Thursday 22 January 2009


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]:

Snappy introduction:
“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!”

Question faculties:
“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.”

Question attendance:
“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?”

Demand sacking:
“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.”

Rhetorical flair:
“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.”

Groundless accusation:
“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.


Anonymous said...

Ooh, thanks for alerting me to that exchange chez Grauniad - I've just gone over and left a word or two there.

You're right, of course. Twice in the past handful of issues of Theatre Record I've editorialised at length about people defending "their" shows - first, the husband of the director/co-writer of "Rue Magique" at the King's Head, then the producer of "Imagine This". In both cases, the line was broadly speaking "We were misunderstood!" Some people do seem to find it very difficult ever to acknowledge that a critic might have a point... which rather begs the question, how then do they learn to do any better? And the Coveney comments exemplify the reason I no longer read Private Eye's mock-blog column: it's agonising because it's so true.

Anonymous said...

Excellent stuff but you've missed out two of our favourites that we often get.

The first is that any spelling or factural error is seized on as proof that everything you write is completely wrong. What with not having teams of sub-editors at our disposal, this is quite common. Good example of this here:

The second is the depth of the "Well, I'd like to see you do better" response to which even famous playwrights(possibly) have been known to sink: although on that occasion it is aimed at a commenter rather than us.

I'm not quite sure what it says about human nature that the indignation you cover here is only ever from people who loved a show that the critic hated (or even simply felt less warmly about) and rarely the other way round.

TSS said...

The Guardian exchange is destined for a future textbook. In Hole Stop Digging. Wow. Thanks for the steer.

Extremely interesting categorisation of the typical comment responses in that situation. I wonder how far it extends across to other contexts where the commenter believes the writer is wrong. I'd guess it probably applies to 90% of comments that are not themselves simply phatic. Although noting the Whingers' observation that it may only work when commenter loved what writer hated.

I hope that you're older than 27 to get away from the full consequences of Ravenhill's tag.

Andrew Field said...

Can't believe you actually have Ravenhill's comment on your blog now.

Surely the Evelyn Waugh of theatre criticism?

TSS said...

Dorian Gray, perhaps?

Anonymous said...

God, what a dull blog post.

Andrew Haydon said...

Ed, I'm hoping that's an ironic reflection on criticising critics criticisinhg criticism of critics.

Andy, yes, shameless, isn't it? I'm sure my natural modesty will return and I'll take it off again within a couple of days...

TSS, past 27, thanks, although if you'd seen my driving you'd still worry.

WEW, "I'm not quite sure what it says about human nature that the indignation you cover here is only ever from people who loved a show that the critic hated (or even simply felt less warmly about) and rarely the other way round."

I'd like to imagine it's because people are generally generous enough to leave things alone if someone else liked something. I'm sure I have seen such posts, I've certainly heard such comments, along the lines of "are you mad? How on earth could you enjoy that?" But it seems in general that unless people really do suspect ulterior motives/foul play they'll let someone be nice about something they didn't like...

Unknown said...

Sorry, one of my least amusing blog posts has been listed as a link to this - the link has been generated automatically by blogger because I read your blog.

Anyway, this is very funny. I love the way you have categorised the rantings; rhetorical flair is my favourite cateory.

Anonymous said...

Yes, fans may weigh in, fists flailing, to defend a show they've loved. But these defences are often more extreme with popular art: critics are often, in my experience, accused of snotty elitism around musicals, as well as mass-appeal movies and novels. Wearing your critical specs to view something which aims to give the audience a rip-roaring good time can seem a peculiar activity.

Even as a hack, I know how insanely chuffed or downcast stray comments can make me feel, so lord knows how those who are extensively reviewed cope with the mood swings. By not reading the reviews, I guess, and maintaining an inhumanly serene detachment. But, Andrew, do you think of the artists when you write a review? Do you expect them to read it? Does that make any difference to the way you write?

Anonymous said...

Whingers: "any spelling or factural error is seized on as proof that everything you write is completely wrong" - FFS, it's "FACTUAL"! You know NOTHING!!

Anonymous said...

Poor Robert Shaw.

What he has done is the equivalent of writing a crazy email to his ex, explaining all the reasons why he (Robert) is great and breaking up with him was a terrible mistake they will live to regret.

What did he think? That Lyn Gardiner would reply saying "oh my god you are so right, I AM a philistine"? No. Of course not. She's just going to do what anyone would do on receipt of a slightly crazy email from her ex: read it to her mates and have a good laugh.

I entirely understand why Mr Shaw wrote the response that he did. Calling Lyn Gardiner a philistine would have been an excellent therapeutic exercise. But if only he had had a close friend on standby to stop him from posting it publicly. Whoever allowed/encouraged him to do this should be ashamed of themselves.

As for the comments boxes, yes I agree. The democratic nature of the internet is truly dangerous. People feel far to free to express their opinions when they are allowed to do so...anonymously...

Anonymous said...

A phrase from Lord Of The Flies has stayed with me, describing the effect when the public-school choirboys donned face-paint as hunters: "liberated from shame and self-consciousness". That's what happens to us all when we don silicon and post online.

TS said...

Not necessarily, Ian. I think the majority of people often remain self-conscious, even when anonymity is possible online, because you perceive yourself as present. Admittedly the challenge is that minority who do feel like that.

And the flipside is that - particularly in the status-hierarchy of theatre - that a degree of masking can enable necessary honesty, bypassing the tyranny of niceness.

The very best exchanges happen in the open space of Devoted & Disgruntled, you are yourself but no one ever needs ask your name.

I do think that pseudonymity online catches the best of both worlds. You're still ultimately accountable. But perhaps only your friends will easily know who you really are.

Anonymous said...

I would never normally dream of leaving any response to a review of a play of mine, no matter how much a critic disliked a show. But I once had a review of a show based on an historic event where the critic (in a Scottish newspaper) tried to display a superior knowledge of the subject to mine, and inherently that my play was inaccurate. As far as I was concerned that threw down a gauntlet and I did respond in the on-line comment section (and wrote to the editor of the newspaper). When I showed the review to an historian and researcher of the subject he laughed and pointed out that the critic was clearly just using a film of the subject as a reference. So, it was lazy journalism and I felt even more justified to have responded. As far as my writing or the skills of the director or actors, he is entitled to his opinion.

Stephe Harrop said...

We're always terribly civil over at London Theatre Blog, but occasionally even we inspire a teensy bit of irate feedback:

Unknown said...

Curioser and curioser. Having read about the author of The Pendulum on The Times website today (he's a bullfighter now, apparently), I found your review on Time Out along with those quotations you mention from other reviewers which you found so incomprehensible. I left a comment there wondering if maybe you saw it on a different night to them. Well, I guess I can ask the horse's mouth for the horses' answer here. Did you? (I'm assuming you know what the other reviewers look like).