Sunday, 31 January 2016

On criticism

[written 27/09/15]

How would you describe the experience at Belgrade international theatre festival?

I loved it. That’s not a very precise or scientific answer, but this was the first time I’d been, and I found pretty much every show absolutely fascinating in one way or another. It helped that I though most of them were also brilliant, but even the ones that didn’t work for me were so different to the normal things I see that I was pleased to have experienced them.

What are your impressions of Bitef's programme this year? What would you say that is important about a festival’s selection?

Well, I didn’t realise before I was asked these questions that the theme of the festival, or its main focus, was ‘Political Theatre’. But, now I’ve been told, that does make a lot of sense of what I saw. That said, I’m quite old-fashioned, and think *all* theatre should be political, and theatre which isn’t is just lazily endorsing the status quo, so...

That said, I think the sorts of politics, and the really very different approaches toward examining them, were fascinating. And the selection brilliantly varied and exemplary. And, that probably betrays what else I hope for at international festivals – programmes which are bold, varied, and somehow both typical (of types of theatre) but full of unique or outstanding things.

A tendency that was in the focus at this year’s Bitef was political theatre. What impression of this theatre tendency did you get?

Certainly the impression that political theatre is alive and thriving in ex-Yugoslvia (and France!). But, also, reassuringly, that there is no consensus on what a performance with political themes/ambitions should look like, or how it should behave.

How would you explain what is important about having political theatre performances? Why this type of theatre is important now?

If we accept that all Art is political, then I’d rather see theatre that is aware of its own politics and is trying to do something with them. A-political theatre is not only impossible, but theatre which thinks it is invariably fails.

Political theatre is important now because theatre – perhaps by virtue of being marginal, or local, or non-transferable in any bulk sense – seems to have resisted the neo-liberal consensus whitewash rather better than most other artforms (particularly television and film, books and music).

From your experience, how does theatre treat political topics?

From my experience here or in the UK? In the UK I think we might *sometimes* have had a tendency in the past for the most mainstream pieces of “political theatre” to be somewhat blunt, and unhelpfully didactic, within an ostensibly naturalistic frame. This has often resulted in rather futile reproductions of the problems such pieces seek to discuss.

What I loved about the work here was the sense of being given both critical apparatuses and enough space within the dramaturgy of the diverse pieces to apply them usefully.

On your blog, you have already written critiques of performance from Bitef's programme, what performances particularly made an impression on you?

It’s now a week on and – for various very different reasons – I think the Ibsen as Brecht, the Iliad, and Discreet Charm of Marxism all really made very big impressions on me. I also really loved Adieu, but in a way that perhaps didn’t change the way I thought so much as just being a virtuousic display. It’s ironic, because I didn’t really think the performance The Discreet Charm of Marxism was a success at the time, but in fact, because in the performance I saw the audience rebelled against what it seemed they were supposed to do, I think it made much more impression than anything that could have been planned-for.

What would you say are the values that Bitef nurtures?

Artistic excellence across a diverse selection of engaged theatrical modes? (I’m not sure I think in “values”.)

As you have seen many theatre festivals, you have met many different audiences as well. How would you describe Bitef's audience?

It’s a good audience, I think. It felt like the festival is very much a part of the city. I didn’t have that sense that you sometimes get a festivals of “where are the people who actually live here?” This felt like a festival that the people of Belgrade – at least some of them – are proud of and attend.

What is important for you as a theatre critic at a festival?

Apart from a decent wi-fi connection and time to actually write (and selfish things like air-conditioning, surtitles and maps – all wonderful, btw), I suppose – boringly – I like it when I like the work, and feel some sort of affinity with the programming. Actually, that is an interesting thing: you *can* go to a festival and see some really great work, but feel nothing toward the festival as a whole. Or, you can go to a festival and see nothing you like and still find the festival’s atmosphere and ethos charming. At BITEF49 I was lucky enough to feel both things.

What is your opinion on how and why is it important that theatre critics are guests of festivals?

Well, most obviously – at least in my position – to describe what I’m seeing as best I can for an absent audience back home, and perhaps, of secondary interest, to report *from my perspective as one foreigner* to the people who have made the work. To maybe give an impression of how work looks from the very outside (i.e. not only outside the work, but outside the culture that produced it).

What is the role of theatre critic at a festival?

Well, I imagine every critic (and perhaps every Festival) will give different answers. In the UK’s Edinburgh Fringe, for example, the role is often reduced to that of a consumer guide with no possibility for all but the briefest analysis. I guess, from my perspective, the ideal is to report the work as accurately as possible – while acknowledging one’s subjectivities – and to put it into as many useful and interesting contexts as possible for what readers I have.

What is your approach to writing critical view of a theatre performance?

Blimey! That’s quite a big question. The short version: try not to be formulaic. Try to report the event. Try to acknowledge your own subjectivity without putting yourself before the performance in the report. Try to provide context. Try to be interesting. Try to make a review as accessible as possible without simplification. Remember that people can Google things they don’t understand.

How would you describe the position of theatre criticism today? Who is the target audience for criticism?

Well, there’s no single position. There are a lot of things that count as “theatre criticism” and each one has a different audience. And, given that those audiences tend to be self-selecting, in one way the target audience is anyone who reads it and likes what they’ve read. Theatre criticism necessarily preaches to the converted. It’s not much of a tool for evangelism, more’s the pity.

How important in your critiques is responsibility towards the author of an artwork?

There’s an interesting implied question here about who the author of an artwork is. Certain poststructuralists would argue that it is the emancipated audience member, the active “reader” of the work of art. Let’s assume you don’t mean that, and you don’t mean the literal author – say, Homer – when they’re dead. Let’s assume you mean whoever made the piece.

There’s a truism in British criticism – which used to be more widespread – that your duty is only to your editor and/or your reader. I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s useful to be able to reassure the person whose work you’re writing about – even if you hate the work, and possibly their perspective, their take on the world, and everything they think about art – that you’re not actually a moron. That might make them at least take your critique at least more seriously (And I don’t think this seriously damages a critique’s relationship with its other readers). But then, if there’s just a complete mismatch of outlook between critic and auteur, then it’s probably best that the auteur doesn’t bother reading the critic and possibly better that the critic avoids the auteur’s work too. I mean, if they’re just this idiot, what do you do with that?

How important is responsibility towards the audience's opinion of that artwork?

Oof, I dunno. I’m not sure that ever really comes up for me. Like, the way criticism works in UK is that (critics) tend (in theory) to see the work before anyone else. Obviously this has changed a bit with the combination of previews and Twitter. Ultimately what anyone else thinks about a thing should kind of be entirely irrelevant to what you think about it. Nothing exists in a vacuum – especially things resting on the status of a play, or of its star, or something – but I think either trying to prove you know more than an audience, or pandering to their (imagined?) pre-opinion is entirely dishonest and so best avoided.

Whose point of view you are trying to “meet” in your critiques and are you trying such thing at all?

Again, really hard question. I think, if anything, my own. I mean, you think such a lot during a play, and see so much, and so many things happen, that *obviously* it’s impossible to write down everything you’ve thought about it, even at the time. And that information isn’t necessarily what would be useful to anyone else reading it. So I guess the point of view you’re trying to relate is a meaningful version of your own, that will communicate it to anyone else, and even to yourself in later years. It’s very satisfying, when you read a review back years later, and think “Yes! That was it. That was what I saw and how I felt. That is honest and right.” Just making that happen is harder than you’d think.

This year BITEF welcomed the AITC/IATC symposium? One of the topics was a theatre festival’s role and the theatre festival as part of the globalisation of theatre. What is your opinion on that topic?

It’s an interesting one. And maybe it’s more pressing than I realise. How globalised do I think theatre currently is overall? Not very. How globalised do I think it will get? Well, hard to say, but not too much more, I hope. Although I think there’s also a positive version of this narrative where we see cross-cultural collaborations which actually create something entirely new, and alien to all the component cultures, and that *is* good.

Yes, there is can be a cynical feeling that there’s a sort of “International Festival Theatre Show” which is tending towards a certain “globalisation”, but I dunno, I wonder if that isn’t too easy a criticism. Without other defining factors it feels just like a generalised term of abuse.

What in your opinion does the phrase “Embodied critic” mean?

Well, I wasn’t at the AITC/IATC symposium, but *I think* it relates to the idea of a critic owning their own presence and what the facts of that presence mean. A bit like Observation Principle in science – that the results of an experiment are always going to be affected by the fact of their being observed. I’m not sure how much experience of things we aren’t at we will ever achieve in order to test this theory, though.

What forms of theatre critiques do you favour? (The “form” can also refer to writing “form” or style of written critique.)

I seem to always write things that are much too long when left to my own devices. See the four pages above.

Can a theatre critic be creative and how important is the signature (style?) of a critic?

Yes, a critic can be creative.

How important is a given critic’s style? It’s hard to say. I mean, it’s partly down to a reader’s personal taste right? Perhaps there’s something about various styles that is also connected to the content. In the mainstream, our more right-wing critics in Britain tend to make more jokes (generally directed at the work, the artists, and the concept of theatre) and understand less (or pretend to understand less).

How does a critic watch theatre performances, and what does your process of writing a critique look like?

Well, I don’t use a notepad, so, as far as I’m aware, I watch theatre in exactly way as anyone else. But, well, it’s hard to tell, isn’t it? I suppose I do watch with an awareness that I’m going to be writing, but generally speaking, I write about *the whole thing* *afterwards*, so during I guess I try to watch like anyone else – albeit like anyone else who goes to the theatre quite a lot.

I’m afraid, there’s also no real method to my writing a critique/review either. I tend to sit down with my laptop – usually the next morning – and just write what I thought. I guess, because I’ve usually got unlimited space (on my blog), I can do this in any order, and at any length, and can theoretically take as much time as I like. Obviously that’s different for publications who want a specific number of words (330 – the Guardian, for example) by 10am the following day. Then I maybe take more time over word-choices and selecting what’s most important, but with the loss of some fluency and detail.

What must a theatre critique take into consideration for the perception of the work?

I think that probably depends on both what the critic herself has perceived, and what the work itself is like. I guess it also depends on the reader. When reading other people’s reviews, if I get to the end and they haven’t discussed what it looked like, I can feel like I’m missing something. Equally, I think it’s important for a review to engage as much as possible with a piece of work’s intellectual arguments (which, I’d argue, includes its visual aspect). This is a difficult thing about reviews – they exist in the present (and may work a bit like an advert, if the critic likes the work), but also into the future as possibly the best record of the work that no longer exists to be seen.

At the same time as both of these things, they exist as a part of culture in their own right; arguing with current politics and aesthetics, etc. In short, you have to take everything into consideration. How much of what you’ve considered can usefully make it into the piece varies. I think, even in reviews, there’s a lot of unwritten material lurking between the lines. As with anything, the more of the context for the review you know, the better you will understand it. Stupidly, there’s probably even a whole life’s trajectory being mapped in the ongoing reviews filed by any given critic, and the events taking place in the wider political and cultural climate that surrounds them.

1 comment:

Beks said...

Wow - quite an essay of an interview!