Wednesday, July 4, 2007


a quick one...

Thanks to Andrew Haydom for his big old comment below. Anyone else with any thoughts please do jump in. As i promise in the comments section, there will be more about theatre criticism, which is a subject close to my cold black heart. i bet you can't wait, you lucky lucky things.

So, recent news. Saw Longwave at the Lyric, which was beautiful. i agree with Andrew here. Also saw Angels in America parts one and two, also at the Lyric. On consecutive days. This meant three nights on the trot in West London for me, but pity poor Lily (Hi Lily!) who's working there, and so spent every single day for a whole week there. On Angels, i agree with Dan Bye here (last para). This week i have no thoughts of my own.

It was an interesting experience seeing Angels with that gap in the middle - being suspended mid-play for a whole day. My otherwise unremarkable day at the day-job was framed within its epic narrative, and i felt as though my real life, the life that matters, which here was the life of a theatre-goer, was on hold.

i'm fascinated by how performance extends beyond itself, how theatre - which by definition happens only at that time and only in that room - has meaning and an existence in the life beyond that point in time and space. This is one of the reasons that theatre criticism matters, but it's also one of the reasons that theatre matters, or at least, that theatre should matter (or, perhaps, to appropriate a phrase from persons unknown's official famous friend, why theatre that matters matters).

Of course the bleed works both ways if the life beyond seeps into the priveleged performance space (which is of course also a space in time). Oooh look! A dialectic!

Anyway, there'll be more on this at some point when i'm feeling like my head's working. Right now i just feel totally stuck, not just intellectually, but also creatively, and that's immensely frustrating. Gah.

On the plus side, here's a picture of me doing the 120 mile British Cyclosportive in a touch under 7 and a half hours last Sunday. i was the 1507th fastest! Apparently, Ian Wright was doing it as well, but he got lost. i was exactly one hour and 50 minutes quicker than him according to the official results. It is persons unknown policy never to knowingly be slower than former Arsenal players.


Alison Croggon said...

I'm looking forward to your further thoughts. Theatre criticism is likewise one of my obsessions.

I guess criticism, like theatre, is local. I found it hard to believe, for instance, that English theatres had to rearrange their seating for the critics, it seemed both quaint and amazing; and here in Australia, theatre reviewers clap along with everyone else. Our main problem is boring, thoughtless criticism that is deeply incurious not only about theatre and, more widely, art, but (it seems) anything.

I do think theatre is uniquely difficult to write about, and very often the theatre that impacts most profoundly is the most difficult to articulate. It's very, very difficult to write well about performance, for a start. I don't think I've yet quite found a way. And when you're contronted with artists like Romeo Castelluci, say, the stakes go up further, because he just gets rid of language altogether, or puts it in such a questionable place that language seems particularly inappropriate in response. I'm sure there's a way to write adequately, but I haven't found it yet, there's always a sense of ashes about it, the traces of fire. This constant question is one of the reasons why writing about it fascinates me, of course.

On the question of length, which you addressed earlier: it's both true and not true that length is a factor in quality. No matter what you do, you can't explore anything in depth in 300 words. You can write like a jeweller, and that is a question of style. But no matter how crafty you are, you won't be able to say what you might in 800 or 1200 words, and you can only just construct the outlines of an argument. I think it is a big problem.

danbye said...

I'm not sure theatre is more difficult to write about than anything else. Isn't that a version of the sportsman making a case for the unique challenges of his sport as greater than any other. Alex is a cyclist, I'm a runner, I'm not sure one is inherently more difficult. Cycling is more expensive, that's all.

I imagine lazy writers having considerably more trouble writing about food, for example, than theatre. No room for the old trick of comparing it to food, for a start. Except to say "a bit like chicken".

Perhaps one of the reasons theatre writing appears difficult is because the bar is set so low by the mainstream media. And I think the honest critic will always find their experience difficult to articulate - how to simultaneously recreate and critique something experienced in one form, using a whole other form? It's a tough one, but I for one, in my brief adolescent foray into ackshual jurnlizm, found it tougher to review string quartets than performance.

Andrew Haydon said...

You're quite right, Dan. There are things that are harder to adequetely describe than theatre - physical theatre and modern dance for starters; and, yes, music - especially in performance. The most famous quote on the subject is that writing about dance is about as much use as dancing about architecture - or something like that. That is somewhat defeatist, of course. Dance about architecture could be a marvellous thing in the right hands. But it won't be the architecture, any more than a review will ever be any more than a description of a live event.

I guess when claiming theatre was uniquely hard, I meant in comparison to say Television or Film, which do not have quite so many variable elements, and are more likely to have been experienced by the review's audience. Part of the difficulty in justifying space given over to theatre criticism in the National press is that by necessity, theatre is not generally nation-wide. The odd tour might be wide-ranging, but generally it is only available to a (generally small) number of people, while everyone can buy a book or record off Amazon, turn on the radio or TV and mostly can get to a cinema (or wait and order the DVD).

I've been reading Irving Wardle's book on Theatre Criticism this week, and it is very interesting on this subject. He makes a particularly good case for something I've long felt to be true - that it is infinitely harder to write up something that you loved than something about which you felt indifferent or worse. I heartily recommend the book - if it's still in print, track down a copy. Even if you don't agree with it, it's great to be able to engage with the subject at length and in depth.

Incidentally, Alison, I don't think it's actually true as Adrian Gill claims that theatre critics are really such old antiquated fusspots. I've been in theatres with a fair few of the ones he's talking about and I'm sure I've seen them clap,and sit in seats other than the aisle.

danbye said...

A few years ago when I was seriously interested in the subject of theatre criticism, I read that book. I remember enjoying it and very little else, but that observation rings true. Whereas with only the tiniest modicum of talent it's easy to muster superiority to the very poor, measuring up to the truly extraordinary, in whatever form, is daunting.

Alison Croggon said...

I didn't make myself entirely clear. I was comparing theatre to the only other thing I've reviewed, writing itself, which, being in the same medium, doesn't offer up the same challenges. Though it's not that I think that's easy. I think that is why, by default - and I am not immune to this - critics will often focus on a play rather than speaking about the actual theatre.

The challenge is in writing about something in which the means of communication/form is not linguistic. I have sometimes - when reading Rilke or Mandelstam on Cezanne, say - flirted with the idea of writing about visual art, but that seems even harder to me. So I haven't.

danbye said...

The reviewing of the play rather than the whole event is a continual frustration to me - and, in all fairness, I should say that I think things have never been better than they are now in that respect. However little that may be saying. Even the sainted Kenneth Tynan consistently reviews the play until the very final paragraph, when he finally deigns to pass judgement on the acting. This despite a few pieces on actors (eg Olivier) or directors (the two Peters) showing he had an extraordinary ability to write perceptively and well on areas beyond the purely literary.

alexf said...

Hi Alison - welcome!

And thanks very much for the link and the kind words from theatre notes. It's fantastic to see you commenting over here.

On the matter of length you are of course right - less words mean that you can write less and in less depth. i hope i don't give the impression that i do not consider it important that writers have the space to articulate themselves adequately. i was more responding to the idea that a restriction on length removes the possibility for writing stylishly - i don't believe it does. i very much like the way you talk about constructing an argument - sadly i don't believe many critics (in the UK at least) view that as a part of their job.

everyone - on the subject of writing about theatre specifically - could it be that part of the problem is that we do not yet have the tools or the shared language to articulate what we may wish to say about it? Whereas a literary critic has a long tradition of highly engaged criticism to draw from, if you want to write about performance rather than the play, you are to a large extent going to be seeking out a new way to do so. Perhaps this explains the difficulties that Alison describes (although if theatre notes is an example of you writing before you've found your critical toolkit, i can't wait to see what happens when you get your hands on a critical power drill).

i say all this, and yet i normally find it very easy to talk about performance in the bar after the show - perhaps there's something about the social nature of theatre that lends itself to conversation in a way that it doesn't to the solitary act of writing. Then again, perhaps not - i'm speculating wildly off the cuff now and i should probably control myself.

Perhaps the issue is not so much how we describe what we experience but how we render our response to that experience. If we look at it this way, we're no longer searching for the appropriate comparison, but for an articulation of something that is at once more personal and truer to the nature of the theatrical event itself - an event which needs not just the empty space and the actor to walk across it but also the audience to, to what?, not to observe because that's toO passive, but to, er, audiencify the event into theatre.

Andrew - if you look at TV reviewing nowadays (again, i'm being UKcentric, but that's because i'm centred in the UK) then you're looking at people like Nancy Banks-Smith or even Charlie Brooker - people who write humourously about what they see. In general there's very little insight or argument in tv reviewing, and the purely journalistic urge to record is rendered pointless by the way we have a video recorders with a purely functional button called record. In short - a reviewer can't get away with just telling us what happens - if we care, we already know.

and dan - cycling is obviously much harder than running. You guys don't do your marathons in the Alps.

Lily E said...

Hi Alex!

I agree with Mr Bye about Angels in America also - I think it is an astounding and at times literally awe inspiring piece of writing, and theatre. And I agree with Dan that in terms of theatre it is a beautifully realised theatrical thing. And the production was pretty damn good.

But. (And this is going to sound extremelly facile - I do not do this talking-of-theatre in any other way), if you are going to stage such a production, that theatricality has to be fully realised. If an angel needs to burst through the roof - then you have to work out a way of doing that - which they kinda did, except they had her descending on a giant bird-perch. And if actors are required to put on an archetypal Eastern European Jewish accent for a lot of the play, then it's really important that they can do that without sounding like the equivalent of a Dick Van Dyke doing a bad Cock-er-ney accent.

These are minor quibbles amongst my other quibbles - this production, as I said, not bad, in fact, pretty good - but i just think if you are talking about plays and theatre, it is important not to ignore the small details that make that theatre so extraordinary, because otherwise you are always thinking in terms of not-quite-right-but-we-did-our-best and this doesn't do justice to the play or the production.

Um, anyway, that is all...

alexf said...

i agree with lily!

like i said - this week, no thoughts of my own.

danbye said...

I hope I made it clear that I had plenty of reservations about the production - you point out some of the faults I had, and add some extra, just for you. Nice one.

I do think there's some really good TV criticism going on that achieves sufficient to put our dead white males to shame. I think Nancy Banks-Smith's work is a fine example of criticism that has plenty of verve and swagger and enough intellectual confidence to make a powerful point and a joke at the same time. The laughter doesn't make the point less valid unless you're a pompous arse like Michael Billington, who likes his farce and his politics in separate boxes. For what it's worth, I think you manage this trick (the NBS one, not the MB one) much of the time.

But the word count is a real issue. When I was writing for the Guardian I found 450 words too little to construct any sort of argument and the 250 the Stage and Metro allowed barely lets you get to the cast. I only felt free to write proper criticism when I was given 800 words; the idea that Lyn Gardner has to make do with 300 these days makes it astonishing that she manages to consistently reach the level she does.

Lily E said...

Hey Dan,

No, no, I understood what you said, I was just sticking my oar in...!

danbye said...

Alex - amusing that a post tagged "little of note" should generate your highest comments tally to date...

alexf said...

sorry to leave this poor comments thread untended for so long. i've been away...

i'll pick all the threads up in the nxt theatre criticism post

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