August 21, 2007, by Peter Kirwan
The authority of blogging on theatre
In a couple of week’s time I’m speaking on a panel at the British Shakespeare Assocation’s annual conference on the topic Blogging Shakespeare . I haven’t fully thought out what I’m going to say yet, but a big part of it will be about the authority of blogging.
I’ve been thinking about this because of a semi-regular occurrence on my blog. It occasionally happens that if someone doesn’t agree with my review of a production, they make a comment along the lines of “You don’t know what you’re talking about” and lecture me on the play, as if the reason for my different take on the play is ignorance.
In no particular order, these are the points that are raised in my mind about blogging, and this blog in particular, by this kind of occurence.
1) A blog is not meant to be authoritative. It it was, I’d be writing for the Times. This blog in particular was set up to document my individual thoughts and reactions towards the productions of the RSC’s Complete Works Festival. I choose to allow comments on this because I am fascinated by debate, by the different takes and ideas that people bring to discussion of a production. There is no intention in a blog to attempt to seek a consensus on something – in this case, no attempt to create an agreed critical reaction to a production.
2) ANY opinion on a production is surely by its nature incredibly subjective. A production changes night to night, and is experienced differently by people even present at the same performance. The day I was dumped by my girlfriend a year ago, I saw a lacklustre and horribly dull The Tempest with Patrick Stewart as Prospero. The friend next to me saw one of the most life-changing bits of theatre she’d ever experienced. A theatrical experience is entirely individual, and I sincerely don’t believe there is a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ about it. The beauty of blogging is that, instead of having a single review of a production, you can collect a variety of thoughts and opinions and create a whole range of material around a production. Another example- the press night of the RSC’s Antony and Cleopatra last year had a fire alarm 10 minutes in. Therefore, all of the “authoritative” reviews in the broadsheets talked about a production which included an evacuation. Useless to later critics. Blogging gives us the opportunity for a far more useful collection of reviews.
3) Ignorance is not an important factor. Some of the comments seem to feel that if someone felt differently about a production than they did, then the other person must not have got it, or worse, understood it. Firstly, I think that’s ridiculous. Great theatre does not need a degree level understanding of a text to understand and will make the impact regardless of people’s educational background. I despise the snobbishness that sometimes surrounds Shakespeare, where people sneer at those who struggle with it or don’t understand it as well as they do- that kind of feeling is contributing to the slow death of Shakespearean performance in this country.
If someone has only seen one King Lear, their opinion is no less valid than of someone who has seen fifteen. I mention Lear because the RSC’s current production of that play is the first English language one I have seen, and I absolutely loved it. Some of the academics I work with have seen several Lears and felt that it didn’t match up as well. This is an example of how experience changes your perception of a production, but my relative inexperience with that particular play allowed me to enjoy an emotional and well-acted performance on its own merits, without having to compare it to past productions. I felt that Nos do Morro’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, having seen several other versions, was lacking a great deal, but the young Birmingham kids who worked on the play had an entirely life-changing experience and were in tears at the post-show discussion. Ignorance, or lack of experience, is to all intents and purposes irrelevant, because theatre is built on personal connections.
4) When criticising my reviews, people have sometimes seemed to question my credentials. One actress whose performance I commented upon assumed I was a schoolkid, while others have wondered whether or not I have ever read or studied the play I’m commenting on. Firstly, who cares? The blog is about my reaction to specific productions, not my comment on the entire bibliographic and performative history of the play. My credentials are required to be no more than that I saw the production in question and chose to write about it. It seems to me that people become intimidated by a point of view they don’t agree with, and attempt to deal with that by demonstrating that the person’s point of view is less valid than their own. I hope I have demonstrated to some degree that ‘validity’ in blogging is not an issue beyond an individual’s own impression, and I have always urged people who haven’t agreed with my writing to write their own review or just simply ignore mine. My opinions are my own, and are published here for the interest, enjoyment and information of anyone who cares to read them, not to be forced upon people as definitive or “right”. I’m frequently wrong, it’s one of the great things about me! But I think (I hope!) people read this blog because, right or wrong, there’s something about it that they find interesting.
And for those who DO care about credentials- they’re not much, but here goes. I’m 24 years old, going on 25. I have a 2:1 in English Literature (BA Hons) from the University of Warwick, with high marks in two Shakespearean modules. I have since then been enrolled on an MA course, specialising in contemporary Shakespearean performance. I am a member/friend of several theatre companies, and have seen over a hundred productions of Shakespeare’s plays and plays based on Shakespeare, including at least one production of every play attributed to Shakespeare (apart from Edward III). I have also seen over 100 screen adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays and read all the works cover to cover in the critical Arden editions. Finally, I work as Office Manager for the CAPITAL Centre, a collaboration between Warwick University and the Royal Shakespeare Company which explores teaching methods using the performing arts, especially in regards to the teaching and learning of Shakespeare.
I’m not the most qualified person in the world, and I can’t boast of a long life of theatregoing (yet!), but I like to think I have enough experience to construct some frame of reference for my reviews. I’ve also been lucky enough to have this blog quoted in The Guardian and to be invited to speak at two Shakespeare conferences on the basis of what I write here, as well as contributing a regular podcasting slot to a Warwick show. Ultimately, though, my “qualifications” aren’t what’s important, it’s the reviews, and the fact that people find them useful is the best qualification I could have. That’s the beauty of blogging- any daft sod can be a theatre critic!
Really good piece Pete. It’s amazing how people coming accross blogs can look at them from different angles. I’ve had people comment on things I’ve written saying that I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, and other people asking me for my opinions as an authority on a subject! The fact that WB has such a high google ranking really makes a difference to how our blogs are seen though – when an entry ranks highly in google it will obviously be read more, taken more seriously or possibly even (based on what you’ve written above) seen as more of a threat. People review blogging on other sites may have a very different experience as a result.