Jul 18, 2007

Brian Logan reminding us all why theatre criticism is dying in a corner.

Following on from my previous post I, Young Turk that I am, am going to be so bold as to describe Brian Logan's sub-300 word un-review of the same play in Time Out as one of the most lazy pieces of theatre criticism I have ever had the misfortune to come across.

Now before you all sigh wearily and shake your heads at the rather futile game of Cannon Fodder that continues to be waged between Theatre Critics and, well, Everyone Else. Let me just say that:

a) I know that it is hideously boring and thoroughly unproductive to spend time that could valuably spent writing about exciting interesting things (brown paper packages tied up with string, mittens, etc) firing petulant salvos at people required to see 4 shows a week and submit their review almost as soon as the applause has died.

and b) That Time Out is glossy listings magazine with all of the critical weight of The Argos Catalogue.

But frankly, theatre makers deserve at least a smidgen of the effort and a gnat's breath of the thought they put into making their shows to be put into the act of writing a review. This kind of half-arsed self-aggrandising journalism-by-numbers is an insult to those who it purports to criticise.

So enough preamble. Let's take a look at the three paragraph's Logan scribbled on the back of a chewing gum wrapper, sitting on the Victoria line on the way home, giggling like a giddy school girl at his own witticisms.

First though I just want to preempt anyone leaps to his defence by stating that it is not his fault that he is straight-jacketed into writing such a puny amount about each show he sees. True, undoubtedly he has a word limit and as George Hunka and Alison Croggan amongst others have argued, it is this brutal brevity that is one of the main reasons for the hyperbolic, cliche-ridden garbage that is passed off as reviewing in the main stream media; because frankly unless your show stars Madonna or was written by an ageing white guy who made his name in the 70s, the reviewer is simply not given the space or the word count to properly engage with the piece they have seen and instead falls back on a series of superficial and lazy platitudes or smug and uninspiring digs. Enter, stage left, the review in question:
I’ve made some excuses for crying off work in my time, but this takes the cake. Yun Chin is a town clerk who throws a several-week sickie after seeing a ghost on his bike-ride home. Not surprisingly, his colleague Ku finds this hard to believe – and so Yun Chin re-enacts the cycle with her help, bringing the story of that night-time ride back to life.
So for those of you at the back who aren't keeping up what Brian has rather cleverly done here is to waste almost one third of his review with a series of Johnny Vaughn inspired Nuts magazine gags about pulling sickies. Yes, it is hi-larious to juxtapose the metaphorical excesses of a theatre script with the mundane realities of our work-a-day lives. In fact, here, let me have go.
I've made some excuses for having a bit of a swingers party in my time, but this one takes the cake. Four lovers do a runner into a Forrest and all ending whacked out on some magic potion. Not surprisingly they all end up trying to get in each other's knickers, and the rest of the play is spent trying to sort out all the mess.
How very clever and what an utter waste of time. And don't get me wrong, I am big fan of reviewers who enjoy nothing more than mercilessly mocking the puffed-up silliness of theatre, but when you're confined to a meagre three hundred words and your review is about the most high-profile piece that will be written on said production, surely the hard-working folk involved deserved more than your posturing ladishness. You're a theatre reviewer man, act like one - or do everyone a favour and go write on Nicolas Cage movies for FHM.

Anyway, onwards and downwards we go.
That’s the premise of ‘Bicycle’, the UK premiere of a 1983 play by Korean playwriting ‘master’, Oh Tae-Suk. And it’s not quite as intriguing as it thinks it is. If a play is conceived as a mystery to be solved in one extended, frequently interrupted flashback, with all the reduced immediacy that entails, it had better engage the audience in its mystery from the get-go. This one doesn’t. The characters of Yun Chin (Vincent Manna) and Ku (Bodelle de Ronde) are introduced so obliquely, I barely knew who they were, far less why I should care about them.
Now we'll leave aside the nasty, smirking scare quotes hovering around the word master and lets go straight for my Number One Bugbear. The resumptuous imagined objectivity of mainstream theatre reviewers. Unless our good friend Brian gathered up the audience and metered out a quick straw poll of Those Who Were Engaged and Those Who Weren't (and I think we can safely assume that this is unlikely to be the case) then we can only presume that when he grandly refers to the audience, he rather more modestly means Brian Logan. Brian Logan was not engaged. Which is no crime. As Michael Billington does nothing but tell us these days, every man is entitled to his opinion. I'd just rather that His opinion wasn't assumed to be the de-facto final verdict on whether this play is engaging or not.

For the record I found its scarred and contorted storytelling and its shadowy Brechtian characters utterly engaging. I may not have cared about them, and the plot may not have been rattling along on straight steel rails like a steam train but I found it compelling. Why should playwriting that fails to comply with a standard seemingly set at some meeting in about 1965 be instantly assumed to be merely a failure to achieve that standard. Maybe the writer didn't want clearly defined characters, or a coherent plot that conveyed the play's political or social themes through personal conflict. Maybe this limited model of quality playwriting can take its outdated rhetoric and shove it where the stage lights don't reach.

But here's the real kicker:
But, while you can’t fault the commitment of the eight-strong cast, dramatically this ‘Bicycle’ seldom gets out of first gear.
*The sound of one manning slow clapping in an otherwise empty room*

Oh well done. Bravo.

So let's see. You started with a hundred wasted words fatuously compering the play to real life, continued by describing the play as objectively a failure because it didn't engage you by fulfilling a standard you have imposed upon it, and then finished with a pun.

Job. well. done.

Now if you've made it this far I commend you. And as a reward I promise this is the last time I shall waste my breath writing about the mainstream media critics. And here I my final words on the matter; I believe that:

- The task of theatre criticism is not to inform a reader, that is the task a marketing department.

- Criticism that pertains to any form of objectivity or objective standard is like a man who thinks he can talk to cats.

- Theatre criticism is about personal engagement.

- For the reader, theatre criticism is about discovering someone else's opinion, not finding out whether the show is worth seeing or not.

- The star system is criticism for people who can't read.

- Reviewing, on the scale that is allowed for it in the national newspapers is a promotional tool, not theatre criticism.

- Theatre criticism reduced to three short paragraphs will invariably replace genuine engagement or effort with lazy aphorisms and cheap jokes. Small reviews lead to small-minded reviewing.


Andrew Haydon said...

Ouch. And Brian's such a nice chap too. Still, I'll send you to go and see his show at the Lyric in September/October for CultureWars and will impose a 280 word limit (He's one of Cartoon de Salvo, or at least he was a few years back). Or would it be funnier to make you write upwards of 1,500?

And, with what you've said taken into account: yes, I agree that word counts are a bummer and a very death to detailed, in-depth criticism - but I do worry that longer reviews (OK, my longer reviews specifically) can be equally self-defeating (and thus defeating for theatre as a whole) on the basis that only the very keen will bother to get even half-way through them.

I'm also not one hundred per cent certain that I agree that we shouldn't inform the reader, I think it is best seen as defining one's terms, but if we're offering an opinion, I think that opinion can only be understood if we ground it in an account of *our perception* of what it is we've just seen. Of course it's all pretty tangled up with everything else in a review, but I don't think there's anything wrong with a bit of information.

Also, it can be the case that a piece of theatre either largely or wholly fails to engage a reviewer. On such occasions the reviewer cannot be expected to offer an account of their engagement to the reader.

Lastly, I disagree that Time Out is the critical equivailent of the Argos catalogue. I think they have some very good writers, many of whom do an excellent job of providing admirably concise thumbnail sketches of otherwise critically ignored work. They have a nigh-on impossible task, and I think some of them perform it with no small amount of elan.

Mark Fisher said...

Seems to me the only difference is that you liked the show and Brian Logan didn't. I don't know the play (although I do know Brian) and his introduction (as you quote it) tells me all I need to know about the plot in a lively and engaging way. I can't see that those words are wasted (nor would they be in the Midsummer Night's Dream summary you suggest as a parody). What's wrong with referring to real life? Better that than a dreary plot synopsis.

As for the "imagined objectivity" of theatre reviewers (of whom I am one), everyone, most of all the critic himself, knows it is only one person's opinion. Unless the audience clearly loved a play the critic detested, it is legitimate for him to talk about the effect on the audience without conducting a post-show survey. Reviews have to work as pieces of entertainment in themselves (as well as everything else they have to do) and writing with confidence and authority is the best way of producing a readable article. Do you really want him to waste words beginning every sentence with "in my opinion" and then qualifying everything with "others might disagree"?

Despite your lengthy picking apart of his review, you don't actually square up to his analysis of the production beyond saying that you found the show compelling. Surely this is just a difference of opinion, not an attack on reviewing itself.

Andrew Field said...

A very thoughtful and considered riposte Mr Haydon.

I am absolutely sure that Mr Brian Logan does not deserve the boiling hot barrel of scorn I have poured down upon him from my deadline-free moral high ground. He is at least, trawling out to places like the CPT night after night and seeing these shows. For that he deserves to be commended.

His little piece was undoubtedly the straw that broke the camel's back. It just so happened that I was scouting around to see what other people had thought of Bicycle and chanced upon his rather dismissive little piece and it provoked my ire.

Really my beef is bigger than him or any one theatre critic.

That said, cheekily polemic as I was I stand by my criticisms of his review and of the mini-review form in general.

I think your point about people's ability to read to the bottom of the page is an interesting (if slightly depressing) one. As I hinted at in the article, if The Great Unwashed can be trusted to read half a page on Lee Meade in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat they should be equally capable sticking our other reviews of a similar length. Or, to put it another way, its not people's ability to talk that's in question, it's convincing them that its worth talking about that's the problem. And while theatre continues to swoon over Hollywood stars and reality television it will remain a problem.

I think the debate is similar to that stirred up by the Beeb's launch of the 1-minute news bulletin on BBC1. They defended it by saying that they are not dumbing down, but are trying to get more people interested in watching their long-form news by hooking them with these tid bits.

Possibly in theatre we could do the same thing. Given one review a day to complete - surely the great and the good in theatre reviewing could write a long form review to published in the wide open spaces of the internet and have a truncated synopsis-review in the narrow corridoors of their relative publications?

That would possibly also deal with the problem of informing the reader. The paper could bring them up to speed with what the reviewer is talking about and hint at the further insights and opinions that await them online. the Guardian Arts Blog would be the perfect forum for this kind of thing if it wasn't too busy provoking pointless debates on who has the best hair in theatre and letting Michael Billington tell us all how great GBS is.

As to the idea of a critic treating so glibly a play that he has failed to engage with. Well there possibly I have a case to answer for. I have been utterly dismissive of productions in the past and treated them with a no little scorn. If I am to proclaim that criticism is about personel engagement then I simply cannot take critics to task for dismissing a show they didn't enjoy. No critic holds a duty to any production they have seen. Nonetheless Time Out is often a sword of damacles for small fringe productions and it does pain me rather to see a show that I thought worthwhile and intruiging to be given a Roman Thumbs Down and fed to the lions.

And perhaps that is where my problem lies, fundamentally. That I thought Logan was holding the piece up to a standard and swiftly dismissing it when it failed to fit that standard. However, he is entitled to do so.

One cannot have their cake and eat it.

And of course I was being glib about Time Out, but is it ever fun.

And as far as reviewing Brian's show... well, you're the boss. And I'm sure I would enjoy it. I like to think though that whether I did or didn't my response wouldn't be quite so formulaic as that which he produced for Bicycle.

Andrew Field said...

Ditto Mark,

Thanks for stopping by.

I think my problem with the introduction is the same thing that I have mentioned above and in the article. That it seems to hold the play up to a false standard. My reason for parodying it so crudely is to demonstrate that in both cases I feel that the paragraph, while technically accurate, are misleading in the pursuit of a few gags.

Bicycle, like MSND, is not a narrative drama in which the themes and the audience are carried along by the plot. In these cases to quickly and amusingly sum up the narrative points as an introduction to the show is a little misleading. I feel that Logan's skimming introduction (not necessarily deliberately) sets it up as such only to knock it down as failing to meet that standard.

I suppose that is my problem with the review although as you said (and as I conceded to Andrew) I am biased by the fact that I enjoyed it and Brian evidently didn't. And that is his prerogative.

And I am all for entertainment and conviction in reviews. I just found this particular review pretty formulaic and predictable.In a longer review (or in a chat over a drink... though possibly I've ruled that option out now!) I am sure he would have the opportunity to explain with intelligence and conviction why he did not like the piece. I just don't think the short form does anybody any favours.

I don't know - as a reviewer what do you think? Do you like the idea that I suggest in response to Andrew's post?

I have to disagree with you however on the point of talking about The Audience. I don't see any need for it. If you're a reviewer and people respect what you read, what's wrong with saying 'the play did not engage me' rather than 'the audience was not engaged'. They will still take the sentiment on board. It's not any longer. And to treat the audience as a homogenous mass who are all in agreement with you, adds a false weight to your sentiment.

I've written reviews before where I have commented on the audience (both when they are in agreement with my feelings and quite the contrary), but I feel that to conflate them into one entity and press gang them in to your own way of thinking is a little unnecessary.

Mark Fisher said...

I think maybe you put your finger on it when you said "it's convincing them that [theatre is] worth talking about that's the problem". Older theatre critics tend to write with an unshakable belief in the importance of what they're doing. They remember a time when people would rush to the Sunday papers to see what Hobson or Tynan were saying. Theatre mattered and the reaction to theatre mattered.

As part of a younger generation (I'm 43, which is a bit younger, honest), I wouldn't be surprised if Brian Logan feels the same as me that, although theatre matters to us personally, it takes an effort of imagination to think it matters to anyone else. In a culture that doesn't take theatre especially seriously, the reviewer has to make more effort to get the reader on side in the first place. The result is writing that can seem glib or irreverent.

As for length, well I do find it bizarre that as a freelance writer, I am often called upon to do bar reviews that are longer than my theatre reviews. One day I can be trying to squeeze my thoughts on King Lear into 300 words, the next I can be spinning out my impressions of the range of lagers in the local pub to 400 words. I can only assume this is the way the readers want it.

With 300 words is is very difficult to be a proper critic (as opposed to just a reviewer) and to put a play in its broader context. You hope it's more than just a thumbs up or thumbs down (which really isn't very interesting), but maybe it's not much more.

Having said that, there's a discipline to writing to length and often there isn't that much to be said about a production in any case. Is it better to have something short and to the point than something long and ponderous?

Anonymous said...


I’m sorry that you didn’t like my review. I stand accused of being lazy, half-arsed and, worst of all, Johnny Vaughan-inspired. That’s hard to bear.

I do take my responsibility to the productions that I review very seriously, particularly when writing for Time Out, which we all know has a disproportionately high influence on the fate of London fringe shows. I know what it’s like to make theatre; I don’t take lightly the effort involved. If I ever seem to – well, I regret that.

I don’t pretend to be objective, even if (I’m just agreeing with Mark Fisher here) I see no need to explain in every review that this is just ‘one person’s opinion,’ blah blah. I think that would make for boring writing. And I do try to write entertainingly, which might be just another word for ‘glib’, ‘superficial’ or (an accusation frequently levelled at me) ‘like a giddy schoolgirl.’ According to taste.

I don’t measure plays against ‘a standard seemingly set at some meeting in about 1965’ – which was, incidentally, long before I was born. Although I do agree that that standard exerts a tyrannous influence over British theatre criticism. If I have a bias, it’s for devised theatre of the Improbable / Complicite / Told By An Idiot school – which isn’t known for its ‘coherent plot’ and ‘political and social themes.’

That apart, most of your comments, about 300-word reviews, the star system, et al, are truisms with which most theatre writers (as opposed to arts editors or newspaper editors) would heartily agree. Myself included.

So: apologies again for making you so angry. I soldier on, trying not to be fatuous. Best wishes with your blog.