It started, as these things so often do, with an email.
“I’ve had an email from a solicitor about you…” chirped my editor.
The walls started closing in.
“Oh God no!” screamed a voice in my head, “You’re getting sued for real this time, head for the hills, go live in a cave, you’re absolutely fucked!” shrieked the voices of my deepest, darkest thoughts fears.
I looked at the email again, gazing at the words that my lovely editor had typed a few minutes before.
“..details below.” He added.
I replied and we gossiped for a while. Unsolicited emails from solicitors are rarely welcome, we agreed, and they are not to be trusted, we reasoned.
I scrolled down to read the original message.
My jaw clenched.
The email was from a solicitor who worked for a local firm. He couldn’t give me too much detail at this stage, he said, but he wanted to speak to me regarding a review I’d written some time before, and he specifically wanted to know more about the physical condition of an actor that had made some kind of injury claim against his client.
“Do you have a number which I could contact you on this afternoon or tomorrow afternoon in order to briefly discuss this matter?”
My jaw clenched again.
The actor and the name of the show hadn’t been supplied, but surely, my review of the show was enough? What had I said about this actor to make this solicitor take interest in me?
I’m used to people cutting and pasting bits of my review to be used on posters; I’ve had people email me asking me to justify my reviews. I’ve worked with editors who have eviscerated my words to make my reviews more positive, and sometimes, more negative.
These are all things that happen, these are things that I can handle, but a solicitor asking me questions about an unnamed actor for an anonymous client? That’s new. It puts me in an awkward position; not commentator, not critic, but informer; spy.
Feeling uncomfortable, I emailed the solicitor, asking for the name of the play. I briefly considered ignoring their request, but I knew that if I did, they would just keep emailing my editor, until they got an answer.
They replied quickly, giving me the name of the show and the actor. I remembered the show; it had been performed over 18 months before, but I had to think about the actor. I recognised their name, but had they been in that play?
I dug out and re-read my review. I’d written half a sentence about the actor, praising their brief appearance on the stage in what had been a minuscule role (they only appeared in the second act).
I contacted other critics, had this happened to them?
No, said one. Never, not in all my years of reviewing.
This sounds well dodgy, said another, avoid at all costs.
Why are they contacting you? Said a third critic.
That puts you in an awkward position, They concluded.
I’ve always said that I write for the reader, but who is the reader? I always assumed that they were a theatregoer, but what if there was something more sinister behind that? A critic, by nature, is an observer, so their loyalty is to their publication and its readers. If I do this, I can’t claim to be neutral.
I closed my eyes and I saw a snake in the grass. I watched the blades part as it slithered through an overgrown garden towards me. He was the snake. If I agreed to a phone call, he would coil himself around me and I would be his.
I opened my eyes and typed a quick response.
“Unfortunately, I cannot expand upon what I have said in my review, and as I have no knowledge of this actor beyond that, I cannot help you on this occasion.”
He replied within minutes:
“Should you decide that you remember the performance of [REDACTED] on this occasion, I would be looking to ask you some brief questions as to [THEIR] range of movement and your general impressions as to [THEIR] physical state during that performance. This should take no more than 10 or 15 minutes over the phone.”
He just needs 10 -15 minutes.
He wants me to spy on someone I don’t know. He wants me to be biased against this person.
I cannot and will not do that.
“Please feel free to contact me should you wish to discuss matters further, and I hope you have a nice day.”
I closed my eyes and watched the snake slither into the undergrowth.
I opened my eyes.
I closed my email.
I had a wonderful day.