On words

On words

29 March 2018

Formal experimentation in criticism is as important as in playwriting, says Naomi Obeng

On Tuesday I attended Nina Segal’s wonderful workshop on form in theatre. My mind is full of images of different vessels and containers appropriate or constructed to hold the specific content of a play. A glass is for water. A cup with a handle is for tea. What vessel holds a spring breeze? Or a lenticular cloud?

Since starting to formally write down my responses to theatre a few years ago, it’s taken me a while to realise the extent to which theatre writing can also be creative. Reviews in national publications, undoubtedly the majority of the theatre criticism I read, have a very specific purpose which is not primarily creative. They’re short and to the point recaps of an experience constructed to make it easy for readers to decide whether to see a production, and with the useful but pretention-encouraging side effect of providing people with ready-made opinions on a show without having to see it. The skill is in the pithy line and the summation of several minutes into an impression, or god-forbid, a star rating. Ah, the age of cultural capital when the idea of the thing stands for about as much as the thing itself. Who really has time to engage in deep conversation or form nuanced opinion…unless they’re at NSDF, of course.

A super basic thing that remains opaque about theatre criticism is what it’s for and who it’s for (other than ‘anything’ and ‘anyone’). There’s no accurate answer. A standard review is just one reviewer’s opinion anyway. They’re probably not the kind of person who thinks Bill and Ted is a beautiful and touching cult classic, so why would I trust them? Opinion is the eternal and inextricable caveat of reviews and responses to theatre, even if the opinions given are those of a valued, established and influential ‘critic’.

But reviews often intellectualise art that is constructed to provoke emotional responses - so is a standard review really the best way to go about things? Words are not emotions; the thing is the thing, not what is said about the thing. What does it mean to reconsider the form of a response to theatre in order for it better to carry the content of a show? Is there a universally appropriate form for reviewing a show? Should it be different depending on what the show aims to do? Sometimes it’s just really hard to know what to say about something that really didn’t speak to you or that you didn’t understand. Should the form reflect how deeply the reviewer related to the content of the show?

In issue 3 of Noises Off Daniella Harrison created a response to The Events echoing and parodying the form of the production. Reading it, I felt it captured what we had experienced in a very succinct way, and as well as making comment on the content, it made comment on the content. Last year, Kate Wyver wrote a review of a Forced Entertainment show which mimicked its repetitiveness - the review consists of the same line copied and pasted with slight variations, many many many times. Meghan Vaughan’s emoji reviews are another example of a new use of form to respond to theatre and engage the reader in a new way. They consider form and acknowledge that the form itself is a choice. They do something far more creative in response to creativity than a standard review you’d find in The Stage.

But it’s also crucial to consider that different readers will want to get different things out of a review, the audience dictates the form too. An audience member might want to see their experience reinforced or challenged in a reasonably straightforward way, or get a taste for a show they haven’t seen. For a show’s director, it’ll most likely be different. For Anne Mullener, fellow Noff writer and theatre director, a useful review of her work would be one that uses very clear examples when it describes what worked and didn’t, that doesn’t focus on the critic’s personal connection or reaction too strongly, but rather assesses the piece of work in a structured and constructive way. She finds that this form makes the critique easier to engage with as a maker than something more abstract like a poem, illustration or screenshot, which may be a more suited form to highlight the abstract experience of show.

We still adhere to an idea that there is a norm for theatre criticism and things deviate from it. The starred reviews in national papers are norms whose form we need to question. There is space to allow creative engagements with work, and this means clarity and acknowledgment of the line between a critic and an artist too.

Publications should start to consider that by interrogating the form of a review they can engage with plays in different ways. There is not just one target reader and not just one type of reviewer. There should be space and encouragement of understanding that the form of review is a choice and not an inevitability. There is so much scope to continue conversations and engagement with all the ineffable parts of a piece of theatre by allowing space for different reviewing forms, and for creativity in criticism.

@noffmag // [email protected]

Photo credit: Giulia Delprato