Anvil House, Level 2, 138-140 Wakefield Street, Wellington

09/12/2014 - 13/12/2014

Production Details

Everyone’s a Critic: Director ignites Comedic coup de theatre with The Reviewers  

One of history’s worst scripts. Shows within shows within shows. Concealment, surprises and emergency dramaturgical meetings held in the dead of night. 

Fingers crossed, there’s gonna be a revolution.

The Reviewers is a hilarious, hyper-sequined explorative comedy that boldly questions the rules of performative decorum. Inspired by an on-stage confrontation she experienced while performing in Melbourne, the culmination of Director Sherilee Kahui’s Master’s degree turns theatrical device and expectation upside down, in a new devised work that dials subversion up to eleven.

In The Reviewers, Kahui will push through convention and dive into carefully curated spectacle, setting herself a risky challenge: successfully orchestrating what she describes as a ‘coup de theatre’.

The Reviewers subverts established theatrical protocols and focuses intently on the audience’s experience within the world of performance. Intricate levels of conceit, deceit, concealment and trust provide a solid foundation for collaboration between Kahui’s company, Hank of Thread, and a brave and clever cast, creating a production atmosphere that levels the playing field of who’s running the show.

For in the world of The Reviewers, no-one knows exactly what’s going to happen next.

“It’s a delicate and complex experiment. But I’m lucky enough to have a cast and crew that’s 100% up for it. They haven’t even all met each other, and nevertheless there’s incredible trust and comradery. Our designers have created exquisite surreal pieces to build the worlds of this show. We’re completely transforming the second floor of Anvil House. It’s going to be unbelievably extravagant and unlike anything audiences have experienced before.” 

Superficially, The Reviewers is an adaptation of Francis Beaumont’s universally panned 1607 text ‘The Knight of the Burning Pestle’. In Pestle, Beaumont uses the play within a play device to create meta-theatrical satire, lampooning the classism of art and its audiences. 

In Kahui’s adaptation, Pestle is to be performed by the Wimple Theatrical Players, a fictional troupe created to highlight some of the elitism present within the theatrical community.

“Working this way is incredibly complicated and a bit risky,” says Kahui. “But it’s also produced some of the most authentically hilarious moments I’ve ever seen in a rehearsal room. The cast has only the barest possible context needed to allow them to hit the notes The Reviewers requires and they’re just having to make sense of it as we go. Everyone’s completely committed to the beautiful, loud, genuinely rip-roaring experience we want the audience to have.” 

The Reviewers will challenge, entertain and, we sincerely hope, precipitate positive change in the arts community. You don’t need qualifications to know what you like. You don’t need to censor yourself to feel like you can be part of the conversation.

It’s all just razzle dazzle, baby. Razzle dazzle along with us!

Dates: 9 -13 December 2014 
Venue: Level 2, Anvil House, 138-140 Wakefield Street, Te Aro, Wellington 

Prologue / Liza:  Jean Sergent 
Citizen / Chorus:  Michael Ness 
Citizen’s Wife / Chorus:  Cherie Jacobson 
Ralph / Chorus:  James Cain 
Merchant / Chorus:  Michael Trigg 
Jasper / Chorus:  Michael Hebenton 
Lucy / Chorus:  Eleanor Merton 
Master Humphrey / Chorus:  Matt Bloomfield 
Tim / Cursor / Chorus:  Jimmy Sutcliffe 
Georges:  Nick Zwart 
Jon:  Jon Austin 
Phil:  Phillip Toye  

Concept:  Dan Fraser & Sherilee Kahui 
Producers / Production Management:  Sherilee Kahui, Jimmy Sutcliffe, Nell Williams 
Concept Development:  Dan Fraser, Milo Haigh, Sherilee Kahui, Rowan McShane, Jimmy Sutcliffe, Nell Williams 
Production Design:  Milo Haigh 
Sound design / Composition / Performance:  Emile de la Rey 
Lighting design / Operation:  Rowan McShane 
Stage Manager:  Nell Williams 
Assistant Stage Manager:  Staci Knox
Set Construction:  Sally Ogle 
Set / Costume / Props makers:  Jon Coddington, Sonia Costin, Daniel Fraser, Rachel Massey, Lucas Neale, Jimmy Sutcliffe, Jess Thompson, Nell Williams 
FoH:  Milo Haigh 
Waitstaff / Ushers:  Sherilee Kahui, Calvin Peteresen, Jane Yonge 
Photography:  Selina Van Doorn 
Mentor:  James McKinnon 

Multiple rings of ‘reality’ ring false

Review by John Smythe 10th Dec 2014

[The full review has now been reinstated.] 

The promo material calls it “shows within shows within shows” but actually The Reviewers plays fast and loose with shows without shows without shows … And by “without” I mean both standing outside and lacking, in this case rhyme or reason; without any internal logic to make it a cohesive show.

Like Dogs, seen earlier at the same venue, The Reviewers is a major MTA (Directing) production, this time showcasing the directing skills of Sherilee Kahui, who developed the concept with Dan Faser. The publicity blurb promises “a hilarious, hyper-sequined explorative comedy that boldly questions the rules of performative decorum.”

The premise is that the “Wimple Theatrical Players, a fictional troupe created to highlight some of the elitism present within the theatrical community” is presenting “Francis Beaumont’s universally panned 1607 text, The Knight of the Burning Pestle… [which] uses the play within a play device to create meta-theatrical satire, lampooning the classism of art and its audiences.” 

This time we do get a programme, albeit for The Knight of the Burning Pestle, wherein the actual actors and director are fictionalised and furnished with amusing faux bios.

The design elements –overseen by Milo Haigh (Production Design) and manifested by a large team of creatives and artisans – are excellent. In a cabaret setting, we witness the splendidly attired Wimples embark on a consciously bad performance of Pestle – or, to be more accurate, The London Merchant, which is hijacked to become The Knight of the Burning Pestle – where the small corner stage is ingeniously dressed with hangings on rollers to effect scene changes.

By all accounts (e.g. Michael Billington’s Guardian review; Dominic Cavendish’s Telegraph review) this year’s spirited revival of Beaumont’s play at the London Globe’s new Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, in the town where it premiered 407 years before, succeeds as a subversive send-up of prevailing genres while celebrating the vitality of happiness. ‘Cheryl Lee’ Kahui’s clichéd am-dram Wimple’s, however, sees a number of robust performances being subverted with enough inept ones to provoke two reviewers to intervene. More of them in a moment. 

Beaumont’s play has a couple of uncultured Citizens – a Grocer (played by Michael Ness) and his Wife (Cherie Jacobson) – being so displeased with The London Merchant that they intervene and install their apprentice, Ralph/Rafe (James Cain) to play a Knight Errant, with a Burning Pestle monogrammed onto his shield, in a play more to their liking. If it proceeded as scripted by Beaumont, the two plays would be juxtaposed and joust for supremacy …

While Jean Sergent delivers the Prologue with jovial gusto and Jacobsen plays the Wife whole-heartedly in a juicy Pam Ayres accent, Ness subverts the supposed spontaneity of the Kiwi-ised Grocer’s intervention by delivering his rote-learned lines in a deadly monotone. Hence the conceit makes no sense.

The Pestle’s cast – Michael Trigg, Michael Hebenton, Eleanor Merton, Matt Bloomfield, Jimmy Sutcliffe, Nick Zwart – plough on with an intended  mishmash of acting capabilities that demolishes any appreciation of Beaumont’s satire until the titular Reviewers, Jon (Jon Austin) and Phil (Phillip Toye) stage their own intervention, demand the stage is stripped … and are then obliged to entertain us themselves. 

For this idea to work we have to willingly suspend our disbelief in the spontaneity of the Reviewers’ actions and behaviours (as with Birdboot and Moon in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Inspector Hound), but the necessary conviction is absent here. There is no internal logic.

Likewise the manifestation of a chorus, dressed as fluffy gum-nuts to back their rendition of ‘Razzle Dazzle babies’, a brilliantly physicalised computer screen, and time-shifts in the Reviewer’s storyline, which lifts them right out of the here and now, contradicts the spontaneous intervention premise. This clumsy contrivance may or may not mirror the Pestle play within the Merchant play but this audience cannot be expected to know that.  

What it all gets reduced to, then, is a series of obviously well-rehearsed and cleverly designed set pieces, some of which are superb. Quite why Liza Minnelli should become part of it is a mystery but Jean Sergent’s ebullient yet poignant impersonation is a highlight.

The notion that these Reviewers are self-styled experts in all fields of artistic endeavour leads to a delicious send-up of performance art on the theme of Motherhood, where terms like “heteronormative”, “metatextuality” and “circumlocution” are paraded along with more fabulous design elements.

The final chorus – “We’re all Razzle Dazzle Babies / And this is just a play / No longer shall you be silenced / We all have something to say” – sets up an open mic for audience members to speak their minds. Presumably this is designed to put yet another contextualising ring around it all – but unlike the Reviewers in the play, the only ones to step up limit themselves to positive comments. Of course we do. 

If the purpose of The Reviewers is to critique the critics and/or to “lampoon the classism of art and its audiences” in 21st Century Wellington, that objective gets buried in a swirling welter of creative ideas that fight with each other for attention. Ultimately the multiple rings of ‘reality’ ring false.

It upsets me to see genuine talent squandered in shows that reduce what should be a rich, multi-dimensional experience to a display of ingredients yet to achieve the chemical change that produces excellent theatre. Of the umpteen creatives and crew members listed, none are nominated as playwrights or dramaturges and this skill set, yet again, is what The Reviewers sorely lacks.

I find myself questioning the compulsion MTA (Directing) students seem to have to reinvent theatre, especially by eschewing the writing part of the process; the specialised skill that moulds, massages, distils and crafts the component parts in a way that produces the aforementioned chemical change. Whether the director is also the playwright or the work is devised with a playwright / dramaturge on board, that stage in the development process always needs to be addressed.

Are builders trained to construct edifices without a blueprint? Is there a music school that allows conducting majors to prove their worth without a score? We have students creating unproduced scripts at Victoria University’s Institute of Modern Letters, Playmarket bursting at the seams with unproduced plays by proven playwrights … Why is the Victoria University of Wellington / Toi Whakaari: New Zealand Drama School MTA (Directing) course not availing itself of such available resources?

We can only hope the current review of this course will address such questions.


Thomas LaHood January 6th, 2015

And here is Jo Randerson's excellent review:

Thomas LaHood January 6th, 2015


Here's my late late review.  I've been on holiday.  But now I almost wish I'd been in Wellington reading this thread everyday!  Anyway, I hadn't read any of this conversation when I wrote this response to the work, so any parallel thoughts and things will be interesting!

Jarrod Baker January 6th, 2015

Here's a further review:

Ania Upstill January 2nd, 2015

Here is the hopefully better late than never review (taken from notes on the night, and not related to the above comments): 

John Smythe December 30th, 2014

Hi again Sherilee. I do admire your passion and commitment – and I hear myself at about your age in a great deal of what you say. I won’t repeat myself by arguing point-by-point but will respond to a couple of things. 

I certainly applaud taking risks and have often said that when it comes to live theatre the biggest risk is to take no risks at all. Of course it could be said that all live performance is inherently risky and that is part of its attraction, given screen performance is pre-recorded, edited and post-produced. However beyond the ‘will they crash and burn?’ factor, it’s the ‘leap of faith’ taken by practitioners and audiences which adds to the thrill of theatre-making and theatre-going.

As for ‘Razzle Dazzle’, the resurgence of Cabaret, Burlesque and Circus along with ever-popular Musicals show there are many practitioners who are embracing those genres that are very obviously especially suited to dynamic live performance. (Mind you sport used to be a sure-fire crowd-puller too until TV got really good at capturing the game better than anyone physically present could, and it may now be argued the filming of live performances at the National Theatre, Globe, Stratford, The Met, et al – along with Cirque du Soleil shows, et al – will do the same.)

Although I have argued that reviews are inherently subjective, please don’t take that to mean all critics are trying to do is convince audiences to share their preferences and prejudices. Most of us aim to review a show on its own terms and we are usually delighted to be challenged, have our perceptions broadened and be jolted out of any semblance of smug complacency. My review of The Reviewers and subsequent comments refer frequently to the espoused aims and asserted claims made on behalf of your work.

In saying it was naturalism that introduced the ‘fourth wall’, I certainly don’t think ‘the willing suspension of disbelief’ is confined to that genre. All storytelling, no matter how fantastical or mythical, invites us to enter into an imagined realm and seeks to hold our attention (hence: enter-tain). It began around the campfires of hunter-gatherers, was well-entrenched when Greek poets dramatised stories and has endured ever since; commedia, Elizabethan, Jacobean, Restoration, Melodrama, Vaudeville, Naturalism, Dada, Brechtian, Absurdist … (very few of which could “still happen” without a live audience).

You co-opt ‘post-structuralism’ as a genre for The Reviewers and even here, while Beaumont’s Grocer & Wife may not have suspended their disbelief in The London Merchant, he did require his audience to believe in the idea of the Grocer, Wife and Nephew. By directing the Grocer to be totally unconvincing, however, you ensured that we were not ‘sucked in’ by them – but you did presumably hope that we would respond to the intruding titular Reviewers as ‘real’. The invitation to everyone to avail themselves of ‘a voice’ – on the dubious presumption their prior experience of theatre was to feel ‘done at’ – was predicated either on there being some make-believe idea for them to engage with and critique, or on the only thing actually happening being performance disconnected to anything other than the idea of performance.  

Having been actively involved in an alternative theatre company (the Australian Performing Group at The Pram Factory in Melbourne, which attracted other alternative groups from far afield), I came to the conclusion that my loathing of naturalism needed a rethink – but not to the exclusion of valuing the many riches available in the alternative forms. To put it simplistically, I concluded that humanity was better served by my spending an hour or two engaging empathetically in fictions that tested my value systems through inviting me to wrestle with moral dilemmas than it was by my experiencing sweaty actors breaking the fourth wall and climbing all over us to express their ‘freedom’. It was also about then that I saw a clearer distinction between ego-driven performance (cf: hubris) and performance that served the interests of audiences and humanity at large. 

Of course it is essential that every generation breaks the conventions in seeking to invent new genres because a lot of it endures. It is salutary to note, however, what has endured over the centuries and into this one. I would assert that it is not specific genres that endure but live theatre experiences that, individually and collectively, simultaneously stimulate our emotions, intellects and spirits. I’m not saying everything must therefore attempt to achieve this, just that these are what tends to become classics.

To return to the question of taking risks and having the right to fail, here is what Bruce Mason wrote when vilified for the underdeveloped third act of Awatea in 1968, which he subsequently rectified – both with thanks to, and in spite of, his rigorous critics (please read ‘writer’ as any creative artist in theatre):

"I find it remarkable that in a country where the arts, far from flourishing, have barely taken root, an artistic failure can evoke a furious satisfaction. Were one a scientist, conducting an independent experiment which failed, it would not lead to professional extinction; one would try again on another tack; unless this were so, no Department of Scientific and Industrial research could possibly survive or even justify itself. The right to fail is conceded everywhere to scientists but not yet to artists. We assume of course that the scientist is objective, working on inert matter which does not take on the context or colour of his personality, but that a writer spinning his material spider-like from his innards, must be identified with it; that if it fails, then it is as much a failure of nerve or character as of talent.

"Most writers, I believe, would declare that their best moments seem to happen of themselves, as illuminations which descend unsought and unbidden – much of Awatea for example, had seemed to write itself – but this news has not reached many critics that I know of. By signing one’s name to a piece, one becomes an accessory to the crime of authorship (or so I bitterly concluded)."[i]

[i]  Bruce Mason, Foreword to Awatea, May 1969, The Healing Arch: five plays on Maori themes, Victoria University Press, 1987, pp 291–3.

Sherilee Kahui December 30th, 2014

Kia ora to Tristan, Montague & Sasha for sharing your thoughts. Such diverse responses and much for us to mull over!

 John: To imply that I did anything other than aim to succeed with The Reviewers is to either misunderstand the concept of taking risks, or to dismiss work that operates on a different level to your personal tastes.

 It’s all about the audience! As a 29 year old, I am primarily going to make work that aims to resonate with a similar age group to me. This is mostly because people my age and younger are the audience that will determine whether theatre lives or dies. This is what is important to me. I think that for you to help sustain the form you need to be aware of and try to understand both what appeals to younger people and the cultural forms that have helped to shape a new kind of dramaturgy – one that is informed by a diverse range of art and media that people are exposed to on a daily basis and helps feed into their experience and understanding of art. Passing judgement on what passes as “good” dramaturgy without investigating or understanding a wider cultural context ignores post-structuralism both within and outside of theatre that a younger audience innately understands, due to growing up in the digital age and watching shows like Community, The Mighty Boosh, Tim & Eric etc.

Is it a huge leap to see the connection between what is on the surface a discourse on theatre and wider human issues? Issues of representation, for example? Whose voice deserves to be heard? Generational fascism? Hegemonic and patriarchial authoritarianism? Lofty aims, and I don’t mean to say that The Reviewers in and of itself smashes these archaic structures, but to assert that the show is purely esoteric is to dismiss the responses of the largely non-mainstream-theatre-going audience as invalid.

If theatre cannot move into the 21st century then it deserves to wither and die. What is the point of theatre? What does theatre do that film, the Internet or TV cannot offer? It is up to artists to prove the validity of the form and invite wider audiences to get involved or “razzle dazzle along with us”!

I think I understand what Sasha says when she says “passive”. This is what I take it to mean: that often, theatre happens at us. Actors act at us. Stories are told at us. John, you say that we are activated by suspending disbelief, engaging with story, empathise with characters etc. But do we need to? What I mean is, if we do not suspend disbelief (which seems particular to Naturalism?), if we are not engaged by the story, if we don’t care about the characters, if we don’t even go to the show, does it matter? The show still happens. So what’s the point? Those kinds of shows don’t need an audience, really. But in a way, aren’t we comparing apples to oranges? Sasha is responding to a different form to what you are searching for in The Reviewers, I think.

 With reference to Tristan’s conclusion – we invited two reviewers each night to see the show in exchange for free tickets. Two people didn’t show up, one has just posted above and one night we had three, so there are five reviews to come.

John Smythe December 29th, 2014

You articulate your views very well, Sasha. I just need to respond to this furphy: “So often, especially since the rise of cinema we as an audience are content to sit passively in the dark and let the experience wash over us.”

It is true that audiences for naturalistic theatre (which being little more than a century old occupies just a small percentage of theatre history) and cinema are especially required to ‘willingly suspend their disbelief’ and enter into the ‘make-believe’ of a ‘reality’ unfolding beyond a ‘fourth wall’. But to suggest our engagement is ‘passive’ is a myth that has to be challenged.

Engaged imaginations and human empathy are, by definition, interactive. A child listening to a story being read, or anyone reading a novel to themselves, may also appear to be passive but they, too, are participating in a highly imaginative, interactive experience.

Engaging with fictitious lives that come with a past that has formed them, who are drawn into action by objectives driven by wants, needs and desires for their futures, and who encounter circumstances, situations, obstacles and unexpected events, then deal with them (or not) in ways that engage our empathy, can (but not always) be a rich, three-dimensional, interactive human experience that expands our awareness and understanding of life, the universe and everything.

By contrast just watching performers perform can (but not always) be relatively two-dimensional and limited in its entertainment value, despite our sharing the physical space and actively interacting with the performers and each other. Regarding audience participation, I’d add that the more our involvement is needed to advance and determine the outcome of the unfolding action, the more rewarding it is for an audience.

Sasha Tilly December 29th, 2014

Hello, here's my two cents, chur.

Montague Summers December 22nd, 2014

Here is a review of The Reviewers:

John Smythe December 21st, 2014

Thank you for your advice and comments, Tristan. I think it comes down to this:

The Reviewers invites it audience – offers them the right and the freedom – to express their response to the work in ways that go further than focused attention, human interest, personal and collective empathy, tension, release and laughter (you know, the sort of thing that happens in the sort of theatre some people feel is oppressive, exclusive, elitist, alienating, etc, etc). “You don’t need qualifications to know what you like,” the media release says. “You don’t need to censor yourself to feel like you can be part of the conversation.”

The trouble is The Reviews offers the audience very little beyond the objective observation of acting and design elements, which – despite often being excellent, in and of themselves – amounts to a pretty limited experience compared to what theatre can potentially offer.  To be fair, the media release concludes, “It’s all just razzle dazzle, baby. Razzle dazzle along with us!” So the question is simply were we razzle dazzled or not?  A yes/no question.

As for my wanting to be “the common man” – I’m not sure what your point is here. I see my job as being to respond to theatre from an open-minded, human perspective. Ideally the only qualification anyone should need to gain value from witnessing theatre is to be a sentient human being. Some plays add a requirement that a specific language is understood; some may rely on an awareness of, or interest in, aspects of history, current affairs, political issues … whatever. And of course there are non-verbal physical theatre forms and shows that transcend language boundaries and ‘speak’ to our humanity in a direct and often powerful way (e.g. Thomas Monckton, Trygve Wakenshaw, et al).   

So what does being human entail? In order to survive, all humans being need to breathe, eat & drink, urinate & excrete, sleep … and as a species we need to procreate so some relationship with sex is a common denominator too. Most of us share at least some senses, faculties, and physical and mental abilities (but it cannot be assumed we all share all of them). Communication and social interaction is pretty well essential too (except for hermits). Beyond that, more specific cultural, generational and socio-economic factors kick in.

Even so, there is an awful lot ALL humans being have in common and theatre throughout history and all over the world has traded in that currency. And every generation has sought to disparage conventional practice, break the boundaries and reinvent theatre – usually without much cognisance of the concept of hubris (pretty well the first thing theatre confronted humanity with).  

You conclude: “Another note the show was on for five nights, two reviewers a night. So there should be eight more reviews to come right?” I have no idea what you mean by this.

Tristan Rodway December 20th, 2014

AS a remedy to the willies maybe a perusal of Guillermo Gomez Pena's La Pocha Nostra, Augusto Boal's Theatre of the Oppressed or his Games for the Actor and the Non-actor, and the work of Jan Natya Manch in the Indian Street Theatre tradition each of which have a very different attitude to audience interaction and that is not considered disrespecful, and which doesn't treat the initial impressions of their audience as banal. I have only had a fleeting look at these so I can't really comment further but I think that any real comment on this piece would have to look at the aims and methods of these groups' and compare it to the aims and methods of this group to see what they did in order to transfer it to this culture. I'm sure this is a question that hasn't escaped the group and it goes far beyond how do we attract people who aren't coming to the theatre? There are traditions of busking and street magicians in western, european, new zealand culture which involve and are enhanced by audience interaction. 

I feel the need to restate some of my opinions here because my points have been picked up and altered by you. ( as no doubt I did to yours after I read your review) I feel as though my own nervousness I described in my review has been translated to suggest that this is the certain result of attempting to engage an audience directly, when it isn't a constant at all. Secondly, I think that because my review focused on the thematic connections throughout the piece you have picked up on these as though they were the only things there, ignoring the entertaining parts. This is why you say that the piece was about having an esoteric(?) conversation about theatre and about why theatre needs to go beyond being a conversation with itself.

I really feel that often you want to have a bob each way, if you'll forgive my gambling terminology, You go see heaps of theatre and have the chance to write and think about it and yet you want to consider yourself the common man

Another note the show was on for five nights, two reviewers a night. So there should be eight more reviews to come right?

nell williams December 18th, 2014

Because the two aren't mutually exclusive 😎

John Smythe December 18th, 2014

Hi Nell. My reviews are ALWAYS my own subjective viewpoint, articulated – I hope – in a way that implies where I am coming from and what my value systems are, which people can take, leave or argue with. That is a given and, with all due respect, bleeding obvious. It would make for awfully tedious reading if I – and every other critic – qualified every assertion in every review with “in my opinion”, “as I see it”, “personally speaking” etc.  I use such phrases sparingly.   

I’m not sorry this discussion has been provoked. It has given me an insight to a whole new way of thinking about theatre practice which frankly gives me the willies. I mean how can you assert a show is breaking down “some of the scary exclusivity, protocol and status-tussling that is so often present in the arts” (the terms ‘straw men’ and ‘paper tigers’ spring to mind) while at the same time admitting to its including “self-lampooning injokery”, which is a pretty sure way of making the uninitiated feel alienated.

I cannot see how anyone fearful of or disengaged by theatre would feel emancipated by attending The Reviewers. But that’s just me. 

nell williams December 18th, 2014

(Premature post submit!)

This is useful to hear from someone who sees a lot of theatre and is able to write so thoughtfully about it. But maybe in future you might temper your verdicts with an acknowledgment that your experience is your own (and is just as valid as anyone elses, but entirely your own!) and others may have had a different experience. 

I know I've found the ongoing discussion and debate around the request for feedback in live format to be very interesting and, for better or worse, it's been a huge part of my consideration of the successes and failures of this production process

nell williams December 18th, 2014

Funny that John should mention consideration of those who don't usually go to the theatre and what they might enjoy- this potential audience was perhaps the most important to the concept development crew (though we considered there'd be enough self-lampooning injokery to appeal to fellow practitioners and theatre-buffs, too!), as a key component of the experiment was to explore - and hopefully break!- some of the scary exclusivity, protocol and status-tussling that is so often present in the arts, especially in the space where makers and witnesses share the room.

So it was pleasing to get such interesting feedback from less au fait audience members after the show and during the season. They were honest and generous and curious and forthright and unafraid to question purpose and execution. After all, who's responsibility is it if audiences  'didn't get it?'. Surely ours!

So with respect John, truly, i'd gently remind you that just as we cannot speak to or for everyone, neither do you. 

YOU found the Reviewers' interruption to be rehearsed, YOU found the waitstaff behaviour to run a distressing gamut of banal to disrespectful, YOU could see no evidence of strong dramaturgy. 

This is useful to hear from someone who sees a l 

John Smythe December 18th, 2014

Hi Sherilee

I certainly agree that part of the point of undertaking a course of fulltime study is to reach beyond your known universe, step out of your comfort zones and take big risks. But I’d have thought the next step was to apply all that learning to your major production – the one whereby you ‘come out’ as a professional director – with a project that intends to succeed; wherein the risks you take are well-considered on your part, no matter how much you and your team aim to challenge your audience.

It certainly was remiss of me not to challenge your caveat at the time, about not reviewing it until the season was finished (not something I read as a ‘contract’, as such) and I confess in the fortnight following it slipped my mind. I therefore approached it as I do all shows I review, from an audience perspective, concerned to evaluate the experience on their behalf and record the event for posterity. That’s my job. Other conversations that discuss your project within the context of your learning are the prerogative of your teachers, mentors and peers.

Now that I understand better the game you were playing – and thank you to Tristan for your perspective and insights – and taking note of your most recent comment, Sherilee, I have to say you seem to be pitching to a very small community indeed: one willing to spend its time and money engaging in an esoteric ‘conversation’ about the nature of theatre and theatre practice in itself. That may be valid within a course of study but outside, in the real world, unless theatre practitioners use theatre as a means to a greater end, addressing the wider and more relevant issues of what it is to be human, then theatre as a vocation that truly contributes to humanity at large will surely wither and die.

We need to consider all the people who do not go to theatre, ask ourselves why than ask what might attract them … But clearly that was not your agenda here.

Nevertheless I have to query your attitude to your audiences. It is the most natural thing in the world for people to engage with ‘make believe’ in its various forms, through inquisitiveness, empathy, critical enquiry, a desire to find meaning and to solve problems … It starts in childhood and never stops. In theatre it is simultaneously a collective and very individual, private, experience. But to have waiter figures interrupting your engagement with promptings to make an instant and, I think, banal judgement on some aspect of their/your choosing is counterproductive and disrespectful.  

It’s like going to something with a friend who has created it and having them monitor your every reaction – Did you get that? What do you think? Am I clever? Why aren’t you laughing? Isn’t that profound? – when you are trying to engage with the work itself in your own personal way.  

Regarding your specific addressing of my points:

  • By “lacking rhyme or reason” or inner logic, I mean we can only ‘buy’ the make-believe of reviewers actually interrupting a show if it occurs within real time. As soon as the rest of the cast becomes involved in their ‘reality’ it is clearly pre-rehearsed (so how can it have been a surprise for the cast, by the way?) and likewise time-shifts in the scenario indicates it has been pre-scripted. We therefore lose the capacity to suspend our disbelief and lose faith in the whole enterprise. (Stoppard’s absurdist The Real Inspector Hound, which also has Critics intruding on a play’s performance, is bound by a very strong inner logic, manifested in plotting and theme, to do with the critics’ private fears, proclivities, petty jealousies and fantasies – and it works because it is all explored within the ‘real time’ of a performance of the play they are there to review.)

  • “If it proceeded as scripted by Beaumont, the two plays would be juxtaposed and joust for supremacy …” – why is this relevant?
    Just trying to compare his objectives with yours, but not for a moment suggesting you should have stuck with his play.

  • Dramaturgs & Playwrights:
    I assert that the lack of ‘inner logic’ referred to above attests to the lack of good dramaturgy. There are plenty of examples of multiple contributors to a script and lots of good scriptwriting partnerships, but there comes a time when the assembled components have to be put together, structured and refined, with a sensibility that is very different that the act of performance, directing or designing. I accept this phase was attempted but I don’t think it delivered a good result (because it’s a skill many don’t understand and take for granted?).

As for your asking who Theatreview is for, I hope that is answered implicitly above. Many theatregoers use it as a guide, both in the process of wondering what’s on and whether to go to it, and by way of engaging further with a play’s ideas or helping to articulate their experience after they’ve seen a show. If I thought only practitioners read Theatreview I’d give it away because, as stated above, I see theatre as a means to an end, not (heaven forfend!) as an end in itself.

Sherilee Kahui December 18th, 2014

Kia ora, Tristan!

Thank you for sharing. Genuinely, this is an incredibly generous offer. I think that to respond to your peers’ work is incredibly daunting and intimidating and I respect the care that you have taken in your writing.

 I’m going to speak directly to the part where you said you were baffled, because of course I am. The intent was for this to be a complete takeover. As in we completely leave Pestle and start a new show. But I used the same actors, so there needed to be some acknowledgement of or pay off for what came before? This is how I am reading it, correct me if I am wrong. Also, this makes sense to me, thank you.

I found this review stimulating, insightful and useful. Of course this leads me to ask “what is the point of reviews?” I think that in a place as small as Wellington and Aotearoa, it is incredibly important for us to have open conversations about our work. We are tiny! Everyone knows each other, and we tend to personally know a lot of the people in our audience.

 I want Wellington to be a breeding ground for risky, brave, interesting, entertaining work. I want it to be of a high standard. I want artists to challenge themselves and each other and for us to learn and grow as an arts community and city. I think that critical response to work should be a part of this. Real conversation to help make our work stronger!

Tristan Rodway December 17th, 2014

Here's a link to my attempt at a review

Sherilee Kahui December 17th, 2014

Kia ora everyone! I am the Director of The Reviewers and am henceforth engaging.

I will start by saying that I believe that undertaking a project that does not have a risk of failure (real flat-on-its-face failure) is not something worth doing. This is how I approach work both as a maker and audience member. 

Secondly, I am not engaging in order to “defend” my work, but rather hold up my end of the conversation.

I will now address why I requested that the reviews of this show be withheld until the conclusion of the season:

  1. Spoilers! Not the Grocer and his Wife, though! When I chose Pestle, I thought it was hilarious that Beaumont has those characters intervene straight after the prologue. I also thought the Prologue was hilarious, as was Master Humphrey’s terrible verse. I understand what Beaumont was doing and I used that as a launch pad to explore ideas closer to home. The conceit was not that the Grocer et al interrupt the London Merchant, but that the reviewers interrupt Pestle. The theatrical idea for Pestle was to explore “bad’ acting – which sets us up to explore “bad” art in The Reviewers. But what is “bad”? Why is it bad? Who gets to have the authority on what is good or bad? So the spoilers that I wanted to avoid were:
  2. The reviewer’s interruption of Pestle. This was unrehearsed prior to opening night. I wanted to keep it live and fresh. I imagine most of the actors had figured out roughly what was going to happen, but they didn’t know how. As for the audience, people over the season were getting genuinely annoyed with Jon & Phil and admitted that they didn’t realise they were plants. How does this then sit with the point on internal logic?
  3. Liza Minnelli! Visually and dramaturgically… what a surprise! I won’t go into what her role was dramaturgically, because I hope other reviewers may comment on the success/failure of how that read. I’ll come back to it later if not. (Again, not to defend, but rather to explain my intent so that people can say where I went wrong and I can learn a thing).

Ok so the next thing I wanted to talk about it is… who is Theatreview for? The arts community? The art consuming public? Both? If I wasn’t in the arts community I wouldn’t know that this site exists, so I wouldn’t come here to decide whether or not to see a show. I don’t think people from within the community do, either. I think we come here to see what people thought of our own work mostly (or more honestly a sense of validation), or to see what is being said about people we like, or don’t like. So I don’t see what difference it makes whether you post during the season or after. John, you talk about your differing opinion, but why didn’t you say anything before opening night? You had the publicity material and the conditions / contract were sent to you via email. If you thought it was a dumb idea and didn’t want to participate you should have said something then. Or even at the show! Ah… the open mic night…

 As the season progressed the wait staff (myself, Jane Yonge & Calvin Petersen – all MTAs) got more savvy at interacting with the audience and eliciting critical feedback. It got pretty intense, but was so insightful! Imagine knowing what your audience thinks of your project as it is happening?! Terrifying but thrilling. One of the questions I asked was “Do you understand the show?” Sometimes I would get 2 page meta-critiques, but more often I would get a plain “yes” or “no”. When I got “no” I would ask if that hindered the experience or ability to enjoy the piece. I never once got a no. People experience work on different levels, and not all people dislike what they don’t understand. It’s obviously impossible for me to be objective, but when people are repeating your intention back to you, I think that the structure and dramaturgy must not have been ENTIRELY flawed. Ewww, straying into defence… Soz.

Anywho, people were critical during the open mic sessions. Laurie Atkinson was. So was an ex-student of mine. He wasn’t even reviewing, but I read out one of his comments and invited him to expand, which he did and there were others in the audience who agreed with him. Awesome! I do wish people had been more critical, so I am left wondering how to make it safer for people to feel like they can be? But also, what if people just actually had a good time? John, what could I have done to make you feel like you could have been honest on stage?

Finally, to respond directly to some points John brings up: 

  • …“lacking rhyme or reason” – can you honestly say you have no idea what the show was about or what the structure may have been? I’m not being facetious, I just don’t get it…
  • “If it proceeded as scripted by Beaumont, the two plays would be juxtaposed and joust for supremacy …” – why is this relevant?
  • What do you think Beaumont’s intent was? What was his satire trying to achieve? What does it mean now?
  • “Time shifts in the reviewers’ storyline”  - It will be interesting to hear other views on this.
  • Dramaturgs & Playwrights: The cast wrote words and I shaped them into a show. Why would this show have needed a playwright to do that? The words needed to come from the performers’ experience and interactions. Many voices, not one ultimate voice. I think this worked dramaturgically. CONTROVERSIAL! Working closely with me, Jimmy Sutcliffe, Nell Williams, Milo Haigh, Dan Fraser, Rowan McShane and Emile de la Rey all performed the role of dramaturg. We all have to be dramaturgs to be on the same page, surely? There was constant questioning about logic within the world of the show and many nights laboured over structure and intent. Just because one person isn’t specifically designated “dramaturg” does not mean that that job was not done.

That’s all from me. I look forward to seeing the rest of the reviews and continuing this conversation!

John Smythe December 16th, 2014

Fair enough Emma but the efficacy of risk-taking and discovery though failure is not supported unless someone is willing to say it failed and indicate why. Surely at Masters level a rigorous critique is in order. I therefore stand by my contribution – and welcome all the commentary around it.

Emma Willis December 16th, 2014

While I agree that an understanding of the principles dramaturgy is pivotally important for theatre students, I equally think that students' desire to 'reinvent theatre' and theatrical forms should be encouraged.  Tertiary study provides an environment within which risking taking, failure and discovery are pedagogically vital.  Simone de Beauvoir writes: 'failure and success are aspects of reality which at the start are not perceptible.  This is what makes criticism so easy and art so difficult: the critic is always in a good position to show the limits that every artist gives him[her]self...'  Like Eleanor I have not seen these productions but wonder if there might be a little more generosity in engaging with the context of the environment within which they were developed, and open-mindedness about the creative paradigms within which the students are developing their practice.

John Smythe December 14th, 2014

I too would welcome the engagement of the theatre makers in question. And may I point out once more I am not saying they should necessarily do pre-scripted plays, just that until this course includes actual play writing-cum-dramaturgy (as opposed to an appreciation of same), then unless they come in with those skills already in their repertoire, it seems counterproductive to mount a production that subverts itself because those skills are absent. They bring in actors, designers, etc, to realise their vision, so why not a playwright-cum-dramaturge?

The Reviewers (for which the full review is now reinstated) is very much a text-based work and therefore needs to be wrought as a play, using the full spectrum of a playwright’s skill. While it aims to be post-modern and absurdist with its deconstructing of theatre practice, it still needs its own inner logic in order to work for an audience. I don’t think it aspires to the ‘postdramatic’ ethos of Elizabeth LeCompte /The Wooster Group or Lemi Ponifaso (who arguably approaches his work from a choreographic perspective).

Eleanor Bishop December 13th, 2014

I don't think the directors you speak of are throwing away two years of skill building. Maybe they are working towards being a Robert Lepage or an Elizbaeth LeCompte or for an example closer to home - a Lemi Ponifaso. So in all likelihood working on a new New Zealand play wouldn't serve them on this trajectory. 

I should let the directors in question speak for themselves - I am 9000 miles away. But my distance is giving me some perspective on this.

When devised work is shown in New Zealand it is often judged on the criteria of whether it meets the standards used to judge a new 'play'. A lot of devised theater makers are not trying to make a new 'play'. A lot of them are. I'm not suggesting a dismisaal of narrative, or structure at all. All I am proposing here is some engagement with the values of the theatermakers in question. Some of your criteria John may be less important to them. 

John Smythe December 13th, 2014

I'm not saying 'should' Eleanor, just pointing out that while new directors choose to prove their credentials with devised works that fall way short of dramatic coherence, there is a wealth of material available that awaits proof of viability. Why hijack the craft one has spent two years developing by allowing inept dramaturgy to overwhelm your project?

When one looks at what the MTA course undertakes to equip students with – see – one hopes a major production will offer a fair degree of proof these skills have been achieved. Good directors include people in their creative teams who have the skills they lack.  

Of course this discussion is somewhat hamstrung by this request from the director: “There are many surprises planned (even for the cast) and therefore I am also asking that reviews are not posted in print or online until after the season is done, as it would be impossible to review (although am open to differing opinions) without giving the game away.”

My “differing opinion” is that reviews are written primarily for prospective audiences, who are entitled to some indication of the content and quality of a show. Certainly spoilers are to be averted but in this case the title pretty well gives the show away and if audience enjoyment is conditional on that ‘surprise’, as opposed to what ensues from that twist in proceedings, then that too points to the play’s shortcomings. For a start, it can only work if it’s credible – and it’s not. But if playwriting skills had been brought to bear, and an internal logic had been preserved, there could have been value in the device.

Nevertheless I have acceded to a further request and suspended that part of the review until the season is over. And I am not happy that doing so disenfranchises the readers who want to get the ‘argument’ and come to their own conclusions.

Eleanor Bishop December 13th, 2014

I comment on this without having seen the piece.

There should be room for all types of directors within Wellington and New Zealand's cultural landscape. From directors who are the primary authors of a theatrical piece, to directors who realise the vision of a piece of theatrical writing. There are numerous models for creating theatre.

I don't understand why this review cannot confine itself to a critique of the show and must enter into value judgements about whether MTA directing students should be directing new New Zealand plays from either Playmarket or VUW modern letters. 

Make a comment

Wellingon City Council
Aotearoa Gaming Trust
Creative NZ
Auckland City Council