Correspondence: Chris Bendall ~ theatre notes

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Correspondence: Chris Bendall

Chris Bendall, artistic director of Theatre@Risk, is - quite understandably - rather pissed off at his production being the sacrificial lamb on the altar of debate. He wrote me the following email requesting that I take my comments about Requiem for the 20th Century down until I see all of the show.

I do not remove posts here, and suggested it would be much more interesting if I simply published his email. So, with Chris' permission, it follows in full:

Dear Alison and everyone else who has been blogging in response to your post yesterday.

A fascinating discussion about the duties of the critic. But what a curious launching off point for such a commentary when Alison, you yourself admit that you did not see half the show. what position are you in to make any commentary whatsoever? especially what point are you to make a comment on other journalists when you show so little understanding of a journalistic code of ethics? You said you thought long and hard before posting a comment - well next time you should think much longer and harder.

I should say at this point that my name is Chris Bendall, the director of the show that you so loathed and detested.

I think you have absolutely lowered and debased the quality of your site by posting such unsupported and ill-informed commentary.

I am utterly dismayed at your journalistic ethics that you would post any commentary whatsoever about a show on this site that you have not seen in its entirety. You admit yourself, if it were MTC you would have seen the whole show before commenting. What an absolutely disgraceful admission and what a slap in the face to the hard-working independent sector as a whole that you give us so litte credence.

So you decided to trash our show. Fine. As some of your fans have commented in response to your blog, I am happy in fact to take criticism as yes it can in be useful for the development of a new work. I am reasonably thick-skinned and fully expect some people not to enjoy our work. And yes, it is completely isolating when the most you can expect is one or two pieces of serious commentary on a work that you have devoted months of blood, sweat and tears to. BUT a critic must see the show to be able to comment. And yes, this does mean all the show not just the first half.

You must also not presume to speak for an audience of 100 people on opening night whose opinions you can not know. You claim that the majority of the audience held your opinion, but this is a totally unsubstantiated claim. Did you interview them all at interval before you left? Yes, I did note that a couple of people left at interval (yourself included). HOWEVER, we actually spoke to the majority of the 90% that stayed and the response was overwhelmingly positive.

Cameron is not our only other reviewer of this show. We have received a positive review from Melbourne Stage Online which I suggest your fans check out to get a more balanced view of the show. We have also received countless emails from audience members who have adored our show - and who have come on various nights for the past week - more responses than any other show we have ever produced. I will not bore your readers by listing them all, as my point is not to say that our production is faultless but rather to say that it is a show that has produced polar extremes of opinions as all good theatre should.

As our name suggests, we take a risk by putting on an original new Australian work. This work is not perfect and we are not so naive to think that. But there is much in it that deserves to be seen. What we hope for when we produce a new work is that people engage in the work in critical discourse, come out of the theatre discussing the ideas both thematic and theatrical that are presented and hopefully have an entertaining and moving evening at the theatre.

I would like to add one final note - you claim that the reason for posting your review was for OUR benefit so we do not falsely assume this is some great work of genius. I think this is possibly the most patronising thing I have ever had said to me. Dismiss the show, love the show - I don't care. But don't pretend its for our benefit. We have our own artistic colleagues and peers whose opinions we respect - and based on those our work is constantly being revisited and revised - we don't ever believe a show is finished until closing night. And if the play ever sees the light of day again, it will be further reworked. If you honestly desire your commentary to be of benefit that say something more useful than 'bum-aching' to us please.

If you are going to review a work then you must talk about the entire work - the direction, the design, the performances and the script. There is so much work here that you carelessly dismiss without a thought.

Alison, I invite you to return to the theatre and see the show again - in its entirety. Then feel free to write whatever you like about the show and criticise it as much as you will - but informed intelligent criticism please as I would normally expect from you. 'Bum-aching' may be a useful adjective to describe the trades hall's somewhat uncomfortable chairs but it is not an intelligent way to describe theatre. Until you see the entirety of our show I would request that you remove your blog so that you do not deter the few intelligent theatregoers that Melbourne has from experiencing what many of our audience have told us is our best work in our six year history.

I would also request to all the other bloggers who have responded to Alison's post - please come see the work and make your own informed opinion.

Chris Bendall
Artistic Director
Theatre @ Risk

That's telling me!

For my part, I stand absolutely by my right to comment - and the rights of others to comment on my comments. (Within, of course, the boundaries of defamation law.) I do not agree that it was unethical to comment at all; it would have been unethical if I had misrepresented my comments by suggesting that I had seen the whole show. I did not pretend that I was writing a review.

What I do concede is the flakiness of appealing to an objective measure of aesthetic judgement in which, when I think about it, I do not believe. No one's judgement is final. Not even - hard as I find it to believe - mine. My response is merely consistent with my aesthetic and intellectual predelictions. And having conceded that, I suppose I have to admit that Cameron Woodhead's review must be equally consistent with his. Whatever they are.

And whatever the arguability of my ethics, the discussion that followed has been fascinating.


Ben Ellis said...

Dangerously, I offer a response here.

TimT said...

You don't have to see all a bad show to know its bad. Doubtless the critic is there to review the show in its entirety, but only a critic with literally Godlike powers would notice everything about the show, and then be able to talk about it all, in under 1000 words. But most critics should be able to pick up on a few crucial aspects of the show and use that to demonstrate why it worked or didn't work.

It's a cliche, but life is too short to waste on seeing bad shows through to the end. And it's another cliche, but - methinks Mr Chris Bendall doth protesteth too much.

Alison Croggon said...

It wasn't a review, because I didn't talk about specifics of the production (as I try to, when I review something). And yes, I would have talked about writing, direction, design and acting if I had reviewed it. But I didn't, because it wasn't a review. Now I'm talking in circles.

I obviously had a visceral response - removing one's body is as visceral as it gets. I actually have all sympathy for Chris Bendall's anger. I also know that my response was quite real, and I - obviously - think it's fine to talk about that. I thought Chris Boyd's scramble over the heads of the audience to get out of Not Like Beckett was fine too, although others didn't. Such reactions don't happen very often - no one goes to the theatre expecting to leave - but they are part of the experience of regular theatre going.

I was watching the clip of Billie Whitelaw's Not I yesterday, and she was talking about how audience members were desperate to get out of the Royal Court, so they took all the bulbs out of the exit lights and the women's toilets - apparently the audience were trying to hide in the toilets. When particularly panic-stricken, audience members will take their bodies into their own hands. That's part of being (and having) an audience.

Thanks, Ben, for your nuanced response - my comments over there.

Alison Croggon said...

Oh - and to be fair to Chris Bendall, it is very difficult to defend one's own work against harsh criticism: even in the best of circumstances. Which is why, mostly, people don't, even when I think they should.

Anonymous said...

I'm a virgin commenter, but since I saw the show in question I felt compelled to throw in my 2 cents.

It was bad. Rather like a high school play that somehow escaped from the gymnasium - complete with "rent a crowd" - 4 actors condemned to move furniture and never utter a word (except when singing a little scene change music). Not that i'm reviewing it mind you - that's far too dangerous a line for a theatre practioner to walk. I just wanted to rebutt some of Chris comments about how much the audience loved it. Well, they didn't. There were quite a few walk-outs when I saw it and my friends and I would've left too. But we were there to support our friends in the show, so we were obliged to see it through. Admittedly, the second half was slightly better (if only because 1945 seemed to inch closer). I do think that you're perfectly qualified to give an opinion if you walked out at interval, crticism is after all only opinion. Its simultaneously wonderful and horrible that you can see a show (and there have been several) where you agonisingly endure it while next to you sits someone in wide-eyed rapture. They give a standing ovation, you look for your bag - and as you leave you wonder "What show were they in?"


Anonymous said...

I saw the show in question and loved it. For me it was an ambitious piece of writing that tackled many issues both historical and humane. I found myself swept away with the love story that lies at the heart of the play. Everyone is entitled to an opinion, and mine is that this is a brave venture quite unlike any other theatre I have seen recently. Three of us saw the show – and three of us left feeling like we’d engaged in an emotional journey with the characters that left us feeling satisfied and eager to see the next installment. For what it’s worth – my congratulations goes out to everyone involved…including the chorus who, in my opinion added to the epic scale of the show rather than detracted.