I couldn’t get the whole ‘terrible and terrifying reviews of Hamlet‘ business from last week out of my head. This is the aftermath of me thinking on a topic for a few days. [Though not, perhaps, the topic I’m meant to be thinking about. Whoops.]
I have a friend, a director, a teacher, a… let’s just call her a mentor. (The honour, I assure you, is mine.) She and I got into a long discussion the other day about the worth of critical reception after I brought up the reviews (see part one). Her basic view is that reviews are harmful to actors and to productions, because, and I’m paraphrasing, ‘What the hell do critics know, anyway?’ (She was far more eloquent at the time, but I wasn’t taking notes because, well, weird.) Her stance is protective, and as one of her actors I appreciate that. To simplify her valid and complex series of arguments for the sake of my response, we could also ask: If the critic isn’t in the room* how can s/he presume to understand the outcome?
But what else do we expect of our audiences? They only see the results; do we expect everyone to love our work all the time? Well, of course we do! And if we don’t, we knew you wouldn’t anyway! I may exaggerate, but the sentiment exists in every arts community I’ve been to. I tend to ascribe this defensive posture to insecurity. A totally justified insecurity. Art is full of vulnerability. It demands it. And I think that’s at the core of the issue. But surrounding the core is a field of foggy ideas about the relationship between the work and the review.
What kind of work do we want from our theatre critics? What do we expect of them? Do we want to read their idea of a production’s grade? Do we want an honest and timely response? Do we want a developed critical essay, or do we want a simple editorial? Do we want to see only the highlights, or do we want only the lowlights? Do we expect reviews to be reports, merely embalming one night’s experience in the written word? Do we care as much about the composition as we do about the content? Do we hold stock in their opinions because we have come to respect them (as writers, as participants, as nemeses)? Do we consider them experts, and how do we rate their qualifications? Do we consider them touchstones or parasites? Do we expect them to know and use the terms of practitioners? Why? Why not?
In other words, I have a few questions about the state of (first) critical reception and (second) reception of criticism. There are probably academics and critics and directors and actors who could give me an earful. I welcome it, because the more reviews I read (and I read them often), the more certain I am that the best way to respond to critics is to RESPOND TO CRITICS. Do you feel disenfranchised by a review that didn’t like your performance? Have you considered a letter to the editor, inviting the critic to discuss what s/he saw as failures and successes? Maybe your attempt had an opposite result to their eyes and ears. That happens all the time. Maybe it’s a simple misunderstanding, maybe you could learn about your performance, maybe said critic could learn something about theatrical process. Maybe you should just throw things in the dressing room and then vow (again) to never read reviews before the run ends.
And maybe that’s what I’d do, too. But if I manage to manage that insecurity to brave a review, I hope I can keep on my critical thinking cap long enough to look through the review to what might have inspired it. I want a real response to my work from someone. Ideally, I want that response from someone I respect (and who knows if Critic A is on that list), but really, I don’t just want a back pat. That’s what I get after the performance – no matter how pathetic or mind-blowing my performance. And anyway, it’s rare that a show will sell any better or worse after a review.** I want questions – I want to see someone noticing style and choices and then connecting the dots to my ability to make it work. It’s not school – I don’t have to listen and change things to get a better grade next time. But I’m pretty sure it’s always worth listening.
In case you’re still reading (bless your little heart) I’d like to share a few items relating to our topic:
1 – Peter Marks, head theatre critic for The Washington Post. I’m not usually wowed by Mr Marks’ reviews, but this one got me all excited like. I don’t think all reviews ought to call out the artistic director by name and question season planning, but I am oh so glad it’s happened once.
2 – Two Hours Traffic: A great blog reviewing productions in Washington, DC. These ladies are educated and thoughtful, and (honestly) they had me at “Here’s how the play ends in Wilde’s script”.
3 – West End Whingers: A biting review linked here, but taken as an example, other than the sarcasm, I wonder what, if anything, one can get from it. Maybe no one in the production will learn, but it taught me where I would go for recommendations and warnings if my tastes matched theirs. (And honestly, isn’t that worth something? How many people are loyal to a newspaper because it espouses their views and only their views? Anyway, it’s harsh but humorous.)
4 – Michael Kaiser, showing his age. Or something.
* A favourite phrase of practitioners, usually to convey the sanctity of the rehearsal room.
** Sheen’s Hamlet has been sold out (other than day seats) since before the run began. In terms of impact, the best we can hope is that Rickson gets the hint and stops subjecting good plays to bad concepts.