April 08, 1989

Reviewing the Reviewers: Thoughts on the Place of Criticism in the Theatre

Filed under: Commentary


Murray Bramwell

To say that theatre reviewing is a strange and sometimes excruciating ritual is hardly a revelation. Yet the reasons for this and the assumptions on which they are based are rarely considered except in times of crisis. Of course, in the theatre that means quite often. The theatre, after all, is a volatile, sometimes giddy creature and much inclined to generating and attracting hyperbole. In fact, theatre is often seen as synonymous with crisis. No other art form is pronounced dead as often as the theatre and few other art workers perceive themselves in siege as often as those working in theatre.

This is not one of those Whither Theatre ? or Why I Hate the Theatre articles . I certainly don’t hate the theatre and I have no doubt that generally the theatre can look after itself as well in the future as it has for at least the past 3,000 years. Instead I want to talk about the way theatre manages, or sometimes doesn’t manage, its own discourse and the way in which those exchanges, debates, and occasionally, brawls are seen by the community. I am also interested in how the theatre in this country nourishes itself imaginatively and intellectually and where it looks for that to happen.

But first I need to identify my standpoint. I have been working as a theatre reviewer, based in Adelaide, for about five years. I began writing for the late, and increasingly lamented, National Times and moved to the monthly theatre magazine CentreStage. That ceased publication after only twelve months (writing for arts publications is very much like being in the dance band on the Titanic) and I began writing occasional reviews and articles for The Advertiser . I also write regularly for The Adelaide Review, New Theatre Australia and, the national youth arts magazine currently facing the bullet, Lowdown. Despite the profusion of editorial addresses and the publication of nearly 400 reviews and articles, this is not my day job. Like most other reviewers who are not on the payroll of daily newspapers- and in that case in constant danger of being transfered to features , sport or gardening- I am able to write only due to the beneficence of a teaching institution.

As I have said , theatre reviewing has many ritual elements to it. These are European and North American in origin, many began in the 18th and 19th centuries and many should have stayed there. As a consequence reviews are often archaic in their assumptions and moribund in form. The reason for this does not rest with reviewers alone but with a chain of being that begins with editors and sub-editors and ends with the general reader.

The theatre is, by definition, intimate and immediate and so, are theatre reviews. The exquisite cruelties of the Broadway first night review process are well known. In New York and London, critics, as they are invariably called, boast that they can close a show and sometimes seek to do just that. These proprietors of darkness hold an extraordinary sway over a significant section of commercial theatre and yet except for occasional individual judgements (negative of course) they are rarely questioned . At this point one wonders whether this suits a general covert purpose – in an environment of extreme commercial competition, why not let the random malice of the reviewer serve a Malthusian purpose, since one grim reaper is as good as another ?

To a large extent this process has general assent. The notion of The Critics is a convenient one. Mostly they are represented as crows on a telegraph line -aged, male and juiceless. It is an image not without justification on all three counts but it ignores the variety of views and styles that writers actually represent in response to a specific event. It suits the purposes of publicity to simplify and generalise – the thumbs up or down of critics provides just that touch of the colosseum that is needed. And because reviewers enjoy a kind of licence (we will come back to that) the barbed epithets of disfavour have a frisson for any reader. It is small wonder, in a press hogtied with preposterous legal restraints in their reporting of political and financial events that much display is made of opinionated vilification in the arts. The bitch queen reviewer has become a grotesque expression of free speech in publications which otherwise display very little.

Since the Crayfish vs Regina case, when a Sydney food reviewer was found guilty of libel, the arts, including its culinary branch, have become as questionably litigious as the rest of our repressive and repressed community. What we need are clear and robust lines of debate not clumsy and random vengeance for injured reputations. It is entirely appropriate for artists to object in the strongest terms about ad hominem abuse, whether sexist, slightingly contemptuous of their skills or intelligence, or in other ways disparaging to them as people . Reviewers should know better than to do this and if they don’t they should have their licences revoked.

But it is no use to anyone if mediocre artistic achievements receive bland and mediocre critical response even if it does mean someone’s grant gets renewed. Of course mediocre is not a term with objective criteria and no one can prove beyond doubt that a work is or isn’t. But it shouldn’t be a crime to think it of a work of art and to say so. The arts, especially theatre, have always attracted fierce disagreement and intense debate. And at no time more than now do we need to be forthright and lucid in our views about our society and its art.

There are some practical steps to be taken here, it is not a matter of business as usual and hoping for the best -we already know that in some cases we are getting the worst. For a start, it is important to impress on newspaper editors that reviewing the arts is not just a species of gossip writing (publicists might also try not to conspire with this notion) and that there is a sensible etiquette for reviews that should always be maintained. That includes a systematic means of crediting those involved in a production – cast, technical credits, design, direction and so on, as well as venue and dates of performance. I don’t know how many times sub-editors have sliced off paragraphs containing this information in reviews I’ve written and it is an inadequate act of contrition to send a full draft directly to the company later. Also, reviews, like news stories are often subbed for the main angle – that means favourable or unfavourable- and anything qualifying, modifying or offsetting that view gets dumped as spineless equivocation. It sounds unconvincing to say later – that’s what I meant but I meant more than that.

The perennial problem is often said to be one of available space. It is true that arts editors fight for column territory and they are tenacious in doing so. But often when they secure it they will lavish a disproportionate acreage to rather superficial preview material and very little for reviews later. Too frequently major productions receive little more than 400 words in review, it is no wonder that commentary has become telegraphic and simpleminded. The bewildering experience for theatre companies who actually get press attention is that there doesn’t seem to be anything other than puff or poison.

The use of reviews as part of the publicity machine, of course, only aggravates this hurrah-boo response. Sometimes whole reviews are reprinted as publicity (never with the reviewer’s permission,in my experience) and invariably excerpts of fruity praise are emblazoned on newspaper advertisements and in noisy TV voiceovers. Given the curdled attitudes that companies often have towards individual reviewers, especially in the tabloids, the fulsome promotion of their opinions only serves to falsely amplify the importance of critical response. When you consider that word-of-mouth is far more decisive in ensuring success and that we all decode reviews according to who writes them and for whom, it is unfortunate that theatre companies themselves perpetuate this often inane process.

Occasionally, the frustrations of companies will erupt in momentary revolt. They, after all, must face very public, and often ill-informed judgement while the season is still in progress. First night reviews are, unsurprisingly, the most hasty , often the shortest and for many, the most influential. While I have said that word-of-mouth eventually decides, it may take a day or two, even a week, to recover from a critical lathering and in the mean time it is a demoralising business for actors to have to perform amidst denigration. Unlike novelists, film makers or even visual artists the critical encounter for theatre workers is a visceral and sometimes personally damaging one. For marginal companies, youth and amateur groups, the appraisal they receive may well be gratuitously splenetic. Only rarely, as with the Sydney production of The Country Wife a year or so ago, can a company challenge- and create publicity and box office advantage- with a return salvo to the critic. Perhaps it could only have happened with a reviewer as senior and established as Harry Kippax.

At the last Adelaide Festival there was a a particularly harsh vortex of criticism for Michael Gow’s 1841. Such occurrences develop a momentum of their own which is amplified during a festival. As someone who wrote unfavourably of the production I am not exempt from responsibility but in writing a single review one does not speculate about the collective response . Besides, it is rare for there to be unanimity of viewpoint. When that happens it is invariably called a feeding frenzy as if writers conspire to agree. As someone who never reads other reviews before submitting my own and then only rarely later, I am often unaware of other views and frequently presume that I am way out of whack with consensus anyway. In the case of 1841, the fact that it was staged in a festival- a time when a range of shows are jostling for the punters’ money- only worsened the tendency to odorous comparison. Michael Gow is a playwright of distinction -he does not need me to confirm that. But the needless and misplaced vilification he received for that production has made me more watchful of my own practices as a reviewer.

For that reason I am drawn to remarks made in the last issue of this publication (“Australian Theatre’s Shrinking Vision”, Island 39) by Louis Nowra. In his article Nowra signals the shifts occurring for theatre in a recession as well as what he sees as a preoccupation with box office as the indicator of success. Reviewers come in for comment also. He cites the case of a new Australian work, Drums of Thunder by Martin Buzacott- “The reaction to it showed how different the theatre scene is from a decade ago. The play received terrible reviews, even vitriolic ones and the thing that bothered me was that the reviewers made no attempt to try and see anything good in it, in fact, I thought there was much glee in tearing the play part. This was a change from the late seventies.”

I cannot comment on the specific instance not having seen the production but the ingredients of Nowra’s objections are familiar. I’m not sure that criticism has become harsher but the times have and theatre is a casualty of this. Louis Nowra is right to regret a “shrinking” not only of resources and goodwill but of the spirit in theatre as well. It is undoubtedly true that companies often huddle like cargo cults in grandiose buildings which have capacities that mock the actual attendances at many performances. More creative energy seems to be exerted in maintaining commercial viability, or at least in looking and sounding pragmatic, than in producing work of substance.If one more administrator talks about bums on seats they should have the phrase tattooed to their forehead.

This, of course, has grave implications for repertoire and leads to a kind of self-censorship. Personally, I don’t think that staging classics is an indicator of a loss of nerve. Rather, works by Ibsen, Strindberg , Aphra Behn or Brecht serve only to remind us how subversive the drama should and can be. It is inevitable that we will soon see a renewed burst of Australian writing that is both fresh and urgent. How it will be received by present audiences and administrators remains to be seen. As Louis Nowra has remarked, these are conservative times and with the greying of the subscriber base there could be resistance. Besides the influence of patronage, both state and private, has yet to be fully felt and I believe that in the Nineties we could pay a high price for sponsorship in terms of artistic freedom.

Louis Nowra also raises a vexed question about new Australian works- “The times… are against risk. This is noticeable in recent comments that Australian plays should have workshops first because there are flawed and embarassingly bad plays being put on. So what’s new ? Every country puts on bad plays, the thing is that Australia only imports the good ones.” The assumption that putting works more gently through a workshop process is either some kind of punishment or ignominious is unfortunate. The practice of State companies in commissioning new works has often been an unhappy one for playwrights. Michael Gow, whose 1841 was a commissioned work, has flatly stated that State companies are not suited for the purpose and that he would rather generate new work in a less pressured environment with a smaller company – the way he worked with Griffin when he first began writing.

The commission process is quite horrendous. With the kind of lead time that State companies need, plays are often programmed and announced in brochures before they are even written. With such expectations breathing down their necks it is no wonder that less experienced playwrights especially get stricken with stage fright. There has to be a better way of nurturing new writing. After all, plays don’t go into the West End without extended provincial runs giving companies time for plenty of nipping and tucking before they get the full blast of critical attention.

But while the process could be gentler, theatre people are inclined at times to trespass on the goodwill of their audiences. I am not talking about reviewers who get complimentary tickets to see most things that are going , but all the people I know who pay out their own hard-earned brass for theatre tickets and are often disappointed. Not only is the show itself disappointing but with only limited time available, a dud night at the theatre is one that could have been spent at a concert, or a film, or a gallery, or reading a Picador. There can never be guarantees in the theatre but there is relatively little new work that is fresh and interesting and this is disheartening to younger audiences, particularly undergraduates, who see little for them in the present repertoires.

It frequently perplexes me that people in theatre seem to bring little of their own passion to their work. I see actors, writers and directors at films, rock concerts and performances by touring companies but it is as if these experiences are hermetically sealed. Nothing permeates their work. Adelaide has seen in recent years work by Peter Brook, Laurie Anderson, the Rustavelli Company, Theatre Repere of Quebec, Sankei Juku, the English Shakespeare Company, the Kronos Quartet, not to mention dozens of remarkable films. Other centres have seen significantly more. But these experiences seem to have taught our theatre little. It still clings to the apron strings of naturalism, it still prudishly ignores the energy of rock and roll and the freedom of cabaret even though, ironically, ten or fifteen years ago it was theatre which invigorated them. The lack of risk can only partly be blamed on cost accountants, the theatre has been going to the same old well for too long and it is drying up.

None of this is beyond remedy. It is a matter of living rough again. This is true in other spheres of life also. Environmentally our levels of consumption and expectations of insulated comfort are unrealistic. Similarly our arts live too much in a cocoon of subsidy which has bureacratised and denatured them. I don’t want to hear publicity campaigns trumpeting that more money is spent on the arts than on beer, I am more interested in what they have to say about the way we live, and are going to live, in this country and on this planet. Peter Brook in his book, The Empty Space talks about the Deadly theatre, vitiated by convention and politeness- “When we say deadly, we never mean dead: we mean something depressingly active, but for this reason capable of change. The first step towards this change is facing the simple unattractive fact that most of what is called theatre anywhere in the world is a travesty of a word once full of sense.” (The Empty Space, p.45, Pelican, 1984.)

Brook is pitiless in his rebuke and it may yet be one that comes back to haunt him. But in his account of theatre there are other mansions and it is to the Rough theatre that we must look. Rough theatre comes from the simple need to communicate and connect, it does not concern itself with trappings, it borrows, adapts, creates, and focused by necessity, it uses its brains. Theatre, as Louis Nowra has noted, is run by the young Turks of a decade ago. it is time for younger Turks to come and put a cracker under them.

Drama in this country is flourishing but there is no justification for complacency. Peter Brook has observed that making good theatre is the hardest thing in the world and for that reason it tantalises and frustrates those who seek to succeed. It is this striving and commitment that creates theatre, not patronage, and it would be a good thing if theatre companies spent less time with their tongues in the sponsor’s ear and more time trusting their own instincts and capacities. It may be that life will be harder for the theatre and not every one will make a quid in it who would like to, but it won’t be the end of the world or theatre and if the latter develops a bit of rat-like cunning that will be no bad thing.

As for reviewers, they have to watch themselves as well. We have to know what we are talking about and be honest when we don’t . We need to be open-minded and generous and not heap superlatives like coals. It is also the dread of every reviewer that they will be the one to boo the Rite of Spring. For that reason a good deal of bunkum gets under the wire. It is important to have the wit and courage to sound the siren when it does. After all, it is the reviewer’s task to keep faith with the drama, to be gracious but equally to be candid, and, since the function of criticism is an honourable one, to behave accordingly.

“Reviewing the Reviewers: Some Reflections on the Place of Criticism in the Theatre” Island, No.41, Summer, 1989.

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