I’ve never had stage fright writing a review before. Sitting in the Soho theatre bar, I huffed my drink and babbled to my husband ‘But what if I think it’s awful and have to write that? Then I’ll become source material and my weak sentence structure and unfounded opinions will be revealed to EVERYONE.’
‘But oh, mad wife, isn’t that exactly what reviewers do to performers?’
And having ripped open my ribcage and bared my uttermost fears, he bought me more wine for he is a sensible man. As someone who writes about theatre for fun and for work, I am not used to feeling the exposure theatremakers are habitually accustomed to. Though we make much of pushing criticism as a dialogue, negative reviews rarely signal the start of jolly conversation with their subjects.
Ursula Martinez, Zoe Coombs Marr and Adrienne Truscott have no problem talking back to bad reviews, lampooning via mooning the frequently pretentious language critics employ. There’s nothing like having your words parodied by an arse with googly eyes stuck on it to make you scrap any lofty aspirations of Dorothy Parker wit. But as brilliant it would have been to watch three such incredibly talented women indulge in a full-on roasting of everyone I follow on twitter – that’s not what happens in Wild Bore.
The audience, including reviewers, are invited to sit at the table with the performers, to laugh with them and feast on Merda d’artista. It is an inclusive laughter generated though brilliant timing and (yes, as they repeatedly point out) dramaturgical design. The show is giddily meta, pulling the audience down an Escher spiral staircase of self-referential gags only to shove them impossibly off the top. It’s exhilarating and HILARIOUS. My dizzy laughter throughout was so enthusiastic that I did that really unattractive guffaw thing which makes people move away from me at parties.
In Exeunt’s recent Dialogue of Wild Bore , there was discussion as to whether Martinez, Coombs Marr and Truscott’s focus on expulsively-shit shit reviews was misrepresentative of reviewers. Whether it was unfair to criticise critics’ love of a tidy turn of phrase. After all the purposes of reviews are many-fold; buyers’ guide, constructive dialogue etc., but also to be entertaining to readers. A terrible review that compares an unpleasant evening out to the Titanic might be hyperbolic but it’s a rollicking good read (one that is fantastically sent up in Wild Bore with a recorder rendition of ‘My heart will go on’). A 1-star will always garner more views that 2-star mediocrity; aren’t we just doing our jobs?
Well, yes and no. At school, there were teachers who bollocked you because they wanted you to do better and those that who had inexplicably gotten their PGCE because they had a sadistic hatred of children (Hi Mrs. Harrison, look I’m STILL not in prison!). That’s not to compare critics to teachers in that we have some deep wisdom to part to our performing pals, but in that we have a duty of care and to at least try to grasp what we are being shown. And if we don’t get it, to understand that there was a point though it might have been rickety or lost in dramaturgical translation. To me, Martinez, Coombs Marr and Truscott’s frustration seems less directed at the fact sometimes people don’t like what you make, but that they deny you the agency of having made it. Martinez’s fury with the review that claims she built a wall during her show for ‘no apparent reason’ is not directed at its 1 star, but the blindness to her actions as a considered choice. One does not learn to point mortar to a professional standard just to expand their repertoire of involuntary gestures.
******HERE BE SPOILERS. IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE SHOW DON’T READ THIS******
‘Surprise performer’ Krishna Istha is just the most wonderful gift to this show. I didn’t know what I wanted for Christmas, but it’s Istha popping up two thirds through every show with their pokerfaced puckish critique. They add an essential moment of introspection without being po-faced. Wandering around the chaotic ephemera of the bum-banquet, Ishta’s monologue is like a Jerry’s final thought for theatre in the 21st century.
********* OK YOU CAN COME BACK NOW *********************************
Perhaps Wild Bore is not a play about critics, perhaps it is a play about the critical gaze. To know that to be looking at work is not a passive act but is part of the construction of the experience; we must take responsibility not only for what we write but also for an awareness as to what we bring to the work through our looking. In Visuality in Theatre, Professor Maaike Bleeker examines how some members of the audience will always ‘get it’ more than others as their perspective aligns with the theatremakers. This means that some:
‘…recognise the vision presented as ‘how it is’, but may also explain why other viewers feel disorientated, alienated or displaced by particular ways of showing.’ (Bleeker 2011: 10)
That’s all well and good, but the magic is that sometimes you enter the theatre with one idea of ‘how it is’ and leave with a new one. Wild Bore mischievously destabilizes the hegemonic system of criticism. Me, critic, you performer, I kill bad show, you beat chest and despair. No, sod that, this is a fucking paradigm shift.
Wild Bore is on until 16 December 2017 at the Soho Theatre. Click here for more details.