Back in the 1950s and ’60s, Kenneth Tynan was a highly respected – and feared – critic, who didn’t mince his words when it came to reviewing West End productions. Not even the esteemed Laurence Olivier escaped unscathed. As a vocation, theatre critics of note wrote for the national newspapers – a calling for the chosen few. Nowadays, acting on stage means much more than the West End and repertory theatre, and similarly with the advent of the internet age, there are more reviewers than ever – all with their respective opinions. But with such a diverse range of theatre and opinions on offer, will they ever see eye-to-eye?
Collating the most scathing reviews in their respective careers, theatremakers Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott fashion these into a postmodern show that deconstructs the deconstruction of theatre. Each person reads out a disparaging line from a review, but rather than deliver this po-faced, they bend down facing upstage so that their bottoms are resting on a trestle table. Of course this obviously alludes to the maxim: ‘Opinions are like arseholes. Everybody has one and most of them stink.’ In hindsight, if the artists had spoken directly to the audience for 15-20 minutes, it might have come across like the quiz Have I Got News For You or perhaps even as ‘sour grapes’. As it is, with the self-deprecating nature of this segment, not only are the artists vulnerable and under scrutiny, the over-the-top reactions of the critics quoted are conversely more ‘revealing’ – their inability to comprehend what they’ve watched shows THEY are the ones who’ve been ‘caught with their pants down’.
This understanding (or lack thereof…) is key and something that Marr and Martinez speak about at length. For Marr, the lack of recognition of ‘dramaturgical design’ in one of her shows is particularly irksome, which becomes a running joke throughout the show. Likewise, Martinez repeats in different ways (including in mock-Elizabethan attire) that one critic thought the choices she made in one of her shows were “…for no apparent reason.”
When the likes of West End doyen David Hare disparages ‘theatremakers’ and the European approach to theatre, he reflects the conservative opinion of many ‘old skool’ critics whose sole intake of ‘theatre’ is in Shaftsbury Avenue and its surrounding environs. People who challenge preconceived notions of what constitutes theatre are panned. This raises a number of questions. Does theatre criticism need to change for the 21st century? Not only to have a knowledge and respect for the past, but an understanding of theatre now and how it’s evolved? Secondly, do critics need to come from more diverse backgrounds and have a greater appreciation of world theatre?
But I digress. Back to talking about bums…
During the second ‘Act’ of the show, the artists all wear ‘bottoms’ on their heads, alluding to the phrase ‘talking out of your arse’. As time goes on, the metaphors become more literal, but before they get too repetitive, the meta- references veer off into a different direction. The introduction of Krishna Isthar, a transgender actor, shakes up the dynamics, and opens up the discussion regarding transgender performers onstage and whether this is generally acknowledged or not.
While the show does take a pop at those critics who exhibit ignorance instead of insight, there is an unwritten contract between performer and audience – for a show to be thought-provoking (or at the very least entertaining) and for the critic to chronicle this so that this ephemeral experience will have some longevity. Not every show is successful in its execution, not all can be universally ‘liked’. But the ‘old guard’ who ‘finds fault’ with theatre nowadays because they don’t understand it or have inflexible views are no better than Tabitha Dickinson, the theatre critic in Birdman or Statler and Waldorf, the archetypal critics on The Muppet Show who aren’t ‘happy’ unless they’ve got something to complain about.
There’s a quote by Frank Capra, which is about cinema, but equally applicable to theatre: “There are no rules in… Only sins. And the cardinal sin is dullness.” Well that’s one charge that Wild Bore can be accused of. I dare say there will be those who find it isn’t to their taste or take exception to the notion of the critics being accountable. What is irrefutable is the bold way the artists get their points across and the credible questons they pose regarding the relationship between theatremakers, critics and art.
© Michael Davis 2017
Wild Bore runs at Soho Theatre until 16th December.