Monday morning rantaround ~ theatre notes

Monday, September 14, 2009

Monday morning rantaround

The Public Intellectual (PI, for the acronymic among you) debate continues with a Guardian blog post by Andrew Haydon, in which he robustly - and rightly, to my mind - defends the role of the humble reviewer, the put-upon gumshoe of the profession who does all the legwork. George Hunka questions the assumptions of value in Village Voice critic Michael Feingold's essay on criticism in the internet age. And our Neil Pigot is in the Age today proclaiming the decline of Australian theatre, blaming the funding-led desire to "bureaucratise" the arts for a loss of artistic maverick outsiderdom, and a consequent loss of audiences. Or a lack of new audiences, anyway. An assertion which I wonder about, given the high audience capacities at the Melbourne Fringe Festival - yes, my annual aesthetic breakdown is on its way - which compare very favourably with every other fringe festival in the world.

Critics, of course, come in for a serve. "The situation is further compounded by misconceived theatrical reporting," says Pigot. "Reviewers often misunderstand live performance in the same way that governments do, rarely engaging with the creative ideas driving a project ... too often reviews appear that are an expression of a reviewer's personal feelings rather than an overview of public response to a show or a critique of its place within the contemporary theatrical and social landscape."

There's justice in all Pigot's observations, although I think they ignore a lot of robust vitalities also at work around the place, both in the theatre itself and in the responses to it. Jana Perkovic's new aggregate concept for Spark Online - still in progress - suggests some alternatives on the local criticism question. Moreover - and this is a rare point on which every critic would agree - it's certainly not a critic's job to give "an overview of public response". What, we go to every performance and do vox pops as the audience leaves? Take a clap-o-meter to opening night? (That's about as misleading an indicator as, say, not going at all).

While I'm here, let me point you to James Waites' reservations about Liv Ullmann's STC production of A Streetcar Named Desire. He's not alone - Art Kritique also has some stern words. Both wonder how this production will fare in New York (the phrase "coals to Newcastle" is being bandied about). A shame New Yorkers will never see Blanchett's Richard II in Benedict Andrews' The War of the Roses, but them's the breaks: celebrity directing is so hot right now.

And now, allow me to don another hat. I read two books yesterday. One was China Mieville's excellent The City & The City, which is, for at least two thirds of its length, a completely brilliant spin on the generic detective novel, a kind of fantastic existential thriller that weaves a darkly compelling metaphor about contemporary post-End-Of-History politics. Mieville is a ferociously intelligent writer who takes pulp fiction by the scruff of the neck and demonstrates the meaninglessness of snobbish distinctions between "literature" and generic writing. He's certainly the only writer I've read who created an epic fantasy about trade unions.

The other book, shamefully, was one of my own, The Crow. I haven't read it since I finished it (proofreading a text around nine times for three different publishers will do that to a gal). And, you know, it's pretty damn good. I'd forgotten. Unlike Mieville, it's trad epic fantasy for a younger audience, but it is also a passionate anti-war novel that features concentration camps, child soldiers and environmental degradation a la Chernobyl. If that's not worthy enough, there's some racial and sexual politics in the mix too. But what matters most is that it's a good story, and I really did love writing those characters.

That's why people keep buying it, and why - for the first time for around two decades - I'm making a decent living. And no doubt that is why I'm less insouciant about territorial copyright than Guy Rundle, who seems to think that removing it for Australians (but not for the British or Americans, natch) will be a blow struck for the internet age, dragging us out of mediaeval delusion into the brave new world of the global e-text.

Maybe it's a lack of personal knowledge of how international markets work that makes Rundle claim that writers are a bunch of deluded lefties howling for government subsidies. My genre novels, for the record, like the work of most of Australia's internationally best-selling but culturally invisible fantasy writers, haven't and don't depend on subsidy. They're bringing in much more money than they take out. Removing territorial copyright would probably affect me much less than some others, but I still think that leaving the Australian book market to the tender mercies of Dymocks, Woolworths and a bunch of multinational territory-protected UK and US publishers is a pretty dumb idea.

Yes, the international publishing industry needs to think hard about the impact of the internets. It needs to respond to it with more imagination and chutzpah than the music industry did, and to stop pretending that it lives in the 19th century - publishers all over the world still pay by cheques sent in the post! But kicking the guts out of the local industry isn't the way to international copyright reform. And what's deluded is to think that it is.


Geoffrey said...

Thank you, as always Alison, for these wonderful round-ups. I greatly enjoyed James Waites' piece on "Streetcar ... " which I would never have found (sorry James!) I believe it is critical that such an important production receives discussion and debate. It was incredibly remiss of the STC not to invite you. What I would have given for a Ms TN take on it all! I have also been unable to find your "100 word brief" on God of Carnage (which I loved). I would love to know what you thought. Can you post it? I feel starved for a point of engagement ... being the Public Anti-Intellectual I am!

Anonymous said...

Yes! Where is God of Carnage, Alison Croggon?
I'm getting very upset.

I had to take a Valium.

Ethel Malley (Miss) said...

I just wish people could spell Liv ULLMANN (and Paul SCOFIELD while we're at it) but it's just never going to happen, no matter how high in the theatrical firmament they are installed.

And God of Carnage? If Ms Alison doesn't speak to her controversial (with me) regard of the most hideous set ever to assault paying customers, there'll be trouble!

Alison Croggon said...

Damn. Sorry Ethel. Do you want a job as a sub? Tho I do spell Scofield's name right, I do - check out my review of Brook's Lear.

Do you really want me to write about God of Carnage? Really? Ok, I'll think about it. Ms TN, as you might have noticed, has been catching every bug going over the past two months and has got very run down. Short of setting fire to the children (or selling them, which might be more profitable) I can't think of a way to avoid infection. And I just haven't had the energy to do anything but the minimum, and have confined my extended blogs to productions that (a)interest me and (b) don't get a lot of attention elsewhere.

GOC is I reckon worth about the 100 words I got to review it in the OZ. (Only, how could you hate that smart set so much? It and the acting were the things that kept me going. What about the coffee table being the missing part of the calendar wall, that was the entrance? Or how it completely changed the Playhouse space by pushing the stage out into the auditorium? I can be as bilious as you like, however, about that script).