A particularly mean review of Gary Abrahams’ production of The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant by Byron Bache for Herald Sun inspired a response from Daniel Clarke, of Theatre Works, to the Sun, followed by a response from the Herald sun arts editor, Sally Bennett.
I just felt there was a lack of respect for the artists and independent theatre as a whole. Sensationalist remarks undermine the value of the review. You can be critical of something but you’ve also got to be accurate and respectful. There is another way of talking about someone’s emotional range without comparing them to a Hills hoist. There are other ways of talking about people without reducing them to an object.
I am not required to get it. You are required to explain it to me, to connect with me, so that I do get it and, hopefully, have the kind of experience that makes me seek you out again.
Somewhere down the rabbit hole of Facebook, a discussion happened, and I wrote something that I will soon lose if I don’t file it here, on these pages. So here it is, my two cents:
I think reviews such as the one above are important to have, but not for reasons stated by Bache. They are important for a few reasons.
1) Theatre criticism is emotional labour. We all try to remain objective, and should be mostly objective, but experiencing art involves emotions, and every so often one is swayed by great ecstasy or dismay, and sometimes this emotion outweighs the objective judgement enough to fill the whole review. What these reviews then lose in information, they gain in emotional, erm, information. Of course, no critic should write only from emotion. But to sanction a critic from having the occasional emotional outburst is both to tell them to rein in their emotional openness to the art – openness to both profound insight and irritation – and to deny that, if art has the power to provoke deep emotions, we must accept that deep annoyance is on that spectrum.
2) Criticism is not in-house feedback, and not just audience guidelines, but forms part of that dialogue we call culture. As such, it has the responsibilities of being both truthful, non-deceptive, non-navel-gazing and engaging. For criticism to do its purpose, it really must be interesting, on top of being non-incorrect. The number of comments here, the follow-up article in The Herald Sun, and the fact that multiple people have forwarded me this review, all signal to me that this review has succeeded in being interesting. Since a few people forwarded it to me because they felt their experience of the production validated by this review means it is not entirely untruthful or deceptive. And if we get proof of non-theatre-goers reading it and enjoying it, then it is non-navel-gazing, is bringing theatre to the attention of the wider audience, and is ultimately good for us all.
3) The reason why these reviews are so popular to read is because their emotional momentum propels the reader through (I think), and the purity of the emotion gives them a unifying focus that reviews otherwise often lack.
4) Ultimately, as in everything, we can only objectively engage with the content, not the tone of the review. If the review is lying/incorrect, that is what discredits it. The emotional content makes it a good read. It also gives us information as to how at least one person felt the experience. But to debate with this review must start with debating the accusations/critique, otherwise we are not debating, we are silencing.
If I were to engage with the tone of this review, which I would in good faith describe as disgruntled bitching, I think the most interesting thing to note would be how one deals with the ongoing emotional toil of going to the theatre and having to have deep affective responses for money. It’s a question worth asking, because a critic – a good critic – is neither an unfaltering cheerleader nor a merciless marker of essays and assigner of points. A critic, like a teacher, a psychotherapist, or a dramaturg, comes to their work invested, prepared to give to the work, to the experience, but with the added difficulty of then having to turn their emotional response into constructive, coherent, articulated feedback – to other audience members and to the artists. This is hard work. It requires both emotional openness and a preparedness to then dissect one’s own emotional response. Imagine if prostitutes gave a feedback session afterwards, because it is a little bit like that. And not the other way around, because critics come into the theatre building without an agenda, without a plan.
Emotional labour is labour that cannot be done with a closed heart, that requires an empathetic – or at least sympathetic – response, and this emotional component to the work is not only unpaid, it often marks the whole job as unworthy of being paid much, because our culture sees emotions as a mark of femininity, thus lesser in value. (Typical forms of emotional labour are caring jobs (aged care, nursing, child care, teaching) and hospitality and other service jobs.) The disgruntled bitching is an interesting response to a work of art, because it’s both authentic, and stronger than forgetting about the unpleasant experience, but is also, to some extent, self-defensive. The same way in which hospitality workers tell jokes about awful customers, secretaries share stories of bosses who harass them, the way my co-workers, when I worked in a restaurant with a terrible boss prone to fits of rage, made cruel jokes about the man who paid us. It is self-defensive because how else does one process an unpleasant experience? By despairing? By quitting the work? By walking out? I sometimes wonder how theatre practitioners – plenty of whom I have witnessed bitching disparagingly about artworks – understand critics. As full human beings? Or merely as vessels of other people’s humanity?
Of course there are critics who don’t get it. Even worse, there are critics who don’t try to get it, critics happy enough to dismiss entire genres, aesthetic families and art forms because it’s not their thing, critics who don’t read up on the work and then complain of its opaqueness, and I think they don’t do their work properly and are poor critics. But this is a sin of another kind: it is lack of interest in, and openness to, work. To be upset and disgruntled at the end of a theatre show is something else entirely: it is openness that backfired, openness that felt unpleasant.
And I challenge theatre-makers everywhere: would you like a racist to see a work that condemns racism? How do you expect the racist person to react? How do you imagine this encounter? Am I the only one, seriously the only one, who sees disgruntlement as fundamental to one’s encounter with art?