This isn’t an insecure existential (or whatever) crisis about the nature of identity or the meaning of my paltry existence. Typepad won’t let me put italics on the title. It should read Who the hell am I?
So skip the existential bit, and the stuff about identity and existence; the question is, who do I think I am to question someone else’s vision of their own work?
I was at the theatre earlier this week, reviewing a play I’d been looking forward to seeing. It first saw daylight about twenty years ago, and was turned into a hit movie; I’ve seen both the film and the stage version, and greatly enjoyed both. This was a new production, big-budget with a starry name or two – well, maybe not starry, but at least known – and I’d heard good things about it.
Which just goes to show that if you don’t raise your expectations too high, you won’t be disappointed. It had a high spot or two, but mostly it simply didn’t work. It wasn’t so much that they did it badly; more that the approach they’d taken, the concept if you like, didn’t seem to get the play’s message across.
And that’s pretty much what my review said.
It was a touring show, so out of curiosity I looked up reviews at other venues on Google – and give or take a mutter or two about relatively minor details, every one I found sang its praises. A couple even said the setting, which was integral to that concept I couldn’t get along with, was a stroke of genius.
I’ve been reviewing theatre for a long time now, and I stopped being insecure about my own credentials for the job a lot of years ago, even when the critics I’m at odds with are from the big national papers rather than the much smaller regional one I was writing for. A theatre critic is only the man or woman in the stalls, and I’ve seen more than enough live theatre to qualify. Our job is to watch the show from that point of view, and give our readers our opinion; it’s up to them whether they decide to buy a ticket, or not, on the strength of that opinion. Disagreeing with fellow reviewers doesn’t worry me in the least; we’re all individuals who bring our own experience and taste to the job, and there’s no reason on earth why we shouldn’t form different views.
But it didn’t end there. Until I’d written and filed my review, I’d only glanced at the programme (I think American for that is playbill) to check the names of the cast members who weren’t so familiar. When I looked properly, I found that the author, a hugely experienced and respected playwright, was also the director of this particular production – which meant the concept which felt so wrong was actually his idea.
That’s when I had my Who the hell am I? moment.
Had I missed the point? Had I simply failed to latch on to what he was trying to say? And in the light of those other reviews, was I pretty much the only critic in the UK who didn’t get it?
OK, so my own view of how it should be approached chimed with the directors of the movie and the previous stage production I’d seen. But hey, two people among so many; maybe they missed the point as well, and maybe the author wasn’t around to tell them they’d got it wrong.
Theatre is like reading in many ways; the most significant (and relevant to this post!) is that they’re both two-way processes. What the audience member/reader gets out isn’t necessarily what the author thinks s/he has put in. If that sounds too deep and complex for a damp Wednesday morning in November, I apologize – but it’s really quite simple, and goes back a few paragraphs to where I described reviewers: individuals, who bring our own experience and taste to the job.
To my mind, that description kind of sums up the entire human race.
Which is why that Who the hell am I? moment has passed. Maybe I got it wrong, maybe I just got it... different. I’m only human after all.