or does it really matter who says what?
Fan-wise, it might not make any difference. Fans are delighted merely to see him in the flesh (no pun intended) and onstage in a quality production. What could be better than that? Looking through adoring eyes, they would be more likely to praise his strong points and forgive the weaker aspects of his performance. Then based on some reviews I’ve read, there is the problem of some fans not fully comprehending the play. If they don’t understand the basis, how can they objectively judge the performance? I’m not saying all fans have that difficulty or would deliberate skewer opinion in his favor no matter what, but there is an element of loyal blindness. Does any of this matter? They’d encourage their friends and family to see it too because it’s Richard -freaking-Armitage, right?
What about the opinion of the Old Vic? Here is a man with star power who can put bums in the seats. Financially speaking, it doesn’t matter if RA proves stellar or only competent – he has a sizable fanbase willing to buy tickets more costly than other East End productions. Although certain critics have decried using “popular television actors” to feel the theaters, the truth is live theater is a costly and competitive business – directors will do whatever it takes to fill the seats and keep their enterprises afloat – as long was critics don’t deem their lead actors box office poison.
But what about the critics’ opinions I’m keen to know? These are people well versed in the artistic side of the theater and supposedly know a good production from a bad one potential goers should skip, thus affecting ticket sales and ultimately the possible closing of the show? Should they have that sort of power? A case in point: a famous British theater upon learning David Tennant had been cast as Hamlet essentially stated that the trend of theater directors hiring “TV actors” for productions was harming the artistic integrity of theater by lowering standards. The ignorant critic only knew DT from Doctor Who and was unaware of his previous acclaimed career in the RSC. This snooty rant ultimately made the critic look bad, but imagine the sway he perceived himself as having by implying that non-theater actors had no use on stage besides being a box office pull and readers listened. And yet, it’s the professional critics’ opinions directors and the theater-going public notice. The directors crave acclaim for their productions; the public loathes wasting money on anything less than praiseworthy. I admit wanting to see shows both popular and highly acclaimed, and really hope this is true for The Crucible.
But what if opinions diverge? What if the fans rave and the critics boo? What if the latter say the cast is brilliant but the lead is not? Would it matter to Old Vic if they are interested in more than the bottom dollar? Would it matter to directors looking to cast other leads? Should it matter?
And would it matter to Richard Armitage to be a popular or artistic success or both, and would it effect his ability to be cast in other productions?
When I began this post, I thought the answer would be that opinion shouldn’t matter as long as the audience and the producers get what they want. Then I had to ask myself whether I’d travel thousands of miles to see a “popular” but not acclaimed actor in a play. The answer is I’m torn. On one hand, I’d love to see RA perform onstage; on the other, I want to see something considered more than competent. Tickets are expensive. I want to see a prime specimen of outstanding theater. I want to be transported, so I can say years from now “oh yes, I saw him when he first returned to the stage in The Crucible.” I want to be seriously impressed. So I suppose professional criticism matters to me, even more than popular opinion. Some may say there’s an aspect of elitism in there, but it’s my honest view.
What do you think? Are you swayed by fan opinion or holding out for press night?