x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Hideous costumes are the severest form of unflattery

It’s a truism of show business that while rave reviews soon fade from memory, the bad ones are branded in a performer’s brain forever, says Michael Simkins

Should performers read their reviews? As an actor, I’ve pondered this question ever since being described in one newspaper early on in my career as “a thoroughly unsympathetic little squirt”. It’s a truism of show business that while rave reviews soon fade from memory, the bad ones are branded in a performer’s brain forever.

If so, the young Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught should never be stuck for conversation. Poor Miss Erraught was pilloried in the UK press this week for her performance as Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier at Glyndebourne Opera House. Yet it wasn’t her singing that came in for criticism, it was her physical appearance.

While her exquisite singing was duly noted, one critic described her as “dumpy of stature”; another called her as “a chubby bundle of puppy fat”, while yet another condemned her as “unbelievable, unsightly and unappealing”.

How times change. I remember seeing a performance of Puccini’s Turandot at Covent Garden some years ago at which the soprano playing the eponymous heroine could have killed her erstwhile suitor Calaf by simply rolling on him rather than setting him three riddles, such were her ample proportions. Yet such was the thrilling majesty of her voice that it didn’t matter. And if memory serves me, the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti was himself no stranger to a cheese roll. But times have changed.

Miss Erraught’s critical mauling has predictably resulted in a furious response from her colleagues, with leading protagonists pointing out that music critics – themselves exclusively male – are, as one leading singer put it, little more than “perverted schoolboys with no imagination”. The critics have argued that if a performer appears visually unconvincing in a particular role it is surely part of their duty to say so.

Yet a quick look at photographs from Glyndebourne clearly reveals the real culprit: neither the performer nor her journalistic judges, but the designer. It appears Miss Erraught was wearing an oversized tea cosy set off by a greasy auburn wig and with bushy sideburns glued down both cheeks. Such was the overall effect that one suspects even Angelina Jolie would have struggled to surmount such a ghastly confection.

Miss Erraught’s plight emphasises a growing trend in the arts, that of the increasing power of the creatives over those whose job it is to actually perform. Once, long ago, the job of directors and designers was merely to tell performers where to stand, make us look as good as they could and leave the rest to us. But nowadays concept is everything. With plaudits to win, publicity to court and reputations to be made, many performers are being asked to deliver more and more outlandish concepts, many of which have little or nothing to do with the author’s original intention (as witnessed by the current production of Der Rosenkavalier, in which another female soloist briefly appears naked).

If I speak with undue feeling it’s only because I have form in this regard. Many years ago, I was in a touring production of Shakespeare’s The Merchant Of Venice as the lover, Bassanio. My costume for one of Shakespeare’s most alluring Lotharios consisted of a ginger-coloured jerkin, dove-coloured tights, a crimson codpiece and satin bootees, the whole grotesque confection topped off with a shoulder-length auburn wig that made me look like Celine Dion.

I remember shuddering as I looked in the mirror. “You can’t send me out in this,” I pleaded to the designer, “we’ve got to perform schools matinées in Middlesbrough. I’ll be lynched.” But she was insistent. I looked fabulous, or so she assured me. Months later, long after the tour had finished, one in which my every entrance had been greeted by barely-suppressed sniggers and gleeful catcalls from all corners of the auditorium, I bumped into the designer again.

“Did I really look OK?” I asked.

“On the contrary,” she assured me, “you looked terrible. But what could I do? We had the costume donated to us and I had no more money in the budget for a replacement. If I hadn’t persuaded you to wear the one we’d got, you’d have gone in jeans and a T-shirt.”

There’s a poignant coda to all this. Soon after this searing experience I attended a masterclass given by the Hollywood actor William H Macy, during which I asked him for advice on what a beleaguered performer is supposed to do when confronted with the prospect of having to wear an awful costume. He asked me to describe my own example in detail.

“Oh dear,” he said at the end of my inventory. “You’ve been forced to wear that one as well, have you?”

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins