A
 
Web www.artsmart.co.za
A R T S M A R T
arts news from kwazulu-natal

letters
www.artsmart.co.za
enquiries@artsmart.co.za
 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
 

NB: as of 23 September 2008, all new artSMart articles are being published on the site news.artsmart.co.za.

LETTER FROM ANTHONY AKERMAN (article first published : 2002-03-15)

I have been following with interest the polemic between Tim Wells and the reviewers Mike Tarr and Billy Suter. Reviewers are used to dishing it out. The aggrieved tone of their letters and their immodest self-justifications demonstrate how uncomfortable they find being on the receiving end of criticism. Mr Wells is guilty of a breach of etiquette. It's bad form to criticise the critics. Received wisdom is that those of us who make theatre should take our medicine like men (and, presumably, women). Why? It sounds suspiciously like a code of conduct derived from the world of private schools. But the answer is really simple. Critics wield power and they usually have the last word.

If more Durban theatre practitioners would risk being as brave as Mr Wells, Messrs Tarr and Suter might be in for an unpleasant surprise. At the moment they seem injured. Mr Wells has had the temerity to challenge them in public. In the past they wrote complimentary things about Mr Wells and did they receive any thanks for that? Did they really expect thanks? Do they feel they were bestowing favours? If so, their sense of their own importance has certainly gone to their heads.

Messrs Tarr and Suter have been at pains to present their credentials. Of course a love of theatre, a certain degree of erudition and exposure to a wide variety of theatrical work is a sine qua non. But, like actors, critics should be judged on their performance. Is their writing lucid and articulate? Do they offer interesting insights? Are their comments informed and perceptive? At its best criticism is also an art. Giving a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down, like a inebriated Roman emperor after a gladiatorial contest, is indolent and unhelpful. Mr Tarr's background as a sports writer need not be seen as a handicap; it may well afford him insights into Paul Slabolepszy's sports plays. And in no wise does having been an aerobics instructor disqualify Mr Suter for the job.

What is alarming, though, is that Mr Suter describes himself as a watchdog and proudly declares himself opinionated ("Thinking too highly of one's opinion; conceited or obstinate in opinion" The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary). What is more worrying is his patronising attitude towards Joe Average, the sobriquet he uses for his reader and our audience. The danger is that the presumed lack of intelligence and sophistication among reader can be offered as an excuse for shoddy writing and careless judgements.

I usually refrain from answering the critics for some of the reasons given above. However, a year ago I broke my silence. I was a speaker on a panel discussion organised by The Kultcha Klub in Johannesburg. The theme was the state of the nation's theatre and I addressed the role of the critics in a time when South African theatre was being starved out of existence through lack of funding. My farce Comrades Arms received some dismissive reviews when it opened at the Sneddon Theatre in Durban. In my talk I responded to the Durban critics and I offer part of what I had to say here, as it seems relevant to the debate Mr Wells has instigated:

"There has always been an uneasy relationship between those who create theatre and those who review it. Time was when praise from a reviewer might have been a great confidence booster. Conversely, the public humiliation of a damning notice could lead to a crisis of confidence. Now only one question arises when we read a review: `Is this going to hurt us at the box office?'

"Increasingly, shows are produced by those who write and perform them. Comrades Arms was one such show. Although the National Arts Festival gave us a kick-start, it was entirely dependent on box office during the Johannesburg, Hilton, Durban and Pretoria runs. The risk was shared by the actors and myself. We all believed in its commercial viability and the market research conducted after a staged reading at the Kultcha Klub bolstered us in this belief. When it opened to salvos of laughter in Grahamstown we thought we were onto a winner. Several reviewers were of a different opinion. Quite the most bizarre response came from Graham Greer, whose largely unfavourable notice in the Sunday Tribune contained the following perplexing sentence, “If you rate a show on audience laughter, then Comrades Arms is brilliant - but life is not that simple.” Farces are intended to make people laugh; they are not vehicles for exploring the complexity of life.

"The tradition of overnight reviewing derives from a time when the opening of a play was a news event. Reviewers were reporters. Part of the function of a reviewer should be to give an accurate account of a theatrical event. Billy Suter of The Mercury wrote, “The end result, give or take one or two chuckles and a few quick smiles, is a sort of poor man's Fawlty Towers.” He attended the same performance as Graham Greer. Billy Suter may have meant that he only chuckled once or twice, in which case he's unable to write clearly and therefore lacks the most basic requirement for the job. On the other hand, it may have been malicious misreporting.

"The two Durban dailies have embraced a schoolmasterish approach; in their listings they apportion marks to shows. Billy Suter put us bottom of the class with five out of ten and a comment intended to discourage patrons.

"After the five-week Durban run the actors and I were in debt for R57,000. If you take into account that no one received a salary or S&T, the debt is closer to R120,000. Billy Suter certainly contributed to this debt. Not because he didn't like the show, but because he printed a lie. He told people they wouldn't laugh."

Tim Wells and Brendan Jury do not stand alone.

Anthony Akerman, Durban-born playwright




 A current news
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
letters to the editor
home page
archives A
crafts - dance - drama - film & tv - literature
music - supper theatre - visual arts
miscellaneous news - festivals
a co-production by caroline smart services and .durbanet. site credits
copyright © subsists in this page. all rights reserved. [ edit ] copyright details  artsmart