When is a review not a review? The other day, clicking through to Michael Coveney’s review of Oliver! from Mark Shenton’s blog, I was surprised to discover that beneath the piece was a comment box where various members of the public were venting their barely literate umbrage at his less-than-ecstatic write-up.
As I’ve said before, I’m a big fan of blogs and blogging. I like the discussions they open up. I like the fact that there are now reams and reams of interesting, intelligent articles written about theatre all over the world (although admittedly I struggle to read anything not written in English), available at any time of day or night, that can be read, engaged with, discussed with like- and unlike-minded people.
I don’t really see reviews in the same way. Yes, there are “blogs” which consist almost solely of reviews, the West End Whingers being clear leaders in the field. That said, one of the Whingers’ greatest USPs is the conversational, often formally innovative, slightly open-ended nature of their reviews. There’s a sense that they know both their audience and how their blog often functions as a starting point for conversations between their readers in the comment threads. It’s also why reactions like that of Elly Hopkins from the Tricycle look so starkly out of place.
Printed theatre criticism is also part of a wider conversation. If not directly with the artists, then at least with the artform, the public and the wider culture. At the same time, my instinctive reaction to the addition of comment boxes to online versions of reviews is that it is a Very Bad Thing. It’s currently only practiced by The Times, the Independent and Time Out, but like most things, it will probably become more widespread as papers get more and more caught up in the whole mad rush toward Total Interactivity.
But is it really a bad thing? Might opening up the theatre review to the same discursive tendency as the blogosphere make for a wider, more robust debate? Perhaps in time, but that’s not how it seems to work at the moment. The generally accepted form and tone for theatre reviews, in Britain, at present, is a world away from the “so what do you think?” approach taken by many blogs and bloggers. It’s concise, authoritative, avoids the personal pronoun, and typically states its opinion clearly. Unfortunately, this concision and clarity is sometimes misinterpreted by “the public” as either “objectivity” – or at least an attempt at it – or, worse, as “not objective enough”.
Let’s look at those objections to Michael Coveney’s Oliver! review. It’s well worth reading them in full, but here are some highlights – I’ll try to categorise them to keep this simple [all sic until further notice]:
“Hahaha! That was the most pointless thing my eyes have ever read! I don't even know why i read it. It kept me amused for about 5 minutes though, only because i laughing at how wrong you are!”
“What exactly was Michael Coveney on last night, too much wine or is he just deaf and blind... Maybe Michael needs a hearing aid”
“you are obviously either deaf or extremely dull when it comes to recognising true talent!
“Are you going mad?”
“I mean come on Michael seriously, it's called common sense! If you know what that is anyway and by the looks of that review i guess not.”
“So yeah, your review was totally pointless and one hundred percent wrong! It did keep me amused though, it also made me realise how many deranged people there are in this world. Yes, you do happen to be one of them.”
“I would advise your paper to either send him to a doctor for clinical depression as the show i saw tonight was simply fantatsic.”
“he must have been the only one in the audience (if he was there) that thought her performance was poor.”
“I have seen the show and your so wrong! I dont know why you wrote that but you watched a different show to me!!!”
“Did you see the show I saw? Obviously not...”
“I dont know why you wrote that but you watched a different show to me!!!”
“Did you actually attend the opening night of Oliver?”
“Persoanlly I think the only embarrassment is this newspapers so called critic who need a good shake up or a differnt job as clearly Michael Coveney is inadequate in his role as theatre critic.”
“i find your paper should seriously consider removing some of there staff, this being Michael Coveney.”
“(The Independent must be embarassed by you though).”
“You are the only 'theatre critic' to give a bad review of Jodie and moan about the rest of the show.”
“If she was as bad as an actress as you are stating then why on earth did the audience jump on their feet to cheer for her? Answer me that!”
“is Michael Coveney that stupid to the fact that, that is why the british public vote.”
“well, i could say so much to argue with that but sadly there isnt enough space in this box.”
“It's clear that you are one of the snobs who are against how she came to be in the role.”
“Jodie Prenger is right for the role of Nancy and was brilliant in every aspect.”
“I was there and all of the audience appriciated the whole performance,”
“Firstly Rowan Atkinson was amazing!!!! and second Jodie Prenger was totally awesome! She sand "As long as he needs me" with so much power! I nailed you to the back of the room! thats why she got a standing ovation!! And the cheering was because she rocked!”
and A strong finish:
“One final thing, maybe you need to aske the audince, we paid for the tickets, if we thought the performace was poor, I for one would not have stayed thorugh to the end but would have asked for my money back. How many of the audience compained. Not many, if any at all, I bet.”
[end of sic]
Fun, no? Adding to the general store of useful knowledge and debate, yes? Hardly a ringing endorsement for adding comment boxes to reviews. The problem is, while part of the point with blogs is, alongside stating opinions and tossing ideas about, to engender discussion. Reviews are a bit more blunt. Of course, readers could respond by saying blog-comment type things like “Coveney raises an interesting point where he suggests...” and so on. But because reviews firmly state an opinion, those responding to them tend to firmly state one back, and it is usually a contrary opinion framed with invective that borders on libellous. It doesn’t really seem necessary to anatomise the sophistry and sheer lack of intelligence in the above responses, but the tone is interesting to note nonetheless.
Writing for Time Out, I have a limited experience of this myself. The best example being my disparaging review of The Pendulum under which the company – signed in as itself, to their credit – published a selection of quotes from more favourable reviews. As it happened, by this point I’d read a lot of those reviews myself and disagreed violently with them and found their opinions frequently baffling. But such is criticism. A better example is sadly no longer online thanks to Time Out’s rather erratic archiving, but I did manage to get the comments that had been left under my review of 1,800 Acres emailed to me by Jane Edwardes. These included a whole “alternative” review which, remarkably, found the show to be well-written, insightful, and brilliantly performed. It’s a shame it’s not still online as it makes a useful demonstration of the worst sort of comment-leaving – anonymous postings from members or friends of members of the company involved.
In a move which, by and large, I deplore, the Guardian has even set up a column with this function now. In the paper it’s called Right to Reply and frequently rustles up annoyed actors and directors to reviews by the paper’s theatre critics. There’s an interesting example currently raging online where the director of Sylvia Plath’s radio play Three Women has a go at taking Lyn Gardner to bits for her review of his show. He demonstrates pretty much all the worst faults of this sort of response. Right to Reply should be retitled “Nearly Enough Rope...”, since virtually no director or actor I’ve ever seen indulge in this sort of meta-criticism ever comes out of it looking good. I don’t know if it’s the editing their pieces receive, the briefing they’re given, or whether the only people who take the opportunity to write such Replies are entirely devoid of any sense that their opinion might not be the only one in the world.
Don’t get me wrong, I really don’t think theatre critics are infallible. In fact, I often think at least fifty per cent are just plain wrong, but I am interested in the most productive way that artists can respond to their critics. Not least because it would make things easier for me if I was allowed not to like things candidly without worrying about upsetting people. Of course, that’s probably impossible. Either one upsets people, or one is dismissed as an idiot for not getting the point. And sometimes you really might not have got the point. Although, sometimes, that might be the company’s fault for not making it clear what the point was. The worst case scenario is that you misunderstand, unnerve and consequently destroy what was a really lovely, fragile bit of work that you totally failed to understand.
The whole critic-artist relationship is fraught with difficulties, but I’m not convinced that invective from members of the public teamed up with published denunciations from cast and crew are going to make things any better.
Today’s cover image is apparently one of Siebren Versteeg’s The Satan Drawings (2007) – about the fourth result from a Google image search for “Inside the internet”. And because I think it looks quite cool.