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.