In Wild Bore, comedians/artists Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott perform a cut-up text composed of real reviews they’ve received. They plonk their bums in front of microphones, then set off on a scatological journey that sends up some of the most ridiculous turns of phrase that theatre critics have unleashed on the world. As it arrives at Soho Theatre, six Exeunt writers who saw its UK debut at the Edinburgh fringe explore its perspectives on gender, power and criticism.
Hannah Greenstreet: I feel/ think lots of conflicting things about Wild Bore. Quite a few of the reviews I’ve read of it have called it ‘unreviewable’. I don’t think that’s true, particularly the literal and metaphorical arses, which might be ‘dramaturgical design’, but also might be an elaborate ruse to get critics to make bottom jokes in national newspapers. I love how Wild Bore subsumes (a very select quantity) of its own reviews, feeding on negativity, a bit like a flesh-eating plant. Or an endlessly expanding text – where does the show stop and para-text begin? I’d be fascinated to see how Wild Bore changes during the run, in response to more reviews.
I felt a bit maligned as a critic though, that the humour of the show relies on misrepresenting criticism a bit. I wanted to say to Zoe Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott, ‘Some of us are nice. I’m one of the nice ones.’ I really hate writing negative reviews (unless a show is really bad – I know, ‘bad’ is subjective). Wild Bore problematised and played with the concept of value so much that I have no idea whether or not it’s good. They flirted with the idea that the show was actually a bit shit and they were massively trolling the audience as well as the critics. I wasn’t attending in a critical capacity. By which I mean I paid £21.50 for my ticket. Which, I’ll admit, is not hugely expensive for London theatre prices, but double the average ticket cost at the Edinburgh fringe. Seeing this show then meant I couldn’t see two other shows because I’d spent £21.50 to see Wild Bore. And I kept coming back to this every time they joked that it might all be a load of crap. Is it OK to make a piece of work that seems more directed at the critics than regular, paying audience members? Is our discussion adding to that navel gazing?
Stewart Pringle: For me it was largely a show about faith. Good faith and bad faith, and what kind of attitude we as critics have towards artists. It’s striking how much of the show’s text jumps from Ben Hewis’s review of Ursula’s Free Admission, and its apparent display of what you might call bad faith in his last paragraph. He writes:
“It’s all just rather banal and to make matters worse this repetitive routine is recited whilst Martinez assembles a breeze block wall for no apparent reason other than to have something to do with her hands rather than make wanking gestures.”
The problem, which I think Wild Bores skews very nicely, is the idea that what you’re watching might be the result of a mistake, of carelessness, of a lack of thought when it more likely grew from a very considered artistic process. The Free Admission example that they’ve selected is particularly pertinent because, really, when a show has two core elements (the text and the construction of a wall) to write one of them off without any deeper consideration is careless in and of itself. And Ben should take his lumps for that. But the problem does run deeper, and at a deeper level it’s harder to erase. There are any number of dramaturgical interventions or decisions which could look like carelessness, that may in fact be carelessness, that a critic could identify and hang a point on.
But an artist, I think, should always be given the benefit of the doubt. It’s very unlikely that a critic, in the hour or so of watching the show, in the hour or so of picking it apart and analysing it in their review, have considered any single element of it as carefully and profoundly as the artist, who (if they’re any fucking cop at all) has worked and thought on each moment for far longer. The results of their labour may well still be shit, and it’s vital that we have a sparky, informed, caring critical community to talk about those misses. But let’s stop pretending that we can second guess the intention behind the work. That we can write-off any decision as random, because no decision is.
There were bits in Wild Bore, which in the main I just thought was fucking excellent, that didn’t quite work for me – that I thought were boring, or over-laboured – but they only happened by mistake in as far as they didn’t deliver what they intended to deliver, or what they were intended to deliver was (in my opinion blah blah blah) flawed.
They say everything happens for a reason. As critics, we should take that to heart. And judge work on that basis.
Anna Winter: For me Wild Bore excellently subjected the dick-swinging culture of criticism (and most things in life) fostered by The Patriarchy to the macerating force of three clever and funny women and their arses. Actual arses seen in a way that’s unusual in our culture. They’re not the fetishised Nicki Minaj type of arse, they’re not the emaciated arses that fit into fashion industry sample sizes. They’re not photo-shopped and clad in a tiny thong, they’re not smooth and silicone-filled. These are non-bleached arseholes doing some acting on a trestle table and making us laugh at the smug arseholes they’re portraying. They are a metaphor for vulnerability — the self-exposing artist as easy prey for a critic — and for shameless satirical strength.
Regarding reviewing of the actual reviews, I loved how Wild Bore disrupts the habitual privilege of critical language. It’s mainly comfortable white people delivering turns of phrase to the supposed intelligentsia from behind a Murdochian paywall. Some of it — looking at the example they give on the programme of Camilla whatsherface and her film reviews of Moonlight and I Daniel Blake — is uncomprehending bile that’s been brayed into newsprint. Underlying a lot of it is ego – “look how marvellously I turn a phrase and employ my clever metaphors about bunk-beds etc!”
And aside from all its messy meta-ness, Wild Bore is perhaps a reminder to just not be an arsehole. Try not to be an arsehole in a world where we’re all rammed between the flabby white cheeks of patriarchal oppression.
Joy Martin: In my opinion, the whole point of the show was the deconstruction of an edifice of theatre criticism built by patriarchy, upon patriarchal values, which is struggling to keep up with some of the unfolding edge of theatre, especially the non-white-non-classical-heterosexual-male unfolding edges of theatre. I thought it was a wholly appropriate and timely theatrical bomb thrown at an already crumbling paradigm, which I have never personally identified with.
I don’t think we are ever going to be able to restrain ourselves from describing, classifying and valuing the jewels of art/theatre*, but I think Wild Bore is setting fire to the way it has been done by some: a tradition of a sort of journalism that sometimes doesn’t work very hard to discover the meaning or craft behind a work of art, especially something new and abstract, a tradition which has corseted the act of exploration and valuation within word-counts and a particular journalistic style. One that to me, feels uncomfortable, restrictive, old, and male. It is a tradition that allows a critic who doesn’t understand or naturally resonate with something to dismiss it simply as bad quality, or nonsense, rather than saying, ‘I don’t understand or resonate with this. Maybe I am not the right person to act as interpreter for the wider public in a journalistic context.’ Which reminds me of the behaviour and values of insecure teenage boys until they learn better: bluster and compete, bluster and compete. I can see where it comes from, psychologically, and culturally, but to me it also just feels…dishonest. And also like an irresponsible use of the critic’s power.
I felt that the fuel for the wild energy underneath Wild Bore was a simmering rage at critical dismissals of the three artists’ work which were based on this sort of self-serving blustering laziness, or an inability to peer into the meaning, depths, new theatrical techniques and materials in their type of theatre (live art). I don’t think they were having a pop at all criticism/response – just bad criticism, old criticism, and (with hand-on-heart, deep respect for my male colleagues who are thoughtful, clear-eyed explorers in the new style) it is a type of criticism that has been passed down to us from the patriarchy, from the current infrastructure of publishing writing about theatre.
****Six weeks elapse****
Alice Saville: The Edinburgh fringe suddenly feels like a long way off, but I’m still no closer to pinning down how I feel about Wild Bore. It was massive amounts of fun. It was a rare, crucial example of women being funded to make a live art/experimental show in a theatre space, which is hugely important in and of itself. I think, like Joy and Anna, that it had an undeniable, infectious feminist energy.
But although they’ve turned it into an artform, I still don’t think that male newspaper journalists have a monopoly on critical arrogance. Trudge through online review sites and you’ll see that anyone, of any gender or background, can have a furious ‘wtf is this?’ moment when faced with something they don’t understand, and don’t like. And maybe that’s a legitimate response, sometimes? As the show’s heavy reliance on a single WhatsOnStage review suggests, it’s also pretty rare for traditional outlets to send unsympathetic dinosaurs to review feminist live art – that’s usually the beat of young, less well paid, mostly female reviewers, if anyone. Add in the fact that Wild Bore‘s only one-star review in the UK came from Ann Treneman and it’s clear that you’d need 12 PhD chapters, not two hours, to fully explore gender dynamics in criticism. Like Hannah, I do feel that it’s a show that slightly misrepresents theatre criticism in its determination to mine the most toweringly arrogant or wilfully glib examples for comedy, rather than (at the risk of sounding massively po-faced) suggesting faith in the positive power of serious critical engagement to influence the industry for the better.
I think what rescues it from some of that sense is Krishna Istha’s surprise contribution, which was basically an internal, independent critique of the show, delivered in a knowing deadpan (although it also feels a bit ironic that the structure of a feminist performance holds a trans, brown performer back from having their contribution fully advertised or credited). Krishna called out the three white performers’ use of songs like ‘Bubble Butt’, that are usually linked to the sexualisation of black womens’ bodies. And they also addressed ideas of tokenism, and the way that merely being present on stage as a trans person means you’re under scrutiny, seen as fulfilling some kind of invisible quota. Their contribution felt particularly relevant given that the Traverse’s 2017 line-up included Adam and Eve, both of which are the work of trans performers – as Kate O’Donnell’s autobiographical Summerhall show You’ve Changed asked, what happens when trans theatre stops being ‘trendy’?
Depressingly, the rush of positivity around trans stories at the fringe has been followed by a particularly nasty media shitstorm, predictably centred around the ‘danger’ posed to kids. Another trans performer, Travis Alabanza, became the centre of a media smear last week after protesting about how Topshop policed the gender of people using its changing rooms. The burden of sexist criticism which falls on Ursula Martinez, Zoe Coombs Marr and Adrienne Truscott has to fall many times harder on women of colour, queer and trans people – even if the fact their artistic contributions are often marginalised ‘protects’ them from the opinions of mainstream critics. What I sort of wondered was: does the structure of the show undermine Krishna’s involvement, and their criticisms? How much space does it leave to imagine criticism as a positive force?
Natasha Tripney: It’s a fascinating show to think back on with hindsight, isn’t it? The landscape and conversations surrounding theatre, bodies, gender, and as Alice pointed out, trans representation, have shifted considerably since I saw it at the Traverse in August. (Which, in so very many ways, feels like an awfully long time ago). As Maddy Costa’s Exeunt piece on The Suppliant Women demonstrated criticism can – and should – be a way of asking the questions that need to be asked, talking around the work as well as about it, filling in that space between artist and audience. Criticism can be a vital driver of debate, active as well as reflective.
That said, I still think some of the shots Wild Bore took at the ego of the critic were bang on and completely justified – their discussion of a particular review that compared Al Pacino’s way of moving to an anchovy and said he resembled “an unmade bunk bed” highlighted this best. I’ve definitely written reviews like that: reviews where I’ve allowed a pleasing turn of phrase or image to sway my criticism. I’ve written flip little comments that I think might raise a smile because those smiles, on some level, matter to me. I’ll hold my hands up to that. What I think the show overlooked, however, was the amount of love that exists in criticism, certainly among the writers I admire. The best critics write from a place of passion, they care.
It’s also worth stressing how impressive it is that this show so full of arses and jokes about defecation has left me, months down line, with so much to digest.
Wild Bore is on at Soho Theatre until 16th December, 2017. More info here.