This is the letter I sent to, but did not appear in, The Age in response to Helen Thomson’s reviews of Malthouse’s The Ham Funeral and Journal of the Plague Year (April 18).
Over the years, Helen Thomson’s enthusiasm for staged literature as opposed to live theatre has become reassuringly predictable. I have lost count of the reviews that have failed to conjure any sense of the production and yet provide a thorough and approving account of the text, so long as the play in question includes some Shavian social do-goodery or is immediately available to a kind of Year 12 Literature essay-analysis.
If audiences have attended the dullest examples of dead theatre due to her advice, then her damnation of Michael Kantor’s productions of The Ham Funeral and Journal of the Plague Year should be read as an enthusiastic recommendation to all of us who still believe that going to the theatre can be a blood-pumping adventure full of unexpected, tough and unusual visions. I say these productions are just what we need and exhort inquisitive minds to go; you will find yourself an invigorated audience member in an invigorated theatre.
But there is a massive problem here. One that must be rectified by the appointment to The Age of a reviewer that can, at the very least, approach this new theatre with something more than a cinematic understanding of narrative value (in the Robert McKee tradition) and an insufferably patronising tone. Thomson is patronising both in her choice of words and in the assumption that the bold, clearly controlled choices evident in these productions have failed according to her own limited and prejudiced critical framework. It is unforgivable, even if damning a production, not to credit artists of this calibre with intelligence and intent. But this last point is subtle compared to the broad problem.
What occurred at the Malthouse Theatre was by anyone’s definition, an extraordinary event: 2 new mainstage productions, premiering on the same day in a re-vamped theatre under a fearless artistic director who commands an ensemble of our finest actors and pushes the technical capabilities of the theatre to its limit. Instead of giving us any sense of the excitement that was palpable in the audience, Thomson writes that we were "unmoved".
Neither will any future reader of her reviews have any impression of the epic nature of the undertaking or the theatrical spectacle. Capturing the flavour of the event, describing it and the context in which it occurs is a basic journalistic requirement, irrespective of the overall critical opinion. But this largess is beyond Thomson who instead wastes valuable space pedantically explaining the "failings" of the productions with the arbitration on taste of a bristling school ma’am.
This reviewer quite clearly has control of the language (and we should never take that for granted) but the mental gymnastics that she performs in order to reconcile her cool authoritative tone with her strangely infuriated, reactionary agenda results in a description of a production that didn’t actually exist, peppered with revealing derogations (songs that are "merely amusing", dialogue that is "merely unconvincing") and conclusions that are nothing short of bizarre: the idea that today’s audience have "moved on" from a Jungian framework is hysterical (and would certainly amuse most of the practising psychologists that I know), her assertion that there exists a "genuine Absurdist" theatrical approach is positively alarming, if not oxymoronic, while referring to Kantor’s individual voice within the broad church of Expressionism as Kosky-esque is simply lazy journalism (Robert Wilson, whose Black Rider was seen at this year’s Sydney Festival, springs to mind as a more apt, potentially illuminating comparison for understanding Kantor’s approach.)
For an event such as this we need to demand a reviewer who can offer something more discriminating, useful to readers and historically meaningful. These are exciting times for Melbourne theatre, our daily newspaper has a duty to provide us with a reviewer who is up to the task.
See page 29 for RT’s Malthouse review.
Daniel Schlusser is a theatre-director whose work has been seen nationally and internationally. He is currently developing Ben Ellis’ Zombie State for Melbourne Worker’s Theatre.
RealTime issue #67 June-July 2005 pg.
© Daniel Schlusser; for permission to reproduce apply to firstname.lastname@example.org