Queen Lear updates ~ theatre notes

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Queen Lear updates

The debate around Queen Lear has been going on, and on. It's not only in the monster thread under my review, which broke even the record for Baal - hitherto the holder of TN's Most Commented Production record - at the end of the opening weekend. The critiques themselves have also come under fire, most notably from director and academic Julian Meyrick. First he claimed in a news story in the Australian, headlined "Queen Lear reviews unhinged", that the reviews were, well, unhinged. He followed this up with an editorial piece elaborating on the evils of criticism in general and the "blogosphere" in particular. My thoughts, answering Meyrick and commenting on the "perfect storm" that is this debate, appeared online at the Oz yesterday. For those hitting a paywall, a hint: google is your friend.

43 comments:

Richard Pettifer said...

This feels like a bit of a kangaroo court Alison. How far does your defence of the blog extend? Don't you reckon there is at least a risk of free-for-all at the expense of the artist? You do censor here.

I don't think it's bizarre for Julian to try to defend the director, given the potential for these things to spiral into a circus of vitriol and misinformation. It's a danger that will become more pertinent in the future (eg Mike Daisey fiasco).

Surely his point about ensuring the dialogue meets its civic obligations is well made.

Alison Croggon said...

Yes, I do censor, but very rarely. On the Queen Lear thread, I removed a post that (a) had absolutely nothing to do with any aspect of the production of Queen Lear and moreover retailed malicious gossip and (b) was potentially libellous. The second post was removed because it repeated the first post. The fact is, if anyone did sue, I would be legally responsible. You do realise that? Oh, and I delete spam. I'm sure you're not interested in links to sites selling sports shoe or pharmaceutical drugs?

"Kangaroo court"? How, precisely, is answering a vicious and - worse - misleading diatribe being in a kangaroo court? Frankly, the "vitriol and misinformation" is all on Julian's side. If you read the actual reviews, many of which I linked to, none of them do what he says they're doing. Many in fact do exactly what he's calling for - dispassionate discussion of a production's strengths and weaknesses, etc, in relation to a discussion of the original text. Although they generally focus on the direction, I don't see anyone calling for McDonald to be hanged. I actually went and searched for a review that discussed the differences between the quarto and folio editions of Lear - because I couldn't remember reading one - and couldn't find it anywhere. Maybe it exists only in print, but obviously not in a major daily. I don't know. I strongly suspect that such a review doesn't even exist. Perhaps someone else can point me to this alleged review.

Moreover, he seems to be claiming that the reviews expected something to be "done with" Lear, and were attacking it because it didn't do the cool contemporary adaptation thing. "Lacking the visual and choreographic grace notes by which contemporary theatre attempts to look young, MacDonald’s production falls foul of a critical culture that is losing its poise, its perspective and its sense of humour." Wtf? In fact, something was "done" in this production, and that's where criticism was focused. In fact, sometimes the stage looked like a parody of contemporary avant garde theatrical tropes. Frankly, I don't know what he means by that comment.

Critique is perfectly welcome, but I think the first responsibility is to substantiate your claims, rather than making wild generalisations that simply are not borne out by what is on record.

Richard Pettifer said...

Alison - I just meant that I reckon you and Julian are closer aligned than what you are making out, in terms of what you want the dialogue to consist of - balanced, measured, informed discussion, in the internet or otherwise.

To me, both arguments were kind of the same in that regard.

Alison Croggon said...

Sure. But Julian's contention that this kind of dialogue doesn't exist anywhere, and especially that it doesn't exist in the "blogosphere". I'd say his argument is the reverse of balanced, and it's certainly not scrupulous.

Claire said...

Julian's piece is reasoned and sensible. It also displays a modicum of human compassion. That last quality is increasingly rare.

You obviously take offence to the term 'blogosphere'. Why is that? What one word alternative would you suggest? Pity a person who tries to critique online commentary without getting the lingo down.

BTW, the quatro/folio comment in his piece was a (perhaps made-up) example of the type of nit picking he'd identified in the reviews. It's disingenuous for you to talk about trying to find 'this alleged review'.

Alison Croggon said...

So it's kosher to lambast people for sins that you just "made up"? Ok then.

If Julian wanted to cite examples of nitpicking, he should have found them in the reviews he was complaining about. From his rhetoric there, he should have had an embarrassment of riches to choose from.

My problem with his use of the word "blogosphere" is that he doesn't seem to know what he means by it. At no point is it clear, although I did wonder a little egocentrically - since he seems to ignore all other online reviews - whether he thought TN was the whole of the "blogosphere". What does he mean by its relationship to radio, for instance? I have NO IDEA what he means by that. I mean, I used to review books on the odd occasion for RN's The Book Show... but what has that to do with anything?

If he cited examples - as I did - it would at least illuminate what he was talking about. Most confusing of all, he complains specifically about reviews and critics, but the ones that seem to upset him most were actually published in print. So what do blogs have to do with anything?

Careless Whispers said...

Reasoned and sensible? I couldn't agree less. Julian's 'straw man' rant was so wide of the mark that no-one but the ever-vigilant Alison could be arsed responding to it. "Critics should be 'more self-aware'" should be on an exam paper in the "clear thinking" section. It's a tangle of woolly, contradictory and unsustained 'arguments'.

I read Julian's piece and thought, oh great: "Here are some objections I prepared earlier."

Twenty stinking reviews to choose from and not a single concrete example? Or would you have it that Julian was being polite to the critics in a way that they were not to Rachel McDonald and Queen Lear?

Where is this nitpicking of which you -- Claire -- and Julian write? Nitpicking would have been cruel, and it would have been beyond the scope of any individual reviewer... so much was so bad about this particular show. Some of the print reviews were less polite than others, but I didn't see anyone dancing around on McDonald's grave. The reviews were penned with admirable sorrow, I thought, when a certain level of anger was justified.

And what on earth is the 'blogosphere' in 2012? Does it include individual rants (to Facebook friends) about having a shithouse night out? Does it include the on-line component of mainstream media reviews where comments are invited? How about Twitter? Does it include Pro-Am reviewers like Alison?

Julian is a historian and a researcher and this is the best he can do?

epiphanygreen said...

Can't access the articles you've mentioned - although I would like to, it seems that google is not my friend. Nonetheless, as a theatre practitioner, it seems moronic to me to bully people out of critiquing artistic endeavours with complete honesty.
Short of cruelty and deliberate malice (and libel, as Alison dealt with on the earlier thread about Queen Lear that I did read), everything is fair game, and anything can be said.

If reviews are to actually critique, analyse and yes, judge artistic work, then questions of human compassion and empathy are irrelevant - unless the reader wants the review to be part of the inane circle-jerks to which theatre in this country too often descends. Not all theatre here is like that, though - and I have always found this blog to be interesting, informative and remarkably dispassionate.

If a production demonstrates a substantial failure to make itself congruent and coherent with the artistic choices it has made - Alison's discussion about the problems with Queen Lear basically described a failure to frame the play around its female King in a way that added meaning, or was at least coherently meaningful - then that really is, ultimately at the director's feet. No matter who the director is, how inexperienced and how fraught the rehearsal process. I don't see why Alison's review was so controversial. Made sense to me.

The opposite of honesty in criticism is being a sycophant; there really is no middle ground.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks EG. Quite. I pass on the google hint from others, who swear it gets past the paywall: but subscribing is easy, and very cheap!

cheapskate said...

Last I looked there was a free 28 day subscription available.

Robert Fletcher said...

Diverse opinions and polite disagreements when points are well argued are what these discussions worthwhile, not anonymous ravings from people who don't bother seeing the piece of work being discussed. Good examples of the best of this would be the diametrically opposite views of Croggon and James Waites on "The Histrionic," or of Croggon and Diana Simmonds on "Queen Lear." And all four reviews make intersting and pertinent comments.

Anonymous said...

I see Diana Simmonds is at it again! If you didn't like Queen Lear you're either a purist or an unreconstructed King Lear shipper. Oh, and if you're a punter and thought Queen Lear sucked, then you're a sheep following those evil critics blindly. Or perhaps you're just an ignorant bastard who secretly hates theatre.

Anonymous said...

You should have stayed home and watched The Shire which is, of course, a work of great catarsis.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I have to agree with anonymous. Diana Simmonds' review is not well argued. It's breathless and shrill, and any authority it might have had is undercut by her capacity to get basic facts wrong.

She says of Shakespeare:

"If he'd been as precious about the script - as are some of the more ferocious text guardians - he would surely not have written an alternative happy ending to Lear as he did when punters complained that it was too tragic!"

News to me. Neither the Quarto nor Folio versions of Lear have a happy ending. The first person to write one, far as I know, was Nahum Tate after the Restoration.

Never mind that this comes in the middle of three wasted paragraphs about what Shakespeare might have intended, when the author's intention has been the most marginal and least interesting basis for drama criticism for three decades. Nor do any of the negative reviews argue from authorial intention. Sigh.

As for Julian Meyrick, don't get me started.

4 coffins said...

epiphanygreen - GOOGLE NEWS is your friend.

Alison Croggon said...

Slightly annoying too that Diana says that nobody knows on whom King Lear is based - "there is much surmise and lots of "probables" as to which Celtic king or legend he may have referenced, but the truth is, no one knows and it really doesn't matter" - when the origins of this story are so well known and uncontroversial. King Leir and the story of his daughters Gonorilla, Regan and Cordeilla was chronicled in Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, spawning a play which in turn inspired Shakespeare's. No, it doesn't really matter, but why claim otherwise?

Richard Pettifer said...

Isn't the Irish legend 'Children of Lir' thought of as a source as well?

Alison Croggon said...

I don't think so. Here it is. Interesting legend that speaks to the Christianising of Ireland, but doesn't bear any relationship to the Lear story that I can see...

Richard Pettifer said...

I think it's a collection of oral narratives as part of a myth cycle, rather than a single narrative this website has. And from memory the connection is with the more supernatural parts of Lear (bit of "Irish magic") and the themes, rather than plot points. Though it bears a cursory resemblance to the play - based on a character called King Lir, who has some daughters.

A glance over the wiki names a bunch of possible sources btw, (not the one I'm talking about here). But perhaps that is what led Diana to write that.

Alison Croggon said...

Whatever the origins of the original Lear story, it's pretty clear Shakespeare derived his version from Monmouth. Mostly via another play, as I recall. Like I said, it's not like it matters hugely, but this one is just obvious. I think the Lir story is a very long stretch. Also (I'd have to check this but) from memory Lear/Leir was a real king who lived somewhere near Leicester.

Also, Shakespeare's Lear (unlike Macbeth, say) doesn't have supernatural bits. They might talk about the gods every now and then, but it's practically existential in how its speaks of worldly power.

Richard Pettifer said...

Ok then - the more existential parts. (But isn't the storm thought of as supernatural? Or at least surpassing nature, triggering whatever existential consequence for Lear. Maybe the storm is an expression of Lear's own madness... but I think it can be read as either cause or effect. I think of Ross's dialogue with the old man about Duncan's horses going crazy in Macbeth. The plays have this in common) But granted, there are no witches, daggers before me etc.

I think it's generally accepted that Monmouth is the key text, no matter which other sources are wheeled in.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Luckily for Diana, any and all mistakes can be hidden under the fig-leaf of a pretentious and unnecessary Latin quotation.

With that in mind, I think I'll begin all future slags by quoting Catullus' Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo...

Troubador said...

"Pedicabo ego vos et irrumabo..."

Though some of the nuance may have been lost with the Google Translator I believe the literal meaning of this is:

"Ring the bell the goat is home..."

Chris Abboud said...

Many a Sydney theatre goer deplores the fact that there's very little choice in online theatre reviews outside Diana Simmonds.

We're lucky enough that she also runs the local theatre awards, which pales in comparison to the much revered and far more democratic Green Room Awards.

The mainstream media reviews have gone to sh#t and are limited in length to three-fifths of FA.

Kevin Jackson and James Waites are probably the most excellent, but there's little else for your poor cousins up here.

Semper ubi ubi in caput tuum.

Unknown said...

The Sydney Theatre Awards should just come clean and change their name to the Let's-Give-It-To-Cate-Because-it'll-be-Cool-if-She-turns-up Awards.

epiphanygreen said...

Didn't think Monmouth was translated as early as that. Do you mean that Monmouth was the source via Holingshed? (please excuse the pedantry of a medieval historian nerd)

Alison Croggon said...

Sorry, I was unclear. I meant that the story originally derives from Monmouth, but generally speaking it's accepted that WS stole wholesale from an anonymous play based on that story that was popular at the time. And then turned it into something else, of course. I think it may have been via Holinshed too but wouldn't bet my life on it. I'm sure some scholar can illuminate further.

Unknown said...

Hi Alison - sorry to have arrived so late at the party, but a Melbourne friend has just alerted me to the above. As you know, it's not my thing to read comments or anything else from people who are so cowardly they need to hide behind "anonymous", but on this occasion... At least your compadre Cameron Woodhead is as upfront and splenetic as ever! He is particularly silly in this instance, but it may be because we have disagreed recently because I poked fun at him over one of his especially gruesome "reviews" (actually a play list of material aka telling the plot). It is my hope that he may be provoked sooner rather than later into suffering a stroke and dying. But if he doesn't I guess that poor old rag the Age might predecease him anyway. Either way, I find his ravings astonishingly unlovely and unintelligent; as enlightening as a 25w nightlight and just as useful.
And another thing, as well as despising those who hide behind "anonymous" I would happily drink 2 litres of water and piss on the pathetics who hide behind "Unknown". For the record, I do not run the Sydney Theatre Awards and anyone who thinks Cate Blanchett's performances in A Streetcar Named Desire and Gross und Klein were not worthy of awards is either stupid or didn't see them.
Whether or not Cate turns up to the awards is immaterial, although she comes when she can as do hundreds of other wonderful theatre people. A wonderful evening is had by all. It's pretty weird by most adversarial standards because it's an evening run by reviewers for the Sydney theatre industry. We have no money, no outside help, no pressure from producers or other commercial interest and merely the enthusiasm and dedication of just 8 people - and I'm proud to be one them.
Finally, the arguments and factual swipes at me in the string above are - I am happy to say - incorrect.
Bless you all.

Diana Simmonds said...

Bugger me - I've come up as "Unknown" - unintentional as the above is by Diana Simmonds.

Anonymous said...

I'm anonymous

Anonymous said...

No,I'm anonymous!

Alison Croggon said...

Oh, you wags. Thanks for that Diana. I agree, it's absurd to (and mean-minded) suggest that Blanchett is only notable for her celebrity.

Re the factual arguments: just curious (though I confess I'm rather over talking about Lear). How are those incorrect? Seriously? I've read both (or rather, the three) versions of Lear, and none of them has a happy ending. That was a later rewrite, well after Shakespeare's death. And does anyone seriously dispute that Lear - however Shakespeare imaginatively treated the story and whatever other sources he drew on (yes, always multiple) was based on the story of Lear?

Anonymous said...

Can I be the first to observe that Diana is bemoaning the fact that she's unknown?

The captcha looks suspiciously Latin - pathice

Cameron Woodhead said...

You poked fun at me, Diana? I was unaware.

The criticisms I levelled at your Queen Lear review are specific. They're motivated not by personal animus (I don't even know you) but by a desire to foster quality reviewing and stamp out the bad. You do yourself no favours by refusing to answer such scrutiny in a mature way, though if you insist on trashing your reputation, I can't stop you.

I have to say I'm flattered you read my work. I try not to read yours. And really, if you think my reviews "astonishingly unlovely" and "unintelligent", why not provide examples of the flaws you perceive, as I've done? I enjoy spirited debate about theatre. Not so fond of "unhinged" ad hominem abuse. (Wishing a horrible death on someone because you don't like what they've written? FFS. Grow up.)

Personally, I hope you live a long, healthy and fulfilling life ... preferably in a different vocation.

Alison Croggon said...

Idle thought: how does one "stamp out" bad reviewing? Might good reviewing be part of a condition of culture which also permits the bad? However both of these contentious terms are defined...

Thinking again of Botho Strauss on a panel on German play writing, telling everyone that what the culture needed was "more bad plays".

Cameron Woodhead said...

"Stamp out" was imprecise. Of course "bad criticism" is permitted, just as "bad theatre" is permitted. A strong critical culture should vigorously discuss and scrutinise both.

The biggest worry here is that DS has made factual mistakes and unlike you or me, when these are pointed out, she won't engage in a meaningful way with her critics. DS seems more worried about her ego than the truth: that's undesirable for reviewers and artists alike. How on earth can we expect artists to have a mature relationship to critique when critics behave as Diana has?

Not sure what the sitch is like in Germany, but we have more than enough "bad plays" in Australia, methinks, to help us value the good.

Alison Croggon said...

I suspect that Strauss was asking for more ambitious and risible failures over the safely, reliably interrogatible "good". As well as being mischievous, of course. Admittedly, he was speaking out of German discourse, which is richer than ours.

It's not so much that the "bad" generates a field which permits us to recognise the "good", as the freedom of its existence permits and extends the freedoms of the good. And also that "good" is highly questionable, and easily closed and impenetrable as code for "ours, not yours".

Alison Croggon said...

Not sure that "interrogatible" is a word. But you know what I mean.

Cameron Woodhead said...

I do, though as expressed, I disagree.

One of the characteristics of "bad theatre", in my view, is its capacity to reduce the freedoms of the good. It can do this through its opportunity cost to the good in a world of finite resources; by its potential to diminish participation in and expectation of the art in question, and in myriad other ways.

I'd also hesitate to embrace the general proposition that an "ambitious failure" is to be preferred over a "safe success". Theatre needs both to survive, and too much of the assessment will depend (as it should) on the particular characteristics of the work and the context in which it appears.

Course "good" and "bad" are highly changeable qualities, which differ from person to person, over time, between cultural and intellectual milieux, and according to all other variables of human existence that affect aesthetic judgement. This only makes quality criticism more important, and behaviour like Diana's more annoying.

Alison Croggon said...

I suspect we might be talking at cross purposes. My idle thoughts are arising as much from thinking about poetries of various kinds as much as from theatre, and from observing how the "good" can be utterly stifling to the art. It can certainly make the astonishing less possible. Suspect the one thing that I can't bear is the mediocre, ie, something that is neither "good" nor "bad", might look like either of them, but in any case is dead inside.

Cameron Woodhead said...

Absolutely. An inflexible idea of the good can be crushing. Expansive taste is one of the hallmarks of a good critic, I think; and like a muscle, it grows with exercise.

Mediocre art is the worst. It's also the hardest thing to write about, don't you find?

Chris Boyd said...

Of the 193 comments (this one is #194) post-Queen Lear on this blog, these last seven have been the best. Keep musing, guys. Crossed purposes is (sometimes) better than crossed swords.

Anonymous said...

I thought the blog/crit reviews of Lear had been harsh, but just read Kevin Jackson's detailed blog commentary on "Duchess of Malfi." Now THAT's an execution.