Now, Everyone Really is a Critic…
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 6, 2012
Out, damned mainstream review! Bloggers are rising up to tell Sydney theatre lovers what they really think of the latest plays, with no punches pulled.
Jane Simmons has a sassiness that suggests she knows her way around a classroom and would be lots of fun to have as your teacher.
Her former drama students — some scattered across the industry in Australia and overseas, others studying at Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art [NIDA], the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, and the Victorian College of the Arts — would attest to that. Where many of those ex-students do not want to see her is in the audience. Or at least the theatre companies they work for do not.
That is because Simmons, 44, the head of drama at the Sydney’s private, Anglican St Andrew’s Cathedral School, has been moonlighting of late as a theatre critic. And the name of her notorious new blog would make a curate blush: She calls it Shit On Your Play.
With a title like that, you know there must have been an inciting incident. It all started in the middle of last year with two excruciating nights at the theatre: first, a production of Berthold Brecht’s obscure, early play Baal featuring what looked like a bunch of uni students poncing about in the nuddie, followed soon after by Anton Chekhov’s The Seagull set in an Australian caravan park.
The last straw fell in the foyer after The Seagull, when she ran into a leading Australian theatre critic who told this veteran drama teacher that if she hadn’t liked the shows then she really didn’t understand theatre. “It was like a red rag to a bull!” Simmons says. “I had been joking for months that I was going to start my own blog, and it was just the prompting I needed.”
She went home and started turning out reviews like this:
This dickfest, in every sense of the word, may have impressed with a wonderful set design, and who knew you could recycle stage water? What you can’t do is take a second-rate play, get your gear off, play bad heavy metal with banal poetry, swig a bottleneck or two, throw in a bit of badly simulated sex, a few death scenes and expect it to impress anyone. Actors and audience looked uncomfortable, and not because there was a stage full of willy but because there was no point to it at all.
— on Sydney Theatre Company’s 2011 production of Baal, Shit On Your Play, December 19, 2011
Simmons knows the name of her blog is divisive and admits that some people have asked her to change it. But she chose it quite deliberately as an expression of what she says is the mounting frustration and resentment of many paying Sydney theatregoers.
“It works on a number of levels: I shit on your play; you shit on your play; and shit on you for shitting on your play,” she explains. “With the people I talk to, it’s almost as if they go to the theatre expecting it to be a piece of shite so they can at least be pleasantly surprised if it turns out not to be. People have developed very low expectations.”
Maybe so, but low expectations are hardly what is inspiring the growing army of theatre bloggers in Australia. Writing in a wide diversity of styles, bloggers such as Alison Croggon, Diana Simmonds, Kevin Jackson, Augusta Supple, James Waites, Jana Perkovic, Bob Ellis and Jane Simmons are giving the mainstream newspaper reviewers a run for their money; indeed, they seem already to have overtaken the old guard in terms of their impact on audiences.
Not only are many of these bloggers getting along to see an enormous amount of theatre, their readers feel they can get to know them and exchange commentary about their own experiences. Clever arts organisations, and especially the smaller, independent companies, know that through them they can tap straight into an existing and interested audience base.
Simmons sees mainstream newspaper reviewing as a big part of what’s wrong with Australian theatre at present. She says a lot of regular theatregoers are growing increasingly distrustful of mainstream reviewers who seem to be tied into a celebrity culture and prepared to puff any old dross.
“Too often it’s just a checklist of average. Many people are bypassing the mainstream reviewers altogether,” she says.
Simmons believes that too many newspaper reviewers these days appear to believe, wrongly, that it is their role to promote and protect Australian theatre and that being openly critical would hurt the local industry.
“I don’t think it does Australian theatre any favours if you only ever say, ‘You’re doing well.’ Aren’t we more resilient than that?” Simmons asks. “It’s the same with my own students: as a drama teacher, what’s the point if I’m not offering them some constructive criticism to help them self-correct or at least reflect? Perhaps after hearing my suggestions they’ll make a choice to go on doing it the wrong way, but at least they’ve had an opportunity to hear another point of view.”
And she isn’t alone in these views. One former theatre reviewer for Fairfax and News Limited, who asked not to be named for contractual reasons, told The Global Mail: “The pressure is on reviewers to be polite. We now have a situation where newspapers need arts companies maybe slightly more than the arts companies need them. Editors are far less likely to run a bad review for fear of a breakdown in the relationship in the fight for advertising dollars. They won’t say this publicly, but reviewers ‘disappear’ because they’re too harsh.”
If I see John Gaden and Peter Carroll in one more show, I’m going to hurt someone.
Oh dear. Clunkety clunk clunk. The first half of STC’s production of Orton’s Loot has the pace of a Cliffy Young shuffle in what needs to be a Usain Bolt sprint…
— on Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Joe Orton’s Loot, Shit On Your Play, October 12, 2011
But Simmons clearly feels no need to disappear and is not afraid of being too harsh. With her unashamedly scurrilous style, itself a product of the anarchic, larrikin side of the Australian theatre tradition, she sees herself as an advocate for the audience. And as an experienced drama teacher she feels she has something valuable to offer:
“I want to empower audiences, who feel so lost. At interval I hear people saying they don’t understand what’s going on. The show they’re attending has a stellar cast, it’s been getting great reviews, and they can’t put their finger on why they themselves feel so confused and disappointed. The automatic assumption for many people is that it must be me.”
But it’s not the audience. In fact the rise of the theatre blogger seems to be signalling a shift in the relationship between theatre companies and their audiences, who want a more tough-minded appraisal of what they are seeing.
“The theatre-going public is beginning to take bristling exception to things they’ve accepted for a long time. Loyalty is a basic human trait, and people always hang in there hoping things will get better. But you’re paying a lot of money, and they’ve pushed the friendship,” says Simmons.
Before speaking to The Global Mail, Simmons had been publishing Shit On Your Play anonymously, though her identity was known to many of her colleagues and students. She received particular encouragement from a group of students in her Year 12 International Baccalaureate class because none of the theatre reviews they were reading seemed relevant to them, either.
Perhaps surprisingly, Simmons has found that it is her younger readers who feel most dissatisfied with what they’re seeing at the theatre and most in agreement with what she has to say. “The older demographic tends to be more polite and forgiving, whereas younger audience members will vocalise that they’re unhappy and that they want more,” she says. “Spectacle is not enough.”
Acting teacher Kevin Jackson taught at NIDA for 28 years before his departure at the end of last year. Recently he wrote to Simmons telling her that her blog was “outrageously great,” and that he had been using it as the basis for discussions in his own classes.
Jackson, 63, also writes a theatre blog of his own called Kevin Jackson’s Theatre Diary. He says theatre blogging has taken off in Australia in response to the shrinking space devoted to serious arts coverage in the mainstream media.
“People don’t go to church anymore, but there is still a tremendous need for communal experiences,” Jackson says. “That’s the reason our writers’ festivals have become so successful and it’s why people go to the theatre and to sporting events. But people also have a desperate hunger just to talk to each other about what they have seen.”
The boys of Belvoir don’t seem to be able to keep their hands off it.
Simon Stone. Writing, directing, wanking. Need I say more? Sometimes aided by Chris Ryan. Put me in a pension home now.
Don’t expect to understand the production. Only the faux-bearded set and their entourage will get it (or pretend to) and you’ll be made to feel like an idiot or a relic of the boomers or even Generation X if you question it, and the critics will wank all over it and you will ask yourself, ‘Is it just me? Did I just not get it?’ Answer: No, but thanks for your $60.
— on Belvoir Street’s 2012 season, Shit On Your Play, November 3, 2011
According to Simmons, a tribe of young men has overtaken mainstream theatre in Sydney, especially at the inner city Belvoir Street Theatre.
“There seems to be a small, masculine club in charge of rewriting the classics and casting each other. They’re young and inexperienced, and my feeling is they’re often programming for themselves and forgetting about the audience,” she says. “Sometimes it can be really fun, like in [Belvoir Street’s] recent production of Shakespeare’s As You Like It, but at other times as a woman sitting in the audience I just feel completely alienated.”
Utter the word “deconstruction” and Simmons really gets going. She’s scathing about the present fashion for pulling apart non-contemporary plays and reworking them in ways that often bear little resemblance to the original. As far as she’s concerned deconstruction has been accompanied by a growing culture of disrespect both for the integrity of the text and for the audience.
“Last year at Belvoir Street they put on a play that they called The Wild Duck, but they abandoned everything other than the basic storyline of Ibsen’s original play.”
Simmons says she has no problem with deconstruction when it’s done well, but many young Australian directors and adaptors don’t have the maturity or technique to pull it off.
“Probably the ‘creatives’ at Belvoir Street and the STC would say I’m a traditionalist who doesn’t like experimentation. But I would argue that it’s they who have failed to execute what they set out to do, and it’s much easier to blame me for not getting it rather than admitting they’ve bastardised the play.”
She has a particular problem with the deconstruction of relatively unknown plays such as Berthold Brecht’s early play Baal.
“With Shakespeare there’s always going to be a lot more room to move because it’s so familiar,” Simmons says. “But when few people in the audience are familiar with the original, they have nothing to compare your deconstruction with."
The result? Audiences increasingly are coming out of the theatre with a queasy feeling they’ve been the victims of a confidence trick. “And they have been. You can often see some great acting on our Australian stages, but too often the production has completely disrespected the work. Many people would have left the theatre after seeing Baal thinking, ‘Why do I not care about what just happened to those characters? Why do I never want to see that play again?'”
Simmons says many of the young male directors she is writing about are clearly in awe of the bad boy of Australian theatre, Barrie Kosky, and are seeking to emulate him, often with limited success. Kosky she sees as a genuine talent, perhaps even a genius, though somewhat hit and miss.
“Actually, these days he’s a lot more hit than miss. And when he gets it right, oh my God, I come out understanding theatre in a way I hadn’t before, or in a way that in my head was previously just theory. His [2008 STC production of] Women of Troy was superb, superb,” she says.
This September, after a decade living and working in Europe, Kosky is due to take up a new position as intendant — or general director — of Berlin’s Komische Oper.
Although at his outer extremes Kosky can be unbearable (a ghastly travesty of King Lear is seared permanently in my own memory), Simmons believes he has played a hugely important role in shaking up Australia’s conventional, middle class theatre tastes.
“Generally that means, give me realism, narrative-based, linear, very traditional forms of theatre. That’s why Kosky is so important,” she says. “He gives you experiences that make you say ‘Oh, I didn’t realise theatre could be like this.’”
The biggest mistake any director can make is to presume that ‘alienation’ gives you permission to not engage the audience in the action or plight of the characters. Let’s get this straight — I still need to be engaged by the journey and plight of the characters; I’m just expected to avoid catharsis.
— on Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Baal, Shit On Your Play, June 10, 2011
German surrealist literature … well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective.— on STC’s production of Gross und Klein, Shit On Your Play, December 2, 2011
Director Benedict Andrews, 39, has become one of the main targets of Simmons’s sledging. Best known for his epic, eight-hour War of the Roses in 2009, starring Cate Blanchett, in which he rained gold tinsel down on the heads of his stationary actors for half an hour, Andrews will be busy in 2012. First, there’s his new Opera Australia production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Sydney Opera House. Then, his new production of Every Breath, which he wrote, is due to premiere at Belvoir Street in March, and four days later his STC production of Botho Strauss’s Gross und Klein, again starring Cate Blanchett, goes on tour to Paris, London, Vienna and Recklinghausen in Germany. In May, his new production of Detlev Glanert’s 2006 opera Caligula opens at the English National Opera in London.
But for Simmons, busy sometimes can mean “predictable,” and she’s tired of what she describes as Andrews’s over-familiar box of theatrical tricks. So much so, she has invented her own private game to celebrate them. On an imaginary bingo card she makes up a list of all the things that annoy her and ticks them off in her mind as she encounters them in the theatre. She calls it “Batshit Bingo.”
“I just figure that if you’re going to be stuck in the theatre for three hours watching one of his productions, you may as well take in something else to do,” Simmons says.
But what overfamiliar tricks is she referring to?
“Perspex boxes, anything raining from the sky, any sort of bodily function exercised on stage, still being trapped in the theatre at 11 o’clock at night, weird German references that don’t make sense, completely disregarding the text, being completely distanced from the audience, and having all the same actors on stage as last time. I will die a happy woman when one of these nights I’m sitting in the audience at a Benedict Andrews show and I hear someone call out ‘Bingo!’ in the dark.”
I interviewed Benedict Andrews for ABC Television when he just starting out as a young director in Adelaide. He was fashionably grungy and spoke in a rambling, free-associating way, but it seemed important to welcome a young director who wanted to direct works by contemporary European playwrights such as Thomas Brasch and Bernard Marie Koltés. Since then, like Kosky, his work has been uneven. But there have been some noted successes, including, in 2007, Patrick White’s Season at Sarsaparilla, and a production of Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, for which he even earns a pat on the back from Jane Simmons. It also has to be acknowledged that leading actors including Cate Blanchett clearly want to work with him, and that the projects he is being asked to direct are getting more and more ambitious.
The new artistic director of Belvoir Street Theatre, Ralph Myers, says Jane Simmons’s blog doesn’t seem like any great cultural achievement to him. ”I find the personal nature of some of her attacks slightly wearying,” Myers says. “They reflect a boring and unsavoury side of the internet.”
Myers is especially irritated by Simmons’s suggestion that Belvoir Street is a boys’ club. Such claims are not new. In 2009 Belvoir’s outgoing artistic director Neil Armfield was accused of shutting out female writers and directors. “You get sick of being chastised for the sins of the fathers,” says Myers. “It’s absolutely not true. If you look at the artists, playwrights and directors we have employed in 2011 and 2012, there are more women than men, and not because we set out to engage in some kind of affirmative action. I don’t really find that interesting.”
Myers says he has received “incredibly enthusiastic feedback” about the very shows that Simmons has criticised most harshly, and that most shows in Belvoir’s 2011 season were sell-outs.
He says it’s no secret that he is promoting a director’s style of theatre at Belvoir Street, and he is dismissive of complaints that the company is presenting reworked versions of classic plays that bear little resemblance to the originals.
“If you want to be faithful to the play then buy it in a book and read it. But the obligation of a theatre company is to deliver something that speaks to the lives of the audiences for which it’s being performed,” Myers says.
Fellow blogger Kevin Jackson says Jane Simmons isn’t being unfair in her criticisms. “She’s saying what most people think and are saying in private, but we’re being treated as if we’re stupid.”
And if she has a bee in her bonnet about Benedict Andrews, that’s only because Andrews is so closely identified with a particularly German kind of post-modern theatre aesthetic that is becoming more prevalent on Sydney stages. The technical term Jackson uses to describe this style is “post-dramatic theatre.” Its an approach that often seems to have a lot more to do with visual design than it does with storytelling, deliberately turning its back on narrative in favour of evoking images or “states,” often of some kind of alienation. Mostly it emanates from a single theatre, the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz in Berlin.
“The directing course at NIDA has also been pushing this style of German aestheticism, and it is producing a younger generation of theatre directors who are self-centred artists,” Jackson says.
This self-centredness — theatrical narcissism, really — has directors wanting to be authors, rather than conveying what the real author has written, and imposing their imported theatrical theories on actors and audiences alike. “What’s being presented isn’t integrated, isn’t organic in the sense that it doesn’t come out of the culture of the actors or the audience. It’s been imposed, and so what we’re seeing doesn’t seem truthful.”
If Jackson is right, this could explain why Neil Armfield’s recent, very ‘straight’ production of the Australian classic, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, was such a success. It felt authentic.
It could also explain why Barrie Kosky seems a more and more mature artist each time he returns to Australia. Not only has he totally immersed himself in German theatrical culture by living in Vienna and Berlin for 10 years, but his recent return productions have featured German actors for whom the style he is presenting is completely familiar.
Kevin Jackson says that more and more regular theatregoers he knows are no longer choosing to buy full-season subscriptions. Instead, they are making their choices based on directors whose work they do (or do not) wish to see. “I often attend theatre productions towards the end of their run, and I would say it is increasingly rare to find myself in a full house. It’s word of mouth. People are being told by their friends, ‘Don’t go.’ Last year I went to the STC’s production of Lorca’s Blood Wedding and there were only 150 people in a 400-seat theatre on a Friday night. When you saw the production, you understood why.”
I feel compelled to stand on my soap box and ask when Australia and the Arts are going to invest in developing our writers? What Ireland seems to do so well is recognise that developing a National voice through their writers, of all ages, is the spine of good theatre. Let’s start with a story worth telling and a voice worth hearing before we start dressing the stage with everything else. Australian mainstream theatre produces less than 30 per cent of local works, as opposed to 70 per cent in most other countries.
— on Irish playwright Mark O’Rowe’s Terminus, Shit On Your Play, June 24, 2011
There is no disputing that Cate Blanchett is a great actress and this play is clearly a vehicle for her to remind us that she is an accomplished performer. However, I feel like the rest of the cast were dumbed down or abandoned in development in order for Blanchett to only ever be the driver of this show…. For such a large ensemble it felt like they were all bit players in a one-man (or woman) show and most of the cast looked as disinterested as I was in the end.
— on STC’s production of Gross und Klein starring Cate Blanchett, Shit On Your Play, December 2, 2011
As someone who is so concerned with defending the integrity of the written text, it isn’t surprising that Jane Simmons is big on the need for more money to be spent nurturing Australian writers and vastly more recognition of the importance of dramaturgs, who work with the writer to improve a script and make it stage ready and also advises the director on how best to realise their vision for the play. Simmons says the use of dramaturgs is a comparatively recent development in Australia, and theatre companies have been slow to accept that the dramaturg is as crucial as that of set designer. The absence of a dramaturg leaves many new Australian scripts sounding as if they’re several drafts short of worthy to put before a paying audience.
“Having a very knowledgeable and creative dramaturg is especially important with one of these productions where they’re adapting or deconstructing an existing text,” she says. “You get the impression that some of these younger directors haven’t completely understood or embraced what a dramaturg is.”
Simmons’ reviews are by no means all negative. She gives Sydney’s Griffin Theatre a huge tick for doing more than most to promote interesting Australian writers.
And believe it or not, she gives Belvoir Street almost as many favourable as negative reviews.
Although clearly unimpressed by a lot of what comes out of the Sydney Theatre Company, she sees artistic directors Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton as a good thing because under their direction the company has at least turned a corner.
“With Cate and Andrew there’s at least a sense that the doors have been re-opened and they’re trying to find their way back to some kind of genuinely reciprocal relationship with the audience. For that reason you can forgive them when they stumble, because the Sydney Theatre Company has been so bad for so long,” Simmons says.
However she is no fan of Andrew Upton’s outings as a stage director: “Long Day’s Journey into Night (STC, 2010) was a demonstration of a director that couldn’t solve problems in tensions between the cast, let alone text and expression.”
Asked whether she has a single dream production that stays in her mind, something that encapsulates theatre at its very best, Simmons gives a revealing answer:
“The 2009 STC production of Andrew Bovell’s When the Rain Stops Falling. That’s where I felt Australian theatre had come of age — the writing, the clarity, technically, the live piano on stage. I started crying about 10 minutes in and just didn’t stop. I loved it.”
So if it moves you, it’s good. Well perhaps that’s one of the secrets to great theatre.