What are reviews for, that is the question?
It’s something that comes up all the time here at Total Theatre Magazine central, especially at the moment, as we struggle to re-establish ourselves, and work out what we are doing here and why.
There are some of us who believe passionately in maintaining a reviews section, and some who think we should ditch reviews altogether – in an era in which every Tom, Dick and Jane is running an online theatre magazine and posting reviews within hours of seeing shows, perhaps Total Theatre just doesn’t need to? Especially now that so much of the work we were set up to cover – physical and visual theatre, mime and clown, contemporary circus, live art et al – is no longer outré and ignored, but is covered not only by the small-scale specialist press but by mainstream magazines and newspapers. The Guardian, The Times, Whatsonstage, Time Out, and The Stage are all pretty likely to cover the same work as Total Theatre Magazine, at least some of the time. Then there are the hungry new upstarts such as Exeunt and A Younger Theatre…
What do we offer that is different? We’ve tried! Over the years, we’ve pioneered alternative approaches to reviewing, such as the Being There feature in which at least three voices – including the theatre-maker and the reviewer – each, independently of each other, write about the event from their perspective. We’ve also often run reviews as conversations between two writers, as an example, a piece on Pina Bauch’s Kontakthof reflected on by an old-hand who’d seen lots of her work (me) and a young reviewer who was seeing Bausch for the first time (Alexander Roberts).
Total Theatre Magazine was set up and continues to be ‘staffed’ – if we can use that word of people who work very part-time and usually unpaid – by artists who also happen to write about the artforms that they and others around them practice: theatre and performance. We are not ‘critics’ in the traditional sense – although even that statement is problematic as many very famous traditional critics – take the mighty Kenneth Tynan, for example – also worked in theatre as writers, dramaturgs or whatever. Anyway, to follow this train of thought, Total Theatre Magazine (and its sister organisation Total Theatre Network) exists to celebrate and support the artists making the work. It’s a trade mag, and insider’s voice.
Does that mean we don’t publish ‘bad reviews’? The jury’s out. As editor, I tend to prefer not to. Reviews editor Beccy Smith often disagrees on that one. But this is my blog so I’ll state my case: I can’t see the point in bad reviews. It’s fun to write them, but it’s usually more about the writer than the show reviewed – an excuse to wax lyrical and pun gleefully, enjoying the creation of witty words and humorous jibes. If Total Theatre Magazine exists to support the artists making the work, aren’t we doing the artform a disservice, causing harm even, by publishing a bad review? Up against that is the idea that we have a duty to review work seen, and the best way to support an artist’s development is by giving them hat we believe to be a fair critique. In which case, I’d argue, write it and send it to them, don’t post it publicly.
The next problem is the issue of subjectivity. I recently taught a Critical Writing course at Evolution Arts Centre in Brighton, and it was one of the first questions asked: as a critic, am I expected to be objective? My answer? Try to be a good witness, being as ‘objective’ as you can about what is presented on stage – describe what you see and hear. Open your eyes, open your ears, open your heart and try to experience, really experience, what is being offered to you. Try, initially at least, to remove any need to ‘have an opinion’. But once it moves onto the part of the review where you are writing what you feel and think: be aware that these are subjective responses, inevitably informed by who you are and where you’re at in this particular moment in time. Some things I’ve asked fledgling reviewers to think about include: how much is your age, ethnicity, personal life experience affecting your response and judgement? If the show irritates you, what buttons are being pushed and why? What do you think the artist was trying to communicate, and why is it not reaching you? I don’t for a minute feel that everyone has to love everything, or pretend they do – just to flag up that if we respond with a strong reaction – love or hate – to a show, we should at least try to see why it is provoking that response.
And more on subjectivity: how often have I heard a journalist or awards judge say, oh it’s not down to personal taste – it’s not because I didn’t like it, it’s just that it’s a bad show. But that argument is easily challenged by looking at the very disparate reviews that almost any show will garner. It becomes clear very quickly that intelligent and well-informed people can see the same work and disagree strongly about its ‘value’. This is particularly true of anything that involves humour. I’ve sat completely stony-faced through shows that other people have howled in laughter at from beginning to end, and I’ve laughed hysterically at things that have left other people cold.
Let’s take Wild Bore, for example – a very funny (in my opinion) show created by three female theatre-makers/comedians, who have all seen a great deal of commercial and critical success, and simultaneously a great deal of slamming of their work. The three women are: Zoe Coombs Marr (Australia), the winner of the Barry Award at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) for Trigger Warning; Ursula Martinez (UK), theatre writer and performer of shows such as Free Admission and My Stories, Your Emails, and cabaret diva (the famous Red Hanky lady of La Clique/ La Soiree, and star of Duckie’s C’est Vauxhall); Adrienne Truscott (USA), choreographer, circus performer (one half of the acclaimed Mau Mau Sisters), writer and comedian, creator of the controversial (value judgement or fact?) Asking For It: A One-Woman Rape about Comedy Starring Her Pussy And Little Else.
Wild Bore, created collaboratively, has caused a stir wherever it has played because of its unusual subject matter. It takes negative reviews – of the three artists’ previous shows and of theatre shows by other people – and makes this the text of the show. Or at least, this is one aspect of the text – the performance text consists of the words staged inventively within a series of comic vignettes and increasingly complex visual tableaux and physical actions. The first scene, famously, notoriously we might say, featuring the women’s talking backsides sitting atop of a trestle table. ‘Opinions are like assholes,’ says one of the bare bottoms. ‘Everyone’s got one.’
We go on to see each of the performers debunking their least-favourite review of their work. When a critic says that something on stage (be it a grown woman running around in circles tearing off her clothes or a teenage boy holding up a skull called Yorick) happens ‘for no apparent reason’ because they cannot fathom out what that reason might be, or muses on whether something presented to them on a stage is by ‘dramaturgical design’ rather than a happy accident (of course it is – duh!) it is obvious, now this is shown to us, that those sort of critical statements are pretty dumb, and say more about the critic than the artist’s work.
Almost everyone who has reviewed this show has stated that it is almost impossible to review – it’s a show about theatre criticism that cleverly second-guesses almost any response anyone might make to it in its debunking of the role of the critic. Some have thus chosen not to review the show, but some have taken up the challenge. We can note here that Wild Bore has garnered two-star, three-star, four-star, and five-star reviews. It’s a matter of opinion. Divides the critics, as they say.
The Guardian hedges its bets and eschews its usual reviews-with-stars system by publishing two responses side-by-side, from comedy critic Brian Logan and theatre critic Lyn Gardner (yeah, yeah – we’ve been doing that for years at Total Theatre). Rupert Hawksley, in the Telegraph, decides that he will respond as a bull to a red rag (or is that a red hanky?), saying in his two-star review: ‘This attack on theatre critics falls squarely on its bottom.’ What a gift! Into the show it goes! Two stars also from The Scotsman, this time a female critic, Joyce Macmillan (not all the flak is from middle-aged white men): ‘ [Wild Bore] is not much more than an hour-long demonstration of thespian self-obsession, taken to vaguely obscene, although occasionally entertaining, extremes.’ Hmmm. Not so obviously quotable but ‘occasionally entertaining’ is a good example of damning with faint praise. Exeunt’s Joy Martin gives it a good review, buying into the notion that it is a patriarchal question (ie most critics are privileged white men) saying: ‘The three naked asses and genitalia on prominent display are female, which to me felt like a deeply feminist symbolic rebellion against the broken elements of a traditional style of theatre response that we have inherited from the patriarchy, which is struggling to see, accept and understand the unfolding edges of theatre, and which defaults to superiority and derision as a response to anything it doesn’t get.’ (Fair enough, but what about Joyce? Is she then cast as the Theresa May of theatre criticism in this story?) Five stars from Broadway Baby’s Charlie Ralph: ‘Wild Bore is a show that is sometimes difficult to watch, frequently difficult to understand and almost constantly difficult to critique. What makes Wild Bore fascinating is that it is a show about all three of those things and how key they are to theatre, it is this nesting doll of metatextuality that makes Wild Bore such a unique, impossible experience.’ Metatextuality – cor blimey, that’s a word I’ve never used in anything I’ve written. Must try harder.
So, what do I think? Here goes: Wild Bore is a witty and entertaining Fringe show easily received and enjoyed. But it is a whole lot more. As the show progresses it raises increasingly complex ideas – not just about the nature of criticism but about the act of making and viewing theatre. What do we really see, hear, feel, think? And if this applies to theatre – the need to constantly re-evaluate what we are witnessing and what it means to us – then it also applies to life. We have nothing other than ourselves through which to filter our theatre-making and theatre-witnessing or indeed any of our life experiences – our sensory impressions, emotional responses, intellectual judgements are, inevitably, our own. There is no objective gaze; there is no neutral performance body. This last point is beautifully (value judgement!) demonstrated by the unexpected arrival on stage of a Deus Ex Machina – a previously unseen fourth character who calls out the women for making work that is a product of their cis-female, white, educated, privileged selves. This coup de theatre makes the play. It is – to offer a totally subjective opinion – a stroke of genius.
We don’t give stars, but if we did I’d give it – lots.
Wild Bore was shortlisted for a Total Theatre Award 2017. It played at the Traverse Theatre throughout August as part of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, and can be seen at Soho Theatre in London from 21 November to 16 December 2017. www.sohotheatre.com/whats-on/wild-bore/