Reviewing Reviewed: An Attempt to be Honest
I’ve been thinking a lot about honesty. Not in the overall, broad sense of that word and what it encompasses, but in terms of how it relates to my writing and more specifically my writing about theatre. This blog post, therefore, is an attempt to tell the truth, to strip off the usual protective armour that coats the writing I release out into the world and allow myself to be a little more open, a little more vulnerable. What follows may simply be seen as indulgent self-analysis, but I hope that it also connects with bigger debates that are currently taking place about theatre writing and the direction it is being taken in, or should be taken in.
As I say, I’ve been thinking about this question of honesty in theatre criticism a lot and for quite some time, but this attempt to articulate my thoughts was prompted by Jake Orr’s reconsideration of a review he wrote for A Younger Theatre. In an admirably honest and heartfelt follow-up, Jake admitted that the judgement he passed on the production in question (Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer, which I haven’t actually seen myself) was perhaps unfair, an admission that fed into regrets about how quickly critics must file their review and move on and asked wider questions about the shortcomings of what we might call mainstream or traditional theatre criticism.
This resonated with difficulties that I had personally been experiencing over the last few days. In a possibly foolish move, I went to review the first two of Edward Bond’s Chair Plays at the Lyric Hammersmith on Monday, followed by Making Noise Quietly the next night, effectively giving myself the task of processing five plays in the space of 48 hours – and all at the same time as working my day job. I enjoyed the plays to varying degrees, but they were all teeming with ideas that resisted being pinned down. Tied to deadlines and starved of sleep, I thought and struggled a lot, cobbled together some responses and reluctantly moved on.
But my uncertainty continues to chip away at me. How could these works be reduced to a few hundred sleepily composed words and a hastily slapped on star rating? I do sincerely believe that a review at its best is a thing of beauty and that criticism can be creative in its own right, and for the most part I try my best to strive towards those ideals, but there are also lots of occasions where I fall far short and simply let it go. I sum up a piece of work that has been the product of weeks, months, perhaps even years of hard work and careful consideration in no more than a few hours, using a severely flawed barometer of quality; it seems a ridiculous imbalance.
These thoughts are not entirely new. Theatre criticism, the forms it takes and its inherent limits are all things that I have discussed before, sometimes at length, but looking back self-critically at the reviews I have accumulated over the last couple of years, I can see a disconnect in my thinking. I’ve begun to wonder if I’m failing to practice what I preach and whether the blame for that can be wholly attributed to the restrictions of the traditional 500 word review or if I need to put my own hand up. I think that the answer is probably a bit of both.
I would say that I don’t pretend to be objective, but when I take a closer, harsher look at myself I’m not so sure that’s true. I certainly haven’t made a secret of the fact that I think the concept of critical objectivity is a cracked facade, something that I have explored in my writing here before, yet I wonder whether my reviews themselves contradict this standpoint of honesty. When in a review have I simply admitted ‘this isn’t my cup of tea’? I like to think of myself as fairly open and receptive to all work, but it’s not as though I can eschew personal taste. Similarly, there are certain writers, companies and artists whose work I will inevitably approach in a different way because of my own admiration for them, a fact that is rarely recognised in my finished review.
Beyond the inescapable yet unspoken subjectivity of my writing, I’m aware that I’ve also avoided transparency about my own ignorance. Because, a lot of the time, I do feel fairly ignorant. This is probably to do with being 22 and still feeling like a relative rookie and being aware of how much more there is out there – how much to read, to see, to experience. Constantly meeting others who are far more well-informed than I am, not to mention terrifyingly intelligent, together with being always surrounded by books still to be read, provide continual reminders of my own failings.
When inadequacy or ignorance is admitted by a writer, though, it is seen as a cause of embarrassment for both writer and reader. We are supposed to know everything, or at least think that we know everything, which is often more accurately the case. I don’t expect any of my editors would be particularly happy if I blithely confessed inexperience at the opening of my reviews. No matter how out of my depth I feel, I continue to fumble for a foothold and try to speak from some position of authority, however weak. But there is still that nagging voice at the back of my mind that taunts, ‘who are you to make this judgement?’
Who am I to judge? Who are any of us to judge? Perhaps judgement is not the right word; perhaps we need to rethink the vocabulary of theatre writing. Because I think that what I’m really searching for and what really attracts me to writing about theatre is not cold, calculated judgement, a glib thumbs up or down, but careful analysis, a delicate picking apart of ideas, getting under the skin of a piece of creative work. That’s what also excites me about speaking to theatre makers on the occasions when I am fortunate enough to interview them; I want to pull back the curtain and peek at the inner workings, the beating heart of the piece and its complex, intricate network of veins.
This brings me back to Jake and what inspired this increasingly lengthy blog post in the first place. As a result of some of the thoughts expressed in the piece I have already mentioned, alongside a whole host of other inter-connected thoughts, he and Maddy Costa have launched a project that plans to get closer to what I was beginning to describe above. DIALOGUE, described as a ‘great big playground’ for anyone involved in making, watching or writing about theatre, aims to open up new channels of communication and foster an environment of generosity. As the name suggests, it is intended to start up conversations between those creating theatre and those who usually critique it. It feels urgent, important, exciting.
So, in the adventurous, innovative spirit of Jake and Maddy and all the other theatre writers and makers who are also beginning to question their way of working, I want to do better. I want to engage with a piece of theatre beyond the two hours or so it takes to watch it and the few hours in which I have to hastily formulate a review before work or deadline or both. I want to enter into a dialogue with those who are making the theatre that I consume and to give the act of creating the respect that it is due. I want to avoid falling into lazy assumptions and casual criticisms, even if I am frantically writing away in the early hours running on nothing but caffeine.
Because I’m being honest, I write this in complete anticipation of failure. I will fail. Perhaps my failure will be to a greater or lesser extent, with any luck the latter, but failure is pretty much inevitable. I have other demands on my life, I have a day job and a need to make ends meet, and – dare I say it – sometimes I’m just a bit lazy. I am also bound by the expectations of my writing, which vary from subject to subject and publication to publication. I would say screw it, let’s chuck out the rulebook regardless, but I’m not that brave. Perhaps I’m not that idealistic.
But the one thing I promise is that I will try. I’ll try to connect with the work I see on a deeper level, whether within the restrictive limits of the traditional review format or, as will most likely be the case, through other means. I might write a 500 word review to deadline, but I’ll also try my best to make sure that the work has a life in my thoughts and my writing beyond that. I’ll try to keep questioning what theatre criticism means, or if perhaps we need a completely different terminology to describe the relationship between theatre and what is written about it, even if I don’t have any forthcoming answers. I’ll try to stay alert and open and creative in my thinking.
Most importantly, I will try to be a little more honest.