October 16, 2007

The purpose of a review?

Kelly Kilgour       posted 30 Aug 2007, 08:15 PM / edited 30 Aug 2007, 10:47 PM

I was one of the unfortunate few who didn’t see The Sixth Sense quick enough, only to be told before I watched it that Bruce Willis’ character is actually dead. Same with Usual Suspects. “Kevin Spacey’s character is Kaizer Soze!” Thanks.

So it is with many reviews I pick up that bypass a productions aesthetics, instead cheating us with a by a blow by blow account of the plot. Or bore us with a historical essay on well-known plays origins. There’s nothing worse for a writer to have your entire plot exposed before most people have even seen the production. The twists revealed, character journeys laid out and the ending blown.

John Smythe recently defended the practice in a post by comparing it with food. Quote: “Does reading a meal described in a restaurant review make you think you’ve eaten it?” Frankly I find the comparison obscene. Comparing food with story is like comparing a game of rugby with playing it on a Sony Playstation. They are completely different senses.

What should we expect from reviewers? My understanding of a review’s purpose is to not only offer an emotional reaction and opinion, but objectively critique aesthetics such as design, acting, direction and perhaps audience reaction. Naturally the writing should be commented on, but in a way that doesn’t destroy the story. Perhaps commenting on tone, style and substance.

I’d like to get people’s thoughts on this because it’s an invariably contentious issue that has probably been previously difficult to address – unless you are at a meeting with reviewers. Perhaps this forum offers us the opportunity to discuss it.

John Smythe      posted 30 Aug 2007, 11:29 PM

A fair enough nudge, Kelly. Thanks. This is a quick response before bed …

I think we are quite conscientious when it comes to not giving the show away, often using the ‘Spoiler Warning’ device. And I agree that it is especially important with a brand new play that relies on surprise for its effect.

Even so, I am constantly amazed at the way our willing suspension of disbelief works, so that I can see a production of Hamlet and truly hope this time that the prince won’t die. When I saw The Graduate, to cite a quite different example, I knew Ben and Elaine would get together in the end but as the show played out I simply could not see how it could happen. Indeed that is what made the latter part of the play interesting for me.

I just saw Twelfth Night at Toi Whakaari. I know the play inside out. But sharing the moment when Olivia and Orsino finally realise Cesario is Viola and Sebastian is a separate person remains magical when it is done well (as it is in his production).

I’m also very aware that with few local plays being published, reviews are a crucial historical record. Besides, if one is critiquing the structure of a new work, one has to acknowledge – if obliquely – the ‘what happens’ aspects to some degree, simply to be coherent (which I am now in danger of not being …)

Dane Giraud       posted 31 Aug 2007, 10:06 AM / edited 31 Aug 2007, 10:08 AM 

I see a reviewer as a person who works in partnership with practitioners in the cause of advancing the art form they are working in through reflection and comment.  They should never moralize. They should be a-political. They should be neither patriotic or un-patriotic but should rather see the form as reflecting human expression in the most universal of terms.

They should be just as much slaves to their craft (and by this I mean submissive) as a dancer or actor should be.

Anon     posted 31 Aug 2007, 10:09 AM

Kelly your question ‘What should we expect from reviewers?’ got me thinking and I realise I dont trust any of them to say what they really think or to give me any real idea at all of what I might see, or provide any insight. I wait till friends have gone and ask them and mostly what they say (and what I see) doesn’t match up with any reiviewer. The way you describe it is just how it is – it’s like they’re completely out of touch. Is it because they’re not practitioners themselves? (Hwvr we shld be careful not to criticise reviewers to much or we’re in for another big beat-up … critics don’t take criticism too well!)

super dooper     posted 31 Aug 2007, 10:52 AM / edited 31 Aug 2007, 10:59 AM

One of the roles of reviewers that is often overlooked in this workaday world, in my opinion, is to act as cultural scribes, noting their initial learned reactions to plays, books, records, paintings etc., for posterity. The ‘Pig Hunt’ reviews collected on this site will certainly be of interest later in the careers of Hotter, Whyte et al. This site is a fantastic resource not only because it gives a potential punter an idea of what to expect from a new production, but because it presents a clear snapshot of the current scene. Who knows where the Rebel Alliance or Theatre Pataphysical may go from this point? Will Circa or the Court undergo a bloody revolution? Is ‘Mystery Soup’ destined to be realised as a lost classic? Will film and theatre students ever truly embrace dance? You’ll be able to track it all through this place, through what reviewers choose to comment upon.

So, what should we expect from reviewers? Let’s just have fun finding out.

Thomas LaHood                posted 31 Aug 2007, 11:07 AM / edited 31 Aug 2007, 05:07 PM

I always feel cheated by reviews that linger on plot, not so much for the spoiler factor as the waste-of-space factor.  Plot summarys are boring and reductive by nature, occasionally a necessary evil but best kept to a minimum.

As for reviewer ‘credentials’, there are a few clear requirements.  First, you must enjoy writing and be able to write something that is enjoyable to read.  You have to find something to say about everything you see and write about it within more or less 24 hours.  You also have to be comfortable with having your personal opinions and thoughts presented in a public forum.  And 9 times out of 10 you have to be prepared to do it for no pay and less thanks.

I do think this is a thin-skinned country when it comes to criticism.  Yet we’re all critics!  Which is actually great, the more critique the better, the more debate the better, etc.  The worst that can happen to you if you write reviews is if people find your opinion so completely off their wavelength AND boring that nobody reads them and you end up writing for yourself.

John Smythe      posted 31 Aug 2007, 11:21 AM 

To return to the bit about giving the story away, put it this way: a joke well told can still be funny even if you’ve heard it before. While both comedy and tragedy use elements of surprise to be dramatically effective, they can be just as powerful through rediscovery as in the moment of initial discovery; in some ways even more so.

To begin almost at the beginning of European theatre as we now know it, consider Sophocles’ King Oedipus. It is a classic detective story-cum-cautionary tale that warns mere mortals there are forces that determine our destinies that we cannot control. It also encapsulates the human propensity for guilt and lies at the heart of Freudian psychology.

The deeply conscientious investigator, Oedipus, is determined to root out the toxic element that has brought plague to Thebes once more. Someone has seriously offended the Gods, they must be found and justice must prevail before Thebes can be liberated … The drama builds inexorably to the revelation [SPOILER WARNING] that Oedipus is looking for himself. In the very acts of trying to avoid the prophecy that he would kill his father and marry his mother, both his parents and he himself have ensured it will happen. [WARNING ENDS]

Does this mean that once you know the story there is no point in ever seeing the play performed again? Or if you have never seen it but you didn’t skip the spoiler above, so now you know, there is no point in ever going to a production of it? Surely not.

What should draw us in and hold our attention, every time, is the opportunity to empathise with each and every character caught up in the scenario, and vicariously experience a situation we intuitively recognise as part of the human condition. And when the audience knows more than some characters do, that can make observing their journeys towards those discoveries more interesting.

Plus, of course, the skills involved in bringing a piece of theatre to life are also to be appreciated. But for me, skills employed as a means to some greater end are far more interesting that skills displayed for their own sakes. Hence I would find it very difficult to critique a production without referring to the purpose and content of the work – even to the extent (sorry Kelly) of discussing its historical background.

And beyond all that, it’s all part of a bigger and endless conversation. We’re all very human (sorry Dane, but that’s the whole point of it all, wherever we stand or sit in the theatre, isn’t it?) and critics – of productions, reviews, this site, whatever – are inevitably saying as much about themselves as the topic in focus.

Thanks, Super Dooper, for reminding us there is fun to be had!

Thomas LaHood                posted 31 Aug 2007, 11:41 AM / edited 4 Sep 2007, 08:16 AM

Reviews are writing, first and foremost.  The main requisite quality of a review is that it reads well.  Any constructive qualities of the review follow the readers’ experience.  Thus the credentials for reviewing are only that you must enjoy writing, be able to put thought to paper quickly and to be comfortable with having your (often fledgeling) opinions committed to a public forum.  9 times out of 10, for no pay.

I personally find excessive plot summary deeply boring in a review.  The timelessness of a story doesn’t rescue it from death by reduction.

Kelly Kilgour       posted 31 Aug 2007, 12:41 PM / edited 31 Aug 2007, 12:51 PM

John I just read your comment and appreciate your willingness to discuss this issue. You too Thomas. Naturally my original comment leans more toward new plays. But thanks for spoiling Oedipus for any emerging artists who haven’t seen it yet. 🙂 John you say ” a joke well told can still be funny even if you’ve heard it before”. Absolutely. The point is, your giving away the punch line before it’s been told. Besides, when was the last time you laughed in a comedy as hard as you did the first time you saw it? When were you on the edge of your seat watching a thriller for the second time? Knowing a story doesn’t mean we’ll never see it again. But it would be nice to see it first without knowing everything that’s going to happen. We revisit the classics to retell great stories to upcoming generations and because they’ve built an audience with us the first time. And we go along hoping to feel some of the experience captured originally – like heroine addicts. The most surprising and enjoyable viewings are when we don’t know practically anything about the story. Reviews that detail plot feel like a cop out. It’s lazy. And one can’t help but read in that the reviewer is just trying to get this one out of the way without offending anyone. Maybe that’s their intention? And a Spoiler Warning is merely an excuse to hide behind. Now all of this may seem like I’m on the attack. I’m not. I think many of the reviews I read are really good. John invariably offers thorough examinations of new works – although sometimes too thorough. He’s simply the only reviewer that has really offered any justification for the practice and I’m just throwing it out there for argument. 🙂 Chur.

Anon     posted 31 Aug 2007, 01:11 PM

Yes Thomas plot summary is really boring, AND annoying because as others have just said it cheats you of the fun of seeing it yourself. It also feels like padding, from someone who doesnt really know what to say (what I do in essays when I’v e got no real insight of my own). I’m not sure posterity will think much of it either. I think probably the best sort of review is one that attracts the kind of audience to the play who will like it, and puts off those who won’t like it – this takes insight into the potential audience too. Because isn’ t a reviewers loyalty supposed to be with us, the audience? Sometimes they read like they think their job is to do PR for the plays.

Dane Giraud       posted 31 Aug 2007, 01:25 PM / edited 31 Aug 2007, 02:31 PM

John. I take it that your comment on reviewers being human is about defending partiality… to movements, causes etc. I understand that. I think that the “intention” of a review has to be clear and if the “intention” remains to develop the form, in partnership as I say, with practitioners, the partiality will remain but will at least be in check. I recall a thread way back now when (it could have been you actually…) commented that The Orderly held limited interest (for you?) because war, and the glorification of war is essentially wrong. See, this to me didn’t advance any cause or enlighten a reader. It just said to me that the reviewer wanted to stop everything to plug his own well-balanced thoughtful political position for a bit. It really took away from the play which was about a war-enacter!

I have had so many reviews now that have laid out the plot on a platter for people. Christchurch is awful for that! Some of the reviews down there do nothing but that (no exaggeration).

I don’t think you can compare a play to a joke either.

Thomas LaHood                posted 31 Aug 2007, 03:04 PM / edited 4 Sep 2007, 08:16 AM

The only justification for plot summary in reviews is where the review otherwise would be incomprehensible to readers who had not seen the work in question.  I have found usually a few sentences suffice to give a rough synopsis from which salient points can be drawn.

Dane, I think your ideals are very noble.  However, I think there is plenty of room in any creative industry for debate that includes subjective, emotional qualities.  Bald statements, quips, judgement calls, all add to the richness of our understanding quite as much, if not more than dry critical analysis.

Often in history, the critics with the most rigorous, analytical, indepth and intellectual relationships with specific art movements are therefore necessarily damning of anything that doesn’t fit within their specialist field.  And hey, that’s okay!  Sometimes you need to be partial, if you find the status quo deadly enough.  I agree about clarity of intention, but it comes down to etiquette rather than form.

I reckon this kind of bloggy environment is ideal because it capably, if not comfortably, houses both careful inspection and kneejerk reaction for cross-analysis and discussion.  It gets tiresome at times but is infinitely more satisfying than 350 words a week in the DomPost.

Chesapeake       posted 31 Aug 2007, 04:14 PM

Thomas says that sometimes it’s OK for the reviewer to be partial, but I actually think they must always be partial, in fact it’s their responsibility to be partial, in other words to make their biases and preferences really clear. Only then can the general public develop a relationship with the reviewer over time and be able to judge if particular plays are for them (“if he likes it then I will” or vice versa). When you know a reviewer’s bias then each new review comes with a backstory which enriches their comments and helps you form your own views. (However this is assuming that we’re starting out with someone who knows what they’re doing, and accepts that their response will be one of many.)

Nic Farra              posted 1 Sep 2007, 10:38 AM / edited 4 Sep 2007, 08:17 AM

I strongly believe in the role of the critic. I have almost no time for the reviewer. The former analyses, compares, contrasts and assesses. The latter provides blurb fodder for the 2 x 6 ads in the entertainment pages. You know the sort of thing: ‘enthralling’ – Daily Blatt, ‘stupendous’ – Daily Planet, ‘yadda yadda yadda’ – Jerry Seinfeld. As Thomas LaHood puts it 360 words gives little time to look at a production beyond who wrote it, who was in it and what it was ‘like’.

I don’t care what it was ‘like’. I want to know what it set out to do, how the gang went about it, whether their skills were up to the task they set themselves, how well they succeeded and what this adds to the scene. I also want to know about design, whether that contributed or detracted. I’d also like to see a few of the glib terms some of these writers use defined. “Brisk direction” for example. What the hell is that? Have they all gone out for a 10km jog at sparrow’s fart?

As Diane Giraud mentioned too, I expect critics to love the art form, to be passionate. When I move around the country for example, I can’t help but notice the difference in production values in various places. It seems when actors are subsidising productions themselves as in profit share situations, productions frequently skimp on technicals and settings and costumes. While understanding this necessity at times, there is no virtue in poverty in itself. More often than not a play would be better served by a more fully realised design. I’d like to see critics recognising this and having a crack at the failings of the producer, whose job is surely to hunt up the where-withall that makes these things possible. Is it that in some centres critics have the attitude that it’s simply ‘the way things are’? If so, that’s appalling. Love it enough to agitate, to sting people into action.

Insightful critiques should inspire so that the artform responds. A forum like this one at least gives adequate space and Mr Smyth, you have done a good thing by having the drive not only to set the thing up, but to maintain it so well. I wonder if a print version would do as well, or is there too little interest?

Dane Giraud       posted 3 Sep 2007, 09:37 AM / edited 4 Sep 2007, 08:16 AM      

Nic. For future reference I only go by the name Diane after 9pm.

Diana Callan       posted 4 Sep 2007, 01:02 AM

I just saw the new Pixar movie Ratatouille and there was a wee bit about criticism (in this case food).  I don’t for a moment suggest our critics ‘thrive on negativity’ but I thought I’d pop it here just as a wee sideline in this discussion.

“In many ways, the work of a critic is easy. We risk very little yet enjoy a position over those who offer up their work and their selves to our judgment. We thrive on negative criticism, which is fun to write and to read. But the bitter truth we critics must face is that, in the grand scheme of things, the average piece of junk is more meaningful than our criticism designating it so. But there are times when a critic truly risks something, and that is in the discovery and defense of the new. “

Think it probably went over the head of the six year behind me kicking my seat…

Oliver Driver       posted 5 Sep 2007, 12:14 AM

“Drama critics are there to show gay actors what it’s like to have a wife.” Hugh Leonard.

Nic Farra              posted 10 Sep 2007, 12:45 PM

Dane, in recompense quite how I will buy you a drink after work (roughly 9:30) will depend on how you are dressed.

Lyndon Hood     posted 11 Sep 2007, 11:46 AM / edited 11 Sep 2007, 01:17 PM

There’s a post on Public Address, headed nothing if not critical, and its associated discussion you might be interested in.

I’m actually quite keen the idea of describing what happened (or at least, what *you* saw) including how it was executed – not the same as a plot summary, which may not even be relevent. This provides some kind of feedback on the audience experience for the artists – which can be rare – and irrespective of how you personally would judge the thing helps people get some idea if it’s something they would like. And makes a comprehensible read for people who will never see it.

My beef has always been second-guessing. It’s one thing to identify something you didn’t enjoy, but some people – sometime the ones who least know what they’re talking about – automatically report this in terms of ‘they should have done x’.

Aaron Alexander              posted 11 Sep 2007, 05:42 PM

Regarding what you call ‘second guessing’ that has always been a bugbear of mine. (Wow. I have a bugbear…Never knew that… Never thought I was the type…Must be getting old…)

I can see how it might be hard to avoid, but it’s depressing when a production of a well-known play (Shakespeare being particularly vulnerable, but Chekov, Beckett, Pinter – anything ‘classic’ also suffers) is reviewed in a way that suggests the critic had a strong preconceived notion of the ‘right’ way to produce it, and was never going to have any time for an approach that deviated from this.

It’s enough to make you do new NZ plays…


Lyndon Hood     posted 12 Sep 2007, 11:17 AM

Another thought: one thing in reviewing that I think is often useful (for everyone) goes kind of like this

– indentify what the artist(s) were trying to do

– did they succeed in those terms

and <i>then</i> talking about how it was in a more general way (I once spoke to a director who said he was just realising he could have everything go just the way he planned and still not be happy with what he did).

My mental image of the average newspaper reviewer is they don’t get past step one. So, among other things, the artists have feedback that seems maddeningly irrelevant to them. This may be a sign that the production is incoherent, but can also be a lack of perception or experience from the reviewer.

There is, assuming people read the thing, a kind of public education function here – helping frame difficult or obscure things or accelerating people’s understanding of the art slightly faster than just seeing a lot of stuff would do.

I guess what it adds up to is, across art forms, a reviewer I would trust is one I could read and consistently feel like we’d seen the same work. And I like reviewers who are a good read, and I admire ones who are both and can also teach me something or make the experience of the work richer.

And if I’ve said anything above that sounds like a rule, I myself have no doubt deliberate broken it at some stage. And I’m not really impressed by the greatness of the reviewer’s art as opposed to say theatre, but it is a useful adjunct.

Bruce Keffer       posted 16 Oct 2007, 06:18 AM

Writers writer, those who can’t become reviewers.

Flipside: having read the review the director walked on stage during the closing monologue of the second act and promptly dropped his trousers.

He then realized that there are things much worse than bad reviews.

Bad or good if the media picks up the pen, you have arrived.

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