Tuesday, August 14, 2007

...set it off...

i've been doing my best not to bite, or in fact to do anything at all, but hey ho and whaddaya know, sometimes you just can't help yourself.

persons unknown update:

1. persons unknown are mildy concussed, apparently. If i look confused, if this post stops making sense, or if clear liquid starts coming out my nose, please stop reading and get me to hospital straight away.

2. persons unknown have a new job. A new job scaring people, although this currently only works on people who are easily scared. Points one and two are not unconnected. Scaring people is a dangerous business. Still, at least these days i am performing for a living. And at least i have my dignity. Oh, wait...

3. persons unknown are very sorry they've been neglecting you - i hit the intellectual trough i predicted way back when with quite some force and have been wallowing in it since. i've had plenty to say but no belief that it was worth saying. Of course it's perfectly possible that this lack of belief has been entirely justified, and that reignition is the worst thing that could possibly happen to this blog. But to those who doubt me i say, like Tony Blair before me: History will be my judge. Lets just hope that Judge History likes bad puns and disastrous, illegal wars.

So, my friends, lets begin again by fulfilling a promise - that whole objective true factual truth about theatre criticism shizzle - i said it was a series and a series it is - so here's part deux:

Theatre Criticism - The true objective factual truth part two.


Q: Theatre criticism - why should anyone give a shit?

A: Andrew Haydon admits here to a moment sloughing the trough of despond at the pointlessness of it all - tv critics, he says, get to write about stuff that people care about, because tv is sometimes about stuff that people care about. Added to this, people care about tv, whereas only about three people care about theatre and they're all at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival right now watching a man tie strings to his genitalia and yank at them whilst reciting every other line from A Winter's Tale ('Marionette of the Penis' - i'll give you evens on it winning a fringe first next year).

Of course, as Andrew says, television can be a medium for journalism, whereas theatre very rarely is (particularly if you buy my contention that "theatre is not a medium of communication of anything other than itself") - it is art or entertainment. i'd go further and say that when theatre has journalistic elements or intentions (as in the case of much verbatim theatre) the theatre critic still has to write about something that only three people really care about - it's just that she has to locate her theatrical analysis within a broader social/political culture. It says much about either my laziness or the current paucity of our reviewing culture that i am yet to read even half an analysis of the relationship between a verbatim theatre piece as theatrical event and the political value of that event (for either the individual audience member or the body politic). If anyone knows of one then please do point it my way.

What i'm sketching around here is that when theatre approaches social or political reality it's not very much use for anyone to describe what think of that social or political reality. Or more accurately, it's not very much use for anyone who's interested in theatre for you to do that. What needs to be articulated, even from the point of view of someone whose interest lies more in politics than theatre, is what the theatrical performance brings to the party.

Anecdotage: the first verbatim play i saw was The Colour of Justice - a dramatisation of an edited transcript of the Macpherson Inquiry into the police investigation of the unprovoked, racist murder of the black teenager Stephen Lawrence which labelled the Metropolitan Police "institutionally racist". Now i knew and felt plenty about this already, and whilst i may have learned a little more about what actually happened, the value i took from it was certainly not primarily the acquisition of knowledge - there was also the act of a group of people, both actors and audience coming together (entertaining) as a form of protest, but most of all i understood things differently as a result of confronting those events in relation to the presence of real physical human bodies in front of me - in short, the theatricality of the event was important. In approaching the show as a piece of theatre it is unnecessary and trite to say that what happened was wrong. It is even missing the point to analyse how and why it was wrong except insofar as theatre opens up new paths of understanding of howness and whyness.

Down the untheatrical path idiocy lies. David Hare's Stuff Happens had a lot wrong with it (almost everything in fact). David Aaronovitch praised it for it's ambivalence:

"So ambivalent, in fact, that - with one or two fairly minor changes - you could have shown this play to an audience of intelligent Republicans and had them laughing and applauding, albeit in completely different places."

Aaronovitch, of course was a moonlighting opinion piece writer (and one of many at that), but he gets the theatre all wrong here in spectacularly stupid fashion. To value a cultural event because it might be liked by some right-wing americans if it was a bit different and was happening somewhere else rather suggests that you might want to spend a bit more time in the, you know, here and now. But this is what happens when we try to look at theatre as though it's NotTheatre. On the same page Polly Toynbee, who should be more naturally a Hare sympathiser, does a much better job of understanding the play (and consequently some of its shortcomings) in theatrical terms, despite being a similarly moonlighting opinion journalist.

So, if you want to talk about issues and ideas, become an opinion journalist. Of course, Andrew knows this, and pretty much says as much. But he concludes by lamenting the fact that he is so often reminded of the "supreme irrelevance" of theatre and theatre criticism. Yes, television creates the possibility of a form of shared cultural experience on a national level, but that no more imbues it with relevance than the limited reach of a limited run renders theatre irrelevant. But i digress - this is not about why theatre is important, which you're just going to have to take as a given for the time being, because its my blog and i say so, but why theatre criticism is important.

So let's swerve back to somewhere in the region of the point. Theatre criticism matters not because it tells people what shows are worth seeing (it doesn't) or because it tells artistic directors who can't see everything who they should be hiring (it does, and this is a real problem) but because the discourse surrounding theatre affects our perception of theatre, and (and this is so key that, where it to meet with Zuul, it would have Marshmallows dancing down the street) affects our ability to think about theatre. This is primarily of concern not to the artist, but to the audience. Reconfiguring that a little, the responsibility of the critic is to neither the artist nor the work, nor some vague and abstracted Theatre in the Capital Letters sense, but to the reader.

Note - i'm aware that this is a pretty partial response to all the issues it raises - apologies. This has been sitting in my draught folder for ages, and in the interest of getting this blog rolling again, i've decided to stop dicking around and publish it. There's much more to say on this - hopefully, at some point, i'll say it.


danbye said...

Good to have you back!

Statler said...

Firstly - Welcome back.

Now on the whole this piece is far too analytical and in-depth for me to make a meaningful contribution, but here's what I'm aiming for when I write about a show for View From The Stalls.

While it isn't about "you must see this" or "for God's sake avoid it" there are times when these reactions are appropriate. But mostly it's more "you might want to consider if this sounds like something that might be of interest" or "this might not be what you think it is going to be".

The other aspect, and indeed the main one when we started out was as an element of feedback to the production. Many of the shows we see are small scale and get little genuine audience feedback and only one or two professional responses if they are lucky. We hope to provide something in between - what worked for us, what didn't etc. At times we've had productions come back to us and say "yes you were right about that - we hadn't realised it was an issue."

For me it's really just all about providing an honest response to what's been seen - no personal agenda, no sacrificing a fair review for a clever turn of phrase, and making clear that it's all personal taste (especially if everyone else in the audience loved it).

Nobody should be unhappy with receiving or reading a genuine response.

alexf said...

thanks very much dan and statler!

Anonymous said...

You have to express more your opinion to attract more readers, because just a video or plain text without any personal approach is not that valuable. But it is just form my point of view