Brooding ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Brooding

Even though she lives in a glass house held together with ice cream sticks, Little Alison likes to throw stones. And as anyone who regularly reads TN knows, she likes to throw stones at other crrrritics. I really do get irritated by the laziness of some of our MSM theatre reviewers. (TN might be mistaken, procrastination-prone, psychically challenged, afflicted by typos and in danger of being crushed by a desk avalanche of old press releases, books and bills, but she isn't - she swears on her heart - lazy as such...)

Lately I've been brooding on a strange convergence in the reviews of Ionesco's Exit the King, on now at the Malthouse. At issue is a particular quote from Ionesco. Its first appearance was in an interview with Geoffrey Rush by Corrie Perkin in the Australian, where she quotes Ionesco at some length:

Ionesco, a Romanian-born Frenchman, said of the play: "I told myself that one could learn to die, that I could learn to die, that one can also help other people to die. This seems to me to be the most important thing we can do, since we're all of us dying men who refuse to die. This play is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying."

(Italics mine). An interesting and pertinent quote. But then, in her review for the Australian, Thuy On brings it back. It is also the only time Ionesco is quoted in the review:

Ionesco said of the play, "This is an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying".

And in an otherwise unobjectionable review for the Age, Cameron Woodhead uses exactly the same quote (and it is similarly the only Ionesco quote):

Ionesco once described his play as "an attempt at an apprenticeship in dying".

TN was a little puzzled - no, let me not be too disingenuous - TN was a little depressed that this seemed to be the only Ionesco meme bobbing about in Melbourne print circles. (Unlike Beckett, Ionesco was quite chatty about his own work.) And I assumed that the two critics had simply picked up the quote from Corrie Perkin's article.

But maybe not. Yesterday I picked up and read the press release that the Malthouse Theatre PR staff handed out to critics on opening night, which heretofore had lain, crumpled and unread, in the bottom of my handbag. And there, at the top, in a nice bold typeface, is a quote from Geoffrey Rush, taken from Perkin's feature - plus that very familiar quote from Ionesco, in the same partial form as it appears in the reviews.

It's not the first time I've seen critics echoing a theatre's press release, and I guess it won't be the last. But in my view, the job description of "critic" ought to involve reading past the PR. Or even past the virtual clippings out of the newspaper library. Or am I just old-fashioned?

20 comments:

Matthew Clayfield said...

I think this approach to reviewing is fabulous - soon, we won't even have to attend the plays! It's going to make our jobs as critics so much easier!htt

frances said...

i've got the last issue of realtime beside the toilet, and periodically it gets stuck on the :cough: interview with michael kantor, so i've read it a couple of times. it smacks of something i crrrriticised realtime of a while ago contra independant blogs which is the slide of content into publicists releases.

perhaps i don't understand journalistic conventions, but an interview that reads as a marketing tool and mission statement is a cynical pretense. primarily this makes me distrustful of what should be the best arts magazine in the country. it's also, as with the ionesco quote, lazy.

i also thought a reviewer shouldn't even read the pr effluvia until after they'd wrote their review. obviously i have no idea, no?

Nicholas Pickard said...

It isnt unique to Melbourne TN... don't worry.

Paul Martin said...

I suppose everyone has their own methodology, and mine is to NOT read any media releases or information about something until I've seen it. Sometimes that means I miss some themes or sub-themes that I only pick up later (once I've read the release). But it also means I get to see a performance (which in my case is usually cinema) uncoloured by others' preemption. Once I've got my first draft up - all my own thoughts - then I like to read other material to see if there's anything I can add.

Statler said...

I'm not overly concerned about this so long as the reviewing aspects are done individually. Sometimes there are just quotes that perfectly sum up a piece that are just too good not to use.

That said, I'm not keen on the idea of critics/reviewers reading other reviews before writing their own. After opening night of the National Theatre of Scotland's production of a new version of the controversial and much acclaimed "Aalst" it seemed to take an eternity (several days) before any reviews of it appeared, despite the show being very high profile and receiving a lot of pre-show publicity. Given that I had found the show somewhat lacking (despite great central performances) I was left with the suspicion that there may have been a case of the "Emporer's New Clothes" going on with none of the MSM wishing to play the role of the little boy. Sure enough many days later the reviews started to appear all with glowing reviews. Now maybe I was wrong about the show but I'm still very suspicious as to why it took *so long* for them to form an opinion of what is undeniably a piece that has an immediate impact.

View From The Stalls

Matthew said...

Paul:

"Sometimes that means I miss some themes or sub-themes that I only pick up later (once I've read the release)."

If you don't pick them up until you're read the release then you're not really picking them up, are you? Or are you?

Statler:

"I'm not keen on the idea of critics/reviewers reading other reviews before writing their own."

Exactly. I made a point of writing my review of Ashes to Ashes before I read Allison's, which was posted two days before mine. Cameron Woodhead's appeared in the Age three days later still and, at the risk of sounding paranoid, there were some uncanny similarities between the three. The parallels between Allison's and my own appeared to be the result of similar observations, but the manner in which we argued our points were, characteristically, quite different. With Woodhead's, however, there seemed to be some strange structural similarities between his review and the others as well, and I couldn't help but wonder if -- but no, surely not!

YS said...

Alison,

Thanks for mentioning this. One of the reasons I started blogging was the madness of seeing some of the mainstream critics regurgitating press packages into their reviews.

Regional Theatres in the US are exceptionally good at producing what I call dramaturgy-as-press-release. The "dramastitutes" contort themselves into pretzels in order to show why we need another production of Burn This, or how a light-as-air comedy, "really probes the loneliness of the characters."

All is fair in love, war, and marketing, but it is frustrating to then read a critic write how, "though the surface of the play looks like light comedy, underneath, the playwright probes the loneliness of people in these situations."

Now, I don't have a real problem with critics who explicitly state that they are quoting an interview or supporting materials. Such as: "In an interview in the program, the playwright is quoted as saying..."

However, a critic or reviewer just vomits the press release is either lazy, (as you suggest,) or has an amazingly permeable skull which is no match for the sly suggestions of well written press-realease.

Alison Croggon said...

I guess what irritates me most is that such quoting suggests, rightly or wrongly, that the critic has no prior knowledge about - in this case, Ionesco - except what they saw on stage or read in the press release. That is perfectly fine for the average punter, but if a critic - who is, after all, paid to make a qualitative judgement about the work - doesn't know anything about a writer or artist, aren't they obliged to find something out? It's not so hard, after all...There is an obligation in criticism that isn't about opinion, but the assumption that said critic knows what he or she is looking at and is able to talk about it with some degree of specialist knowledge. I'm thinking about - whatever you think about them - theatre critics like, well, Gilman, Tynan, Brustein, Billington, &c. Maybe that's why I'm old fashioned.

Personally, I think the more you know about an artist's work, the traditions he/she is working in, the context of the work, etc etc, the better you can discuss it and the more you are able to make and support qualitative assessments, rather than making blank statements. In any case, if you're reviewing an artform, aren't you supposed to be interested in it?

Statler said...

I guess part of it comes down to some of the differences between "professional critics" and us hobbyist reviewers who do it purely out of personal interest as previously discussed in the comments in you "Me on Blogs" piece. For better or worse for these critics reviewing is a job - maybe one they often love and are fortunate to have, but a job nontheless. I'm not sure I can blame them for taking a relatively harmless "shortcut" to skip or cut down the background info and allow them to concentrate on what they actually thought of a production.

Maybe I'm not old fashioned enough but I want to know how a piece made them feel, what it made them think about, how moved they were by the performances etc rather than an analysis of the historic context of the playwrite/previous productions.

Geoffrey said...

Alison! That's twice you've used "old-fashioned" in association with your work. No, no, no, no, no!

When context, juxtaposition, history, reach, range, depth, prose, poetry, argument, passion, opinion, viewpoints, structure and poetry all become "old-fashioned" then I shall cut off my fingers, not pay my Bigpond account, subscribe to "The Herald Sun" and stalk Andrew Bolt.

I really don't want this to read as sycophantic, but the way you write changes the way I think ... or at the very least how I consider. The traditions of your craft are well worth defending ... and there's nothing "old-fashioned" about that.

Alison Croggon said...

Hey Statler, my criticism is directed specifically towards newspaper reviewers - people who are paid for their expertise, and whose opinions are published with the authority (and capital) of the msm behind them. For the general public, these are the reviews that "count". Blogging seems to me a whole different ballgame - and every theatre blogger I read is absolutely upfront about where they're coming from, leaving the reader free to make up their own minds. I think there is absolutely a place for the kind of reviews you do. Newspaper writers do claim, implicitly or sometimes very snottily, that they have the "real" critical authority. If so, and if bloggers, for example, are "amateurs", doesn't it behove the print critics to actually know something? There are people who do - I used to like Lee Christophis' reviews, for example, and John McCallum understands the artform and thinks about it and that's reflected in his reviews. But it's actually not that common: what you get instead is an authority conferred by the medium, not by the work of the critic.

There was an interesting stoush on Sarsaparilla recently where a blogger dared to criticise a tv reviewer for the Australian - wow, did the shit hit the fan! His colleagues were outraged. I will say that print theatre reviewers seem to be rather more robust than that.

Geoffrey, thanks for the lovely comments, and don't worry; I am being a little ironic. I guess I find the idea of being an old-fashioned new media person rather appealing.

Statler said...

I feel I should add that while I enjoy reading your own pieces immensely I don't actually tend to think of them as "reviews" for the most part as they are so much more than that. As Geoffrey has put so much better than I could, and a re-reading of you "Exit the King" article has emphasised, what you provide is a comprehensive intellectual (even academic) and holistic consideration of the play. It's just possibly a little unfair to expect others to live up to these standards - regardless of them being paid or not.

Sometimes it's nice just to know you are up there with the best of them and rightly recognised for it - take the time to realise and appreciate that what you do is a little bit special, rather than wishing that others were just as good.

Alison Croggon said...

I'm suddenly feeling a bit embarrassed. I see where you're coming from, Statler. I'm not in fact talking about what I do here; I don't expect that in print reviews, because it can't happen.

I've worked for print media, and I know about the limitations that come with that. Here I can write whatever length I like, and I'm not constrained either by editorial expectations about what a review is, and that does make a difference.

I was pointing to reviewers - I named quite a few - who work in daily newspapers and who do go that extra mile. Of course it's possible, and I really don't think that it's too much to ask. I know I've fingered Cameron here for picking up that much-quoted quote but I should say in all fairness that his recent reviews have been much more thoughtful, which I think is a good thing. To my mind, if the msm discourse is poor, it doesn't do any of us any good, from first-time punter to practitioner to theatrical addict.

Geoffrey said...

I, too, have noticed that Mr Woodhead's most recent review was an extremely well-considered and well-written piece ... to the extent where it actually made me a bit nervous.

I put what is, let's face it, the very sudden increase in quality (not to mention word count) to the undeniable fact that TN has quite simply raised the bar. I am unable to resolve Mr Woodhead's sudden powers of observation in any other way. "He's been reading Theatre Notes" I remember smiling to myself.

Don't be embarrassed Alison. You've been doing this for a long time. Of course you're as good at it as you are.

As for me, I live to learn.

Statler said...

Thanks Alison, coming from the UK the names you mentioned didn't mean much to me but I've since had the chance to read through some of their reviews. They are at a notably "higher level" than most, while still remaining a level at which others should be able to aspire to within the restrictions of print.

Chris Boyd said...

Exit the king and enter the dragon!

A colleague of mine was once huffily (and rhetorically) asked by a PR queen -- who shall remain unnamed -- "Can't you review it from the press release..."

I've been calling press releases "press reliefs" -- not unlike "hand relief" if you see what I mean -- for some time. I make a point of using the ones I'm handed on the night for writing notes on the back of. But I avoid reading them like advertorials. It's too easy for an agenda to be set, for better or (more usually) for worse.

I was struck by the logical similarities of the reviews you linked to, Alison. Now, I'm quite sure that they were written in isolation. And I know for a fact that Thuy (at least) is anything but lazy... (She's one of my "best and fairest" book reviewers.) I am inclined to attribute the similarity of analysis to Cameron and Thuy's respective literary backgrounds...

Still, it made me wish I had reviewed Exit The King. One, because I was bored rigid and thought the stunningly talented actors were hardly taxed. Two, because I attended the fifth performance -- on Saturday night -- and was part of an audience that was, on the whole, pretty underwhelmed. (One of my editors was waiting outside to pick someone up. The crowd buzz was so restrained, he thought he had arrived at interval, not the completion of the play!)

I saw two minutes of acting in the entire first half. Way too little and way too late. Had it been any other director, and any other cast, I would have left then.

So, I'm wondering if the first performance rocked and the production went into a bit of a decline after opening. (That said, one of Thuy's remarks suggested she had similar reservations about the first act.)

But, f*ck, I'm not here to write a review!!

A couple more random notes. I'm troubled by this pro/am distinction between writing for MSM and blogging. Not just because I do both.

You know, after 20 years of print reviewing, I can say that the last year of blogging has improved my reviewing... both on- and off-line. Maybe not the actual quality of the writing or thinking. Perhaps it's not even detectable to a reader. But there is an extra step I find myself taking. I'm less forgiving of my own imprecision and woolly thinking. And that can't be a bad thing! :)

Now, to read a real review of the play! Goody...

Alison Croggon said...

The pro/am distinction is usually made by msm people. I could give you a million urls if I did a search, but this week, again, in the Guardian there's a guy going on about the amateurishness of political blogs - and there was that big stoush about book blogs last year between "professional" commentators who are paid and therefore know what they're talking about, as opposed to unpaid bloggers, who are ignorant and misinformed. &c&c

Of course there are bloggers who are dickweeds. All the same, I rather like the meaning of "amateur". And I figure that if msm writers claim superior knowhow and professionality, as it were, because of their pay cheques, I'll take them at face value. So - where is it?

Avi said...

It doesn't look like I can make comments on your most recent post, Alison - haven't read your review of The Pitch yet because I'm not seeing the show til Saturday night - but two things:

1. Did a search on "indefagitable" as I wasn't sure what it meant. I'm assuming you were, in fact, referring to Richard as I as being "indefatigable", (incapable of being tired out; not yielding to fatigue; untiring) as opposed to "indefagitable" which, according to urbandictionary.com, means "Incapable of being or becoming gay." While I am relatively sure this sentence more or less applies to me, Richard Watts is, I believe, quite homosexual, and is happily so.

2. "Richard and Avi are better men than you are?" Richard is probably a better man than both of us, seeing as neither of us are, as it turns out, men. So if you previously thought I was, well, now you know, and if you DID know and were just being ironic, well...then... I guess the defense rests, your honour.

Yours indefagitably,

Avi

Alison Croggon said...

Look where a typo gets you - gosh!!! I had no idea that indefagitable was a word outside my the vagaries of my keyboard. How very interesting! I'm sure Richard will be shocked. I shall go and fix up at once.

As for the other, yes, I did know you were an XX person, not XY.

Chris Boyd said...

*roars laughing* See where dyslexia gets you, Alison! Minor (?) incidents over orientation and sexx! LOL.

Actually, now I think about it, the latest flap (at Histriomastix) wasn't so much about Pro vs Am as it was over the acceptance of free tix. (Basically, the argument put was: if you accept comps you're a reviewer, if you don't you're "keeping yourself nice" and can call yourself a Blogger.)

Now I can understand why a "Am" blogger (unused to not paying) would assume that the acceptance of free tickets would be compromising -- recall the recent flap about reviewing 'free' CDs that lobbed at Sarsaparilla -- but, of course, as someone who has bitten the hand that feeds him for a very long time, I know that comps aren't necessarily compromising.

But I fear I am way off thread here. Just venting, you know!

I've been thinking, too, about Frances's comment about marketing and mission statements. Is it so wrong for a publication (even Real Time) to give an organisation a free kick?

It's not like the broadsheets publishing this year's ballet/opera/state theatre company programme is it...

P.S. OHMIGOD, the word verification is editorialising: it says XY is VG!!!!!