I still have mixed feelings over writing what I did about the Bell Titus. Not that it wasn’t exactly how I felt about the show; but whether it was appropriate; or whether I should be so frank and earnest. Feedback from a friend, not in the business, thought it was a bit rough where careers were at stake; a long-term colleague who has followed my writing since the beginning not only reacted the same way as I did to the show, but was delighted to discover I had not lost any of my ‘punch’. Or pout.
If I feel squeamish about it, one can only imagine how it is for those on the receiving end. Emotions ranging anywhere from anger to disgust, humiliation, hurt. Or, if they believe enough in their own work, perhaps mere contempt.
This is in my mind because I recently read Kevin Jackson’s review of Sydney Theatre Company’s The Pig Iron People at the Drama Theatre, Sydney Opera House: he gave it a thrashing not unlike to the one I gave Titus. I don’t disagree with him on a single point – but I would certainly not have put it the way. Just as Titus did not upset him the way it upset me, The Pig Iron People did not upside me, the way it upset him.
I’m not sure how many of you are following Jackson’s writings online. An accomplished actor and director, and on the teaching staff at NIDA, my understanding is that Jackson believes ‘enough is enough’, he has nothing to lose, and so he has to decided to start putting his views on Sydney theatre into print. In doing so, he will not be ‘backwards in coming forwards’. His reviews are methodical, thorough and informed; and he brings a strong sense of the inner-workings of theatre-making to his critiques. Clearly Jackson likes some shows greatly, and he dislikes others equally so. He is one for respecting the text (if it is a good one); and he appears to be quite over the situation in Sydney where, in his view, too many new scripts are getting up before thy are ready. This is, I think the main issue he brings to the table in his argument against the John Doyle play.
The issue at hand, I think, is this. It is not logical or appropriate to expect criticism (‘art commentary’) of any form to be ‘objective’. I’ve thought about this a lot over many years. Rather than aim for the delusion of objectivity, it is for reviewers to study their own prejudices, or ‘values’; and declare them when and where they can. One can get into huge theoretical knots here – but we need to keep one eye on the fact that reviews will appear in print – so how do we negotiate that? In a sense we can neer truly know our own prejudices or values (otherwise we wouldn’t have any). So all I mean here is, try and give readers a sense of where, as a reviewer, one coming from. It is certainly not enough to work form the equation: I like it there for it is good. That is way to impertinent. A critic is never necessarily ‘right’: Their gift is essentially an ability to ‘describe’ what they see. Gaining familiarity with a reviewer’s work over time certainly helps. Comparing apples with apples as were.
Is it not interesting that Jackson – whose reviews I greatly admire – likes the Titus as much as I disliked it? And he disliked the Kosky Women of Troy, as much as I thought it ‘good’. In this instance, there appears to be an appropriate symmetry in our diverging views. In a small town like Sydney, there is not a lot of critical feedback; and not a lot of range to it. So a singularly strong response is quite exposed.
If you go to this site, you will find two of Jackson’s most recent reviews (of Titus and Pig Iron; and it won’t take much for you to find his reviews of The Narcissist and The Women of Troy). Meanwhile, I have gone back over my experience of Titus: and I come down to this main point. The actors failed to establish a relationship with me: they never attracted my commitment, it was never secured. The intially bonding needs to happen quite quicly in a show. And it comes in two forms. I know where we are going – and am happy to tag along. Or I have no idea where we are going, but I believe I am in good hands – so I’ll tighten my safety belt and off we go. It is, in efect, a contract, which every member of the audience is asked to sign. Sometimes signals captured by our antennae cause us to baulk. An experienced theatre-goer has to trust that. Consequently, instead of being taken in by the drama, we sit outside it. Sometimes, more or less permanently. Left to do so, a critic is abandoned to a single question: ‘Why?’ Why is this not working for me?
The critic, may not be able to answer that question to the satisfaction of all, perhaps not even to themselves. But this does not invalidate the primal impulse. If a reviewer likes most things, or is happy enough to let the bulk of them past, then they must trust their instincts when their brain and heart seizes up inside them – and starts shouting: ‘No’.
I certainly did not enter the Bell Titus planning not to get involved. For better to worse, one cannot predict a Bell Shakespeare Company show. Their track record is simply too unreliable: from fabulous to downright awful. When you read Jackson, you will discover that he was drawn in very early – and he stayed with the cast. He believed in the universe they were creating on stage, and Gow’s overarching production worked for him. Stephen Dunne, an old hand at the reviewing game, reckons the show also had cred.
Any critic can find themselves at odds with their peers. As I mentioned earlier on the week, Kippax and I almost always disagreed. Now we have Jackson disliking intensley the The Pig Iron People. I do agree with Jackson that the writing lacks craft. I also agree that it is high time plays presented in this price band were more securely prepared. And I also agree that there is something wrong at the Sydney Theatre Company in this final year of Robyn Nevin’s programing: why indeed were so many new scripts booked into seasons before they were ready? it has been an embarrresing burden for the new artistic directors – and possibly unfairly tarnishes them? Could they or should they have intervened? The frightful production of The Narcissist – the transfer of a full worked-through show – was probably unsalvageable. But was it really too late to help the author of Pig Iron People, a script with some promise, through to another draft?
Interestingly this time, where Jackson found The Pig Iron People essentially untenable, I saw a work that was less than perfect, but with a pulsing heart. I did not find it repellent: it certainly did not gross me out. So where does this leave us – we the reviewers? In the eye of the beholder?
This is a complex debate I am trying to carry here. And it is as much about the ‘nature’ of theatre reviewing, as it is about shows themselves. For this reason, I am playing it out over days. I cannot put this project together in one big gush. Those of you who want to keep up with me, may like to take a look at some of Jackson’s reviews. Before we pick up again. By way of clarification, I should point out that I posted my article about Titus – put it up on the site, as it were – and then reworked it several times over during the next few days. If you looked at it early on, what is up online now is probably quite different. I realise this is not the ideal publishing strategy. It must cause confusion. Equally, it is difficult not to want to improve on work when one sees fault in it, and when one can.
I will return as soon as i can with more – specifically on The Pig Iron People, John Doyle’s first play.