Friday, September 28, 2007

Thursday, September 27, 2007

...useful hints...

If you're bored at work, don't just randomly click through Chris Goode's Blogroll in search of something diverting and arty. Most especially, don't click through to Dennis Cooper's blog. No really. Don't.

Also, i wanted to draw all 5 of your attentions to a shitstorm that doesn't affect theatre, but is an issue that affects bloggers, people who give a flying fuck about free speech and football fans (even if those most likely to be affected do support the wrong team from North London). Also, Craig Murray, around whom this furore first furored, was a character in Talking To Terrorists, so it's sort of on topic. And if someone shuts down all the websites, who's going to write the abovementioned CG's plays for him?

Monday, September 17, 2007

That series on theatre criticism with an overly long title - Part 3

People have been talking about reviews and criticism and the difference thereinbetween. Dan Bye cites Leo Benedictus in the Guardian: "A review is a practical tool designed to help people choose a show. Criticism is an attempt to describe the way a show works and analyse why it works well." (Dan, incidentally, deserves great credit for being the first person i've come accross to lay into someone for giving him a good review.) Ian Shuttleworth, in various comments around the blogs (which i now can't find half of - please feel free to point them out or to correct me if i've misrepresented you, Ian), tentatively puts forward an alternative view, which might be sumarised as "criticism places the work within a wider social/political/historical/cultural context." Similarly, Michael Billington states that "The critic has a duty to set any play or performance in its historical context" although he does so in a piece in which he seeks to draw a distinction between the blogger and the professional critic rather than criticism and reviewing.

i don't really buy any of these distinctions. Reviews simply don't interest me, but insofar as they are conceived as guides for the consumer, they are a) rubbish, and b) dumb (although i like the idea of nipping into WH Smiths to buy a copy of What Play? magazine so that you can be told which play to go to by experts who have tested all the major brands of plays to destruction). They are dumb because it is dumb to view a piece of culture solely as a commodity to be consumed by a consumer. Of course, once culture enters the market it becomes commodity, but becoming a commodity does not stop it from existing as other things as well. Other things like art, communication, expression, performance. Similarly, when you buy a ticket you become a consumer, but you're still an audience member as well, just as you're still a biological organism which can perform complex functions like breathing without having to consciously think about them. If you weren't, you'd die.

They are rubbish because any interpretive or analytical or evaluative account of a piece of art or entertainment which has a conception of art or entertainment as primarily as commodity implicit in its very raison d'etre is necessarily going to be a pretty poor account, because it will have missed the point of what entertainment or art is. Furthermore, audiences don't know what they want. This is True Fact. Even if they think they know what they want, they only know it in such a way as to make the vaguest of claims - "a show with nice songs in it", "some good physical theatre", "things that will make you laugh/cry/think". It's not quite like trying to decide whether you want a washing machine with an energy saving function, is it? When they know specifics - a show with a hollywood star in it, for example, there's no need for a reviewer to tell us that there's a hollywood star in it.

I also don't much care for the idea that criticism is distinct from reviewing because it tells you how and why things work. As a practitioner i am interested in how and why things work in the theatre. i do not go to critics to learn about that - i go to other practitioners and to teachers, who can teach me about how and why things work. As an audience member i see no reason why anyone should be any more interested in how a particular effect is achieved than they are in how the sparkplugs work in their car.

Shutters' distinction - that criticism places the work within a context (he said reductively)- is more satisfactory in that it conceives of the critic as someone who must necessarily have a sense of that wider context and so in some sense deserves their expert status. But i don't go all out for it because i believe that a piece can be great critical writing without ever placing the work in a wider context. What if the critic works inwards rather than outwards? What if they produce an account that is detailed, intelligent, passionate and witty, but fail to tick the broader context box? i still count that as criticism.

So, I'd like to propose an alternative distinction:

A review is someone saying what they think about something. It has a value of very close to nothing whatsoever on the persons unknown index of how important something is (PUIHISI). Unless the jokes are good. Someone saying what they think about something and asking you to believe it is relying soley on your perception of them as someone with expert status, someone with authority. Perhaps this is one the reasons that professional reviewers are so often keen to point out how many shows they see, as though, like someone training for the Tour de France, the more miles they have in their legs the better equiped they will be (although i'm not sure if there are any performance enhancing critical drugs on the market). The other end of the justification you often hear for this type of reviewing is that "a review is just one person's opinion." This is something that makes me angry, and there'll be a whole post on it at some point, but for now suffice to note that this is not a justification but an apology - it's effect is to reduce the value of the review as well as to disavow responsibility for it. It means it doesn't matter if what the writer writes is dumb, is biggotted, is illogical, is just plain wrong, because, after all, it's just one person's opinion. The question we might ask in response is "why on earth should anyone care about just one person's opinion? You fuck!"

Criticism, on the other hand, is writing in which an argument is constructed about (/around/through/with) its subject. Its value is not conferred by the supposed authority of the author, but is found in the way the writing itself engages the reader. Writing of this kind can be "critical" in all the meanings that cloud around that word (compare this to the simple second look implied by a re-view). It can also be rubbish - there is such a thing as bad criticism just as surely as there is such a thing as bad writing and bad theatre, but it is critical that writing of this kind exist, because this form of engagement with art is valuable in itself, and because it has utilitarian value - it enables to think about art in new ways. And because it's nice to have something to talk about.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Live Sex Show!

i'm very much looking forward to Told By An Idiot's production of Carol Ann Duffy's Casanova, currently at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and soon to be at the Lyric Hammersmith. Here's an interview with the company by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian.

Cassanova is to be played by the fabulous Hayley Carmichael, who, as the more observant of you will have noticed, is a woman. Look:

Now, this isn't just my favourite publicity shot of the year - there's a few key things that the company say that deserve drawing out, because they have implications for how we might make and watch theatre, for the portrayal of sexuality on stage, and for people who care about gender, power and representation within the theatre (the rest of you, stop reading now. I mean it. Now!)

Gardner reports that early versions of the play about the great lover, contained, unsurprisingly, a hell of a lot of sex. As the show developed the sex disapeared. This from the article:

"We actually copied some of the sex scenes from the Fellini movie," explains Carmichael. "But, bit by bit, the sex disappeared, because it looked ludicrous and because, even with me on top thrusting away with a man beneath me, I still somehow felt and looked like a victim."

Now, obviously there's nothing wrong with making a show that doesn't have lots of sex in it - plenty of people do that all the time - and it's certainly true that very often sex on stage looks ludicrous. I'm not in any way taking issue with the decisions that the company have made. What concerns me is that, even in a production which has obviously feminist undertones, overtones, and presumably every other kind of tone on display, a woman engaging in simulated sex onstage should make the performer feel and look like a victim, even when all the obvious signifiers seem to be pointing towards her being strong and in control. Again, from the article:

[Paul Hunter, the show's director] believes that there are very few situations in either the real or literary world "where women have the licence to behave like a Casanova without having to also deal with the judgment and censure that goes with that territory".

I find it odd that the two statements can sit so closely together with no connection made by either interviewer or -ees. I'm also puzzled by Gardner's assertion that the staging is such that "the matter of gender becomes completely irrelevant". It is hard to believe that if a man were on top thrusting away with a woman beneath him, he would feel and look like a victim. It is almost as though in the theatre here described there is a live version of the film camera's male gaze at work - perhaps an invisible lens in the space between audience and performer, and even between the performer and herself.

All of this makes it seem like the stage is an aggressively male gendered space, and maybe it is. Of course, in the real world we can't fix the effects of several thousand years of patriarchy in an instant, but the theatre isn't the real world - in's much better than that, and in the theatre space we can do whatever we damn well please. But in the theatre nothing is easy. Is it a theatrical problem or a broader cultural one which also manifests itself in the theatre? Are the structures of power inscibed into the theatres themselves or is it that they are etched into the psyches of audience and actor alike? What would a women's theatre look like?

i don't really have answers to these questions - so i was wondering if you guys have anything to throw into the ring...