Megan's Head

A place where Megan gets off her head.

Rose tinted theatre glasses

After a self-questioning week, I’ve thought a lot about theatre, theatre reviewing, and the problems that both face. I’ve got some pretty radical ideas about how these little worlds play out, and I’ve decided that however dependent they are on each other they are also responsible for each others’ downfall. Let me explain.

A couple of months back I had a confidential chat with someone who sees a ton of theatre and writes about everything he sees. I must point out that he is independent, not writing for money or for a boss. He also puts out press releases and operates as a platform to generate publicity. I see him at every opening night I’m at. (He goes to them all, I’m sure. I only go to the ones I am invited to). This man confessed to not being able to write a review in which he said that the production (or even aspects of it) were bad. He just couldn’t manage the bad publicity this would create and he doesn’t want to be responsible for any production’s lack of success. So he writes good stuff about whatever he sees. I think that this is bullshit. The whole point about reading someone’s opinion, a review, a crit, is to get a sense of whether that person thought the thing was good or bad, or even in between. I tried in vain to make my point. As far as he was concerned, there is so little theatre and the theatre-going audience is so small they should be encouraged to see everything.

I left the discussion fuming. I could not possibly recommend that others see something that is, in my opinion, rubbish. And that comes with its own price. I am known as harsh, a bitch, and even somebody who hates everything she sees. Which of course is totally untrue; in general I like much more than I don’t, and mostly there will be aspects of a production that I like and stuff that I don’t.

I am often astounded by what I call “Emperor’s new clothes” reviews. These are reviews where it feels like the critic has been star struck or is in awe of one or other famous star, the director, the management, or even the writer. It’s as if there is no possibility that the production could be anything other than amazing and so therefore, it is. Two productions (one which I saw and one which I didn’t) got rave reviews across the board for these kinds of reasons. The production I saw was horrible, and the one everybody secretly spoke about sounded like hell and boredom combined. Because it feels like everybody in this town is too shit scared to own up and write that a production was bad, performers and directors believe that their mediocre, or unoriginal or boring work is good enough, and then they attack anyone brave enough to say anything against it. When I write an honest, harsh review about something I don’t like, and justify it, I am the baddie, not the production.

This is so dangerous because people believe what they read. Our industry is a fragile one, and I want to be sure people know what they are getting. I hate the idea of the ordinary somebody going so see something that has been given glowing reviews, and they sit there thinking, is it me? Am I dof? Am I the only one who thinks this is boring/bad/ridiculous?

If reviewers and critics aren’t owning up and telling the hard truth then what’s the point of them at all? Might as well just print the self-promoting press release. Oh, wait, somebody actually did that in Grahamstown, and passed off chunks of the press release as their very own review. They saw in the show everything the press release said about the show. Now the actors think they’re conveying it. Those in the audience who aren’t seeing it either feel like idiots or bitches. And they all follow the first arsehole who stands.

It makes me depressed. And sad. And gek. There is a good part to this though. Whenever I say I loved something, or even liked something, or even part of something, whoever reads what I wrote will know that I mean it.

 

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6 Comments

  1. bob

    i’ve said this here before but want to repeat it. i rely on the reviews i read. i particularly rely on reviews of people whose judgement i trust.

    i can’t afford (time or money) to watch uninspired theatre and i don’t think it should be encouraged. i’m happy to be exposed to suggestions in your reviews. i do read others too, but i’ve learned to trust yours.

    start pandering and losing your integrity and i won’t trust your judgement anymore. hard core i know, but it’s how i feel.

    please keep doing what you’re doing and hopefully people will learn to play the ball and not the player. robust debate and opinionated, informed and constructive reviews (like yours) is what will ensure we get quality theatre. quality theatre serves all of us well.

  2. Mark

    Hi Megan, I hope you will continue with this blog. It is an important service to theatre in general as we have someone, at last, speaking the truth as she knows it. I, as another theatre professional, value what you have to say and respect that you write what you believe and feel.
    I have been very shocked at the responses to some of your reviews. People/audiences rarely communicate their real/true responses to work, and however uncomfortable it may be, performers and theatre-makers must welcome these responses as they can only contribute to better and more considered work in the future. I believe the Joe Soap audience members cannot always articulate their responses in theatre terms (most often they actually can though) and will simply just stay away in the future. After a bad theatre experience, I myself have to force myself to attend another live theatre show.
    Too many writers and performers forget that audiences give us a gift by attending our work and should be grateful and respect that by presenting the best possible work to them and then humbly receiving their feedback.
    Keep it up.

  3. megan

    Thanks Mark, you are exactly the kind of person I’d like to hear from. I think I need to have thoughts from those involved in the industry, to understand how they feel about me reviewing their work. Added to which, you are a friend.

  4. Chuck

    I’ve been caught in this dilemma lately. Went to the opening night of ‘The History Boys’ last week, and it was shit. Forgive the non-theater terminology, but it was. Michael Richard did a grand job keeping his focus, timing (and accent) intact amid such failure. Graham Hopkins was horribly miscast, a pointy, ratty pedant without any of the softness, both emotional and physical, required to engage either my head or my heart. One or two of the boys showed a sensitivity to what they were doing; the rest were drama students jawing their way through horrible impressions of English schoolboys, like the insufferable bore at a dinner party who insists on quoting Monty Python at you.

    But as bad as the cast and directing were, the audience was worse. The line that got the biggest laugh hinged around the word ‘cunt’. The second biggest was for “History is just one fooking thing after another”. I suspect they would have enjoyed it far more if the boys had flung custard pies at each other and the teachers had chased each other around with wet towels. It was a profoundly depressing evening, as I saw South African audiences getting the theatre they deserved.

    And here is my dilemma. I want to tell everyone how horrible ‘History Boys’ is. I want those two endless hours of my life back. But I also know that if our audiences are to become more intelligent, they need to see plays like this. And if actors are to develop, they need to act in more plays like this. I cannot encourage anyone to see ‘History Boys’, but I also understand that it essential that it gets produced, and does relatively well, and that those rotten actors get a chance to become less rotten.

    Which is why this is my first and last rant about it.

  5. megan

    Thanks Chuck, for saying it like you see it. I have only heard good things about The History Boys. Funny. I guess the really important thing you touch on is the relationship between the play and the audience. Look at Defending the Caveman. (And I need to say that Allan Committee is one of my all time favourite performer heroes). That’s what an audience want to see. Again and again and again. I guess it’s the same for The History Boys, but it’s a pity that it’s a shit production. It’s not important that these plays get put on, it is important that they are good.

  6. Like! Like! like! Like! Like!!!
    I agree on every level!
    Stoked to know I’m not the only one you feels this way!!
    Thank you Megan!! 🙂

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