April 25, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

The Bardathon as Experiment

I’ve been prompted recently to think in a little more detail about what The Bardathon actually IS. Why do I write? Who is it for? What is it ultimately trying to do? And so on. The blog is now three years old (my first review, of Nancy Meckler’s Romeo and Juliet, dates back to April 11th 2006), and during discussion at the 3rd International Shakespeare and Performance Colloquium the question was yet again brought up of the future of theatre reviewing, and how academic criticism can continue to survive and be meaningful.

There are a great many theatre blogs out there. This one is, however, in many ways different, in intention if not always in practice. So, I’m going to use this post to remind myself of some of the key principles and points of this blog, and hopefully make some conclusions about its future.

1. This is an academic experiment

The original intention of this blog was to support my MA in English Literature at the University of Warwick, by chronicling my experience of the Complete Works Festival. In doing so, I would be thinking academically about the plays, but in a format more associated with journalistic reviewing and web community.

Since then, I have tried to pitch the blog as, effectively, a bridge between two forms of reviewing often considered diametrically opposed – the academic review (months after production, concerned with history, interpretation, critical engagement etc.) and the journalistic review (immediate, impressionistic, evaluative, commercial). Its my belief that academic reviewing too often loses the thrill of the theatrical moment, the instant emotional and gut impact of a performance. My hope is that, by responding instantly and publicly to a performance, but at the same time considering those aspects which are historically and academically important, I can create a useful hybrid of the two.

2. The ‘goodness’ of a production is not what is important.

While it is impossible to completely avoid value judgments, and inevitably I end up giving a general impression of whether a production was worth seeing or not, it’s something I want to try to avoid. I’m not interested in the ‘goodness’ of a production, I’m concerned with what is interesting, or fresh, or illuminating in it. The most obvious example is in acting. By and large, I’m not concerned with whether Patrick Stewart spoke his lines clearly, commanded the auditorium or failed to convince me of his feelings. I’m concerned with what he did that expanded my understanding of the character and play, that suggested a new interpretation of a line or inverted the usual expectations of how a part is played. It’s a fine, fine line, and one that I myself need to tread far more carefully.

I try to remind myself that, when I read reviews of old productions in the archive, I get extremely frustrated by journalistic reviewers giving a simply evaluative criticism of whether an actor was ‘good’ or not. That’s not of interest to the academic reading a production retrospectively. The most important thing is what they did, not what the reviewer thought of it. In many ways, a bad new reading is far more useful to the academic than a good traditional one.

3. Blogging is a developmental and pedagogic activity.

The act of writing itself is important. For me, it’s a form of personal development. Through writing reviews, I’ve spent the last three years developing my own sense of what a review can be, expanding my range and developing my style. The increased awareness of my own writing processes has in turn impacted positively on my writing for conference papers, academic journal reviews and my thesis. Writing has become my way of thinking, and The Bardathon, being my own ‘publication’, is the place where I can experiment with this.

This experience suggests to me that blog-keeping can be a particularly useful pedagogic exercise, and I’ve been pleased to see more and more academic groups using blogs individually and communally to chronicle activity and develop group material.

4. It’s an open forum…

The ability to allow comments on a blog is a particularly useful one, and the aspect which most sets it apart from the academic community’s current reviewing media. This blog has drawn comments from academics, directors, actors, experienced and occasional theatregoers, students, teachers, schoolchildren and even the occasional crazy. A blog has a wide reach, and the breadth of comments has been probably the best thing about this as an experiment. It’s my belief that every theatregoer’s experience, and their opinion on their experience, is a valid one. It’s particularly rewarding to hear from first time Shakespeare viewers, a constituency largely alien to Shakespeare academics. As well as providing a range of insights into a given production, it also allows me an external viewpoint on my own writing, as I see how it provokes people to react.

5. … but not completely open!

I’ve only very rarely deleted comments, and then on the grounds of utter irrelevancy (e.g. spam advertising) or because of offensive or aggressive behaviour. Otherwise, I allow most comments to be published openly. However, I also reserve the right to join in the comment stream myself, and normally do.

With completely open online blogs or review archives, comments are largely unmediated and debates can go off in whatever direction they please. This basically allows people an open platform to say whatever they want. However, this is a personal blog, and is moderated by me. While I am happy for views I don’t agree with to be expressed, the blog allows me the opportunity to positively challenge these views. To illustrate, I have a particular beef with the words often heard in the reviews of certain broadsheet reviewers, "This is not what Shakespeare would have wanted". If this crops up in my comments, I will usually post a reply to argue that that isn’t (and shouldn’t be) the remit of most modern theatre directors.

The aim in doing this is to stimulate rather than shut down debate (hence open argument rather than deletion). I don’t want the blog to become a stagnant platform for outdated ideas and lazy thinking; I want to challenge the ways in which we "watch ourselves watching Shakespeare" (to borrow a title from an article by Carol Rutter).

6. This is an archive.

I mentioned this earlier, but it deserves its own bullet point. The point of this blog was originally to provide information about productions in the Complete Works Festival which many academics wouldn’t get an opportunity to see. There is a lot of (critical) description in my reviews; my opinions will date, but hard information about what was in the production won’t. Considering that academics still, usually, have to travel to specific libraries or archives to find out what happened in a particular moment, the idea is that the blog will provide some bits of information that will make discussion of productions that little bit easier. It’s also a hope of mine that, if someone is reading the blog to find a piece of information that ISN’T in the review, that they will comment or e-mail to ask for the blanks to be filled in. In a sense, the liveness of the blog format allows for a combination of personal memory and written review which can transcend the boundaries of the actual post.

In a more mundane sense, the blog posts fill the place of notes for me; I stopped keeping notebooks with detailed information a long time ago (hence the sudden jump to longer reviews on the blog). One of the factors in deciding what to write is a consideration of what I myself will want to remember. It’s a personal, as well as a public, archive.

7. It’s about Shakespeare and his contemporaries.

After the Complete Works Festival, I started to post reviews of all my theatregoing experience; new plays, classics, devised work, even ballet and opera. However, I’ve more recently realised that this isn’t what the blog is useful for. I have a wide interest in all kinds of performance art, but my experience does not allow me to provide anything like the same insight into, say, Beckett or Chekov, that I can into Shakespeare and other early modern dramatists.

‘The Bardathon’ is the name I chose for this blog, and so I’m going to return to a more focussed approach. Productions of early modern plays, or newer writing based on plays of this period.

8. It goes places where other theatre reviewers don’t go.

A particularly enjoyable part of my work is reviewing small-scale performance and, particularly, academic experimentation. My last piece on Tom Cornford’s work on reimaginations of Hamlet is a case in point – it’s not professional theatre activity, but it is still of extreme interest to this blog as an academic exercise, as an insight into process, as a reinterpretation and production of a Shakespearean play and as a moment that interacts with history. This activity also, hopefully, will continue to feed into my PhD blog.

9. Quality isn’t everything

This is true of productions, but also true of my reviews. I have been very proud of some of my reviews, and extremely disappointed in others. The quality of my writing varies enormously, depending on inspiration, time of day, my mood and the speed at which I require myself to write. I’ve stopped worrying about this. Ultimately, the blog is a part-time endeavour; I’m not a professional journalist, and my core writing time goes into my PhD and my publications. The blog is designed to be a more informal approach – as good as possible, but I would rather have something written than nothing at all. Even if a piece is patchy, misses important bits or offers clunky analysis, I know it will remain useful to me as a prompt for future thinking about a production. In the academic environment, the pressure is to write wonderfully at all times. However, we all have off days. The very fact that academics will travel miles to watch a scratchy, fixed-camera VHS recording of a play from the back of the gods demonstrates that archive-users will always rather work with something bad than with nothing at all.

It’s my hope that my writing continues to improve and develop. However, functionality and accessibility are also key, and within that the blog will always have the best I can offer.

Conclusions: The Future

Where do I go from here? One of the points of this (long!) post is to make myself reconsider my own motives and aims in keeping this blog. The renewed focus on early modern drama is one key aspect. I’d also like to experiment more with the form; it’s very easy to keep slipping back into a ‘standard’ review model, which I would very much like to avoid.

Finally, I will be starting to engage more with experiments such as the Internet Shakespeare Editions, edited by my mentor Paul Prescott. I’m not quite sure what this will mean for the future of this blog in the long term; but then, this blog can only survive for as long as I’m at Warwick anyway (assuming I don’t rejoin the Graduate Association). In the short term, I’m hoping the continued engagement with the theory of academic reviewing can only benefit the blog, and keep it in line with the larger questions of the future of reviewing in general.

Posted in News