Archive | January, 2014

Sydney’s Worst Theatre Critic

21 Jan

Theatre, almost by definition, is a forum for many voices. Doubtlessly, the following nominations will be much debated.

So, without further ado, here are the nominees for Sydney’s Worst Theatre Critic:

(drum roll)

Me.

Just me.

DSCF9664

Why you ask?

After all, there are plenty of reasons I shouldn’t win:

  • I’m not especially supercilious, pompous or arrogant.
  • I don’t write too badly. (I assume potential theatre goers appreciate what language can do, so I make an effort.)
  • I do try to give some reasons for my opinions.
  • I don’t say nasty things and kid myself I’m being witty.
  • I don’t forget that my opinions are simply that.

So why, exactly, have I won this prestigious and coveted award?

Well, firstly, I don’t do much evaluation, and if you don’t do that, you can’t claim to be much of a critic.

Secondly, and most crucially, I have the highly annoying habit of writing about my own ideas.

But wait, you say, every reviewer has their own interests. Call them prejudices if you want, but it’s unavoidable. Objectivity is a myth. Don’t, Veronica, be too harsh on yourself.

But I’m serious; I do write about my own ideas. I don’t attempt to sum up the production I’ve attended. I take it merely as a starting point. If a piece of theatre makes me think about, say, democracy, I write about democracy. Not what the play says about it, but what it leads me to think about it.

So I’m a terrible reviewer.

Maybe I’m not even much of an audience member.

Perhaps I think too much.

Veronica Kaye

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Hotel Sorrento

21 Jan

Australia Day is controversial, especially because of the date we choose to celebrate it.  Are we being patriotic, or just parochial?

It’s curious that the people most keen on Australia Day are often the very people most cynical about the only thing that actually makes us Australians. And that is? The fact we vote, pay taxes and are under the legal jurisdiction of the federal government. Australia is a political entity.

Hannie Rayson’s play is not about Australia Day, but it is about being Australian.

Rayson’s characters argue about Australians; their attitudes to art and artists, and their supposed inability for emotional sophistication.

Meg is the Booker nominated expat. On one level, she has little time for what she sees as Australian smallness. Dick, a leftist journalist, argues passionately against her. How would you know? he says. You haven’t been here for 10 years!

Of course, the play itself is 24 years old. Are Meg and Dick both wrong? Have we changed as a nation?

Or are Meg and Dick both guilty of a simple category error? Is ‘Australia’, as a cultural entity, merely a generalization? How useful is the word ‘Australian’ at all?

This is far from a criticism of the production. It’s what the play made me think about. And if I’d paid for a ticket I would’ve said it was money well spent.

Photo by Mark Banks

Photo by Mark Banks

It’s a funny, moving and very thought-provoking night of theatre. Director Shane Bates has elicited some good performances from her cast. I especially enjoyed Melanie Robinson as Meg, Martin Bell as Edwin, her husband, and Rob White as Dick.

The play also made me think about representational art. Marge paints ‘still life’. At one point, she praises the ability of good art to capture the essence of things. Meg’s novel does this, we are told. As does the work of Helen Garner; it showed Marge something she had always been aware of, but had been unable to articulate or even acknowledge.  In the words of T S Eliot (quoted in the play):  “the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time”. And, in the middle of this paean to representational art, Dick grabs an apple and bites into it, unaware that it’s part of the ‘still life’ Marge is trying to paint. It’s a cheeky symbol from Rayson.

Is representation what art should attain to? It would be churlish to suggest it wouldn’t be a magnificent achievement. I’m just not sure art can show us the Truth.

A vision of art as Truth is conservative, an always looking backwards, an approach that can inadvertently deny Life, and its possibilities.

Art might be a microscope or a telescope, but it’s also a kaleidoscope. Representational art takes elements of what previously existed and plays with them. Like the Uncertainty Principle in nuclear physics, when we describe the world, we affect it. And that’s not a bad thing. It’s empowering.

There is not an Australia to represent. Australia is not a thing, it’s a happening.*

Let’s see what we can make happen.

Veronica Kaye

*Apologies to E P Thompson, a writer Dick would be quite familiar with.

Hotel Sorrento

til 22nd Febuary at the Genesian Theatre

http://www.genesiantheatre.com.au/

What are reviews for?

15 Jan

The recent International Theatre Critics’ Conference in Anchorage was an amazing opportunity for intense self-reflection for many in my field, and that opportunity was taken by three of us.

On a desultory Wednesday afternoon, I attended a session entitled ‘What are reviews for?’ There was me, the speaker, and one guy nursing a hangover. Our colleagues were exploring the more pressing question of ‘When does the bar open?’

Here is the transcript of the paper given that afternoon:

 

What are reviews for?

Let me begin by saying that reviews are merely one way you can respond in writing to a piece of theatre. You can also write a letter of complaint to the artistic director. Or you can scrawl obscenities in red paint on the stage door.

Perhaps these approaches have one thing in common; the desire to evaluate. I think that’s what reviews fundamentally do; tell us whether the reviewer thought the production was any good. I’m not suggesting this is all they do, but it’s their crucial component.

Of course, you can write about theatre in other ways. In fact, one of the leading proponents of an alternative approach has honored us with her presence today. (Let the record state that at this moment I went through the motions of glancing around the auditorium, to humbly imply the speaker may have been referring to someone other than me.)

But reviews evaluate.

Have I answered my initial question so soon? No. (Let the record state that at this moment the guy nursing the hangover exited the auditorium.)

I think it needs to be asked what purpose do reviews serve for each of the major stakeholders; audience members, artists, and the critics themselves.

What the general public wants from a review depends on whether they’ve already seen the production. A surprising number of people read reviews the way they read letters to the editor; simply to see what crazy ideas are out there. And just like letters to the editor, there’s a warm pleasure in finding our opinions shared, but a more intense one in finding they’re not. This phenomenon explains the hyperbolic language many critics employ. It gives the theatre going public what they want; drama.

Paul Gilchrist ruining another of my photos from the recent (and entirely fictitious)  critics' conference

Paul Gilchrist ruining another of my photos from the recent (and entirely fictitious) critics’ conference

People tossing up whether they want to see a particular play also read reviews, but less commonly than you might imagine. Decisions to buy tickets are rarely based on carefully argued evaluations, but rather on the general buzz the publicity team manage to create. (For this purpose, a reviewer might include potential pull out quotes when they want to aid the publicist, or avoid them if they don’t. To the untrained eye, reviews can appear equally positive, but publicists see the difference. )

Artists are immensely grateful that reviewers come at all, and sometimes they read the reviews. That is, when they don’t have a publicity team to do it for them. It’s not that artist aren’t interested in the views of critics. No, a critic’s opinion is just as valid as anyone else’s. And some artists care what other people think, though usually not the artists worth their salt.

For artists, the purpose of reviews is to help garner an audience. Obviously, it’s a calculated risk.

We reviewers need to keep in mind that if the artist really valued our opinion, they’d ask us to read the script before the production, or at least get us along to a couple of rehearsals. As it is, they ask us in when they’re finished. Obviously, they don’t intend taking what we say that seriously. (Analogy: We think we’re specialists, yet we’re only ever called in at the autopsy.)

I don’t want to overstate this. A friend* opened on Thursday, a review on Sunday claimed the play was too long, and by Tuesday the show was thirty minutes shorter, and by the writer’s own admission, half an hour better. We can push theatre in certain directions.

Which leads me to the final stakeholder; ourselves. Why do we write reviews? Perhaps for the money? I hear laughter. (Let the record state that there was no laughter from the auditorium at this point. None, whatsoever.)

Do we write in order to give consumer advice? Why would anyone do this, unless they were being paid? I never feel the slightest urge to write advice for anyone considering purchasing, say, a refrigerator.

I write in order to push theatre in the direction I want. I like to think I’m conscious of this (political) motivation behind my writing.

But perhaps I delude myself. Perhaps I write in order feel powerful. Or, perhaps, to assert my existence in a world so large that any of us can be easily overlooked.

Whatever my motivation, if I’m a reviewer, I wish to evaluate. Where does this desire come from? Why is it my purpose?

 

And then he, too, headed to the bar.

I sat in the empty auditorium, and told myself I don’t write ‘reviews’. I write what I call ‘responses’. Of course, they do include a bit of evaluation.

Perhaps I was just quibbling with words.

Well, if a writer can’t do that, I told myself, I don’t know who can!

And I headed off to do the other thing writers do.

Veronica Kaye

*The speaker’s friend was the obscure Sydney playwright Paul Gilchrist.

Things reviewers hate

10 Jan

And so I continue to file my reports from the International Theatre Critics Conference in Anchorage, an event which has been exciting, thought provoking and entirely fictitious.

Paul Gilchrist ruins another photo

Paul Gilchrist ruins another photo

Here is a transcript of one of the most popular presentations.

Things Reviewers Hate (shared for the edification of theatre makers)

  1. Shows without programs. It doesn’t need to be printed. Electronic will do. It’s difficult enough to do this job without looking like an idiot. There’s so much to process in so little time. Please don’t make it harder.
  2. Not being thanked. Or even acknowledged. Most of us don’t get paid. And those that do are hardly rolling in it. Ok, if we break our part of the bargain and write a rant that slams you as utterly incompetent or truly evil, then perhaps a dignified silence is the best response. Or maybe you should just contact your solicitor. But, in all other cases, an email saying thanks wouldn’t go astray.
  3. Finding positive reviews have been buried. Once again, if we compare you to Hitler, fair enough. But if our only criticism was that, say, the sound design was a little loud, it’s frustrating to find our review is not mentioned on your newsletter or social networks. Ok, it sounds like we’re stalking you. But since most of us write on an electronic format we know how many people have read the review and where those readers come from. I want readers just like you want audiences. You scratch my back…….
  4. Aggression to negative reviews. Sometimes I won’t like what you’ve done and I’ll say it. I don’t expect you to be overjoyed, but it seems a bit rich if you then send death threats. You invited a critic, not your grandmother.
  5. Refusal to accept that we have an existence beyond your work. I have opinions. I have preoccupations. When I write, these are the things I’ll be drawn to. Don’t swallow the lie about critical honesty. I’m not saying I’m going to write anything that I feel to be untrue, but if I think the play is about, say, feminism and you don’t, please don’t complain that I’ve misunderstood. No two people see an art work the same way. And to demand they should is to make the whole dramatic form redundant.
  6. Terrible wine at opening night. Ok, this one’s a joke. A free drink is a free drink. But I would like to raise my glass to all theatre makers. You teach us to see. And you teach us to dream. Thank you.

 

I would like to thank the writer of this paper, but the critic wished to remain anonymous. (Which is a perfect segue to Things Theatre Makers Hate. Stay tuned.)

Veronica Kaye

Wittenberg

10 Jan

Wittenberg has all the ingredients for a good night out –  allusions to Elizabethan and Jacobean theatre, a scholarly awareness of the German Sturm und Drang movement, all topped off with in depth references to sixteenth century theological debate!

No, seriously, it’s all very accessible. And, yes, it’s terrific fun.

Hamlet is at uni, and his two tutors, John Faustus and Martin Luther, battle for his soul. The mixing of characters derived from both fiction and fact is a sure signal that we’re in for some wackiness.

It’s a game of intellectual tennis with some top class verbal athletes shooting sharp, hilarious volleys back and forth across the net. (Admittedly, it’s a rather loose net. The play is built on what I feel is a false, or at least exaggerated, dichotomy; that between faith and reason. In this way, it’s very much an American play, part of that nation’s culture wars between the Right and the Left. But I’m far from suggesting it’s parochial. Much of the discourse about spiritual experience in the West has long been skewed towards epistemology – by the extraordinary success of the Scientific Revolution.)

David Woodland; photo by Katy Green Loughrey

David Woodland; photo by Katy Green Loughrey

It’s a very watchable game, even if one player is given a tennis racquet and the other only a ping pong bat. The play clearly favours Faustus. He’s presented as the voice of reason and skepticism. David Woodland does a wonderful job of bringing this likable and passionate rogue alive. And Nick Curnow does well to make Luther a marvelously enjoyable prig.

Director Richard Hilliar has elicited fine performances from the whole cast, and writer David Davalos’ brilliant language is a joy to hear.

Articulate, erudite, and a damn good night!

(Though you don’t, in the foyer, want to meet a bore like me,                               who’ll bang on about the privileging of epistemology!)

Veronica Kaye

Wittenberg by David Davalos

at The Old Fitzroy til 25 Jan

http://www.sitco.net.au/

 

Short and Sweet Cabaret

9 Jan

I realized sometime ago that Life was, in fact, not a cabaret.

At times, I’ve felt Life should lift its game, and would greatly benefit from adopting some of cabaret’s virtues – its sense of mischief, its playfulness, its exuberance.

And last night’s Short and Sweet Cabaret was overflowing with these very qualities.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I don’t like competitions. Winning is for losers. But the competition that is Short and Sweet is easily ignored, overwhelmed by the vitality of the performances.

Festival director Kate Gaul has assembled a great night of entertainment. And Daryl Wallis as musical director, and spending much of the night on the keyboard, has created magic.

I’m not going to attempt to discuss all thirteen acts, but rather focus on several that especially spoke to me.

Oh, My Shattered Illusions, performed by Kelly Young, is delightfully naughty, and deals with copulation and its two most challenging consequences – STIs and children.

Cienda McNamara’s Hardly The Portrait of a Lady is cleverly written and beautifully sung. It’s a very funny tale of the character’s rivalry with Nicole Kidman, and an insight into the dangers of competition.

Harry + Liv, performed by Charlotte and Evan Kerr, is a perfect vehicle for the artists’ considerable talents, both vocally and on the piano. A simple but charming at home moment between brother and sister is brought alive by two wonderful voices.

Maryann Wright. Photo by Diana Popovska

Maryann Wright. Photo by Diana Popovska

Nuts, performed by Maryann Wright, is a playful presentation of some of history’s eccentrics, and Wright has a brilliant voice.

Another brilliant voice belongs to Josipa Draisma. Her Keep Moving was a marvelously presented collection of songs about the power of dreams.

Brendan Hay "Dance with DeVil"

Brendan Hay “Dance with DeVil”

Also in possession of an amazing voice is Brendan Hay. His Dance with DeVil was polished and witty, and performed with great stage presence.

Jade Yeong’s appropriation of some classic Australian anthems in her Wok Off to Where You Came From is both inspiring and subversive.

Similarly, Bali Padda’s Token Brown Guy raises vital questions about our society’s values. His Hindi rendition of a classic Aussie TV theme is riotous in all the right ways.

I usually make much of the fact that I don’t write ‘reviews’ but rather what I call ‘responses’. A night like this beats my best intentions because there is just so much – a deluge of surprises and spectacles, a torrent of wonders and revelations.

Like the annual flood of the old Nile, it overwhelms Life, and it feeds Life. Of course, it is Life. (Old Chum)

Veronica Kaye

Short and Sweet Cabaret Week 1

til Sat 11 Jan at New Theatre

The cabaret element of the Short and Sweet festival runs til Jan 19

http://www.shortandsweet.org/festivals/shortsweet-cabaret-sydney

Truth in the Theatre Foyer

7 Jan

Recently I’ve filed a couple of reports from the International Theatre Critics’ Conference in Anchorage.

And several people have had the temerity to suggest that no such event is actually occurring.

You can imagine my indignation. (In fact, you’ll have to, as I’m not going to waste a moment describing it.)

As incontrovertible proof, I offer the following:

Firstly, this photo

veronica in the snow2

I’m holding the camera. The subject is a pine tree covered with snow. (Annoyingly, Paul Gilchrist, from subtlenuance, has bombed the shot; another example of a playwright getting in the way of the creation of a perfectly good piece of art.)

Secondly, I offer this, the transcript of Paul’s address to the conference:

Truth in the Theatre Foyer

“Recently a friend asked ‘What do you say in the foyer on opening night when the play you’ve just seen is horrible?’

Say it’s wonderful and drink more champagne.

Why does it matter what you think? (The exception is if the play is promoting something evil. In that case, drink even more champagne – then confront the people responsible.)

Otherwise, you have no moral responsibility to be ‘honest’.

In fact, one might question why you feel the need to be ‘honest’ at all.

Annoyingly, I keep suggesting ‘honest’ should be in inverted commas. Why? Because I believe it’s a word used to hide a multitude of sins. Bullies, for example, are always ‘just being honest’.

Before you are ‘honest’ with anyone else, you should be ‘honest’ with yourself.

If you hated the work, ask yourself why. What criteria of yours hasn’t it fulfilled? (You might even remind yourself that it’s unlikely the work was produced in order to satisfy your criteria.) And then, as you reflect, (and this is the serious part) you might ask yourself why you hold those particular criteria? (Perhaps you’ll realize that you have no criteria you can actually articulate. Maybe you respond to a play merely according to whether you want to sleep with the lead actor, or whether your last play was rejected by the literary manager.)

It takes courage to acknowledge that our ‘honesty’ is often just self serving.

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t have an opinion. And I’m not suggesting you don’t have the right to evaluate the work. (Indeed, if you’re a reviewer, that might be the very reason you were invited.) And, regardless of who you are, if the artist asks you what you think, there’s no need to lie or to hide behind equivocation.

But every evaluation is a political act.

Let me be clear, I’m not suggesting you have to like everything. You can think plays are poorly executed. You can think they’re downright incompetent.

But remember, artists are not offering themselves up for assessment. Or only the worst are.

In a society that rightly prides itself on its pluralism, we should be asking ‘What is this trying to say?’ Or, perhaps more importantly, ‘What is this trying to give?’

(You don’t even need to ask ‘What is this trying to do?’, thinking this is the fairest way to judge the play on its own terms. It’s not asking to be judged at all.)

Let’s not turn art into a competency test. Let’s not have our basic response be ‘Is this good enough?’ Good enough for what?

A work of art is a sharing.  Don’t ask merely ’Was this presented well enough?’ Don’t even ask ‘Is it true?’

Ask ‘In what ways is this true as well?’

Because it is.

Accept the gift, and become richer.” *

Veronica Kaye

*I’d like to thank Paul Gilchrist for this transcript, but not for ruining my photo.