August 19, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre conference

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On September 5th-6th, I’ll be taking part in the Reviewing Shakespearean Theatre Conference in Stratford-upon-Avon. My favourite kind of conference, this will bring together academics and practitioners in the field from around the world, and hopefully provoke some extremely interesting discussion on the art of reviewing.

My paper is one of twelve that will be discussed in the seminar session on the Saturday afternoon. I’ve had to write a brief abstract for it, which follows:

“What’s Past is Prologue”: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare

This paper uses a practical question – the reviewer’s choice of tense – to consider wider issues of how a reviewer positions him or herself in relation to the object of review. By defining the theatrical performance as a temporally-located, past event, the reviewer is freed to speak authoritatively about a live experience.

To be a little more expansive, as the abstract isn’t long enough to be very informative, the paper weighs up the pros and cons of reviewing in the present tense (standard newspaper format) against the past tense (my personal choice, and most academic journals). I’m arguing that the reviewer’s choice of tense has major implications for the implied authority of the reviewing voice, and for the position of the reviewer in relation to the object of review. It argues that the theatrical performance is best defined as a live event that has already occurred, allowing the reviewer to situate themselves at a remove from that moment and write with authority about their unique experience, rather than attempting to assume a godlike perspective on the production as a whole.

We’ve also been required to send forward a ‘model review’, exemplifying good practice. To be honest, I’m not sure what makes a good review, at least in any objective sense. However, I’ve chosen a piece by The West End Whingers on the RSC’s 2008 Hamlet.There are several things I like about this review. The writers have a clear identity and backstory; it fits into their ‘canon’ of reviews, rather than into a pile of reviews of that production. It knows its audience, and its audience knows them, allowing them to assume a tone that is personal, self-deprecating, witty and to the point. It does not attempt to assume experience, and in fact is very open about the reviewers’ relative lack of experience/knowledge of the play. Most importantly, however, despite its brevity, it locates and discusses what was important about this production in its moment: the star names, the thriller ‘cliffhanger’, the profile of the production. What comes across from the review is a sense of the entire experience of the theatrical moment.

It’s not a format I personally choose to follow, but it’s a review which I thoroughly enjoyed reading, which captures the essence of the production and of the reviewers’ experience, and which takes full advantage of its medium by opening itself up to comments, hyperlinks and further information. It doesn’t tell me what I need to know as an academic about the production, but it tells me what I need to know about how the production was experienced by someone very different.

I’m looking forward to the conference (despite it unfortunately clashing with me moving house), and I’ll hopefully have a report of it up here not long after.

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