In my first year out of school, I lived in London for six months. For some inconceivable reason, I thought that my friends back home would want to read incredibly detailed expositions about my adventures which, to be frank, weren’t that interesting. I worked at a school and didn’t see as much theatre as I should have; when I look back I realise I wasn’t really ready to be essentially living overseas by myself.
As the much-anticipated Simon Stone-directed production of Death of a Salesman opens in Sydney this week, I’ve been thinking a lot about the play and how I spent hours of my 17-year-old life reading and thinking about it in preparation for the NSW HSC Drama exam (Written component; Elective – Tragedy.) And then I remembered that while in London I saw a pretty poor production of it at some well-off-West End venue. And that I wrote about it. As an exercise in ritual humiliation, I reproduce that effort here, so that you might all point and laugh at my unsophisticated critical capabilities. And also because I want to see if, when I see Stone’s version, I’ll be able to escape any of the thoughts I harboured as I laboured over that text in Newtown High’s Drama Room 1.
And before any of you ask, no you may absolutely not have the address of said MySpace.
I’m still figuring out how best to respond to Simon Stone (and company)’s Strange Interlude at Belvoir St, which grows in my estimation the more I think on it. But while I ponder, here’s a bit of a place holder. This is an excerpt from the letters of Eugene O’Neill, featured by George Hunka of Superfluities Redux. I thought it was interesting in light of the various (in my opinion sloppy) accusations levelled at Stone & co, which essentially amount to little more than “ur doing it wrong!!!!!!1!!” As you can see from this extract, O’Neill doesn’t believe in a fixed and unchanging definition of tragedy or drama. Invocations of authorial fidelity help no one make better art; attempting to reflect on and understand the world as you see it around you might. To wit:
As for Aristotle’s “purging,” I think it is time we purged his purging out of modern criticism, candidly speaking! What modern audience was ever purged by pity and terror by witnessing a Greek tragedy or what modern mind by reading one? It can’t be done! We are too far away, we are in a world of different values! As [Oswald] Spengler points out, their art had an entirely different life-impulse and life-belief than ours. We can admire while we pretend to understand — but our understanding is always a pretense! And Greek criticism is as remote from us as the art it criticizes. What we need is a definition of Modern and not Classical Tragedy by which to guide our judgments. If we had Gods or a God, if we had a Faith, if we had some healing subterfuge by which to conquer Death, then the Aristotelian criterion might apply in part to our Tragedy. But our tragedy is just that we have only ourselves, that there is nothing to be purged into except a belief in the guts of man, good or evil, who faces unflinchingly the black mystery of his own soul!
To clarify, I’m totally into Greek tragedy, and I reckon modern audiences are as capable of being moved by productions of it as ever. (This happened to me just this week, in fact, at the NIDA production of The Trojan Women.) I also reckon that the way Greek tragedy was being produced around a hundred years ago probably precluded such a reaction, and that it’s thanks to the efforts of writers and thinkers like O’Neill that was have expanded and deepened our understanding of the tragic form in such a way that allows us to return to such works in a way that reflects, as he says, a tragedy of our times. What O’Neill hits on here is the transience of philosophy and aesthetics; there’s no one right way to make art forever. He shifted his form to reflect the world he was living in; I reckon he’d be totally cool with Simon Stone doing the same.
Long time between drinks, eh friends? I bet you didn’t even notice, fickle ones!
In my time away from you, I attracted a mild amount of attention for writing an impassioned letter defending my old stomping ground, the Sydney University Dramatic Society, in that University’s venerable student newspaper, Honi Soit. Turn to page 18 here to see the article that stuck in my craw in the first place, and to page 3 here (zoom to bottom right hand corner) to see the response they published. Goodness!
I’m not too bothered by the response – a lot of real humans who I like a respect and who had no vested interests in doing so kindly told me they enjoyed my letter, so I’m glad I wrote it. They cut it down a bit (fair cop, seeing as it was about 1200 words), so I’m republishing it, in full here.
As I was writing it, I thought, “Surely I am getting too old to care about this shit.” I’ve left university, checked out of SUDS after four years of love sweat and tears and am meant to be getting on with finding my place in the adult world. But finding your place in the adult world is kind of hard, and I think requires you to at least acknowledge where you came from. Try as I might (and believe me, I really am trying) it’s pretty impossible for me to just up and walk away from an organisation that almost defined me as I became an adult to begin with.
There are lots – lots – of problems with SUDS. Hell, I could have written a funnier, more damning satire of it based on the truth, without having to resort to tired cliche and unhelpful accusation. But SUDS still offers a lot that most student theatre organisations around the country don’t seem to: the chance for the membership to fully determine the year’s artistic program; the requirement that all people involved with a given production need to be members of the Society and thereby almost definitely students; an active refusal to engage professionals to direct shows, choosing instead to offer opportunities to people who can’t get them anywhere else; an almost autonomous space; the right to determine an artistic program free of the concerns of sponsors, funding bodies or other commercial interests… The list goes on. Plus, like many student theatre societies around the country, and I am sure around the world, for a lot of people it offers a home in a vast and sometimes isolating landscape. To my mind, that’s worth defending, every single time.
I assume that if you’re a real proper grown up who maybe doesn’t even know me but is somehow reading this your eyes have already glazed over, so I’m just going to speak directly to those of you still in the midst of your heady SUDS years, and everyone else can listen if they like: Don’t let this opportunity get away from you. Don’t squander the few years you may yet have in your artistic life (before you become famous and all-powerful and can program whatever you like, of course) on half-assed versions of dull plays you could see at STC or anywhere else. Make the work that speaks to you now, that risks something now, that we’d never see anywhere else, that you may never get to do again. Be prepared to fail and all that but for God’s sake, fail valiantly. Fail excitingly. Fail having tried something truly interesting, radical even. Don’t fail because you tried to be a mainstage operation and found your resources not up to the task. Fail because you performed a genuine experiment, with genuinely unknown outcomes; risk failure and glory in equal measure in all that you do. Do it as often as you can before the rest of the world starts asking you to fill out very complex and scary forms and you find yourself in a landscape where the default position is no rather than yes. (For better or for worse, SUDS will say yes to just about anything.) If you’ve somehow found yourself here and are thinking about dabbling in such an organisation, for fuck’s sake, just do it. The worst that can happen is that you’ll fuck up in front of about forty people who’ll probably still buy you a cheap wine after to make you feel better.
And if you are a real live grown up in Sydney who likes theatre, maybe think about taking your $5 down to the Cellar Theatre (Science Road, Sydney University, under the Holme Building, look for the group of young adults clustered on the lawns) any night from Wednesday-Saturday and see what’s doing. [Replace with details as necessary for your city of choice.] It might be awful. Really, I feel it’s only fair to warn. But it also might not be.
So, I expect you’d all like to read the damn letter now. (Fingers crossed.) Here ya go: Read More…
*** preamble: This is my first attempt at like a real proper post for this here blog experiment. I have no idea what kind of form I’d like future entries to take, but this seems to have wound up quite “review-y”. There were some other issues surrounding discussion of the play that I considered talking about, but I thought I’d just see what, if anything, you all had to say first. So please, be forthcoming with your feedback – both on this play, and on what kind of writing you’d like to see more generally. ***
Milla is fourteen. Like most fourteen year olds in the history of fourteen year olds, she goes to school, participates in extracurricular activities about which she feels somewhat ambivalent, is frequently mortified by the behaviour of her parents, and seems to want to get involved with the least appropriate romantic partners possible. Unlike most fourteen year olds, Milla is dying of cancer. Read More…
“I’m struck by how frequently people write to berate me for failing to give a show a wholly positive review, saying I’m wrong because “the audience loved it”. I might indeed be wrong, but criticism is not an exam; it is a subjective opinion delivered by someone, in this case me, who happens to go to the theatre five nights a week.
The popular argument that it must be good because the audience loved it is one I just can’t buy. I review what I see on stage, not what the director has told me the show is about in the programme; and I certainly don’t review the audience. In recent years, the trend for audiences to rise to their feet and applaud every show wildly would mean that if I did review the audience, almost everything would get a five-star rave.”
— Lyn Gardner, The Guardian theatre critic, here.
Many of you will have been forced to already read this more than once on a variety of publishing platforms, and for this I apologise. But I figured it was useful to have all my theatre-related writings together in one place, and as this no longer exists on the Time Out website, I thought here would be the best home for it.
For those who missed the deal, I wrote this after the Sydney premiere of the Andrew Lloyd Webber clusterfuck Love Never Dies. For context, it was the middle of the Sydney Festival, there was a lot of very beautiful and interesting art going on left right and centre which I was lucky enough to have been sent to nine nights out of ten, and then I had to get along to — and write about — this. In the interval my date (I’ll call her My Favourite Snark) asked what I would write in my review. She suggested, “Love Never Dies is the sequel to Phantom of the Opera.” Which is fair. Because after the exact same production had already played in Melbourne for months and been written about to death there, what more was there to say? The second act was even more dire than the first, so I started fantasizing about ways to make the review more interesting. The misogyny in the piece is pretty striking, so I thought about writing the review as a hard-core piece of academic feminist deconstructionism. I also toyed with writing it as a diary entry from the POV of one of the characters, or maybe their Twitter feed. (I really like Twitter.) In the end, though, this is what I came up with: an eleven-hundred word open letter to Lord Webber himself. I sent it off to my editor absolutely certain he would write back and say, “ha ha yes, very funny, now write a real review please” but he didn’t. Instead he went to his editors and fought to get it published, and won. Some people read it and thought it was funny, then suddenly, about a week later I guess, it was gone. Whoops. Turns out the LND powers-that-be had got wind of it, found it not to their liking and threatened to pull their not inconsiderable advertising deal if the offending article was not removed. Le sigh. Free press does not equal free press, if you see what I mean. The whole experience has led to a tangle of thoughts in my head about who criticism is for, why it matters who pays for it, and how much readers deserve to know. While I sort through those, though, here’s the review in all its sarcastic glory. Read More…
Fear is very powerful. Be careful or it will rule and ruin your life. It will hold your fingers back from the keyboard, keep your brain from teasing out interesting thoughts, shut your mouth when you ought to raise your voice.
Don’t be me.
Don’t be fearful.
Here is a thing I recently wrote about Doing Shit, over on my other project which is about not buying new things. Still trying to figure out interesting way of justifiably linking these two projects together but it is proving difficult; making theatre can actually be an extraordinary wasteful endeavour.
While I work up some courage to start telling you my thoughts again/figure out why I think they matter, please accept stream of posts of my old thoughts, or other people’s thoughts.