When I think back to the halcyon salad days which surrounded this site's first infant stumblings, I am often given occasion to grow misty-eyed as I feel the corners of my mouth curl skyward. You must remember that this was a time of perpetual summer and frequent canape and cocktail-including afternoons on the forelawns of various embassies, chancellor's abodes and presbyteries, the soft murmur of charming bon mots interrupted by the ringing of clear crystal glasses meeting for a brief communion and the occasional yelp of a lolly-limbed puppy scrabbling beneath the legs of a wrought-iron outdoor table. You will of course note that this was way back in 2005, when the internet was still in its fledgling state, barely more than a couple of wooden boxes connected by rough twine. How things have changed.
Way back when, I started this site in a half-hearted attempt to document my impressions of the Melbourne shows I'd caught and hadn't written about elsewhere, whether it be theatre, dance, the occasional art opening or film screening, whatever. Less reviews, than impressions. Nowadays we've reached the point where there are others far more committed and energetic and worth reading than I ever was, and you can tell the health of this burgeoning online theatre community by the fact that the last week or so has seen its very first stoush. Not exactly the sort of Wild West gunfight to have onlookers scrabbling a path through the sawdust to leap out windows in order to avoid the crossfire, but enough to generate some really interesting discussion, which certainly hasn't been resolved and hopefully, in a sense, never will be.
It all began when the very esteemed Theatre Notes published a short non-review of Theatre @ Risk's Requiem for the 20th Century, which wasn't exactly full of praise: "it seemed to me a mistake of disastrous proportions" isn't really something you'd want your work tarred with. This set off some interesting comments debating the duty of a critic. The show's director later emailed the writer and argued that it was hardly fair to make such comments about a show when, by the author's own admission, she'd left at interval. This sparked more commentary, which spread to other blogs, and also made me aware of a whole swag of new-ish theatre blogs covering Melbourne which I hadn't known about previously. Excellent, for that alone.
Anyway, as is probably obvious, I haven't really been reviewing much lately, mainly because I have been too busy but also because I figure you're all grown up now and no longer have the need to accost your sensorium with the critical equivalent of a drunk barfly trying to explain to you the show he thought he saw on the tube last night but could well be a product of his imagination and can I have one of those what are these my name'sh Born oh I already told you haha sob.
But I saw Requiem on Sunday, and I thought I'd weigh on the debate (which is probably now over, since the show is). It's worth noting before I start that in a sense, I'm not weighing in much at all, since the debate itself wasn't really about the show; it was about the duties of reviews, the rights of theatremakers, the expectations of audiences and those who read reviews, and so on. This could have been spurred on by any piece of writing.
Anyway, this isn't a corrective to Alison's original (non-)review. But as I commented there, I'm a little stumped as to how some people had such an extreme reaction. I can see how some would have felt it didn't work, or was too safe, or didn't succeed at what it was trying to do (not my reactions). But disastrous?
The piece purports to offer a "theatrical tour through the last century"; it's more than two and a half hours spanning the first half of the 20th century, with a central plotline involving the doomed romance of a pair of lovers with uncountable cameos from historical personages flitting through their lives. It's historical melodrama on a ridiculously inflated scale.
One review compared it to the Monsterist movement in Britain - I disagree. I see it as fitting more with the literary form of Maximalism, or Encyclopaedic Narrative. I'm thinking of Thomas Pynchon - no accident since I'm making my way through his massive new novel - as well as various mammoth works by John Barthes, Gaddis, even back to Melville and Sterne. Maximalist works are long, jumbled, often overwritten, obese, crowded and messy; they usually cover great historical periods and overlap with the genre of historical metafiction, mingling fact and fiction and not really respecting any divide between the two. They often come across more as catalogues than narrative, listing events and personages without paying attention to the usual demands of plot and character; psychological depth is the first thing in the dustbin when attempting to achieve the breadth these works aspire to. Critics argue that a catalogue is hardly the stuff of great art, that taxonomy is all these things offer. But that's the point: they both acknowledge and question the human impulse to attempt to impose order and arrangement to the great carnival of human history, toppling the notion of 'progress', serving up a panoply of disconnected moments, characters of little to no lasting importance, "great" events flattened out as mere spectacle. How else to tackle the sublime and ludicrous project of attempting to summarise the 20th century?
The piece begins with clowning, a painful scene in which a Charlie Chaplin figure attempts to be rid of an abandoned baby he's found. I didn't like the scene at first, but later pondered what better way there might be to introduce not the period in question, but the idea of a tour through that period. Begin with farce. Of course. Just so we know what we're getting into.
I could go on. But I think it's apparent that my response to the show, owing as much as it does to other things I've been thinking of lately, is hardly going to be everybody else's. Which has sort of been the credos of this site: I've never tried to review a show as good or bad, as getting anything right or wrong. I sincerely believe that every production has its audience, and it's the reviewer's job to clue that audience in on the show while warning other audiences what they can expect. Sometimes that audience is limited to one or two people in a whole town of potentials; lordy knows, I've been to shows where the audience perhaps should have been limited to the writer and director. I'm saying 'reviewer' here, not 'critic'; different thing going on there. But when I've got my oversized ten-gallon reviewing hat on, I'd much rather say "I didn't get it" than "They didn't get it". And I'm more likely to try to work out what a show contained, rather than second-guessing what it lacked. But until next time...