12 February 1983: Globe and Mail

The best of the barbs from ill-tempered critics

No Turn Unstoned, Compiled by Diana Rigg

What an entertaining book this is. It has the casual, loping grace of an evening of particularly good conversation, due largely to the skill of British actress Diana Rigg at separating the wheat from the chaff of savage theatrical criticism. Anyone who thinks this sort of editing is easy should spend a few hours as penance with some of the more ponderous anthologies on offer.

To be sure, Rigg had contacts: she fired off letters to colleagues in the British and North American theatre inviting them to recall the most scurrilous and amusing reviews they had received. The British were more forthcoming than the Americans ("To discuss one's failures in America," Rigg suggests, "is considered the worst possible taste") and the most entertaining snippets are those followed by reflections from the actors and actresses concerned. (John Mills, recalling a 1953 critique that he wandered about the stage "looking like a bewildered carrot," confesses he was wearing what he thought was the best red wig that Wig Creations had ever made.) No one is spared. Flora Robson in Ibsen's Ghosts "accepts the news of her son's syphilis with an air of a district nurse facing an epidemic of sniffles." Dorothy Tutin as Madame Dubarry "trundles on, firing on all pistons, like a combine harvester reaping an empty field." Wendy Hiller in The Winter's Tale "treats Shakespeare's words as banisters to slide down, and reaches the end of her speeches with a hearty thump. In one oration . . . she appeared to be suddenly seized by an extraordinary fit of verbal scrupulosity, and pronounced every syllable with the care of a conscientious teacher dictating to a class of backward foreigners." The British bias of this book makes it a welcome complement to the more familiar American exercises by Robert Benchley ("the kind of comedy you eat peanuts at"), Dorothy Parker and Alexander Woollcott, who regularly sharpened their teeth on the nearest unfortunate actor or play. Here we get The Observer's Michael Billington reviling a 1981 revival of Godspell: "For those who missed it the first time, this is your golden opportunity: you can miss it again." Or Robert Cushman, again in The Observer, remarking that Peter O'Toole's 1980 performance as Macbeth "suggests that he is taking some kind of personal revenge on the play." Occasionally the critics get carried away. Benedict Nightingale, reviewing a 1976 production of Edward Albee's Counting The Ways, wrote, "It lasts one hour only, but that hour left me feeling I had spent an evening fidgeting in an expensive and pretentious restaurant while a peculiarly snooty waiter insisted on serving me, with impeccable sloth, elaborate objects that turned out to be British Rail buns in disguise." It's a diverting image, to be sure, but it seems aimed less at advancing the reader's understanding than at winding up in an anthology such as this one.

Alas, Rigg includes only one review of her own work, and it is an unchivalrous one: critic John Simon, reviewing her nude scene in Abelard And Heloise in 1970, reports that "Diana Rigg is built like a brick mausoleum with insufficient flying buttresses." Rigg notes in an aside that she made her way to the theatre the next day "darting from doorway to doorway and praying I wouldn't meet anyone I knew. The cast behaved with supreme tact and pretended they hadn't read the reviews." It's a wonder her comments throughout the book are as unjudgmental, even benevolent, as they are.

I have a few quibbles. The index is woefully inadequate. Many of the best lines are uncredited. Rigg confesses that since many of them arrived on cassettes from friends, even the punctuation and accuracy of the quotations is occasionally in doubt. (For the record, Lehman Engel, in his book The Critics, quotes the Simon line on Rigg as "Diana Rigg, the Heloise, is built, alas, like a brick basilica with inadequate flying buttresses." Is he wrong, or was Rigg working from memory? Scholars might think twice before using No Turn Unstoned as source material.) The book's batting average is, however, exceptional; the selections are chosen with intelligence and a keen eye for wit, and augur well for any literary stroll Rigg might take through her own career in the theatre. The few tantalizing glimpses she provides here aren't nearly enough.

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