Quentin Letts has the right to say what he likes about a play. The rest of us should exercise our right to not listen to him.
Okay Quentin, you win, you bastard. I’ve been ignoring you for months knowing that any response to what you write is exactly what you want to happen. But since everyone else (pretty much) took the rage-bait, it won’t make any difference – you’ve already got the attention you ordered. I’m relenting, damn you.
So, as it’s pretty much impossible to not have heard already, the thing that set this all off was a review he wrote (content warning: Daily Mail sidebar) of a production of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs. Rich, where he questioned whether an actor, Leon Wringer, he believed to be miscast got the part because he was black. Cue outrage from everyone. Now, I have a rule that when someone is getting dogpiled, however much the brought it on themselves, I try my best to be fair. For what it’s worth, I can’t comment on this particular production having not seen it; but in the six years I’ve been running this blog I’ve seen a lot of plays cast ethnic minority actors in a part previously assumed to be white, and I’ve never once felt the play was worse because of it. However, that’s just my opinion, and if Mr L genuinely thinks otherwise, he is within his rights to say this.
However, I don’t actually believe what he writes has much to do with what he really thinks. For one thing, his reasoning was pretty flimsy. You might just have an argument if they cast someone who couldn’t act, but Letts’s argument is that the male love interests weren’t sexy enough. Physical attraction is subjective enough as it is, but to then extrapolate that into saying someone was a racial quota filler? Even Quentin must have known how weak an argument that is. And for another thing, Quentin Letts has a long track record of saying things that get reactions. He’s made a series of borderline pervy comments in reviews, but this passage from a review of Salome (content warning: more Daily Mail sidebar) takes the biscuit:
Young Salome (‘Salome so-called’) is played by Isabella Nefar, silent for the first half of the show. After about 60 minutes she removes her clothes. At a risk of a feminist thunderbolt from Ma Farber, I must say she is jolly fit.
That, more than anything, is surely written as outrage-bait. Whether or not he truly believes these things is by the by. He’s so obviously doing this to get attention. To be honest, I consider this behaviour to be worse than saying what he thinks. A reviewer who expresses an outrageous offensive opinion is still expressing an opinion. But the very least we should expect from a reviewer is saying what you thought of the play, and, maybe the issues surrounding it. Deliberately working in inflammatory statements into reviews to build up own notoriety is as unprofessional as you can get.
But I’m wasting my time saying all this. Quentin Letts already knows. What can we do? Complain to the editor of the Daily Mail? Dream on, the Daily Mail already knows what he’s up to and he’s still going. Blacklist him from press tickets? He’ll turn up anyway, review anyway, and the added martyr points will outweigh any expense the Mail incurs for buying tickets. Create laws on what reviewers can say? You’d have to be pretty naive to think that kind of law would never be used against you, but anyway, forget it, not going to happen. Whether you like it or not, Quentin Letts can say what he wants, and you can’t stop him.
But here’s what everyone seems to forget: the right to say what you like is just that, and nothing more. Freedom of speech is not a right to be listened to, nor is it a right to be taken seriously. So why again are we listening to Quentin Letts, let alone taking his reviews seriously? Letts has chosen to become a parody of himself, and as long as he does that, his reviews are a joke. I’d be astounded if he has no influence over what people choose to see other than a handful of die-hard Mail fans. And it’s not really my business to tell commercial theatres what’s good for them, but is this demographic worth courting that badly? The days when critics in the paper press had power to make or break shows are long gone – nowadays, critics are in competition for attention, and the ones who have influence are the ones that readers grow to know and trust. Quentin Letts isn’t even trying, and yet the theatre world is still reacting like he’s in some sort of position of authority.
I do have some regret writing this. Quentin Letts used to be a reasonable reviewer back when he did his job properly. And, grossly unprofessional though his snipes are, he only does this to large productions. My deepest scorn still goes to reviewers who target small-scale acts, especially the Edinburgh Fringe, where a single review/assassination can be devastating – that’s where the real harm is done. The companies on the receiving end of Letts’ diatribes, on the other hand, are quite at liberty to tell him to fuck off. Maybe not those exact words, but something to that effect, and they should do it more often.
But the key grievance is that Quentin Letts is given legitimacy as a serious reviewer. I quite agree, but we have no-one to blame but ourselves for this. Apart from a niche audience of Daily Mail readers who regularly go to theatre, he’s an irrelevance, or at least, he should be an irrelevance. But as long as people take the bait and respond to one column inch with pages after pages of condemnation, he stays in the public eye. He knows this, and he’s feeding off it. The sooner we stop listening and stop reacting, the sooner he’ll stop pulling these stunts. By all means, stop displaying his reviews in your publicity. Even stop inviting him to reviews if you want (just do it because it’s a waste of a press ticket, not because you’re trying to make a statement out of it). But please stop giving him attention. We do not give attention to every Tom, Dick or Harry that expresses comments on a play online – only reviewers who have earned our respect. Never mind respect, Quentin Letts barely qualifies as a reviewer. Please stop treating him as one.