Tuesday 9 October 2012

On Criticism: Fireface – Young Vic

[primarily a piece about negative criticism]

Well, it had to happen, didn't it? I sit around, holding forth about “curation” and about “ecologies” and about “trusting companies to know what they're doing” and “only writing about things I liked, or things that interested me” and, well, it raises the question: what are we going to do when something really seems not to have worked?

Dan Hutton's For the Love of Theatre picks up and runs with something I said in The Ecologist and the Curator: “Since returning to blogging/criticism/writing-about-theatre in April, I've felt much more confident about... writing mostly/only about stuff that did indeed turn out to be interesting”. Hutton, feeds this into the wider conversation at DIALOGUE about how critics and artist might be useful to each other. The possibilities of critics just sitting on/not-writing-up shows they didn't like was batted about. And I admit it's an idea I've got a lot of time for: there's nothing worse for critics or criticism than a reputation for delighting in spite, or sadism. Even if some readers do relish it much more than enthusiastic write-ups.

On the other hand, does a continual stream of enjoyment, praise, or even just a lot of benign, in-depth, putting-in-cultural-contexts and attending-upon-the-events ultimately help the critic's readership? (Genuine question. I don't know the answer.) It feels that logic dictates that ideally from time to time there should be some examples given of the critic not liking a thing and writing about why that was, if only to give a better picture of their overall co-ordinates. Because, after all, if a reader is doing their work properly (as well as the critic doing hers properly), then they're essentially acquiring a critical judgement of their own: a critical judgement of the critic's critical judgements, as it were.

There's also the simple fact of not doing so making omission problematic. In short, if you know a critic is deliberately sitting on bad reviews/reviews of things they didn't like, then one might conclude that they've seen all sorts of things and merely not found them to their liking. This is especially problematic for a one-person operation like this where reviews might not turn up for any number of reasons (fatigue or just other things taking priority usually).

You might have guessed by now that I wasn't a huge fan of Fireface. Quite immoderately so on the night (last Thursday). More reflectively so now.

Something I've noticed, thinking about the prospect of this “negative review” since Thursday, is the extent to which this sort of negative review is actually quite a wildly different specie of thing from a positive review. In the positive review one has much to say: the performance has opened a world for you. You can talk about that world, how it was opened up, what you saw inside it, how it relates to other worlds, etc. (I hope that my Scenes From an Execution review gave this sense.) In a different sort of negative review (my ramble about precisely my problems with Boys, for example) this is also possible. I suppose that review was essentially dealing with the relatively credible creation of a world I didn't much care for. It did engage with the play itself, rather than the production. It dealt more with the play as a thesis, than as a piece of theatre.

My experience of Fireface was different to this. So what I've been thinking about is the difference between reviewing the contents that a production unlocks and, I suppose, dealing with a production that one finds obscuring its contents – keeping the world locked up, as it were.

Writing this now, I wonder if this itself is my most specific criticism of Sam Pritchard's production of Fireface. It's not my only problem with it, but I think it may have been the source of much of my discontent.

It is tricky, though. Because, when one hasn't got this world to write about – the arguments or feelings or sensations that a performance provokes – then what one is faced with critiquing is essentially the stuff with which one has far less familiarity; that is to say, the means by which you perceive it to have obscured what you believe to be the contents.

I should try to provide a description of this production.

Pritchard and his designer Amanda Stoodley have places the production on a wooden stage running the length of the Young Vic's Clare(?) studio space. The back wall of this wooden stage is made of a wide spaced, Ikea-style bookshelf/open-plan cupboard thingy (like a big one of these). The thing also has a ceiling and some front pillars, so it's maybe more a cutaway box than stage and back wall. It suggests a compromise between a kind of mythical “German” theatre aesthetic and a naturalistic British one. The shelves of the back wall have household objects shattered over them. The cast are dressed in modern dress and are wearing the items of clothing that are mentioned in the text.

The cast's acting appears to be based, broadly speaking, in the realm of the psychological. I wouldn't say naturalist or realist since on occasion Pritchard places them all facing forwards on chairs at the front of the stage. At other times, when the characters are ostensibly having face-to-face conversations, he positions them facing away from each other in strikingly non-naturalistic attitudes. Various interpretations of a vague sort of stylised speaking are also used: more blank, or more shouty, than strict observance of reality would demand. All of these elements can work. For some reason, they don't here.

The lighting and sound also telescope in and out through the realms of mimesis and metaphor, swapping white noises and flashing building site lights for off-stage doorbell sounds and a warm full cover. These switches in mood may be fitted to some concept of one or other of the character's mental states, or they maybe entirely random. There didn't seem to be any discernible scheme by which they were deployed, and their overuse made an already confusing staging seem yet more cluttered.

Marius von Mayenburg's text itself concerns a pair of disturbed, disturbing German adolescent siblings Kurt and Olga (Rupert Simonian and Aimeé-Ffion Edwards), their parents (Helen Schlesinger and David Annen) and later Olga's new boyfriend Paul (William Postlethwaite). Olga is all precocious sexuality while Kurt's attention is mostly taken up with setting fire to things. At least every other reviewer on the planet will have probably, understandably, designated the play a cross between The Cement Garden and The Fire Raisers – a potentially potent mixture of incestuous teenage desire, and the idea of the arsonists in the attic. Only here, it isn't strangers that the nice middle-class couple have to fear, it's their children. It also occurs to me now that like von Mayenburg's later play The Ugly One, the play also features catastrophic wounds to the face. And I note in passing, that Ramin Grey's unfussy productions of both this and Max Frisch's The Arsonists (as the title was translated for its last outing), could have been useful go-to points of reference for Pritchard.

The description of my problem with the production that I kept returning to was the image of all the actors pressed up so hard against the surface of the text, that there was no chance of seeing the actual play. To give Pritchard the benefit of the doubt, perhaps what I saw was precisely what he wanted to achieve, and he and I just have different views about what is good. On the other hand, several factors seemed to suggest that this wasn't the case. The pity of it is, I applaud what appears to be the direction of Pritchard's intent. He seems to be attempting a high-octane blend of British and German theatrical traditions in the manner of Sean Holmes, Ramin Grey, Benedict Andrews, Thomas Ostermeier, and perhaps latterly Sebastian Nübling.  He doesn't pull it off, however.

The biggest problem is that the acting simply doesn't work. Each cast member seems to be in different production. Annen's Father shouts his head off, Edwards's Olga employs a curious sing-song high-pitched voice, while Simonian's Kurt offers a slightly one-note pitch of angsty intensity throughout. Assuming some degree of naturalistic casting, William Postlethwaite is hopelessly miscast as Paul – projecting none of either the sexual magnetism nor facility with violence that his character's actions imply. Meanwhile, Helen Schlesinger's Mother's deadpan heart just doesn't seem to be in it – witness a scene in which her character is completely naked and the actress is grudgingly topless. Sure, we've all seen production where not a single piece of clothing is removed for nude scenes and ones where all clothing is removed for no especially text-based reason but a bit of token toplessness just feels awkward.  Carelessness like this, makes it feel as if Pritchard hasn't even really caught up with modern British stagings, let alone got the faintest grasp on the complexities of the thinking that lies behind “German bonkers stuff”.

All those points are crucial to an understanding of why the production doesn't work (in my opinion, I need hardly add. Although on this occasion my opinion is entirely correct, and you shouldn't listen to anyone who disagrees with me). However, letting them pile up there still feels more like cruelty, more like kicking puppies in a sack, than like contributing usefully to any sort of an ecology. Or whatever it is we New Critics think we're up to.

On the other hand, if part of the value of the New Criticism is helping to birth new forms of work, then don't we also need to be honest when new work doesn't quite come off?

Whilst I struggled with watching the production – which even manages to make Maja Zade's version, which was originally lauded as “pitch-perfect” and “punchy” sound like the worst sort of translationese – I was interested in the challenge it posed in terms of what to do with this fact.

After all, a critics' job is not after-the-fact dramaturgy, or “outside eye” notes to cast and crew (who if they've any sense, won't read this until after the production has closed at the earliest). On the other hand, if we want future productions to be better, are we not required to describe the manner in which we thought things weren't working rather than rattling off 200 witty words and a low star-rating.

However, at this point we stumble upon a crucial problem. The problem that even to describe a problem is difficult without revealing some sort of imagined alternative solution.

If a good review is revealing of a critic's desires, then a bad review can potentially unearth all sorts of incredibly unhelpful messages.

If you ever want to dismiss the opinions of a critic, you need only look through their back-catalogue of negative reviews and make a list of what it was they were objecting to. I'm more or less certain that, taken en masse, they will make the critic look like a seething bag of contradictions. I'm sure I've come up with some of the most shoddy criteria imaginable to account for why I didn't like something. Because, after all, the not-liking happens first, and only after that does trying to work out why happen.  Pinning down how or why you haven't liked something is actually much harder than knowing you really didn't like it.  And I'm not convinced that getting the specific reason right is an absolute necessity if the main business is simply describing the thing you've seen.  The general reader doesn't require their critic to set a play to rights in their review, just a sense of what it was like watching it.

But is this something else we need to come up with? Ways of discussing how something hasn't worked while managing to avoid looking prescriptive or like armchair directors without the faintest idea of what it is to make a show?


Right now, I'm just worrying about what a list of all the reasons I've ever given for thinking something wasn't good would look like.

1 comment:

Hannah Silva said...

I've never seen a production of Fireface, only read it.

Thanks for sharing the wrestle with what to say about a production you don't like...

I guess the thing is that each production can only be viewed in its own context, In another production, actors performing in different styles might work. Likewise criticism can't really be taken out of context and used to make assumptions about the critic. (although some critics make it easier to do that than others - those are the ones who don't really seem to respond to the work, but to be measuring everything against their own ideas of good theatre)

But the difficulty with this talk of 'new criticism' etc is the fact that either we like something or we don't. If theatre wasn't capable of producing this emotional response/reaction then what would be the point of it anyway? Theatre isn't really something to be studied and analysed, but experienced...

I think this is very insightful:

"actors pressed up so hard against the surface of the text, that there was no chance of seeing the actual play"

I understand what you mean by that, it's a strong criticism but it doesn't cast a 'that was rubbish' kind of judgement...