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Art Beat: Rough Girls, La Bohème and whether we are prepared to pay for 'the art'...

Notes and musings from the arts scene as it emerges from lockdown. By Jane Hardy

The joyous Rough Girls, which ends its debut run at the Lyric Theatre tonight, will join 'the canon'

THIS question is a bit Gogglebox, to be honest, but when is an artistic hit a miss? Rather, what is going on when a given performance is rated four stars in one quarter, but dismissed as not nearly emotional enough in another?

I only ask because as your reviewer in the stalls, I've recently disagreed radically with people I rate recently over a couple of the Northern Irish productions emerging post-lockdown.

It's pretty painful. You sharpen your Biro, go to Rough Girls at the Lyric Theatre (brilliant, say all the critics, including yours truly). Then bump into a culture vulture at Northern Ireland Opera's opening gambit, La Bohème, who asks you if you 100 per cent meant it. Or whether it was the sheer elation we've all felt at being back in business. With live human beings.

No, I try to be truthful, I say. Then, having packed the Kleenex for Puccini's tale of instant passion, death from TB (so topical, so infectious), and one of the 19th century's biggest operatic hits, I watched and waited.

I am a Puccini novice, so wasn't sure what to expect. Well, the score was naturally ace, singing also ace (Gemma Summerfield's voice as Mimi super), but the acting not always ace although Cameron Menzies's production was inspired in the appropriately crumbly, bohemian setting of the Carlisle Memorial Church.

And guess what? Opinion differed. Rodolfo and Mimi, the lovers whose story kicks it all off, weren't steamy enough for my taste. Two critics, one on an esteemed music mag, also said their withers remained unwrung and debated casting.

Yet two very cultured spectators said it was the best they had ever, er, seen. The Irish Times agreed.

Why the divergence? I think there are rational standards in the arts but that it's partly to do with the Jeeves 'psychology of the individual'. We respond to culture as a whole person, including where we are emotionally.

The late Guardian critic Edward Greenfield said we should edit out our personal reaction to classical music. It's not Mahler, it's you - get over it.

I disagree. As Victorian critic Walter Pater said, "All art aspires to the condition of music", I think because you don't need training to understand or love it.

So back to La Bohème - relished the music and colour a week ago, will listen again. Re: Rough Girls, I know it was great and will enter the canon.

On an ultimately more serious topic, to socially distance or not to socially distance in concert halls, theatres etc? We've been more cautious in Northern Ireland, but nobody, i.e. Stormont, has bothered to sort it (as in Britain, where Andrew Lloyd Webber said, wow, he'd never vote Tory again if theatres couldn't open up).

Yet it's serious, people. If we want to continue to be able to see shows, we have to have full houses, and before panto time. As Cameron Menzies said introducing La Bohème, they had sold 90 seats in the church as opposed to 900 plus in the Grand Opera House: "We're doing it for the art."

Time to decide if we're prepared to pay to keep it.

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