Punchus sublimatus ~ theatre notes

Friday, March 02, 2007

Punchus sublimatus

Wanting to punch theatre reviewers is one of the many pleasures of a life in the theatre. This impulse, in TN's very bourgeois view, is best sublimated in civilised discourse, when it can entertain and perhaps even illuminate the rest of us. In any case, playwright David Blackman is upset with our favourite mainstream reviewer, the Age's Cameron Woodhead, for a negative review he gave to Blackman's play, The Revisionist, which is currently running at the Clifton Creative Arts Centre in Church St, Richmond.

The Revisionist is one of the many plays which I noted as being of interest but which my insane workload regrettably prevents me from seeing, and so I have no opinion myself. It is loosely based on the Demidenko affair, one of our celebrated literary hoaxes. As we know, white-bread Anglo Helen Darville posed as a child of Ukrainian peasants with a war criminal past, and released an allegedly autobiographical work which was awarded some of our most glittering literary prizes. Opinions differ on whether Darville's worst sin was her style or her anti-Semitism; in any case, the revelation of her unexotic identity caused one of the major literary scandals of our time, exposing some disturbing fault lines in Australia's literary culture.

Woodhead has some stern views on how the Demidenko material ought to be treated, claiming that The Revisionist misses the point: "The biggest mistake the play makes is the one Helen made: thinking that it's all about her. It should be concerned with what the hoax says about us." He criticises the play for not dealing with the judges, the publishers and the media debate, and for not even mentioning the issue of plagiarism.

Interestingly, The Revisionist is not the first play inspired by Helen Darville: last year Theatre@Risk presented Noelle Janaczewska's Mrs Petrov's Shoe. Of that show, I had rather opposite concerns to those Woodhead has with The Revisionist: as I said at the time, "It's impossible to talk about Mrs Petrov's Shoe without talking about Darville/Demidenko, and I think this is part of its problem. It remains too close to the Demidenko affair to really take off as a fiction of its own, and yet it is not, either, a theatrical retelling of Darville's fantasising. ...This is, as I fear this review rather reflects, a play that is ultimately about issues, illustrative rather than inherently theatrical."

It's clear here that I have my own views on the possible treatment of the material. Which raises the question: quite aside from judgements of the aesthetic success or failure of a work, can artists actually be mistaken in their approach to source material, and is it fair to tick them off for exploring the wrong aspects? At what point does aesthetic discrimination become something else? Blackman was not, after all, writing an essay on the cultural implications of the Demindenko hoax, but an imaginative work, and it could be argued that his only real responsibility is to the imperatives of his artistic imagination: there are, after all, no "shoulds" in art.

David Blackman's response to Woodhead's review has crossed my desk after lingering forlornly in the in-box of the Age arts editor, so in the interest of discourse, I'll let him speak for himself.

Dear Mr. Woodhead:

Given the nature and substance of your review (26/2/07), I exercise the right of reply.

While obviously it is your job and prerogative to judge a play as you see fit, your observations re The Revisionist, appear agenda based.

In your review you state that what's important about this incident is what it says about us.

This may be true in your estimation; for others however, Helen's motivation and an examination of her psychological status are paramount. Other Australians were troubled by what this incident says about this country's tolerance of free speech. And there are those, (I consider myself as part of this collective), who are concerned as to how the overt Anti Semitism of this book was lost on so many people, especially the judges. There are a number of possibilities, each as valid as the other.

As the interested playwright, I reserve the right to pursue whichever theme is most appealing, or of most concern to me, and to convey this to interested audiences. And in doing so, this does not, in my estimation, preclude making any point about what the incident says about us.

My take on the story, and what I have tried to do in the play, is to explore the nature of Helen's anti-Semitism as expressed in her award winning book, and hold it up to each audience member for them to decide to what extent they find themselves swayed by her argument, agreeing or disagreeing with what she has to say. I wanted to explore what the incident says about us, by allowing each audience member to question their beliefs or have them challenged and insulted by Helen's so-called experience of growing up in a Ukrainian family. No matter what thematic approach is taken, it is important that the fraud is exposed, but more importantly, given my choice, that the outrage she committed is exposed as to how she misrepresented history through a blatantly Revisionist text, and was allowed to get away with it by elements of the literary establishment.

The sub plot dealing with the crimes of real life war criminal Karlis Ozols, links Australia's record of harbouring ex-Nazis from Eastern Europe with our capacity to celebrate a book which justifies war crimes against Jews. In the play and in real life, these war criminals who escaped justice were an inspiration for Helen. No one seemed to make too much of a fuss about that either. To my mind, there is a binary relationship here, a very troubling one, which also has serious implications for all Australians. My experience over several years of readings, workshops and now, this production, was that this is not lost on audiences. The play says something very troubling about a country which honours a book defending war criminals and has such a tawdry history of protecting them. Throughout my research, I encountered this evasion by sections of the media, of what she actually wrote, and an unwillingness, from so many quarters to condemn the piece for what it really was (Robert Manne excepted).This was the impetus for my story and clearly not what you wanted to see.

As far as dramaturgy, The Revisionist was nominated for the Wal Cherry in 2003 and won the Ross Trust Award as part of the Premier's Literary Prize in the same year. It has had strong dramaturgical input from the likes of Peter Matheson and other notable figures in the industry. The script has been developed, gone through numerous re-writes and says what I want it to say. It has been admirably served by the director and actors. (As stated in the program notes, it is loosely based on the Demidenko Affair). Your review is, I believe, limited by your preconceived ideas of what the play "should" be about. Perhaps, more importantly, it has done a great disservice to all those involved in this production.


David Blackman

A robust defence, sir. So, what are the boundaries of critical speculation? Did Cameron step outside his remit, or is his opinion fair enough? TN is curious to hear what others think. And Cameron, while you're circling this blog, feel free to defend yourself.


George Hunka said...

Not having seen or read Mr. Blackman's play, but having access to Mr. Woodhead's review, I can only circle round some of the issues here.

In judging any play or production, the critic is, in a way, up a creek without a paddle. The critic, in order to make any kind of judgment (for judgment is always between one thing and another; it's a comparative process), needs to compare what she sees in front of her own eyes to some imagined, ideal ur-Play or ur-Production that she simultaneously constructs in her own head, the play that the critic has to guess the creative team had in mind.

Given that this is a new play, the problem becomes more acute. One can compare productions and perfomances one has experienced of, say, "Don's Party" through the years. The critic, faced with a new play, doesn't have that available to her, so she more than ever has to rely on that imagined ur-Play, guesses as to what the creators intended to put on that stage, and how successful they were in doing so. (They might also compare this new play to other new plays, or measure it against some David-Cotean standard of what he calls "authenticity." But even here the critical path is fraught with peril.)

Maybe Cameron's (if he'll forgive me the familiarity) "But the biggest mistake the play makes is the one Helen made: thinking that it's all about her. It should be concerned with what the hoax says about us," one of the comments that seems to be sticking in David's craw, is indicative of one of the more difficult aspects of the critic's craft.

I saw Chris Shinn's new play "Dying City" in its American premiere last night, and I plan to write about it, but I face many of the same questions as those I outline above. I can prepare myself only so well to write this review and witness this production with an engaged but critical eye -- I've read all of Chris's plays and the script for "Dying City" -- but in the end, to be fair to the play, I judge James Macdonald's production of Chris's play, with that particular cast, on the night of 1 March. That is where it becomes a Play. What can I judge it against, to be fair to the play, the performers, the production?

No critic enters the theatre with a cultural tabula rasa sitting next to the open notepad on her lap. I also enter the theatre with my experience and perspective of the Iraq War, which plays a large role in Chris's play. Just as Cameron, clearly, has a perspective on the Darville affair, and he admirably tells you precisely what it is, agree, disagree or argue with it as you will. The balancing act is to suspend, as far as the critic can (which sometimes isn't very far at all), her own perspective to read, between the lines, what Chris, James and the cast are trying to say about this war, what the onset and continuation of this war says about each of us individually, and the media through which this war is presented to us.

Is the critic's cultural and political perspective on a given issue that a play covers relevant? Well, I should hope so; the more the reader knows about the critic's perspective, the more the reader can judge the veracity of the review, measure it against his own judgment. Readers aren't idiots, not all of them anyway, and to think of them as a vast unthinking maw, swallowing all of Cameron's words as Holy Writ, is an act of bad faith. The more thoughtful of them will see in Cameron's "should be concerned" his perspective, and accept or reject this conclusion as he pleases.

I don't mean in this comment to defend Cameron, but one paragraph in David's response does seem utterly irrelevant. Cameron concludes that the play "requires a great deal more dramaturgy before it's in shape for performance"; David responds with a lengthy paragraph on the play's dramaturgical history, citing awards, the participation of "notable figures in the industry," etc., as if this is supposed to make the play appear more finished than it appears to Cameron. The play "says what I want it to say," says David. To Cameron, it still doesn't say it well. Maybe Cameron's a lousy critic. Maybe I am, for that matter. But he's still within his rights, and the play's history and awards, its four years of revisions, the dedication its director and cast show to it, won't make it any better than it is, or any worse, in any spectator's eyes. For people who hated "The Departed," all the Oscars in the world won't make it a better film.

Jodi said...


A word from the writer's perspective. Haven't seen the play, did read the review, and have read the above comment - most of which I agree with - except for the last part. Perhaps it's different in the States (though from what I've read I doubt it) but Woodhead's recourse to the 'not ready for production, needed severals YEARS more workshopping' is standard here, and represents what I believe to be one of the worst aspects of the industry at the moment - the continuing and extraordinary infantilisation of the writer. it is apparently impossible for a playwright to actually know what he or she wanted to say without the help of a dedicated team of professionals leading them towards the light. David Blackman's recitation of the play's history is in this case his only defence, and I've often read reviews where such histories are cited approvingly to validate the critic's perspective - if the play had been given the seal of approval. If it hasn't, of course, the opposite applies. This also has an impact upon Woodhead's decision that the play hasn't tackled the 'real' subject here. He is, as Mr Hunka suggests, within his rights to make that judgment. What he does not have the right to do - and does in the review - is assume that the playwright didn't know what he was doing. If the critic wants to make a call like that, he or she needs to stand by their opinion - and state clearly that they BELIEVE the writer has it wrong. NOT that the work might have benfited from one more bloody dramaturg.

Please excuse my vehemence. occasionally I wear my scars too openly for consumer comfort.

Jodi Gallagher

George Hunka said...

Oh, Christ, yes, Jodi: that infantilisation of the playwright who needs the phalanx of experts and critics to tell him what he was trying to say is very much in evidence here in the States. But there are two separate issues in play, and it's just as irrelevant (even if it's a common occurrence) for a critic to point to a film or play's awards as justification for a positive review. For what it's worth, I read Cameron's comment that the play required "a great deal more dramaturgy" as an indication of its lack of clarity and its possession of an "unfinished" quality. Just because the playwright, any playwright, thinks his play clear or finished doesn't necessarily make it so. That said, the critic could be entirely wrong -- hell, theatregoers in the 1950s felt cheated when Godot didn't show up. But then, opinions are never objectively right or wrong. They are opinions, whether they're more indicative of the play's or more indicative of the critic's qualities.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the fascinating comments, Jodi and George - one thing, there are no hard and fast rules about any of this. It seems to me that Blackman is aggrieved because he feels that Cameron failed to review the play he actually wrote. But it's absolutely true that no critic reviews from a blank space, except possibly me after a very hard night, and always comes with his or her agenda; and I agree that it's better if the agenda is upfront.

Anonymous said...

saw the play.....it had a lot of potential to be a complelling story, but fell short....just. Had some great moments. Direction was good. Performances were good, music was beautiful....but something lacked....I just can't put my finger on it...

Taylor said...

The girl who played Helen and the young man who played the young soldier were particularly good. Their scenes together were the most enjoyable. Direction was good too. Give credit where credit is due, me thinks. But that's just my oppinion...one oppinion....just like Cameron's(who has a right to one and it is his job after all!). And Davids right to tell this story...good or bad. But unfortnately it is a business where a right to reply is not wanted, expected or encouraged and therefor is said to come across as sour...And at times we all want to scream 'hey that's bulls***'.....but sometimes things are better left alone for our dignity...yesterdays news is tomorrows fish and chips wrappings, as they say)And who else is going to remember that review. But now with all the fuss, I will! But I must say it is fun to read!

Geoffrey Williams said...

Like Jodi, I too (more than occasionally) "wear my scars too openly", but I am compelled to agree with Mr Blackman ... and I share his frustration.

Mr Woodhead has most certainly betrayed this production - and all those involved in its presentation - by offering his opinion about what it might have been (something that sometimes occurs in the script editing/dramaturgical process rather than the process of critical review).

I also need to take exception to Taylor's comment that a critic has "a right" to express an opinion. I have never believed this to be the case, and I would challenge the apology that this is "his (sic) job after all".

Throughout my long involvement in Melbourne's fringe theatre community, one of the single most significant outages to befall our collective endeavours was the chronic and despairing lack of quality criticsm, critique and review. Yes, each playwright has their inner circle of truth-sayers who tend the development of a script at readings, workshops, cafes and living rooms. Yes, each production has its cast, whose loyalty, passion and commitment to the writer's vision is an almost impossibly powerful force to be nurtured, understood and resolved for performance. Yes, the potent connectivity of each and every person in the room at the time, is the rare, honoured and hopelessly addictive experience we all seek as theatre-makers.

And then there are the reviews.

I recall Leonard Radic's review of Michael Gurr's "Desirelines" for the Melbourne International Festival of the Arts some years ago. Mr Radic wrote the, then as now, infamous line: "where sex for gay men is a slow motion encounter with death". Post-review, audiences (small though they were) were handed leaflets has they entered the theatre for subsequent performances, drawing attention to Mr Radic's appalling lack of judgement, not to mention the blatant truthlessness of his review and ultimately questioning the objectivity of his criticsm. Mr Radic's review was formed on the basis of a lie, and betrayed Mr Gurr's and the company's work in a shameful way.

There are people in this world with opinions, but there are also people in this world who are opinionated. Sadly, in the case of Mr Whitehead's review, it would seem that one is not differentiated from the other. Mr Whitehead has done not only the company, but chiefly himself and his masthead a significant dishonour, by offering a lazy, subjective and critically flawed opinion masquerading as critical review but which, ultimately, fails his readers in ways that the work he has reviewed could not. Regardless of how "good" or "bad" it is, it is what it was created to be, and a reviewer has absolutely no right or justification to offer opinion concerned with what it it "should" have been.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Geoffrey

Thanks for that most trenchant post! I had no idea about that particular piece of Radicalism...sheesh. All the same, I don't think it's a crrritic's place to be "objective" (as Len always claimed he was, although of course it was, like all "objectivity" in matters of discrimination, merely a mask for an ideology that sought to preserve certain status quos).

For my part, as I say fairly often, I think opinion is the least of it, and the least interesting part of it. I read a marvellous quote somewhere concerning this but of course can't remember where: it was to the effect that in responding to a work of art, one should attempt to transcend one's "opinion", or one's narrow preferences, and to see what a work is first, before rushing to judgement. Which is to say, it is perfectly possible to admire a work without liking it, and certainly possible to attempt to understand something about it even if you hate it.

Alison Croggon said...

From Kevin Summers

As the director of David Blackman's "The Revisionist", I have been reticent to contribute to the public debate over Cameron Woodhead's review. As the season nears completion, I think it proper to write a few words. Let me preface my remarks by stating that I have no problem with his right, indeed his responsibility, to judge a play. He must write of what he sees, hears and feels. He must not, however, shut down his faculties because the piece does not serve his own view of the world.

He wished to see a particular treatment of the Demidenko affair and not seeing it, he felt more than a little miffed. Evidently, it should have concerned itself with matters of literary judgement, business ethics and plagiarism. Well, these are important issues and they have been thoroughly aired in half a dozen books, scores of commentaries and a recent play (Mrs Petrov's Shoe) but the play is elsewhere - mainly inside her head. Blackman's leaps of imagination and the relentless energy of the play were what attracted me when I read an early draft six years ago.

In turning his back on this Cameron has initiated some nasty flow-on affects. He accuses me of allowing some cast members to "horrendously overact" as "mad Nazis". They do not and they are not. They are increasingly out of control demons of her fevered writer's mind. She recognises their evil and ... she does not blink. She writes away, with all its awful consequences.

I'm proud of the David Blackman's play and the wonderful, committed performers. I hoped for bigger houses but it's hard to attract a house after such a negative critique. Our peers and the public have been most appreciative which suggests the Cameron Woodhead is like the man who emerges from a butcher's shop complaining of the quality of the bread rolls.

Geoffrey Williams said...

I can't help wondering whether Mr Woodhead might have a Demidenko play of his own in mind. Might I be so bold as to suggest a working title: "The Post-Revisionist"?

Alison Croggon said...

Or "The Revisionist Post"?