The problem of praise ~ theatre notes

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The problem of praise

UPDATE: Pertinent to the discussion nicely bouncing along in the comments here: a speech by the distinguished American critic Eric Bentley on theatre criticism. He would be quite happy if newspaper criticism didn't exist. Thanks to George Hunka for the pointer.

When critics go to the theatre, it is a given that they have differing responses. One man's meat, as the proverb runs, is another man's poison. And this is as it should be: theatre audiences are as various as the theatre itself. But sometimes there are extremes that ought to be noted.

On Monday night I went to see a show of such earnest, bum-aching, unparalleled awfulness that, after canvassing the general dismay, I decided that it was kinder not to review it; there seemed to me little profit in trashing a small, hard-working independent theatre company. The show was Theatre@Risk's Requiem for the 20th Century, written by Tee O'Neill in collaboration with the company and directed by Chris Bendall. It is Theatre@Risk's largest (I won't say most ambitious) production so far, and it seemed to me a mistake of disastrous proportions. I couldn't understand how a work of such intellectual and theatrical naivetie had made it to the stage.

However, I opened the Age yesterday and found out that tyro critic Cameron Woodhead has exceeded even my low expectations of him. He devoted a complete rave to Requiem for the 20th Century. It is, says Woodhead, "the sort of inspiring work, unapologetically ambitious, bursting with the humour and tragedy of life writ large, that might just rewire your sense of what local theatre can achieve".

This was, gentle reader, the worst show I have seen for a long time. I have been thinking about it all week. It was a kind of Theatre in Education whistlestop tour of 20th century history, only of such superficiality that no year 11 syllabus would stand for it. It induced the kind of despair only bad theatre can; I remember glancing at my watch after what felt like five hours and noticing we were only up to 1913. Like Dorothy Parker, I wanted to shoot myself.

I was by no means the only person who left at interval. Life, I thought, is too short to spend another ninety minutes pole-axed by this kind of anguished boredom. Also, I had heard Lorca turned up in the second act. Lorca is one of my favourite poets. After witnessing the bowdlerisation of Walter Benjamin in the first act, I couldn't have stood it. Such things actually, physically, hurt.

I hoped that Bendall - a director I respect - and the rest of the crew at Theatre@Risk would take stock, review how it happened that they had worked so hard and devoted so many hard-won resources on a work of such monumental silliness, and think again.

It may seem somewhat ungenerous to grudge the fact that a show I disliked got a good review. It may seem that I am unfairly picking on Mr Woodhead. It may also seem suss that I am talking about a show on which, after all, I walked out (although, to be honest, if a show is that disastrous by interval, nothing is going to save it). But after I recovered from my sheer astonishment, I found that this review worried me for several reasons.

Firstly, such a review - after all, the Age is what passes here for the "paper of record" - may inoculate the company against the stock-taking to which I referred earlier. Let me make clear that, in my negative reaction, I was by no means in "mutinous isolation" (as has sometimes happened). If I were merely a minority voice in a chorus of effusive approval, I should not comment. But in this case, the general response of the first night audience was as close to unanimous as theatregoers can get. The best that could be said was that it was a brave attempt.

I should note also that if Woodhead had merely written a positive review, I would not have felt moved to say something. It's the fact that he wrote a rave.

Secondly, what about those audience members who, encouraged by the review, head off to the show, only to find their souls shrivelling as they watch? Will they believe, because the review tells them so, that this is the best theatre that our local companies have to offer and just decide, as so many do, that, after all, they don't like theatre?

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, this review betrays the quality of theatre that is being made in Melbourne. As I have said many times, we are witnessing a renaissance: this year I have seen more good to excellent shows than I can count on all my digits. To single out with inappropriate and lavish praise one of the real duds is not only, like the love of God, beyond all comprehension: it is a slap in the face to all the hard working theatre artists out there making brilliant theatre.

The point is that misplaced praise can be as damaging as misplaced spleen. I believe totally in George Devine's exhortation of the "right to fail". Yes, absolutely, a theatre must have that right. Tee O'Neill, Chris Bendall and Theatre@Risk are all capable of much more than this, and such a failure does not compromise this possibility. What worries me is what lessons will - or will not be - be drawn from it.


Paul Martin said...

Deja vu? Someone made a similar comment on the At The Movies message board in relation to Margaret Pomeranz's favourable comments about BoyTown. In
that discussion
I said:

The danger I see in this is, if we are not sufficiently critical of our own films (1) we give the wrong message to the film-makers that the crap (as you called it) is good, and that they will then continue to make crap films, and (2) we learn to disregard the reviewers who give inflated reviews, because we've been burnt so many times by lavish praise of films we detest.

By giving a mediocre film like BoyTown or Irresistible four stars, we are unable to ascertain from a review of Kenny, for example, that it really is a good film. This doesn't help our industry at all.

MattJ said...

Thanks for writing about this. Quite relevent to the panel discussion we recently had.

And Paul's comment is a good one. And it flows with my major thoughts as well. That we must be critical of the work. And, as you said Alison, the idea is not that those artists are "bad" artists or untalented or something. One hopes they take the truly thoughtful and critical reviews and draw something constructive out of it. Which is likely why you actually did decide to write about it, in this post, when juxtaposed against an inexplainably positive review from the paper of record.

But bad theatre won't become better theatre by back-patting and a lack of criticism. Why should theatre be any different from other art in this respect?

Anonymous said...

Alison I have to say I love it when you don't review a show. Your non review of Romeo and Juliet is still the most effective stripper that my skirting boards have ever encountered. And I'm sure that Theatre at Risk will be forever grateful that you decided to give their efforts a miss.

I appreciate the concern about inadequate reviewing (I have to declare that I am at a disadvantage here for I will not be able to see the show) yet short of factual misrepresentation or blatant ignorance I don't see how you can take another person to task for really enjoying what you found to be odious.

That theatre at risk may be led astray by some flattering comments is of course a possibility though I think an exagerated one. Regardless of critical opinion, public indifference usually suffices to correct any delusions. Box office is not the be all and end all but it certainly has its sting or caress.

As to the public being led astray, well we all have our own shorthand. In the case of flicks I always mentally handicap Pomeranz's opinions while giving Stratton's an inside gate. In the good old days of Helen Thomson I'd steer clear of anything that she didn't completely gush over (particularly if it was at the MTC, for she seemed to have an ideological committment to seeing the MTC through any hardship...or incompetence) for she could always see the good in everything - lovely for a maiden aunt but a bit lame for a critic.

As to betraying the quality of theatre in general I am reminded of a chubby man at Beat (and sometimes at Real Time) who pooh poohed Red Stitch for being an actor's collective and lacking dramaturgical rigour or some such. Problem was he hadn't (at the time of publishing those comments) seen any of their shows.

Betrayal is infinite, the only balm is the whispering and listening of profound things around the hearth...oh lord getting too fruity.

Theatre Queen

Alison Croggon said...

Well, you have a point, TQ. I hesitated a long time before posting this last one in a way that I haven't with anything else I have written, and - something I never do - asked a number of people their advice before I did. Obviously I felt uneasy. And perhaps it just seems petty and unimportant and, as you suggest, simply mean minded.

On the other hand, the issue of quality of discourse about theatre seems to me to be very important.

I guess my main feeling is that the tradition of mediocre theatre criticism on the Age is not good enough. Yes, of course readers are not stupid: but on the other hand, there is a reason for the lack of theatre literacy in this town, and critics have to take a good proportion of the blame. Before Helen there was Leonard. This tradition been damaging Melbourne theatre for 30 years and more. And because of the tiny number of papers in this town, it's really damaging: it's not like you get a range of opinion in the mainstream press - you might get two points of view, if you're lucky. Why should we - audiences and practitioners - put up with it as if it was the weather? The general rolling of the eyes - or in this particular case, resigned disbelief - that greets this kind of stuff is, perhaps, why things don't change. After all, the Age has access to much better reviewers. Martin Ball springs to mind as someone who has a clue. But who, aside from those who go regularly to the theatre, is going to know the difference?

There is such a thing as bad theatre, and sometimes - rarely, I agree - it goes beyond subjectivity. Is theatre an art? Does it matter if it doesn't reach its own self-set standards? What happens when something is mistakenly slammed or mistakenly praised? I think it has as effect, and that it's a cumulative effect.

I'm not saying anyone always calls it right - all of us can be mistaken. I like things that other people don't. Chris Boyd and I disagree frequently, and I think that's fair enough. Etc. But sometimes - again, rarely - there is such a thing as just getting it wrong.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Thanks Paul and Matt for your comments. How do you rate the general standard of film reviews, Paul?

Anonymous said...

I'm here in the role of a theatre outsider, pure audience; which I believe has become somewhat rare. I think people like me might be valuable because we can bring fresh audience members (like I did to The Damask Drum the other week), because we have no loyalties to upkeep in the "industry", and because my impressions probably mirror those of any theatre ignoramus, reading the Arts page by accident. So:

I am grateful for any review you publish here, Alison. I went to see The Yellow Wallpaper only because you raved about it (and it was an experience). In this I disagree with TQ, perhaps because I'm not acquainted with the artists, companies, I don't know who's likely to be interesting, and I depend entirely on reviews and word of mouth (which, remember, is sparse outside the clique of theatre-goers).

Martin Esslin said that the critic is indispensable for the artist, and the audience, because the critic has time&knowledge to articulate the audience experience to the artist, and the artist's intentions to the audience, thus mediating in an encounter in order to make it more successful, productive (this is a loose quote, from memory). I didn't like The Damask Drum although you did, but I was that more informed about Daffin's work, and better able to see the quality of it, even if it wasn't to my taste. And, as a person who has her own work evaluated, being told what didn't work and why that might be is invaluable: I believe Theatre @ Risk could only benefit from a constructive review, good or bad.

But, as you said, one rarely gets two reviews to compare, and it seems that most often The Age word is taken as the final verdict: all the more tragic as their critics seem (to my outsider eye) not to have any clue what they're talking about, and also have very questionable writing skills. Ignore that, as any artist should, and you are creating work with no feedback you can rely on. That must feel very lonely.

There is definitely a sentiment in Australia against criticizing our own people. Or anything at all, these days it seems. At the Fringe festival, some emerging artists were quite hurt by negative reviews by Hilary Crampton (one of those few that dare to be negative on The Age page), seemingly expecting it their God-given right to be nurtured as emerging hopes/young blood of Oz theatre; and nurtured in criticism, rather than in funding, mentoring, attendance numbers.

I also happen to be a follower of an art form that notoriously suffers from lack of meaningful criticism: graphic novels (and don't laugh). Even in countries where graphic novels have always been treated as a medium with their own value (treatment in Australia reserved solely for Tintin), like France, Italy, Spain, or Yugoslavia, good reviews have always been few and far between: this makes it unbelievably hard not only to source quality works, but also for artistic cross-pollination to occur, as many artists work in isolation from developments in other countries, genres. A lot has been said about the limits of the critic, but it's an indispensable role.

And as film goes, I'm still bewildered by the number of people in this country that calmly say they didn't like a film because it was "very sad". If there are any good reviews, nobody must be reading them.

The other question is how it all works on the market: that illiterate opera review won't deter anyone, I suspect, because opera audience is made of subscribers, but a bad review at La Mama mght slash their numbers. Or not? I will always go to see shows I'm interested in, your bad review or not. And a review is always an advertisement?

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Jana for that viewpoint. And Mr Esslin, as so often, is quite correct. I do know there is an audience out there - a real one - because audience numbers show that there are. But it's harder to hear from them.

TQ was pointing out that my "non review" - effectively a review, or a response, at least, since I wouldn't call it a review - is kind of getting in under the wire, since I didn't see the entire show. And that is a ticklish ethical point. What right have I to talk about half a show? Obviously, I think I have some right - it was still an hour and a half of my life, longer than the entirety of some other works. But I acknowledge the question; it's quite legitimate. Especially as I obviously did not intend to write about the show, and changed my mind. If it had been an MTC show, I would have stayed and reviewed it properly. Because it was an independent company, I held my fire. I thought - erroneously, as it turned out - that since it would obviously be universally panned, my two cents worth wouldn't add much. Well, I was wrong on that.

What worries me is not whether a review is positive or negative. (I will say that I've never noticed that Age critics feel shy about negative criticism). What matters is whether it's accurate - not in terms of value judgment, but in terms of discussion. I do think opinion is the least of it. I hope that my reviews, whether you agree with my estimation or not, give some real idea of what a show is like. That's certainly what I aim for.

I should probably say here - in case anyone thinks I'm angling for a job by badmouthing rivals - that I'm not interested in reviewing for the Age. (I like doing radio, though). This isn't a stepping stone to Greater Things. But I do look around and and wonder sometimes; it wouldn't be difficult for the Age to improve its reviewing. I mentioned Martin Ball, who already does the odd review, and whose commentary seems fine. But why isn't Geoffrey Milne, for instance, reviewing for the mainstream press? There's someone who knows theatre backwards, as a practitioner, teacher and critic, and has decades of experience and knowledge of theatre in Melbourne and elsewhere. He's someone I would happily disagree with every day, because he knows what he's talking about. It makes you wonder if expertise is considered an actual drawback.

Paul Martin said...

Theatre Queen, I find David Stratton's reviews more reliable than Margaret Pomeranz's, but I find I have to do an adjustment for either reviewer depending on the genre and the individual film. I can't describe the adjustment, but I just get a sense of which one to make which adjustment. Just intuition, I suppose.

Alison, as I said in my post on At The Movies (link in my post above), I agree that it does go beyond subjectivity. I have given high ratings to films I didn't particularly enjoy or like (such as Ken Loach's The Wind That Shakes The Barley). I saw the film had much merit beyond my own subjectivity.

You ask: "What happens when something is mistakenly slammed or mistakenly praised? I think it has as effect...". Using David & Margaret as an example, they both highly praised Russian Ark and gave it 5 stars each. This was an interesting but unspectacular film, but the very next day the Lumiere Cinema (which usually struggled to get an audience) was packed on the basis of their reviews. And I also think that one of the reasons that Em4Jay (which I consider one of the most important Australian films made) only got a 2 week cinema run was because of the poor review by D&M. In this instance, I felt their subjectivity for the content got in the way of giving an objective critique of the artistic and other merits of the film.

Sorry to those who are not into cinema, but there is a common thread here.

As far as your question about the general standard of film reviews...
I haven't found any one reviewer that I can use as a reliable guide. David Stratton may be the closest. I have a number of complaints about most film reviews. Firstly, most of them give too much of a plot away. I like Andrew Urban's policy, which is to discuss the qualitative aspects of a film, divulging as little as possible. Urban also doesn't believe in a number or star system. While I appreciate this point, I like stars (usually out of 5) because I'm numerate and it gives me a secondary method of appraising and comparing a film (or anything really).

Because I don't like perhaps 90% of films released, and because most reviewers cater for the mass film market, it follows that I'm unlikely to have a high regard for film reviewers in general. And I don't. I generally don't read them, because I find them patronising of films that I find puerile.

It's been a long time since I picked up the Herald Sun for anything other than Sudoku, but I recall that the standard of reviews there were pretty poor. I find The Age reviews so-so, but there's a couple of reviewers that aren't too bad (namely Jake Wilson and Philipa Hawker). I know Matt from Esoteric Rabbit has a very high estimation of Tom Ryan's reviewing. On his recommendation, I look forward to reading more of his work, so I reserve my judgement of his writing.

The only reviewers I go out of my way for are D&M on At The Movies and sometimes I'm new to blogs, so I'm trying to find some good sites online (time permitting, which often it doesn't).

In your last comment, Alison, you mention "give some real idea of what a show is like". When I review a film, I try to give an honest appraisal of the film and what type of film-goer it is likely to appeal to (or not). I also try to compare it with other films, so that people can have some kind of reference point. For example, some people absolutely hated the gritty realism of the Palme d'Or winning L'enfant (The Child), so I'd expect these people to NOT like Em4Jay. I thought a comparison would help people make a decision on that basis.

Anonymous said...

The point about quality of discourse is of course the nub. I’ve always been a little sceptical of the necessity of the critic not from any theoretical antagonism but simply from practical application. The amount of times that I’ve heard inadequate reviewing being blamed on the agency of an evil subeditor who mangled my article gets really tiresome. So too the excuses of limitations of space – its only your profession and you still haven’t come to grips with the parameters in which it is practised?

But I concede that the above is a bit of hurrumphing and doesn’t really serve. My other observation and perhaps this is a bit more serviceable is that popular theatre criticism tends to follow practise. I was always impatient with colleagues (and to be honest I used to get bored of myself) when we used to bang on about how critics would always spend so much of their review summarising the plot (usually the least interesting part of the play). But then it struck me that the majority of our theatre practise is dominated by naturalism and that a lot of the rehearsing energy is expended in developing the clean lines of the narrative. Is then the critic being lazy or simply sensitive to the prevailing practise when he or she bangs on about plot?

It is not my intention here to bag the MTC. I have to say that they like many theatres, do some things extremely well and other things extremely ummm… But they are top of the food chain and so in some ways represent to the wider public the sum of theatrical energy (particularly when everyone insists on using the idiotic term ‘fringe’ to effectively marginalise a diverse range of theatrical practise). My point in bringing the MTC into the argument is that over the years through a combination of debt and commercial pressure and the strategies it has undertaken in response to these significant pressures, has I think further reduced the spectrum in which it feels it can comfortably opperate. And yet it still represents, to many people including critics, how things should be done. Does theatre not get the critics it deserves?

Of course the obvious problem arises when novel approaches butt up against established mores and are instictively seen as wrong rather than as being simply different – but that has always been the difficulty. None of this tackles explicitly your central concern about what to do when someone simply gets it wrong. The difficulty and fraustration for me is that I don’t think that you (both the actual you and the rhetorical usage) can credibly do anything in the above circumstance as self interest can’t help but to be seen to eclipse integrity. Though I emphasise where there has been a misrepresentation or blatant ignorance yes then let the great axe fall…

I also have to add that I think you are maybe blind to the good influence you are having in writing this blog. So many people I know read it religiously and the delight of it is that disagreement is never met with ‘what does she know?’ but ‘interesting point’. This is not to blow smoke up a certain orifice but really to emphasise that the desire to meet idiocy head on is not the only or indeed the wisest way. Good example does it better. And with good examples this site is replete.

Theatre Q.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks TQ, and everyone else who has posted here. I will say that the great discussion it's sparked seems to have made the post worthwhile, whatever its initial dubiousness. Though I'm not sure what self interest would be playing there; it's probably more in my interest to say nothing.

I am impatient too with the excuse of lack of space. Of course here I have as much space as I want, and take full advantage of it; but I have written reviews to length in the past. It's frustrating, because you can never say what is required; but on the other hand, it's a bit of an art, like writing a sonnet, to attempt to say something in 400 words. One can say something.

As for theatre getting the critics it deserves: I know of at least three cases where theatre companies have leant on newspapers to sack a critic they didn't like. (One was Peter Craven, when he was reviewing for the Australian: whatever my opinion of his theatre reviews, I thought it was reprehensible that he was quietly sacked in response to outside pressure). In each case the critic was sacked because of negative reviews, not because the reviews were mediocre. And this idea of reviewing as an extension of PR - an inevitable result of how things are structured, I suppose - is one factor. If companies are not interested in discourse, how is it going to happen? (I will say that the Malthouse is being exemplary in this way, actively seeking critical dialogue). If the penalty for being forthright is losing your job, it's going to have an inhibiting effect. And that question is about how seriously editors take the question of reviewing. To give Cameron Woodhead due credit, he does say what he thinks. But how I wish that fearlessness was put to better use. I can't see what use it is serving at the moment.

I have no argument with the MTC, although one has to remember that it is effectively a commercial theatre company, since their subsidies are so laughably small. As you say, they do what they do, and like everyone else, sometimes they do it very well indeed, sometimes not very well, and it would be ridiculous to say that shouldn't be part of the theatre menu. I like straight plays done well. I even think naturalistic, pros arch theatre can be amazing. (The MTC actually doesn't do a lot of actual naturalism, when you look at it). It's not easy to do, like it's not easy to write a straight narrative novel. It only becomes a problem when that is the only kind of theatre regarded as legitimate. I do think that is changing, but any kind of cultural shift like that does take a long time.

TimT said...

Nothing wrong with a good negative review - some people even collect them. One of my lecturers at Uni was Peter Sculthorpe, and he was always fond of one reviewers assessment of a Ross Edwards piece: "This is a piece that gives A major a bad name." Sculthorpe would quote us this line, before enthusing, "Now I would love to have that written about a piece of mine!"

It's amazing how thin-skinned a theatre company would have to be to get a critic sacked. I mean, it's not as if they hold back on the criticism themselves. (One thinks of Pope's injunction to Cibber to write his verses upon glasses, 'The only way to stop us using them to wipe our arses.') I don't believe that satire is merely a tool to topple the 'powerful' (ie, politicians) and strengthen the 'oppressed'; I'd say it's aimed at vices like hypocrisy, vanity, etc. And it's not just politicians who have these vices.

I'm not sure what the theatre reviews are like in Sydney, but the same 'go easy on them' attitude that you get in Melbourne theatrical reviews appeared in Newcastle papers. One reason for this, I suppose, is that the theatrical/writing scene in Australia is fairly small. Everyone knows one another. No-one wants to offend! I'd love to see more critical reviews. Interestingly, the Aussie blog scene seems to be much more open to this sort of thing than the mainstream media. A good sign!

Paul Martin said...

Alison, I've subscribed to the NY Times Movie Reviews, and this
review of Deja Vu
is brutally honest in a way I rarely see in Australian reviews. This is of interest to me, because I have an invite to a media advance screening during business hours, and now I know not to waste my time on it.

I post the link for your interest, to give you an idea of what I feel is lacking in media here.

Alison Croggon said...

I've had a few doozies myself. But I can't say that I remember them very well, except being called as pompous as a cut-price Sartre or something of the kind for one of my libretti. That stuck, because I couldn't see how I was anything like Sartre, pompous or cutprice or whatever. I've never had hallucinations about lobsters, for a start.

But, to be fair, I am not claiming that reviewers "go easy" on theatre. What I'm complaining about is outrageous and inappropriate praise, which is, to my mind, as damaging as the outrageous and inappropriate condemnation that I more regularly complain about.

I don't think that theatre reviewers here have any inhibitions about trashing productions: they do so regularly, with varying degrees of justice. The only place where I've noticed a "go easy" ethos is, in fact, in reviewing poetry, where my own critiques - few and far between as they have been - have regularly and unintentionally caused outrage and long-lasting odium. Against me, I mean. But poetry is a small and sometimes vicious world. I don't often get asked to review poetry these days.

A review, positive or negative, ought to be just. I don't know if you saw that book Creme de la Phlegm, in which I have a couple of reviews: it's a collection of hatchet jobs which ought to disabuse anyone of the idea that Australians go soft on artists. By no means. And it's rather depressing, frankly, to read hatchet job after hatchet job.

Criticism is, ideally anyway, much more than just pointing out what is wrong with things. As Octavio Paz says, without criticism you can't have a literature: without it, you just have a bunch of writers. It's what connects things up, it's what makes a context. Criticism advocates, argues, illuminates. It gets things moving. It stimulates thought. It's curious and responsive. And yes, it makes discriminations. But the hatchet job is only a small part of it. I think, anyway.

Anonymous said...

I recently attended two productions which had received rave reviews. You know, the kind of over weaning and extravagant praise that one's colleagues smirkingly suggest must have been generated by a blood relative of the lead actor, or was written by the director's lover, mistress or paramour.

In spite of the glowing reviews, both productions delivered very little. I was profoundly shocked at the radical differences in the experience of the critic and myself. Had we seen the same play? Even allowing for natural differences of taste and opinion, both productions were, in my judgment, fundamentally misconceived. One director scored the ultimate accolade when the reviewer trumpeted that they should now be given full time employment! Critic as king maker? Perhaps there was another agenda here? Maybe the reviewer WAS a blood relative.

After 35 years hard labour in the theatre, it was always possible that my judgement had deteriorated beyond redemption and it was time to head off to that great green room in the sky. When I checked out the productions with other colleagues I respected, they were pretty lukewarm in their responses. When I checked with some punters I knew, they were with me - except they were vitriolic in their condemnation. They had read the reviews. They had paid for their tickets and felt ripped off. And next time they'll go to the movies, thanks.

TimT said...

I can't remember the name of the reviewer for the NH, but he apparently had a policy to always be 'encouraging' to local theatre groups. The Age may pride itself on being up-to-date, smart, et cetera, but the reviews I've glanced over give me the impression of being bland, more than anything else. They usually go through the motions - describe the plot, and then if there's any column space left, either offer a few words of criticise or praise.

I quite enjoyed Creme de la Phlegm. Though there were only a few stand out reviews - A D Hope and Hal Porter on Patrick White; Guy Rundle's review of Dead White Males ... many of the other critics seemed to be going through the motions, too. It's an interesting collection, and I've been meaning to do a review of it for some time: I'm sure Bennie and the publishers deliberately played up the 'hatchet job' aspect of the book (with the cover illustration, title, and opening essay), but I think that's a misrepresentation. I liked your review on Creme de la Phlegm, by the way.

I agree almost entirely with your last paragraph.

Sartre hallucinated about lobsters? Well, well, well ...

TimT said...

Yuck. Apologies for all the spelling mistakes, I'm a little fatigued today. I meant to say, I liked your review in Creme de la Phlegm. If you have written a review on the book, well, I have not seen it.

Paul Martin said...

Errata: I mentioned Tom Ryan in a previous post, but I meant Adrian Martin.

Paul Martin said...

Nice link you've provided, Alison. It reminds me of some comments Matt from Esoteric Rabbit made about the role of criticism vs consumer guide.

Ben Ellis said...

Interesting discussion here. (TQ, why don't you have a blog? I mean that as a compliment.)

I like Ted Hughes's take on praise, via Sheila Callaghan

Alison Croggon said...

Emailed from Casey Bennetto:

I'm in two minds about this. On one hand, I think all this talk about the importance of accurate and honest criticism - especially of local productions - is right on the money. (I'm having trouble forcing myself into the cinema to see Australian films because of the automatic-four-star mentality that is often applied, and the ensuing disappointment I feel when the movie I see is two-stars-at-best.) I understand that nobody wants to hurt the local industry and reduce opportunities for future work and all that, but I believe that an honest opinion can end up being the hardest thing to get as an artist, so, more power to the truth-speakage. Fine and dandy.

But everyone's saying this stuff as if that's what Chris Bendall was arguing against, when I think it's clear from his comments and replies that he was not. He was saying: if you're going to review it, see it, then review it. And I think he's got a point.

I don't think - from the sound of it - your opinion of the piece wouldn't have been changed much by anything you viewed after interval (I didn't see "Requiem", so I can't vouch for any "Mulholland Drive"-style twists in the last act) - but to describe your comments as a "non-review" sounds like a bit of a tap-dance to avoid coming to terms with the fact that you're reviewing something you haven't seen all the way through, and you're doing it to 'counterbalance' a review you violently disagreed with.

You may not have read the original piece for a while now, so let me cherry-pick: "a show of such earnest, bum-aching, unparalleled awfulness... a mistake of disastrous proportions... a work of intellectual and theatrical naivetie [sic]... the worst show I have seen for a long time... induced the kind of despair only bad theatre can... I wanted to shoot myself... a work of such monumental silliness". As Theatre Queen accurately noted: phew, lucky for Theatre@Risk you didn't review it... a bad notice would've been awful!

Incidentally, I notice you said, further down, "if it had been an MTC show, I would have stayed and reviewed it properly. Because it was an independent company, I held my fire." See, I don't think that's right. A show is a show; all shows deserve to be treated equally. It's actually disrespectful of both companies to do otherwise.

"If I were merely a minority voice in a chorus of effusive approval, I should not comment. But in this case, the general response of the first night audience was as close to unanimous as theatregoers can get." This may well be accurate. But I'm guessing that you're talking about the general response of the first night audience at intermission (unless you came back to survey the crowd at the end, or lingered in Paddy's Bar for a few drinks - and who among us has not?) which is a different thing, and not quite as potent a justification in my opinion.

Anyway, I'm sorry to cherry-pick, I know it's an impolite dialogue to set up. And again, I've got no problem with any local work receiving a bad review (except for anything I'm in or involved with, of course, whereupon every critic's word must droppeth like the gentle dew of springtime embracing the petals of the prettiest pale flowers); I just think a review is a review is a review, whether it's got the red headline or not, and should be acknowledged as such.

The other side of the coin is, of course, that it's your blog and you can do whatever you want with it, which is another point that I think can get lost in this back-and-forth. Theatre Notes is not, I believe, a government-funded enterprise(!), so you're free to throw your support behind whichever state political candidate you choose, to ruminate on the value of Short & Sweet to your heart's content, or, indeed, to say whatever the hell you want about whatever the hell you want. I'd just... As a regular reader, I'd rather see you hold to the standards you've always advocated, and to that "sound intuition" you've outlined so well in the past: "that, in order to write well about theatre, I had to watch it."

And from me: Thanks for the comment, Casey. I will say that I really watched the bit I saw. However, you might be interested in how critical walkouts are regarded elsewhere: New York playwright James Comtois thinks quite differently.

Casey Bennetto said...

I take the point - though I think Mr Comtois' summary of the situation is a little inaccurate - but do you agree with his stance? After all, you did say that if it had been an MTC production, you would have "stayed and reviewed it properly".

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Casey - I think that comment has been fairly persistently misread. As Chris Boyd pointed out (correctly) on his blog:

"I do believe, however, that director Chris Bendall has misread Croggon’s comment about not leaving a bad MTC production. Bendall sees this as Croggon’s greater commitment to the flagship company. Croggon, clearly, means that she is more likely to forgive -- and therefore drop the curtain on -- a bad indy experience... which, of course, she hasn’t here! And there’s the rub."

Indeed, there's the rub. I changed my mind. I was taking aim at what I thought was bad criticism, really, and T@R took some of the collateral damage.

Btw, my term "non-review" is probably misleading. I mean something quite specific - I don't consider it a review, because it is not in the same category as the reviews on this blog. My comment came under what I'd call "general remarks". Of which I make a good number.

"Review" gets used pretty loosely, as the number of people talking about Ming-Zhu's comments as being a "review" illustrates (most certainly, what she wrote wasn't a "review"). By saying that, I don't mean to resile from responsibility for my comments. I meant what I said, I think I had every right to say what I said, and in fact, what I said wasn't thoughtless. Behind my opinions there is quite a lot of reading and reflection. I'll send a bibliography for this show, if you like... :)

Paul Martin said...

James Comtois' comments were interesting.

Casey Bennetto said...

Well, I didn't misread it at all. I thought it meant exactly what you meant it to mean - that if it was MTC you would've strung 'em up for a show like that, but because it was indie you thought it would be better to be merciful. That's what I was disagreeing with. I think Theatre@Risk deserve the same treatment as MTC, both positive and negative. That means, if you hated the Theatre@Risk show, I would think you should've stayed and reviewed it - with exactly the same forcefulness and strength of opinion as if it were an MTC show. I don't believe anyone should be cut any slack, as I think I made clear.

Please understand, I'm certainly not asking for Theatre@Risk to be favoured in this regard - or indeed in any - just given the same treatment that any other theatre company, main-stage or indie, should receive: a review. I haven't talked to Chris or Tee or anyone involved with the show, but I can see where being 'protected' from a bad review, and then taken out as 'collateral damage' (fairly comprehensively, I must say... I think Mr Woodhead escaped relatively unscathed) is really two different types of affront.

Comments relating to the latter are of course occupational hazards for a theatrical company and I'd defend to the death (well, maybe not to the death, but, y'know, to at least reasonably intense anguish) your right to make 'em. But surely a review of the show could have included the same comments about Mr Woodhead's errant judgement, and would at least have given Theatre@Risk the dignity that every theatrical company deserves - even in a pasting. Being considered too fragile for a review and then getting whacked sideways - I understand why they're a bit perplexed, is all I'm saying.

Once again, though, it's your blog, and more power to the notion. Those who disagree are free to set up their own, or to comment, even in rambling, disconnected form such as this. I just think it's not quite as black-and-white as some of these other blogs and comments make it out to be (I think your own hesitation over the original post, and subsequent comments, show a decent understanding of that).

Anyway, the discussion's a good one.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Casey. No, I don't think that you're asking for special favours - don't get me wrong. But you're right, this is an interesting conversation. It might help - not that I mean that you will agree with me, but you might understand my own motivations more generally more clearly - if I explain what I mean in greater detail.

Firstly, I don't agree that Theatre@Risk wasn't treated with dignity. I contextualised my remarks with some others. I did say that I respected Chris Bendall as a director. I did say that, although I hated this show, I didn't think that T@R as a company was a waste of time. I did defend the notion that theatre companies have "the right to fail".

My initial decision not to review was about how interesting I thought it might be to wholly pan this show: there would have been very little good I could have picked out of the debacle (a couple of performances, as I recall). This was when I assumed that because it was, as I saw it, so utterly misconceived that it would be universally torn to pieces. I didn't see what a slash job from me would add to anything, aside from the venal pleasures of schadenfreude.

This was a decision based more on my perception of the critical context, not the perceived status of the company. I have noticed, as I'm sure others have, that the MTC gets an easier ride in the critical press, because it is the "senior" company, perhaps because, whatever the quality of its productions, there is always a lot of money on stage. Since part of my self-imposed brief is to be another voice in the critical mix, in a similar situation I would have stayed at the MTC because I could feel that my opinion might have differed from the general consensus - ie, that I had something to add to the conversation.

Obviously, in this case I read it wrong (I have before - usually with David Williamson plays that I thought so laughable that no one could take them seriously, only to see them praised as hard-hitting political whatsits - I should have remembered that). And I saw that I had read it wrong when I saw Cameron's review some days later - after any response from me would appeared. And let's not forget, this show got a huge rave in the Age: it's not as if it's not been noticed in other ways.

Once I saw Cameron's review - and as I made clear, I was amazed, and nor was I alone in this - I felt there was something I could add to the conversation. I have most usually attacked critics for dumping on work I consider valuable; here I wished to point out that praise can be as destructive as sneering put-downs, and to attack the notion of a "good" review being the same as a positive review. I think that is pretty clear.

This series of decisions comes out of my assumption - I'm speaking as an artist here as well as a critic - that criticism is part of an artist's process of self-criticism (that I think it is other things is clear too). That doesn't mean that one necessarily agrees with what is said - criticism is always something one can take or leave. Whether one agrees with it or not, however, it can sharpen one's own perceptions of one's work, the consciousness with which one approaches it. Clearly here I am disagreeing with - and arguing with - your criticisms of my actions. In this case, your questions are prompting me to articulate what I think in more detail than I have before.

Casey Bennetto said...

Howdy again Alison ('s turning into quite a little back-and-forth!)

The clarification there is useful - I mean, I'm not sure the reasoning makes much of a difference if the net effect is, as you approvingly quoted from Chris Boyd's blog, "Croggon, clearly, means that she is more likely to forgive -- and therefore drop the curtain on -- a bad indy experience...", but I take your point.

I guess the problem I had (and continue to have) with it is that, through this meta-commentary, you place yourself at a higher remove than Mr Woodhead rather than simply being of a different opinion. I mean, those Williamson plays of which you wrote made me suck air in through my teeth exasperatedly at regular intervals - we are of like mind there - but if I'd seen a rave of 'em in the mainstream media, I wouldn't automatically assume that it was because the critic was intimidated by the MTC money, or, in a fringe context, that they were being all 'support-y' and deliberately avoiding mention of the pitfalls that I (and, by inference, they) had perceived in the show. I'd think "oh, they really liked it", and adjust my future expectations of that reviewer accordingly - and if I had a theatre blog handy, for sure, I'd write my own review to "add to the conversation".

But we are talking about a conversation between audients/critics in the end (I also think that the artist shouldn't join that conversation if they can avoid it) and judgements as to the worth of said criticism are, I think, best left to the reader. Otherwise I'll pick up the Age tomorrow and find myself reading Cameron Woodhead's review of your review of his review, and my brain will explode - a small explosion, no doubt, but still, I'm attached to it.

And yes, I'm not oblivious to the irony of this comment effectively being a review of your review of my review of your review of my review of your review of Mr Woodhead's review of "Requiem". But that is what a comments thread is for - ah, bless the 21st century!

From my perspective: your argument in the original piece for commenting the way you did was threefold. Firstly, you said that a review like Mr Woodhead's might inoculate the company against a stocktake that was urgently required, and justified it by chracterising the general response of the first night audience as "as close to unanimous as theatregoers can get" - without actually being present for the second half or, I presume, the close of the show. Secondly, you worried for those who would head off to the show, encouraged by the review, who would view it and decide, as so many do, "that, after all, they don't like theatre" - a valid concern, given your strength of belief, but I'd suggest the crossover between that audience and the readership of "Theatre Notes" is, um, vanishingly small. (Certainly, if you don't have the power to affect box-office, then this is not a concern you could reasonably hope to affect.) Thirdly, you said that it betrayed the quality of theatre that is being made in Melbourne - again, from your point of view, a valid concern, but only if you simply could not believe that Cameron Woodhead liked it that much. If he did, however, then that's his opinion - his review betrays nothing except that - and readers might conceivably share it. (God knows enough people wildly applauded the aforementioned Williamson plays.)

At this point I've probably written enough on a play I had nothing to do with and didn't see (not even the first half!) but I continue to enjoy the conversation, so I'm blathering on. Please tell me if you're sick to death of the whole topic, and I'll find a shady tree to curl up beneath and snooze.


Alison Croggon said...

Hi Casey

I already withdrew my Olympian pretensions to Ultimate Knowledge (in the post where I put up Chris Bendall's letter) so I don't feel I need to address that. Call it a little implosion in my own brain...

All the same, it is possible to criticise a critic on the grounds of ignorance of the artform he is criticising. There are critics writing in Melbourne who betray an utter naivety about the art of theatre: perfectly ok for a punter, but in my view, not so ok for someone who is criticising for the "paper of record". There have been other critics of wide - or at least, long - experience, who haven't seemed to have a thought since they first sat down in a theatre (my frank views on one of them here. )

Yes, I reckon I know more about theatre than Cameron Woodhead does. That doesn't mean I'm right (I've never been especially concerned with being "right"), or that what I say isn't arguable, but it does mean that I am informed. I've earned that knowledge by being interested - by reading and thinking and talking and sometimes practising the art form - for around 20 years now. I am even conscious that I don't know everything. And that, in my view, gives me the right to question.

And the review of a review of a review is basically what arts discourse is all about. "You said that? I don't agree! But she said x, and he said y, and Gregor Samsa thinks something else...and I agree with some of this and not of that..." And so on. Yes, it can go on forever, which is sometimes why you get headaches in France, where they will talk for hours and hours. But it's also the only way people hammer out what they think, or what they don't think. It's how culture- as opposed to art - works.

I didn't mean to suggest that critics are intimidated by MTC money or status. Just that said money and status can conceal essential shoddinesses (I am not meaning, here, to equate the MTC with shoddy work, because that's not true either). Just that this money and status - and effective PR - can insulate the company in ways that poorly resourced independent companies can only dream of, and that critics can be seduced by these things. It's all very comfy, and appeals to those critics who equate "art" and "entertainment" and bring both down to the lowest common denominator.

And it's actually fairly common for critics to dislike the idea of giving a small company a pasting. I remember reading New York Time Out theatre critic David Cote just recently saying something of the kind: that sometimes it is better to pass over in silence. That is not patronising, it's a realistic and sympathetic view of certain inequities of resources.

Casey Bennetto said...

Tough case? Moi? I'm the very definition of a pussycat... probably one of those fat ones that sits on the fence all day long.

We've reached something of an impasse, I think - not that it hasn't been fun getting there! Re. MTC, you say "seduced", I say "intimidated", but we're talking about the same process there, I think, and in agreement on its potential blandishments or perception-warping potential. And the piece you referenced puts me in mind of what I generally like about your writing (as I do with, say, the late and lamented P. Kael on cinema) - a passionate engagement with the artform, coupled with intelligent analysis.
And, of course, "the review of a review of a review is basically what arts discourse is all about" - but I return again to a question of how authoritative you can claim to be on a piece, its reception and its subsequent reviews, without seeing it in full. Of course it doesn't invalidate your right to comment - one would hope that nothing does - but if someone were to say of "Requiem", for instance, "I thought that Lorca's first scene really turned it around", you can't really continue the discussion, except to say "well, nothing could have turned it around for me": a valid point of view but it doesn't really add to the critical dialogue in a substantive way.

And I understand the notion that "sometimes it is better to pass over in silence... it's a realistic and sympathetic view of certain inequities of resources", but it seems to me that to pass over in silence and sympathy, and then, on hearing that someone else celebrated it, to swing the plane back around and drop a nuclear payload on it - without even officially announcing it as a target - OK, I just stretched that metaphor too far and it snapped, but y'know what I mean - it seems internally inconsistent.

But, as I've said earlier on, I don't actually hold with that notion of sympathy to "inequities of resources" anyway - I think of it as protectionism, in essence. After all, when it comes down to it, it's a stage (mostly), with a light on it (sometimes), and performers on it (often) speaking (or singing) words that someone has written (hopefully - I'm not one for too much improv). From there, I reckon all bets are off, and everything deserves the same treatment. Spoken like someone who hasn't had to work as a theatre critic, eh? :-)


Alison Croggon said...

Well, we'll have to agree to disagree on the walkouts. Honest, it doesn't happen often, and only when someone is driven to it. And that being driven is, in some views, worthy of comment.

As for the other - those decisions are played production by production. I reviewed two productions of Hamlet - one by Peter Brook, one by a tiny company in a shop front in Northcote - together without hesitation, as the dialogue between the two was, as far as I was concerned, fruitful. And as I said in that review, theatre is very democratic that way. This seems to me to be another question. As far as I'm concerned, my only mistake was to call it wrong in the first place.

Anyway, I'm taking a short moratorium. I'm tired of the sound of my own voice. Feel free to continue if that tree is too windblown...

Paul Martin said...

At the risk of sounding impertinent - I haven't read the last few posts in full detail as I'm busy with my own writing. But....

What's the big deal? As a film-goer, I have walked out of five films in the last 14 years. And at different stages of each film. I could have easily walked out of another hundred, but didn't. As someone who takes the medium very seriously, that I walked out on any is an important statement that is worth making.

It is worth making to my friends, associates and anyone who will listen to me. It is interesting to discuss with others those performances we couldn't tolerate, and to compare notes. I've had that discussion elsewhere.

It may or may not be something I would do as a paid professional in a newspaper or magazine, but that's not the case with a blog.

Casey Bennetto said...

"Feel free to continue if that tree is too windblown..."

It's a refreshing breeze!


Jeannie said...

I enjoyed your comment Paul (sorry to enter this conversation so late - but I have been following it with interest over the past few days - as much as time allows anyway.

I find this to be an extremely worthwhile conversation and one that is particularly necessary in the Australian arts scene - what a great opportunity to fundamentally question the constantly evolving role of the critic!

To go back to where it all started, I think Hilary Crampton's comment on Arts Hub Australia sums it up well:

"An arts critic’s first duty is to the art form, to be able to identify where a particular work sits within the art form and more importantly, how the expressed ideas fit within contemporary thought."

The blogosphere has provided the arts world with the opportunity for an honest dialogue on the arts - one that is not exclusive to critics. It would be a real pity to sensor these unique and critical perspectives ...

Casey Bennetto said...

Yep. Agreed, of course. I'm not talking about Alison's right to (a) walk out of a theatrical production (of course she can walk out of anything she likes!) or (b) say what she wants in her blog (she is of course free to say whatever she wants, whenever she wants, as I've said repeatedly in these comments). I've merely been saying that walking out of a theatrical production can potentially hinder one's ability to "be able to identify where a particular work sits within the art form and more importantly, how the expressed ideas fit within contemporary thought"... surely not a controversial statement? (If someone were to ask you "what was that show about?", could you claim to answer definitively?)

That's all. I ain't talkin' 'bout censoring perspectives, ain't talkin' 'bout some bizarre kind of vow of silence about walkouts.

My only other continuing comment here has been a questioning of the merits of being 'merciful' to T@R - certainly that alone - but then of subsequently turning around and nuking them in order to upbraid or chastise Cameron Woodhead for his review, and to 'balance the ledger'. It struck me as internally inconsistent.

Naturally, Alison is free to ruminate in whatever manner she chooses on her blog, just as we're free to rumble on like long-haul trucks up the Hume in the comments section. Well, not you guys, you've been concise, but I may need to pull over and fill up sometime soon. (I know, I know, what happened to my shady tree? Well... further logging was required...)


Jeannie said...

Nice to see you back in the sun CB.

To clarify - I think that a 'unique' perspective has greatest value when it is 'definitive'.

I am personally not a fan of walkouts. So, while I understand and accept an individuals right to exit at choice, the role of critic seems compromised if it is afforded these same liberties. Obviously, not sitting thought the entire performance is going to affect one's ability to comment difinitively on the show's story or an individuals performance.

In short, I think we're on the same page ... Thanks agian for tearing yourself from the shade for a comment CB.