June 4, 2010

Horse Play, Horse $#%&

John Huston       posted 19 May 2010, 11:23 PM / edited 20 May 2010, 08:26 AM

I see a lot of theatre. I love theatre and I especially strive to see New Zealand theatre as I think it’s very important to support and nurture our resident artists.

With all this in mind I recently saw Auckland Theatre Company’s Horse Play [Horseplay – one word – ed] and was utterly shocked.  This was by far one of the worst shows I have ever seen. Now I am not talking about the acting as I think there was some commendable performances from actors who were probably making the most of what they had been given. But the rest of it… it was just one tiresome gag after the next.

It felt as if  i was being subjected to the writers need to be ‘clever’ in every single line of dialog and nothing else, with apparently no thought for character development or a deeper semblance of a story.

I noticed a few people didn’t come back at half time… why I didn’t join them I can’t be sure, but it was foolish. I was subjected to pretty much more of the same prattle, which then  turned completely on its head, as if the writer had said ‘oh yes, it’s probably time for something poignant now’. So there it was, three quarters nonsense followed up with something I was actually expected to feel invested in? To care about? Is it me or is it not the writers responsibility to forge a relationship with his audience from the get go? If you want them to feel something then you choreograph through words and through characters an experience they can all share in. What I saw was the worst kind of fluff around; pretentious.

The reason I have posted this I guess is that I am just sick and tired of people not pulling up big productions when they are crap. And believe me I have no vendetta against ATC, they do some marvelous stuff, but I’m not going to sit back and say this was anything other than what it was, which is something a lot of the time we can’t do in New Zealand for fear of upsetting the wrong person and in doing so never working again.

I have seen far better works of late in establishments like The Basement and Galatos’ from groups who are probably working on $200 budgets, for example Broken China and The Suburban Murder.

I am opening this forum for people to call it as they see it. God knows you’re not going to read an honest review of ATC in The Herald. [See Herald review]

martyn roberts posted 20 May 2010, 01:34 PM / edited 20 May 2010, 03:34 PM

No one likes to be made to feel stupid, and clearly John Huston has been. I worked on the premiere production of this wonderfully satirical play at BATS way back in the 90’s and therefore am commenting from that viewpoint (I will not be able to see the ATC production being way down in Dunedin as I am).

John appears (from his rant) to have missed all of the cultural references (Baxter. Morrieson, Hawera, the cultural shift in NZ  in the early 1970’s with Baxter representing one aspect, Morrieson the other, flogging a dead horse etc) and therefore perhaps exposes his own ignorance of NZ history, literature, pop iconography and that important rural/gothic comedy so prevailant to NZ. Ken Duncum is not a frivolous writer, nor one who ‘needs to be clever’.

John get a grip, and stop showing up your 1) age, 2) lack of metaphorical understanding and 3) white middle class values. There is no set rule for what a playwright has to do John, they owe you nothing, but when audiences begin to poo poo because of some perceived ‘right’ then they have lost the argument.

Dane Giraud       posted 20 May 2010, 09:49 PM

A terribly ungracious post aimed at a person who basically just voiced their opinion. They even commended the actors and you call their post a rant?!  And how could having white middle class values prevent one from understanding a play that references NZ literature, when middle class bookshelves are the only place you ever find NZ literature!?!

Simon Bennett posted 20 May 2010, 09:56 PM / edited 20 May 2010, 10:21 PM

I’m sorry John you feel this way about Horseplay. Every response to a piece of theatre is subjective, and yours is as valid as anyone else’s. I’m surprised, however, that your feelings are so strong that you feel the need to publish such a vitriolic comment.

Personally, I am a great admirer of Ken Duncum’s writing and have been involved in productions of a number of his plays – most notably JISM (BATS 1989), Blue Sky Boys (3 times: BATS 1990, Maidment 1993, and a touring production in 1995) and Flipside (Circa 2001 – which won the Chapman-Tripp award for Production of the Year). I find his plays challenging, complex and intelligent, mixing comedy and tragedy, and exposing aspects of the human condition from a distinctly New Zealand perspective.

As far as Horseplay is concerned, I am proud of the production, the calibre of work of everyone involved, and the plethora of positive emails and comments posted by audience members – both industry people and general public.

Simon Bennett – Director, Horseplay by Ken Duncum

See Audience Reviews, ATC website: http://www.atc.co.nz/Plays/AudienceReviews.aspx?id=2015

John Huston       posted 20 May 2010, 11:48 PM / edited 21 May 2010, 09:47 AM


I have to agree that was terribly ungracious – but  you obviously have a investment in this play so I will let it go and ask that you make no more personal attacks.

I did not miss the cultural references, on the contrary i am very familiar with Baxter and Morrieson. Let me put it this way, just because a writer is good and has done some fine work does not mean he will get it right every time, that’s not how it works; you can not have the good without the bad. This was (obviously in my opinion) a very poorly scripted and developed show and i am calling a spade a spade. It annoys me that once you  reach a certain level in this country all your work seems to be above criticism (its quite miraculous). Also not being of European descent i will let the foolish and somewhat racist undercurrents of your other comment pass.

On the other hand Simon Bennetts professionalism and grace is evident in his reply. I obviously did not enjoy this show Simon, one of the reasons for my post is that i have seen a number or larger scale productions of late that have been of a very poor standard, and being lucky enough to mingle within a wide spectrum of the arts I have found that a large amount of people agree and yet will not say so. When was the last time Auckland Theatre Company were given a bad review?? Or is it that they really do stage faultless productions time after time after time? 

I feel strongly that we have extremely talented group of young people emerging in New Zealand, putting on some extraordinary productions with barely any support or financial backing at all. So yes, when i know a production has had that level of time invested into it and the script, has had the financial backing that so many others lack – i do expect more.

Ken Duncum is a fine writer who has written some great plays, i however think this one was a mess from start to finish, it didn’t seem to know what it was, and got completely lost towards the end. I could rattle on about all the faults i found but it would be pointless. I just think it was sloppy and poorly executed and i am making a point of saying so as i know how many people wont.

I always hope a show will be good, theatre is a very dear thing to me and i have been seeing ATC shows for a  long time now. It just seems that some of the people who are earning little to no money and utilizing possibly some of the poorest and most demanding spaces s in Auckland, have actually set the bar, and some of our bigger companys despite their resources are not keeping up with them.

John Huston       posted 21 May 2010, 12:07 AM / edited 21 May 2010, 12:35 AM


Simon Bennett posted 21 May 2010, 12:17 AM

Yes, but  you omitted all the other (positive) comments. Not to mention the five or so extremely positive media reviews. Kate Ward-Smythe, for example, is an independent critic who reviewed the show for Theatrereview. Kate reviews a wide range of work – from Basement and TAPAC shows to ATC productions. Do you believe that she, like the Herald apparently, betrays a pro-ATC bias?

John Huston       posted 21 May 2010, 12:35 AM / edited 21 May 2010, 09:42 AM

No it was that  the views expressed in that one comment hit on the head a lot of my own reservations towards the show. Anyone who follows the link will see all of them, however i will remove it as it possibly unfair just to put the one.

Can you show me a bad review ATC has received?

martyn roberts posted 21 May 2010, 09:58 AM / edited 21 May 2010, 10:08 AM

And the result of fighting fire with fire is that it creates more upset. In responding to the original post which was ungracious in it’s attempt to provide an informed opinion, I merely used the the same general approach.

Now it is significant that John in his second post says ‘I could rattle on about all the faults i found but it would be pointless’ when in fact that is the WHOLE point. John you are obviously an informed theatre man, evident by your significant theatre going. I too put myself in this catergory. Therefore we must use the opportunity to raise debate about the various attributes of theatre with care.

To simply say something is ‘crap’ and put sweeping statements like ‘the writer had said ‘oh yes, it’s probably time for something poignant now’ does nothing to make your readers understand the crux of the issues you are attempting to highlight. I certainly do not advocate that critical feedback is not good, on the contrary, it can actually develop work further. But when it takes a shotgun approach that has at it’s heart an emotional response (‘I am just sick and tired of people not pulling up big productions when they are crap’) then the debate stays in the realm of insignificance.

PLEASE John, by all means put up the other points you have. Sure, no play is ‘perfect’ and for sure ‘Horseplay’ will have it’s weaknesses, so could you start again?

Corin Havers       posted 21 May 2010, 07:38 PM

You are right of course John that  very few official reviewers have the courage to be honest about ATC; the vitriol attracted when you dare to be unimpressed makes sure of that! The nature of responses in this thread show that ATC really think they are above criticism, and this culture of universal praise has been part of the reason.

But the most interesting part of your comments was this: “It just seems that some of the people who are earning little to no money and utilizing possibly some of the poorest and most demanding spaces in Auckland, have actually set the bar, and some of our bigger companys despite their resources are not keeping up with them”.  This seems to indicate that the distribution of available funds is extremely unfairly targeted. I would be interested to know more about the groups that do impress you.

Joseph Harper   posted 22 May 2010, 10:06 AM

I have no problem with the country’s bigger theatre companies being taken to task. It seems strange to me that this production is the one that recieve the rough-housing though. I attended a matinee performance with a large group of high school students, and the show we saw was certainly not a writer trying to be clever with every line. It felt to me like a writer who was clever. And our enjoyment was all the more for it. I thought the play was funny and engaging from end to end and the rest of the audience seemed to agree with me (based on laughter and heaving exhalations of sympathy).

A bit of a chin wag and criticism of the work produced by the ATC and the like is fine; but why pull up this play, which is certainly one of the more interesting and bold plays on the ATC roster this season, rather than a restaging of some ancient musical? This play felt fresh and relevant to me, and spoke in its own voice(s). I liked it a lot.

Corin Havers       posted 22 May 2010, 12:55 PM

John Huston’s underlying issue seems to be the state of theatre criticism, not this play in particular.  It  does seem that you can’t have a different point of view without people getting bristly and adolescent. Or lazy-minded – is the fact that the director has received ‘lots of positive emails’ really good evidence for anything other than the obvious, for instance?  And even if all the other reviews were positive wouldn’t that prove John Huston’s point as much as anyone else’s?  And since when was the majority always in the right, anyway? (ATC “audience reviews”!)

We should welcome different points of view and learn how to debate them maturely, not see them as an opportunity to go into attack mode, or assert credentials, as if that proved anything either.  If someone doesn’t like your play, they don’t like your play, simple as that; and surely you should accept this graciously, not try to humiliate and point-score them round to your opinion!  I think we badly need a more generous culture that respects minority points of view and the courage it often takes to air them. They should be seen as an opportunity for exciting and challenging discussion, not childish sparring.

John Smythe      posted 22 May 2010, 05:45 PM

My observation, at a distance and not having seen this production (I wish I could!), is that the critics have argued their cases quite comprehensively while the detractors have stated their feelings and opinions without offering much to back them up. And – as Martyn has noted – fire has been fought with fire. Fair enough all round I’d say, in an open forum like this.

Corin Havers       posted 23 May 2010, 10:59 AM

Yes, fair enough – but the professional has obligations that shouldn’t be demanded of the customer, surely.  If you don’t like a restaurant’s food, you are under no obligation to explain why. But – presuming you have mustered the courage to indicate your disappointment to the cook in the first place – wise restauranteurs take note of customers’ dissatisfaction and don’t dismiss their response simply because it isn’t provided with the kind of in-depth analysis that would convince another food critic.

As with restaurants most unimpressed theatregoers say nothing, or worse, murmur platitudes when asked to avoid confrontation, embarrassment and tiresome demands for detail. Instead of ‘fighting fire with fire’, theatre professionals should take note of paying customers who voice their dissatisfaction, however incompetently or inappropriately they feel they express themselves.  They might just be the canaries in the mine.

John Huston       posted 24 May 2010, 02:47 AM / edited 24 May 2010, 07:27 AM

How on earth are we supposed to get better if we can’t accept the fact that there is room to? Sometimes shows are wonderful, and sometimes they are awful, you can’t have one without the other. Having lived (as many Kiwi’s do) for a number of years in London, some of the greatest company’s I ever saw received from time to time some of the worst reviews I ever read – the upside  was it kept them hungry to do better, to come back and say ‘Well look at us now!’

It is obvious that I do have an issue around the state of theatre criticism in this country; I however was deeply dissatisfied with Horseplay, the reason I used it as an example, and was not merely taking pot shots.

It was  the second ATC show in a row I have seen and found lacking and therefore was compelled to write about it in a public forum as opposed to whispering about it out of ear shot of anyone who might get wind and go for the jugular. I had this discussion with a young actress I attended Horseplay with and who was of much the same mind. I found it interesting as she divulged she would always give a positive review of ATC’s work, as she believed it would affect her chances to gain employment with them if she didn’t. Do you think that this is true?

Yes Joseph, I do agree that Horseplay was one of the more bold choices ATC has made this year, but what does that really say? Being in a position to develop and nurture a certain amount of New Zealand works and truly make a ‘bold’ decision, the resources seem to be flowing in the exact same direction they have been for years, to people whose work apparently stands above criticism – and I will stand by my first comment that I found Horseplay to be utter rubbish.

Here is another example of lack of criticism to the detriment of a show. Le Sud, the previous locally developed ATC show. It has a wonderful premise, some fantastic characters and genuinely funny moments. I spent the entire play being drawn in to this fantastic re-imagining of New Zealand. I waited expectantly to see how all the various threads of the story would be tied off, and I was genuinely looking forward to this resolution. What we got however was one of the biggest cop outs I have ever seen – a character randomly receives a telephone call informing them someone has shot a gun, hit an oil deposit, leaving everyone in the play exceedingly rich, and in doing so all the problems of the narrative solved. Until this point oil hadn’t even been mentioned, let alone guns or honestly anything else that might have brought about this resolution. It was one step off ‘They woke up and it was all a dream’. But not a single review made mention of anything other than the sheer brilliance of the show and I doubt for a second anyone from ATC rushed to the paper, with that burning question of ‘Did they like it?’

 As I have said I have no vendetta against ATC, but when I see brilliant theatre being staged in what looks like abandoned shoe factories, by people earning no money, on the shoestring hope that someone might see and develop them further, I will not sit idle and say something was great when it really wasn’t.

To answer your question Corin ‘An Idea of America’ left me stunned, not to mention a few other shows off the top of my head that I consider to have raised the local bar –  Wolf’s Lair, Nga Manurere, A Song for the Ugly Kids, My London Sojourn, Broken China. Though all had their faults they are in my opinion work that if developed and drip fed the same time and resources as said others, would trump anything ATC is currently staging.

John Smythe      posted 24 May 2010, 09:53 AM

Thank you, John Huston, for being more specific in your appreciation of, and concerns about, Le Sud as produced by the Auckland Theatre Company. You are not the only one to think the ending lets it down, and it is incorrect of you to assert, “But not a single review made mention of anything other than the sheer brilliance of the show.”

Paul Semi-Barton’s Herald review of the ATC production (15 Feb 2010) includes this: 

“The play draws on the elaborate plotting of traditional farce but Armstrong’s unwillingness to pass up any opportunity for topical satire means the running time is about 20 minutes too long and the deftly constructed climax is almost derailed by a contrivance that delivers some smart one-liners on global politics but is completely out of sync with the rest of the play.

“But, on balance, Le Sud serves up a thoroughly amusing entertainment that effectively punctures the politically correct pieties so ingrained in our national psyche.”

Nik Smythe’s Theatreview review (15 Feb 2010) includes:

“The climactic solution to the political impasse is contrived, idealistic, unlikely and gut-bustingly hilarious, and it’s a trifling inconvenience that we may need to adopt in some small way a similar mindset to the six self-serving bigots comprising the cast, in order to allow ourselves be amused …

“In conclusion, whilst the idea itself is worthy of extensive contemplation, there’s no great moral or inspirational message provided in this conceptual cross-cultural examination but there are curtain-to-curtain chuckles, guffaws and belly laughs to offer us a greatly welcome cathartic release from the more frustrating absurdism of our real parliament.”

It was an earlier production that premiered at the 2009 Festival of Colour in Wanaka, and has reconvened to play Christchurch, Wellington and a number of regional arts festivals since. My own Wanaka premiere review includes:

“Some may call Le Sud a farce but it doesn’t quite qualify for me because its notions of subterfuge and deception are not carried through into actions that we enjoy from the privileged perspective of knowing more than any one character does. For example, Marsland and Matakana’s realisation that if Peterson returns triumphant they will lose traction in the coalition, and Matakana and Te Tonga’s consideration of a bi-lateral Tangata Whenua counter-offensive promise something but deliver nothing.

“The ending is not a pay-off from all that has gone before. It comes out of left field, or to be more precise from deep below the North’s bubbling mud pools. That’s fine but it’s part of what keeps it in the realm of extended revue sketch: a broad comedy in the style of Diplomatic Immunity, fun while it lasts but leaving us with little to chew on beyond the remembrance of good one-liners.”

Melody Nixon’s review of the same production’s Downstage season, headed INDULGE YOUR SEXISM, RACISM AND HOMOPHOBIA ALL IN ONE SHOT, takes issue with the play on a quite different level that is her honestly and fearlessly held opinion, and well worth engaging with to see where you stand on the question of ‘non-PC’ humour.

And it needs to be added that the general public flocked to it, hence a return season is in the offing, which will be replete with up-to-date topical jokes. I live in hope that the ending will also be better crafted … and we’ll see.

As for the sycophantic hypocrisy you assert is rife in theatre criticism here, my experience and observation is that this gets people nowhere because it is inherently disrespectful of professional practitioners and the profession itself. True professionals welcome honest feedback from an ‘outside eye’ and will invariably recognise when a nail has been hit on the proverbial head.

Constructive criticism, however, does involve something more substantiated than “it was utter rubbish” if it is to contribute to the quest for constant improvement, which you quite rightly applaud and encourage.   

Corin Havers       posted 24 May 2010, 10:24 AM

 “Le Sud”?  Utter rubbish!

WellyWatch        posted 24 May 2010, 12:30 PM

Corin’s comment? Cheap and nasty.

John Huston       posted 24 May 2010, 12:35 PM / edited 24 May 2010, 08:53 PM

Is it though? We don’t seem to have much of a problem saying that about lesser known productions despite their potential merits.

Thank you John, I spoke before I had thoroughly researched as it was 3am and Le Sud’s ending had left a bitter taste on my tongue. However is Horseplay not guilty of the same badly formed plot devices?

The  dialog seemed to have been penned with priority over any character development, in fact I had to inform a couple of people at half time who Baxter and Morrieson were as they were fed so little information about them throughout the course of the show. It was a farce obviously but I found Morrison’s relentless quips and witty banter exhausting as they didn’t stop and the tempo in which they were delivered never let up! It would have been nice to have seen more of the man beneath the puns and snappy one liners. Then we have  the attempted murder of Baxter half way through, which really was presented as just another long drawn out joke, even Baxter himself didn’t really seem that worried about the situation he was in, which like Le Sud’s ending came completely left field. For the briefest of moments this changed the tone of the play and i was genuinely interested to see what was done with it, an opportunity to do something bold. Instead, as if it had only hit a bump in the road,  Horseplay reverted back to its same previous ridiculousness.

Until the point the  girlfriend returns to give her farewells to a man i  could not understand her love for, we were never exposed to any “real” side of Morrieon, in fact all we were given was a loud mouthed oaf  and a relationship that looked like it had sprung straight from the pages of Footrot Flats. I did not believe the actions of the characters for a second, why did she love him so much? Why did she care? In fact why were we supposed to care and at the end of all things feel invested enough for the sudden  surge of emotion which came gushing onto the stage in much the same fashion as Le Sud’s convenient oil flow? I think not. Had the writer not read any of the previous work as it felt like i had suddenly and clumsily been thrown into a completely different show.

I am putting this review from an audience member back in as it hits it on the head perfectly.

(NAME REMOVED) / Audience

The play was so silly I had to leave at the interval! Ken Duncum has a nice face, but to award anyone for writing a play such as this, absolutely staggers me. I have not seen any of his other plays, but, by going on what I saw in HORSEPLAY, I would doubt I would want to. I enjoy farce, but that was ridiculous in extreme. The character of Morrieson never came across as a writer, even though books of his were thrown around. Either I’m too dumb or the play is too clever, but I couldn’t stay for the second part. It was too, too silly.

After all the workshops, development time, great actors and directors, the resources and ‘want for nothing’ venues, if this is what we are producing why shouldn’t we be hard, god knows it wouldn’t fly on the other side of the world.

Dane Giraud       posted 24 May 2010, 03:55 PM

You articulate for me something I have long wanted words for. All Wellington radio actors sound like they are performing Footrot Flats. Why is that?

nik smythe          posted 24 May 2010, 10:18 PM / edited 24 May 2010, 10:51 PM

Le Sud, as I saw it, is low-brow escapism.  A less tacked-on conclusion might well add an extra dimension to the work, but ultimately thats not its purpose.  It’s not fine literature, it’s political satire of Court-jester proportions.  Some argued that certain minority groups were given a harsher roasting than others, implying some innate condition of bigotry in the writer and the audience who laughs.  I find such depth of analysis not in keeping with the glibness of the piece which is more than obviously not intended to be taken the slightest bit seriously.

I’ve yet to see Horseplay – and am more curious than ever to do so now.  I confess for a long time I disliked most ATC works I saw; not so much for being particularly pretentios or self-indulgent, more for being generally safe, unadventurous work which simply failed to spark my enthusiasm.  For some time I avoided them.  Then when I started reviewing for this site, 3 or so years ago, I wasn’t looking forward to covering them but of course went ahead willingly and open mindedly.  I think Pillowman was my first ATC show, and it was outstanding: edgy, viscerally affecting, conceptually intriguing… everything I had found lacking in most (not all) ATC shows I’d seen up til that time.  And having seen a fair number since, I don’t mind expressing my overall admiration for the quality of work put out by this esteemed company.  I think the only really terrible show I’ve been subjected to is Who Needs Sleep Anyway?, a truly unfortunate misfire.

I further confess I’m one of the more ‘diplomatic’ types of reviewer, I go to a show wanting to like it, keep an open mind and allow a good 15-20 minutes to get used to the style, and try to discern what the writer/director/cast are trying to acheive and critique it on that basis as much as possible.  Of course it’s ultimately subjective, as we all know, and I don’t believe anyone here regards their published impressions as universal truth.  I am probably considered liberal and wishy washy by the more militant readers, but I’m not going to go all feral or vitriolic just to prove I’m not a fence sitter; analysis on balance, that’s me.

The notion that we’re pandering to ATC, or anyone for that matter, holds no water.  We have nothing to gain and everything to lose by offering anything other than intensively honest critiques.

Dane Giraud       posted 25 May 2010, 07:17 PM / edited 25 May 2010, 07:23 PM

When we call a NZ writer complex, just how complex are they, really?

I think the level we work at in this country will always dictate the level of reviewing. What’s the point of having an uber-cerebral and stern reviewer without having the equivilant of a Tom Stoppard, or an Osbourne.. or even an actor with the magnetism of a Brando or mastery of an Olivier?

I actually think the idea of a reviewer (Or the excuse for a reviewer) assisting artistic development is laughable. If you’ve read any good reviews they are not instructive at all… They’re just entertaining. That’s all they have to be. Pauline Kael doesn’t teach me anything… She’s just a bloody good read.

John Smythe      posted 25 May 2010, 09:03 PM

Maybe the thing we need to be really good at, Dane, is being ourselves rather than comparing ourselves against the likes of Stoppard, Osborne, Brando and Olivier.

But to do that, we need our better-resourced theatre companies to a lot more of our own plays; a minimum of 50% of their programme.  We need our playwrights to be able to choose play writing as a vocation and our actors to be able to make a good living at playing New Zealand characters instead of having to perfect their British and American accents to get good roles in the better-paid productions.

As for the way we go about being critics, maybe because we are a small country – and because most of theatreview’s critics know people in the industry, because in the process of following their passion for theatre or dance, how can they not? – we are less inclined to treat theatrical creations as objects. We understand they are living and breathing, and able to be conversed with. And we like that.

If that is a point of difference that makes us unlike Pauline Kael et al, so be it. She does what she does as herself; we do what we do as ourselves. And as many a classical work has proved, it’s only by being true ourselves that any of us has anything of value to offer anyone else.

Dane Giraud       posted 25 May 2010, 09:49 PM / edited 25 May 2010, 09:50 PM

You make a really strange connection between the idea of ones culteral truth equating to better theatre. How? It’s all personal. For one Kiwi, being a Koiwee is going to drive their craft. For another their culteral renaissance may be to look toward England, the land of their ancestors, and that could drive their work. No less valid.  It’s a lot more subjective that what you imply John. A New Zealander who thought Kiwi culture unchallanging and twee and chose to wrote Roman histories is not a phoney, just following a different path, surely. As colonials we’re self-conscious constructs anyhow. You’re English, John. 

John Smythe      posted 25 May 2010, 10:22 PM

Your assumptions about me are inaccurate, Dean. Since you make it personal, I have British ancestors who made NZ their home in the 1830s, German ancestors who came about a century later, a strong connection into Australia … and I embrace all of that in terms of “being myself”.

But I don’t think our better-resourced theatres do international plays so that we can hook into our multiple heritages. They do them because it’s easier and safer to be a cover band than produce originals. And the funding bodies encourage it because it appears to be less risky in financial terms and because their policies remain tainted by Rogernomics, whereby a play is just another item of trade, like a plastic spoon. 

A New Zealand play that draws on our rich multicultural heritage from a New Zealand perspective will always be very different from one that was conceived and raised elsewhere then comes to visit.

Oh and by the way, it’s cultural not culteral. 

John Huston       posted 25 May 2010, 10:24 PM

 Do you not find a certain amount arrogance circling around that idea though? Imaginations are wonderful things as they allow access to anywhere, anything or anyone. Is it not enough t to just be a New Zealand Playwright, or must you also be a New Zealand Playwright who only tells New Zealand stories? I’m certainly not saying that we shouldn’t tell our own story’s, on the contrary it’s very important that we do, but I think it’s equally important not to pressure our creative’s into only exploring that avenue, which let’s face it is a small one.  There is also something to be said for how well our work translates on a larger scale. We aren’t big enough to really reward our story tellers and if the focus is put on just locally branded work that only strongly identifies as Kiwi, what then happens to breaking into a larger market. Plays of this ilk will still be New Zealand works; they might just not be about Sheila and Barry in small town Gore. Also why shouldn’t we compete internationally? The bar has defiantly been set abroad for good theatre, but god knows we have the talent here. To compare is to compete, and that’s much healthier than standing around patting each other on the back for a job averagely done.

I strongly agree with you John that we should be supporting our artists and we should be staging much more New Zealand work, but it should be support that comes without strings attached – let them imagine.

In response to your comment on theatre criticism – are you not condoning biased reviews then? You say “it’s only by being true ourselves that any of us has anything of value to offer anyone else,” but how are we being true when we fluff around the point because we know someone in the productions and we are aware of their investments. That is not just reviewing a show, but also the people involved and how we feel about them – and that is not in the job description.  If reviewers don’t have the guts to be honest (and I am NOT pointing any fingers here), to separate themselves from their personal feelings towards factors outside of what is presented at the end, then they are not doing their jobs. That is not saying all reviews should be bad or harsh, as I am a huge advocate for praise when it is deserved, but reviews should be if nothing else HONEST.

John Huston       posted 25 May 2010, 10:30 PM

Also i don’t blame them for looking overseas, when with all our investments we are producing the likes of Horseplay and Le Sud. God save us from an entire year of that.

nik smythe          posted 25 May 2010, 10:31 PM / edited 25 May 2010, 10:32 PM

 To clarify:  do you believe that Kate’s review of Horseplay is less than honest?

nik smythe          posted 25 May 2010, 10:31 PM / edited 25 May 2010, 10:32 PM

Knowing someone in a show might affect my experience of watching it but if there’s problems with it I will write about them.  I entirely expect most all industry folks I am acquainted with to be welcoming of such feedback, including your good self Dane.  I’ve been thanked more than once for unfavourable reviews.  Twice in fact!

John Huston       posted 25 May 2010, 10:41 PM / edited 25 May 2010, 10:45 PM

You know what, I can’t say if she was being honest or not as that’s for her to know. What I can say is that I (and others) have found some glaringly obvious faults with that production and not a single one is mentioned. In fact that review does nothing but champion the brilliance of the show. She makes the characters sound as if they were presented as real people, I found them to be nothing more than parody’s with flapping mouths.

Horseplay had some beautiful work yes, some great acting yes, and I will agree that Leigh’s ‘Ode To Hawera’, really is sublime. But there were problems there, BIG ones.

Do you really believe it that good?

nik smythe          posted 25 May 2010, 10:58 PM

I’ve not yet seen it but now I suppose I must.  I agree it’s tough to witness original local work that you find disappointing, but there’s a reason to keep going forward dammit!  Every time we embarrass ourselves it’s twice as embarrassing to turn your back on the objective.  And I’d far prefer to sit thru a crummy local attempt than a crummy Shakespeare, Stoppard or even Pinter.  I’ve observed productions from these three and more which gave strong testament to the idea that great writing can still become terrible theatre.

John Huston       posted 25 May 2010, 11:06 PM

I would be very interested to see what you think, and I will respect it either way. I also completely agree and I would also far prefer to sit through a crummy local attempt than a crummy Shakespeare, but I will judge them both equally and will not relent on the first just because it is ‘Kiwi and I happen to know the choreographer and second lead’. What good does that do? It is because I believe so strongly in New Zealand and it’s artistes that I feel to judge them on anything other than the highest standards would be a disservice.

I also second your last comment and raise it ‘can not a great writer still write some terrible theatre’?

Dane Giraud       posted 25 May 2010, 11:35 PM

My experiences as an actor, in rep say, are very different to how you describe thoughts behind programming, John. In my time it was the Kiwi comedy that the powers that be knew would make them the money so they could get away with doing the cultured work i.e. the Ibsen or even the Shakespeare that most times would see the theatre take a hit. So these cover bands versions that you describe are not the safe choices at all. Roger Hall didn’t call his book Bums On Seats for nothing!

I think people do overseas and classical works cause they are more challanging and are just so damn good. Nik, you might rather sit through a crummy NZ play over a crummy Shakespeare as a reviewer but as an actor… different story.

Sorry about the spelling. It’s after hours. I have a proof reader at my disposal for the day job.

sam trubridge    posted 26 May 2010, 12:04 AM

Stoppard. He popped into my head right back in John Huston’s first post. There’s a playwright who loves to show off, if ever there was one. Of course you always feel incredibly learned and educated after a Stoppard play, and he does pander to that smug minority who like to unpick his little cryptic-crossword, encyclopaedic, trivial-pursuits sequences of dramaturgical cryptographs. Dane, I can’t believe that you hold that kind of self-satisfied twaddle up as some kind of paragon!

And I have read some very enlightened reviews that add a lot to the works they review as well. This was Societas Raffaello Sanzio’s initiative in the ‘Idioma Clima Crono’ anthology that accompanied their ‘Tragedia’ series. Michael Billington has written some fantastic reviews – I remember some great ones from his visit to Australia about 10 years back. And Peter Brook wrote a great review of Athol Fugard’s ‘The Island’ performed by Winston Ntshona and John Kani around 1999 or so. Donald Hutera writes beautifully about dance. I think there is great scope in this relationship between reviewers/critics and performing arts companies that is just hinted at  in these examples.

But John’s definition of ‘what makes a Kiwi play’ depresses me, since it only seems to offer one option for success in his estimation – one “that draws on our rich multicultural heritage”. Is this the only ‘kiwi play’ that can ever be made? If so, then maybe the term ‘New Zealand theatre’ can be used with less parochialism and preciousness.

Very little about the premise for ‘Le Sud’ or ‘Horseplay’ has attracted me to see either. For me theatre has to be more than an amusing scenario and a few eccentric characters, no matter how intricate or well presented either is. But I’ve probably aired enough of my prejudices already to get me in trouble here… and I think that is a significant factor in this discussion. Our performing arts community is small. It is hard to always be honest in this context where everyone knows each other. My hat goes off to those who can combine honesty with intellect to write reviews that will contribute to the development of our performing arts industry. It’s a big responsibility but an important one.

John Smythe      posted 26 May 2010, 09:22 AM

First, my point about the inevitability of knowing people in some of the shows we review is: that may be why we are less inclined to be sociopathic parasites seeking popularity by making a blood-sport of our craft, and more inclined to engage in constructive and (where necessary) ruthlessly honest ‘conversation’ in reviewing a show. It’s not the knowing people that matters so much as our greater awareness – than those in larger cities in larger countries may have – that we are all living, sentient humans being and working in a real world.

While it may affect the tone, it does not mean (as I thought both Nik and I had already made clear) we would disrespect professional work by being anything less than honest in our inevitably subjective and hopefully well-argued responses. For example, Kate clarifies her perception of Horseplay thus:

“The unlikely (and yet entirely possible) premise – that in 1972, while on the run from Jerusalem’s turgid expectation, Baxter hitches a lift with Morrieson to Hawera; becomes inextricably linked to the dead horse Morrieson collects on the way; meets his doddery Aunt and frustrated impatient would-be girlfriend; then finds out that he is Morrison’s nemesis – allows Duncum to communicate brilliantly to his audience on several levels.

“Not only does he immerse us in poignant verse and evocative prose (in the styles of Baxter and Morrieson), plus hurl side-splittingly funny dialogue at the situation, but he also takes the opportunity to depict how these literary giants withered in their twilight years, and failed in their personal lives – as family men, providers, and nurturers.

“The overall result is a unique mix of erudite hilarity, gripping yarns, private sadness and some regret.”

Dare I note, in the wake of Sam’s bucketing of Stoppard, that I among many critics have often credited Stoppard with the skill to “communicate brilliantly to his audience on several levels” and see that as a major quality. Maybe being able to ‘get’ a play on all those levels is akin to multi-tasking and therefore something women are more likely to achieve than men … except it’s a myth than men can’t multi-task. 

As for the ‘what makes a New Zealand play?’ aspect – that is a whole new conversation worthy of a Forum on its own. I’ll respond to Sam’s concerns there.

John Smythe      posted 26 May 2010, 09:28 AM

May I add that this is one way Theatreview has officially articulated its policy:

As Diana Rigg wrote in her introduction to No Turn Unstoned: the worst ever theatrical reviews:

“There are so many wonderful qualities to be found in the theatre, and courage predominates … every time an entrance is made, every time an actor or actress undertakes the daring and delicate task of making an audience believe … Another great quality is generosity of spirit …

Here at theatreview we also believe a good critic has:


    generosity of spirit, and


Dane Giraud       posted 26 May 2010, 01:12 PM

I find your thinking very Writer-centric, John. I can see why writers would want a quota, but actors/ directors just want to do good stuff. So your argument that a quota would develop a voice I think is inaccurate. If anything it could create complacency.

Lots of New Zealand work is happening, John. Probably proportionately just the right amount considering expected audiences and overall population. And that’s great.

I personally think we need a national Shakespeare company. Why? Because he’s the greatest playwright of all time, period and we are predominantly English speaking.

sam trubridge    posted 26 May 2010, 01:22 PM

I can’t help but feel that this would be a step backward in many ways Dane.

Dane Giraud       posted 26 May 2010, 01:58 PM


John Smythe      posted 26 May 2010, 02:40 PM / edited 26 May 2010, 08:14 PM

Quota? Who mentioned a quota? It is simply a matter of honouring the fundamental purpose of theatrical performance, “whose end, both at the first and now,” at that other Dane articulated, “was and is to hold as ’twere the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure” (William Shakespeare, Hamlet III ii line 21-24).

He is arguing for credibility, authenticity and truth. How better to achieve that than to grow the work – be it a written play, a devised show, a choreographed dance, a multi-media event – from our own lives, in conception, development, production and performance? All share the same purpose.

None of this is to argue against the value of the classics in general and Shakespeare in particular – who has been inspiring a great deal of authentic work from high-school students all over the country through Shakespeare Globe Centre NZ’s annual University of Otago Sheilah Winn Shakespeare Festival, which come to a climax in Queens Birthday weekend.

It is well worth noting that some of the most creative and original theatre work being done by young practitioners today is being made by people who came through those festivals. And of course it would be lovely to have a fulltime Shakespeare Theatre Company of New Zealand, except that would be to replicate what already exists elsewhere. On the other hand, who else in the world could credibly establish a New Zealand Theatre Company to develop and produce original New Zealand theatre?

[I’m working on opening a new forum called “What makes NZ Theatre?”]

John Huston       posted 26 May 2010, 02:59 PM / edited 26 May 2010, 03:37 PM

 I find the point you make interesting John, as it’s been argued quite strongly that the intention never lay with ‘making a blood sport of our craft’, but in being honest and not ignoring possible short comings.

You say “It’s not the knowing people that matters so much as our greater awareness – than those in larger cities in larger countries may have.” This sounds to me as if you’re implying that being New Zealand affords us some unique awareness that larger countries don’t have,  that we all posses some kind of  grasp of what it means to be a real person working in a real world. It’s quite a claim to dismiss all those other artistes of such understanding.

I respect your opinion but will have to entirely disagree and it ties right back into one of the very first points I made. I find it far more plausible that as we are a smaller country and seeing as most everyone knows someone we are all too scared to be totally honest, especially to those who hold power which is about 20% to an 80% struggling ratio. This is not some theory I am just ‘making up’, but a strong view point that has been expressed to me by a lot of different people. And what really gets me is the wonderful reviews these power centres seem to consistently get for work that is on occasion brilliant, sometimes very good, mostly average, from time to time terrible.

What proves this point is the fact that reviews for lesser known and immerging artistes seem to really focus on critiquing and can be sometimes quite ruthless. It makes total sense as when a group holds no real power, have no effect over you, they are more likely to listen and there’s no real risk to challenging them.  However as you up the ranks to the likes of ATC you find these sparkling testaments that cease to critique with the same level or rules (maybe it’s not dishonesty but a tendency to just focus on only what was done well). Now I would never claim this was every reviewer or every review,  but it happens.

My challenge again is that some of these  lesser known groups are the ones who are actually developing and producing the best theatre at the moment.  Again I can’t stress how much I am not out on a personal vendetta against any larger groups and I most certainly never walk into a show having already decided I will not enjoy it. But the best new New Zealand theatre I have seen of late has not come from ATC, yet the best reviews have. What does this say?

As for the ‘what makes a New Zealand play?  – I would have thought nothing more than a New Zealand writer?

Michael Smythe                posted 26 May 2010, 10:14 PM / edited 26 May 2010, 10:16 PM

Plays are wrighted, not written, ie: playwright not playwrite.

nik smythe          posted 26 May 2010, 11:14 PM

I think the grammatical word you want is ‘wrought’.

Michael Smythe                posted 27 May 2010, 09:36 AM

Well spotted son! This just goes to show what a fine critic you are – quite uninhibited by your relationships!

Editor    posted 27 May 2010, 09:47 AM

Please see the new forum called “What makes NZ Theatre?” to follow through on, and discuss,  that question.

Michael Downey              posted 27 May 2010, 10:34 AM

I’d like to start a new topic: “Supercilious and distracting spelling corrections.”

nik smythe          posted 27 May 2010, 03:12 PM

Touche my friend… Oops, I mean Touché

John Huston       posted 27 May 2010, 05:33 PM / edited 27 May 2010, 05:39 PM

Perhaps you would like to lead the discussion Michael Smythe? Since my point was obviously made void by the unfortunate grammatical error, it will give you something else to chortle over. Also next  time you feel pretentious enough to correct someone in a public forum make sure you get it right … or is that get it wrought?

Editor    posted 27 May 2010, 05:48 PM

I think we’re getting over-wrought and deviating from the point. 

As ‘chair’ may I remind us that this forum began as an alternative critique of the ATC production of Horseplay, challenging critics who were perceived to be too much in awe of the ATC and/or fearful of speaking a ‘truth’ that was other than enthusiastic … and it continues as a discussion about the standards and principles the drive theatre criticism.

It has also spun off into a new forum: called “What makes NZ Theatre?”. 

Both are healthy and productive questions to pursue.

martyn roberts posted 28 May 2010, 10:29 AM

Yes we should not get fraught with all the wrought thoughts but instead seek to iron out the issues into the wright direction.

alison martin      posted 28 May 2010, 04:30 PM

John S, thanks for posting that list of what you believe a good critic has. Unfortunately I’ve noticed a number of reviewers not displaying generosity of spirit in some reviews here, and as John H has pointed out, these have often been in reviews of emerging/young artists. There’s a world of difference between a rigorous critique of a work, and personal comments on individuals and their worth or otherwise – and a quick sweep of reviews posted here shows that the latter happens far more often in reviews in the Fringe festival or similar.

On another point, perhaps this article may provide some inspiration for aspiring critics:


John Smythe      posted 28 May 2010, 05:32 PM

Thank you Alison – that article is a good one. I can’t help wondering how much of the humour and wit that is approved of has been at the expense of the creative practitioners especially, I’d guess, in television reviews. Just a thought.

Concerning the “personal comments on individuals and their worth or otherwise” in the theatreview reviews you’ve looked at for show “in the Fringe festival or similar”, a number of points occur to me here.

First, I’d hazard a guess that the first thing most actors, director, designers, etc, look for in a review is their name. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, the only thing worse than being mentioned in a review is not being mentioned at all. Many critics like to ensure everyone gets mentioned, and in doing so some value-judgement is inevitable, otherwise it is meaningless – and of minimal use, either to the practitioner or the audience.

Second, then it comes to a vast number of shows competing for audiences within a short time – as in Arts, Fringe and Comedy Festivals – critics may feel it is especially important to be clear on whether they are recommending one or not, and of course that means articulating why, which may well involve comments about the work of individuals.

Most stand-up comedians put the boot in all over the show: that’s their job. In many cases such performers reap what they sow. It is certainly hard to review a solo show without singling out the individual for comment.

Theatreview focuses on ‘professional’ performing arts (see the What Gets Reviewed? Forum), and we believe true professionals are up for reviews that come from a fearless combination of “passion, generosity of spirit and courage”.

That said, I would not for a minute suggest that every review on this site is consistently exemplary of those values.  And of course the Comments and Forum facilities allow people to say so.

nik smythe          posted 28 May 2010, 11:34 PM

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: everyone I know in the industry welcomes reviews good and bad.  Even a bad review you disagree with is potentially useful as the act of qualifying your contention helps to crystallise your own vision of the piece.

One aspect with festivals is that by their nature comprising numerous productions, there will always be a variance in quality – particularly in the case of the Fringe, and the Comedytfest.  I don’t wish to disparage or discourage experimantal practitioners (quite the opposite) however it’s arguable more unfavourable reviews emerge from these simply because there is more dodgy work being dished out…?

As a reviewer, this discussion highlights one fairly major dilemma in my job:  Who am I reviewing for? artists? audiences? my mates? potential future employers?  The answer is anyone who’s interested of course, only each person reading it has a different idea of what a review should be; emotional? didactic? snappy? comprehensive? encouraging? ruthless?

…Since the world of reviewing is fickle and nebulous at best, it becomes something you just do and not think too much about all that stuff. I can only give a verbal general account of the wholistic imprint that the work has left on me and never expect it to be taken as anything other than simply that.

I’m never personally out to crucify anyone  There are arists I admire to the point of reverence, but hardly anyone I find worth the time or energy to actively despise, least of all the astronomically overpaid Tom Cruises who really deserve to be.  In any case, with the forum and comment engines provided on this clever little site, the range of potential purposes of a review has expanded.

Unfortunately I won’t get to Horseplay, as it closes tomorrow night and I am going to Macbeth at the Musgrove Studio, whose opening on Wednesday I missed due to my recidivist failure to notice the correct start time.  So I’ll get to address the other aspect of my rearlier remark, and for the record I would rather watch a good Shakespeare than a crummy local work, inasmuch as I’d rather see a good anything than a crummy anything, obviously.

nik smythe          posted 28 May 2010, 11:51 PM

Below the British critics article in the comments: ‘Orson Welles once said in an interview that, criticism must come from an amateur perspective. Nothing is more boring and uninspiring than hearing the opinions of musos and intellectuals.’  Bit harsh, jeeez…

John Smythe      posted 29 May 2010, 03:37 PM


Interviewed by Kim Hill on Radio NZ National’s Saturday programme (29 May 2010), Sir Ian McKellen recounted the experience of drying on stage (with Judi Dench, in an RSC production of George Bernard Shaw’s Too True to be Good) in delayed response to hearing someone in a restaurant (another actor, I think) criticising his performance. Asked if the play was good and he was good in it, when he thinks back now, Sir Ian replies:

SIR IAN: Oh, who knows. Well I was for the critics – we got astonishing reviews – but clearly not for this actor.

KIM H: It’s the standard story, I suppose: one bad review overwhelms all the good reviews sometimes.

SIR IAN: Yes, well of course, you think that’s the one person who’s telling the truth, and that may well be, of course. And you know someone talking to a friend in a restaurant is uninhibited, and probably exaggerates the case a bit and shows off a bit, but at heart the person being criticised has to worry because the aim is to entertain everybody in the audience.

KIM H: And so do you read reviews or do you avoid them?

SIR IAN: Um … I used to read them a lot more than I do now. I like to have a sense of what the general view is; I don’t want to live in a fool’s paradise thinking the play’s absolutely going down a storm when in fact people aren’t really enjoying it, and it’s as well to be alert to that, in the hope you can, from criticism, discover how to make things better. But that isn’t always the case unfortunately because critics are not really writing for the performers, on the whole, they’re writing for their audience, you know, of potential theatregoers. So it’s hardly my business what they say about me. But I usually get round to reading them. 

Dane Giraud       posted 29 May 2010, 07:37 PM / edited 30 May 2010, 09:58 AM

Nik, if the world of reviewing is fickle and nebulous then clearly the wrong people are assuming the right to review.

nik smythe          posted 30 May 2010, 12:39 AM

I mean to say it’s inevitably so.  My experience and resulting written impression from watching a play is determined by numerous contextual circumstances, and people reading said impression have only their mind’s eye interpreting my description if they haven’t seen the same show.  Like the plays themselves, a review works or it doesn’t, for reasons unique to itself.

Dane Giraud       posted 30 May 2010, 09:03 AM / edited 30 May 2010, 09:57 AM

What might be some of these contextual circumstances be? I can’t see why context and experience should make reviewing a nebulous pursuit? Are you saying that the fact we are all individuals means that we will all interpret theatre in individual ways and therefore one review may not speak to anothers sensibilities? If so, I feel this a cop out. Why? Because good art exists and bad art exists; opinion has nothing to do with it and a reviewer should be able to, at the very least, judge quality. If they cannot, why are they reviewing?

Michael Smythe                posted 30 May 2010, 09:28 AM

Theatre is storytelling. Reviewing is storytelling about storytelling. Scientists may seek some repeatable provable truths to quantify these arts but artists trust their gut and seek the means to express what they imagine /perceive /think /feel /experience. Let’s lighten up and enjoy the process in the knowledge that we are not clones.

Dane Giraud       posted 30 May 2010, 10:06 AM

I don’t understand your clone bit, but I would disagree with you if you say that arts cannot be accurately apprasied beyond the gut. This is surely the type of thinking that has made mediocrity the norm in the arts (Around the world), has convinced wider New Zealand that anyone can give it a go, has made it acceptable and fashionable to attack elitists (Quick translation? People who know the difference between good and bad… And we hate them for it!?!). Why is talk of quantifiable artistic standards so threatening?

John Smythe      posted 30 May 2010, 11:51 AM

Of course there are some absolutes that constitute bad writing, directing, design, acting, etc. And sometimes someone does something so different that none of the usual means of quantifying quality apply.

Prime example: Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Legend – OK, Wikipedia – has it that En attendant Godot was a critical, popular, and controversial success in Paris (1953) but it opened in London (1955) to mainly negative reviews. “The tide turned with positive reactions by Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times and, later, Kenneth Tynan. In the United States, it flopped in Miami, and had a qualified success in New York City. After this, the play became extremely popular, with highly successful performances in the U.S. and Germany.”

Incidentally, the criticism that it is a play where “nothing happens – twice”, oft-quoted (most recently by Kim Hill, see above) as a negative comment, was nothing of the sort. Wikipedia again:

“In a much-quoted article, the critic Vivian Mercier wrote that Beckett “has achieved a theoretical impossibility—a play in which nothing happens, that yet keeps audiences glued to their seats. What’s more, since the second act is a subtly different reprise of the first, he has written a play in which nothing happens, twice.” (Irish Times, 18 February 1956, p. 6.)

sam trubridge    posted 30 May 2010, 11:58 AM / edited 30 May 2010, 12:09 PM

I have worked a lot with scientists, so have spent some time discussing similar issues.

The way I see it is that as artists we are architects of the subjective experience. Put another way it is our ambition and our craft to (objectively) understand the subjective, it is our science. Of course, this is ultimately a contradiction, or an idealistic pursuit; since we will never be able to create a work that succeeds in communicating the same thing to all people, or that appeals to everyone in the same way.

Science is often characterised by a similar idealism: attempting to achieve a pure objectivity in its analysis. Working with scientists has been an eye-opener in this regard, and has illuminated the myth of science presenting absolute truth. It has demonstrated to me that it is impossible to remove all traces of personality from our analysis of the world: the ‘framing device’ of the individual perspective haunts every observation we make.

No matter how subjective or collaborative we try to be, we cannot escape the fluidity of perspective. And yet it is necessary for us to try and rationalise in some way, whether we are working with scientific phenomena or artistic practise, because without that there is only disorganised chaos and misunderstanding.

Real artistic or scientific maturity comes through being able to embrace and celebrate the chaotic in a way that enhances the work and the rigour that goes into it. I guess a reviewer has the same onus as all of us, to use our discipline and craft to understand/ manipulate/ articulate fluid and evasive phenomena.

nik smythe          posted 30 May 2010, 12:32 PM / edited 30 May 2010, 01:10 PM

Dane:  I was referring to context as the fickle part, and interpretation as nebulous.  Of course , I don’t mean it at all as tenuous as it sounds, sorry I was being Dramatic…

Whilst there is normally some kind of zeitgeist of opinion on the merits of any given work, it’s also very common that some iconoclasts take an opposing view, and occasionally opinions can be split right down the middle.  So whilst I have my own sense of what is and isn’t quality, I have to ultimately disagree that ‘good art and bad art exists.’   To quote a well regarded writer: Nothing is good or bad, only thinking makes it so.

As an example in itself, as you see that as a cop-out, I could be reluctant to rebut for fear of appearing to be a fence-sitting wishy washy liberal.  I could even pretend to agree, thus rendering your opninon of me as not copping out when in reality I would know I actually am.

Le Sud is the classic polarising example.  People hate it because it’s crass, it milks stereotypes, the ending is trite, yada yada.  This is true, and so in this artistic sense it could be deemed as bad.  When I saw it, I laughed my head off and felt it had done it’s job.  It was to my mind therefore good, and operates on a level where I’m happy to conclude that the finer requirements of a Chekhov or an Ibsen are not a factor here.  Others clearly disagree, but I wrote the review.  There are probably others who agree with me in theory, but did not find it funny and therefore still disliked it.  i respect that people have these opposing points of view, but I can’t speak for those people.

I do agree that as the highest profile, best funded company ATC does have the highest expectations for the best quality work as they have the least excuse for not producing it.  As I said I sadly missed Horseplay, so cannot address the play in question with that notion.  I did go and see Macbeth however, which most people would probably agree is well written.  Really really wanting to like it, I found it to be indulgent, nonsensical and purposeless, with most of the classic lines and important twists in the underlying cryptic prophecy-driven plot all but totally missed.  I could have listed a vast number of shortcomings and annoyances, but admittedly kept it comparitively brief in light of the earlier concerns about less famous, poorer companies being given a hard time.

Dane Giraud       posted 30 May 2010, 05:28 PM

I find it worrying that you ultimately think that opinion is king when it comes to artistic appraisal Nik. See, to me, this is more left wing theory than anything vaguely artistic; the idea that empowerment comes from an individuals right to express their subjectve responces to art, literature or social systems, whether they are informed or not. But just as bad art exists, bad taste exists also, Nik.

If people are taking issue with Le Sud over it being crass and by buying into stereotypical characters they do not understand art. Neither objection reflects artistic concerns. These reflect ones personal politics. Distinctions must be made. Once they have the good glows next to the bad.

Sam, yes we have personal perspectives, but the challange is always to try to transcend our own limitations is it not? George Orwell was left wing, but what made his writing compelling (when addressing it directly) is that he seemed to challange the roots of the very theory he subscribed to. Most people find a way of thinking and just sit in the pocket from then on in. Your prejudices can be the sharpest tool in your kit if you master them and don’t let them master you.

Michael Smythe                posted 30 May 2010, 05:49 PM / edited 30 May 2010, 05:51 PM

I am reminded of F. W. Moody, an Instructor in Decorative Art in the South Kensington School of Design established after the Great Exhibition in 1851, of whom it was said, “He reduced everything to a system.”

Sam you made some excellent points and correctly noted my over-simplification of scientific versus artistic thinking. I was thinking of ‘enlightened’ academics who attempted to validate creativity by inventing absolute truths in such areas as composition and colour theory.

John Smythe      posted 31 May 2010, 07:52 AM / edited 31 May 2010, 08:05 AM

Dane, since you bring politics into it and it is clear you are a right wing libertarian ACT supporter, I am stunned that you want Nanny Critic to do your thinking for you (rather than advance their well-argued opinion for your consideration).

Who was it said, “There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so”?

Your notion that art exists in a value system that is dissociated from real life is bemusing, if not disturbing. I recall an argument that broke out some decades ago over the right of the film The Deer Hunter to assert that Russian Roulette was rife in Vietnam (in order to reflect the principle that the truly skilled deer hunter uses one bullet to fell their prey).  Some wit wrote a verse in Time Magazine – I wish I could remember it or had kept it – that said if artistic merit was the only criterion one could visit Auschwitz and judge that the gas chambers were well designed.

Dane Giraud       posted 31 May 2010, 11:29 AM

John, I see no connection in what you write to what I wrote at all. What’s that Deer Hunter thing got to do with anything I said? Can you believe I was arguing for artists NOT to take artistic license?!? Please unpack, because this was potentially a good debate…

John Smythe      posted 31 May 2010, 11:53 AM

Dane. You appear to argue, in your reply to Nik, that “artistic concerns” have nothing to do with political concerns, hence my using not so much the Deer Hunter example as the Time Magazine riposte to argue they are inextricable.

My assertion that you are asking for ‘Nanny Critics’ comes from your suggesting arts critics should be able to unilaterally declare what is good and bad without conceding such judgement can only, finally, be their opinion (aside from obvious failings like forgetting lines, bungled cues, technical incompetence, etc).

Dane Giraud       posted 31 May 2010, 03:32 PM

One word blows the it’s all opinion argument out of the water sorry guys. That word, or name rather is Shakespeare. He is the best writer that ever lived; any opinion disputing such is redundant. If it is all opinion, as you say, then someone asserting that Bruce Mason was a better writer than Shakespeare would be right, in their own universe… Crap! We can define a best so why can’t we define the rest?

Michael Smythe                posted 31 May 2010, 03:49 PM / edited 31 May 2010, 04:14 PM

Thanks Dane, you have made me realise that certainty is not the preserve of scientific thinkers – in fact while scientists seek results that can be proven and repeated they maintain an underlying belief that everything is open to challenge and review.

My personal opinion is that there is no truth, just different levels of agreement. There is, no doubt, a high level of agreement about Shakespeare being the best but can it be proven? The best we can hope for is informed opinion which is, I believe, the stock-in-trade of the reviewer.

But enough of my humble opinions – heed the words of Francis Bacon: “If a man will begin with certainties, he shall end in doubts; but if he will begin with doubts he shall end in certainties.” – The Advancement of Learning (1605)

Dane Giraud       posted 31 May 2010, 05:31 PM

Shakespeare’s superiority can be proved. Simple. Read his plays.

If I was to say to you, or John or anyone… Your work is crap! What would get you over the shock and dissapointment and the overall terrible feeling that someone didn’t like your work? The fact that you can always say it was just an opinion! We’ve all done it! See, the validation of all opinion is a cunning construct. It’s function is not actually to validate at all; or to invite the maginalised to the table as it pretends to, but actually to de-validate all opinion! To make it impossible to judge art or to draw conclusions on product and process. We can now sustain careers without having to have any talent at all! Bliss!

But thankfully the opposite is true. Art can be judged and these standards will come back in vogue one day. They have to, because bad art can’t sustain itself for ever.

nik smythe          posted 31 May 2010, 06:02 PM / edited 31 May 2010, 06:09 PM

Luckily, ’til that day I may continue to pose my own point of view with no fear of Orwellian repercussions.

Your line of reasoning sounds less like a means of eliminating liberal mediocrity and more about giving yourself an excuse not to listen to the reasoning of anyone at odds with your alleged universal truth.

Michael Smythe                posted 31 May 2010, 06:27 PM

You’re on to something here Dane!

May I suggest you lobby the PM to appoint Ann Tolley as Minister for Culture and Heritage (leaving Chris Finlayson to discern and articulate the certain truths inherent in Treaty Negotiations and Foreshore and Seabed issues). Mrs Tolley could then extrapolate the NCEA and National Standards into a checklist of performance criteria for all professional arts creation, delivery and criticism. Maybe the Standards Association could be subcontracted write standards for arts practice. Then local body Arts Inspectors could replace wiffley-waffley self-opinionated critics and take on the essential task of telling us all what is good and what is not. Those assigned to live theatre would, of course, use Shakespeare as their benchmark, deconstruct his formulae for success, draw up a matrix and then compare and contrast every script with the exemplars established by a committee of experts.

Okay – I’ve designed the methodology. Your job, Dane, is to come up with effective ways to discipline those whose opinions vary from the absolute truth of the National Standard.

sam trubridge    posted 31 May 2010, 06:35 PM

Somehow it feels just as pointless to define the best writer ever as it is to define what a NZ Play is. I just don’t know why either is necessary. Maybe I am put off by the need to define boundaries so clearly, maybe it smells of tribalism, maybe I am a socialist. Who cares? Shakespeare wrote for a certain time and a certain way of making theatre. He says everything about three times because there was little more than the language to define the performance at the time. These days it comes across as excessively florid, although as someone who loves words, I love it. I can’t say that everyone loves him the same though, and I guess that’s it. There may be a kabuki writer from 400 years ago who for some reason is better, but who in this forum would care? He wouldn’t have written in a language that we understand, and the narrative traditions and culture it comes from is not supported by the Anglo-Saxon / Hollywood hegemony that Shakespeare currently benefits from.

Dane Giraud       posted 31 May 2010, 07:06 PM

I got to say, Sam, reading Nik and Michaels last posts was certainly like watching a kabuki. What was that drivle about Ann Tolley? Who is Ann Tolley? An ex is she Michael? You certainly have some ax to grind. But you, the humble man you are, no doubt understand her to be an angel according to some, so who are you to say? I got to say, you certainly sound certain when you talk politics.

If you think my rhetoric big brother you mis the point. Man, you Smythes are like a Mafioso family the way you gang up on people (without the danger of course… or the expensive clothes). 

nik smythe          posted 31 May 2010, 07:56 PM

We’re one of those possibly less common like-minded families I suppose;  left of centre, up for discussion, tending toward pedantic to a fault…

Again, you see us as making excuses for poor quality, I see you as attempting to override any and all notions originating outside your square with block-headed elitism.  I believe Dad’s injection of Wilde’s alleged lowest form of wit is challenging you to provide us a functional model for your definitive word on quality control.  I can’t see how you can make it workable, partly due to my disgreeing with the fundaments such a format would be based on.

nik smythe          posted 31 May 2010, 08:00 PM

These standards you mention will come back into vogue one day; when were they last in place, and when and how did they get supplanted?

William Shakespeare      posted 31 May 2010, 08:24 PM / edited 1 Jun 2010, 06:48 PM

Allow me to be absolute my lords.

By no measure can this Dane, unlike

My other Dane, be counted worth the time

You deign to spend on him. Methinks he drinks

At sunset, so goes the detriment of such

Degree of reason he has feigned afore.

Whence this forum came, let it be said

The horse you flog is well and truly dead.

Dane Giraud       posted 31 May 2010, 08:30 PM

Stand and unfold yourself

Corin Havers       posted 31 May 2010, 09:37 PM

No, please don’t – could you please all rather just fold yourselves up and post yourselves off  somewhere.  I’m sure this adolescent rambling is discouraging interesting comment.

Sam Shore           posted 1 Jun 2010, 02:40 PM / edited 1 Jun 2010, 02:47 PM

I found the first half of this forum really interesting as it related to stuff within a community i know… now it seems to have become hot air with no relevance to  the original topic.

… i also saw Horseplay and have to say it left me a bit underwhelmed.

Ian Hughes          posted 4 Jun 2010, 12:20 PM

 What a choise fight eh! you fellas got real angry!

Michael Smythe                posted 4 Jun 2010, 12:37 PM

Ian – I feel compelled to critique your somewhat concise critique of those who criticised the critics and those who criticised those who criticised the critics. Were we not also erudite, ironic and creative?

Ian Hughes          posted 4 Jun 2010, 08:57 PM

 oh shit yeah.  youz were heeps smart too eh? dont worry about that. i thought it was real clever too!

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