September 14, 2009, by Peter Kirwan

Reviewing Shakespearian Theatre conference @ The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

I normally discuss academic conferences over on my PhD blog, but the unique theme of this particular conference – and its implications for my work – means it merits inclusion within the Bardathon’s remit. Seeing as it’s been very quiet here on the reviewing front (very few new openings in my area, and I’ve been moving house which has limited the free time in which I have to travel), it also seems an appropriate time to use the conference for a bit of self-reflection.

I was only able to attend the first day of this conference at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, so I missed the second day’s discussion of the RSC’s As You Like It. The first day, however, was of extreme use and interest. Keynote addresses from Michael Billington and Peter Holland bookended the event neatly with perspectives on reviewing from top journalistic and academic performance critics. In between, a panel discussion brought together a range of perspectives on reviewing: critic Michael Coveney, academic Carol Rutter, Guardian arts editor Andrew Dickson, director Tim Supple and actor Janet Suzman, with Stanley Wells chairing. Finally, a seminar session discussed the papers of twelve delegates, including my own.

Billington’s keynote was as interesting as on the other occasions I’ve heard him speak, giving an illuminating and acutely-observed history of changes in British theatre-making over the last few decades. As productions have moved from actor/actor-manager-led to a director’s theatre, reviewing has changed in response. While this is undoubtedly true, it leaves reviewing in a rather passive state, able only to respond rather than develop in its own directions. For this reason, I was a little disappointed, as I’d hoped the theme of the conference might provoke Billington to be a bit more self-reflective about his own craft. My sense of disappointment, though, was only a result of my own prior hopes for the content of his lecture; as it was, it provided an insightful contextual opening for the rest of the day’s discussion, while also opening up questions that would continue to concern participants for the rest of the day: how does the critic define what qualifies as “Shakespeare”? How is the role of the critic evolving in response to developments in blogging and online criticism? And what, ultimately, is the reviewer’s purpose?

While occasionally meandering a little into discussions of performance (as opposed to performance criticism), the panel session touched on extremely pertinent questions, some of which I’ll try to briefly summarise. Firstly, the question of who reviews are for. Suzman admitted that she wasn’t sure what she could usefully add to the discussion, as she herself never reads reviews. She seemed to believe this is the case with the majority of actors (though I am very aware that several actors do read reviews, including occasionally on this blog – perhaps it’s simply a matter of personal choice); however, this led to questions of the impact of reviews. How far can a bad notice affect a practitioner? And should practitioners ever read reviews? A key debate seems to be the matter of how far critics and practitioners may learn from each other, or whether the two should operate in relative independence. Reviews are, after all, surely aimed primarily at audiences, potential or past. This fed into Peter Holland’s later, insightful discussion of the operations of the blogosphere, which saw reviews interacting and circulating within a network of informed and interested parties: opinions are articulated for the benefit of others with their own opinions. He articulated the danger of this sphere becoming too self-contained, but then this is also a danger with the ‘traditional’ reviewing field. Ultimately, it is spectators who we should be writing for.

The blogosphere came in for a kicking in the panel discussion, which several other delegates were interested in my thoughts on. One panel member (I forget who) compared it to the “Britain’s Got Talent” mentality, in which everyone feels they can – and have a right to – express an opinion, regardless of any measure of quality. Concerns were raised over the threat that free opinion offers to the authority of established reviewers, and a challenge was raised. Where are the new reviewers going to come from? Tim Supple asked Michael Billington to name a promising young reviewer under the age of thirty, and remained unanswered.

The problem here is that experience is assumed as the prerequisite for good reviewing, which seemed to negate the possibility of there ever being a ‘good’ young reviewer. Good writing can be learned, experience can only be got over time. This is a completely fair argument, and it is through experience that professional reviewers will always be able to locate and articulate their authority. However, my riposte would be that there is room for a plurality of opinions, and that there are different kinds of experience. You don’t need to have seen fifty-seven Hamlets in order to experience and write about the power of a given production, and Holland provided some interesting examples of vox pop reviewing, praising the instinctive responses of the young respondents for their immediacy and freshness. If young people can learn the discipline of writing well and communicate their own responses in a form that means something to others, then surely the necessary experience will come in time. To be unable to name the promising young reviewers at this time is, I believe, no cause for concern.

Andy Dickson, fighting valiantly on the panel for the positives of e-reviewing, was in any case able to name some promising young reviewers and blogs. His inclusion on the panel was a blessing, as it prevented the discussion from becoming too bogged down in negativity towards new forms of reviewing. As I remarked when asked for my opinion at various times during the day, the truth is that blogging, amateur criticism and e-reviewing is the future. It’s how people of my generation and younger find value in their interests, by being able to communicate them to international audiences of like-minded people, and all fields of criticism are moving that way. To try to resist this is futile; we need to be discussing how these forms can be usefully integrated with more traditional forms, not if. Dickson, and people like him, are going to be the most important people in this change because they are thinking positively about how these forms of criticism are to be integrated into the existing formats; how mixed media and traditional criticism can work together rather than in opposition. The ‘threat’ is mostly one of perception; the internet presents all voices as more or less equal, because they can all be read easily and for free. If a way can be found to emphasise the strengths and experience of different kinds of review and reviewer, then there is no reason why these various forms cannot productively co-exist – and professional reviewers keep their jobs.

One last comment from the panel section, which I found extremely bizarre, was Tim Supple’s assertion that the good reviewer should completely ignore ‘atmosphere’ (as, for example, on press nights), focussing instead entirely on the performance as object. Billington articulated something similar in his complaint that he finds the Globe a “distracting” venue. I entirely disagree with these comments. Atmosphere cannot be ignored, and theatre cannot be reviewed from within an imaginary, hermetically-sealed bubble. Atmosphere is part of the reviewer’s experience: if one is sitting at a comedy, and the audience are sitting stonily-faced throughout every attempted joke, that is inevitably going to affect the reviewer’s perception, consciously or subconsciously. Theatre is not necessarily a contained event on the stage, but a dialogue between performance and audience, most visibly at venues like the Globe but to some extent wherever theatre happens. I strongly believe that good reviewers should be discussing their experience of the theatrical event. I don’t mean, of course, that the reviewer should be reporting gossip or irrelevancies, and of course these should be ignored; but if something is happening in the theatre, or between the audience and the play, that is affecting the performance, then I don’t see a problem with bringing it into the discussion.

The seminar session was interesting for me; as one of the participants, I had of course seen all the papers in advance. I’d be interested to know how useful it was for the auditors, of whom there were pleasingly quite a few, who only had brief synopses to go on. I won’t go through all twelve papers, but just mention a few of the useful points that came up.

Ellie Collins added to the pro-blogging lobby with a timely and pragmatic look at the pros and cons of e-reviewing, praising the plurality of approaches that the medium allows in what she defined as a “post-consensus society”. The problems are in the lack of navigability and closure; but this last can be interpreted as a strength if we allow for responses to productions to continue developing indefinitely. Reviews are what shape a production’s afterlife, and the idea that that afterlife ends with the “official” review is restrictive. The paper tied in extremely neatly with Holland’s subsequent address, leaving the conference’s attitude towards blogging on a more positive note.

Two papers argued for closer attention in reviewing to specific aspects of practice. Jami Rogers gave an exciting paper that pointed out the deficiencies in the ways reviewers discuss acting, attacking lazy epithets and evaluative comments that fail to address what an actor actually did in order to give the general impression that the reviewer remarks upon. This is something that will have a direct impact on my own reviewing; while I do try to give description of action rather than brush off performances in general terms, it’s not something I’ve given a great deal of conscious thought to, which I hope to now remedy. Kate Burnett, meanwhile, discussed theatre design, demanding recognition for the work of designers rather than ceding all credit to directorial vision.

Steve Purcell wrote the paper closest to my own heart, attacking reviewers for policing the boundaries of what is considered to be “Shakespeare”. Particularly picking up on Billington’s earlier criticism of Kneehigh’s Cymbeline (which he considered to be unShakespearean), he discussed the inappropriateness of accusations of infidelity when applied to plays that are a) inherently unstable even in textual form and b) do not accept textual fidelity as an artistic concern. It’s a paper that will hopefully have use for my own PhD, which of course discusses historical conceptions of what Shakespeare actually is.

Alison Stewart’s paper persuasively argued for subjectivity in the review (hear hear), pointing out that no reviewer can meet the needs of all potential future researchers. This contrasted nicely with Kevin Quarmby’s calls for objectivity, demanding that the reviewer act as a conduit for their readers. I think the two can work well together; a cool, descriptive eye that remains the reviewer’s own, individual approach appears to meet the criteria of the reviews I prefer to read.

Finally, the question of comparative criticism, which Caroline Latta argued for the importance of. This, of course, is where the experience of professional critics is particularly important and invaluable. It is also the standard mode of academic reviewers, positioning the play within its performance context and comparing performers and productions to their lineage. I agree with the importance of this, while at the same time noting that it’s not something I do myself very much. I suppose I feel to an extent that there’s a danger of getting too bound up in the past and the history of a production, thereby losing something of the immediacy of the present – for of course, for many of the audience, they will be unaware of or at least unfamiliar with much of the performance history being contrasted with the present event. I’m also conscious that there are many forms of comparative criticism. Hamlet does not exist in an isolated history of Hamlets, but in a history of other theatre productions, in the context of its own season, in the director’s own repertory, in the current political and cultural climate and so on. These are just thoughts, but don’t invalidate the importance and usefulness of comparisons. The issue was raised repeatedly over the course of the day, and is to my mind the grounds upon which paid, professional critics should be articulating their own authority and justifying their paycheques.

I haven’t mentioned my own paper, but I was pleased with its reception and Caroline’s extremely generous questions on it. The paper was entitled “”What’s Past is Prologue”: Negotiating the Authority of Tense in Reviewing Shakespeare”, and made the argument that reviews should always be written in the present tense, in order to better express the liveness of the moment of performance and the position of the reviewer; my contention is that the moment of truth in a review is the moment of writing, as opposed to the moment of viewing. The tense question was secondary, though, to the issues I wanted to raise about what we consider the object of review actually is; I argued for reviewing single performances rather than entire productions runs, essentially supporting Alison’s arguments for embracing subjectivity by locating the reviewer’s experience of a particular moment in time.

I’ll wrap up there, but I was extremely pleased with and excited by this conference. It’s given me a great deal of food for thought, which I’m going to try and build into my own reviewing practice. It’s also, hopefully, raised similar questions for other critics and academics which will have wider implications; and the publication of the conference proceedings will no doubt speed things along. On a more personal note, it’s one of the first conferences at which I’ve felt completely confident in my own ability to express opinions and argue issues, which is a good boost coming into the new academic year.

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