Not Another Review (Stockholm)

DISCLAIMER: This is not a review.

I guess I am a self-confessed Almost-Critic. I go see theatre and sure, I “review” it; everybody does. Most often, the reviews my friends and I come up with are verbal and held as conversations (and heated debates) over turkish delight, cheesecake and coffee at Three Monkeys. No doubt, many reviews will now happen over at Drift, which celebrates the opening of its long awaited, greatly anticipated supper club tonight and which I am bitterly disappointed to miss. Sorry, friends. Still so sick. I will be there in spirit and honestly can’t wait to see a show and raise a glass!

So, what most of us don’t do with the review of each show we see, is write it and publish it under the guise of “theatre critic”. In order to claim this title, I think one needs a terrific combination of talents, listed below:

  • the time, the energy and the means to see lots of shows
  • the ability to write well (YES. DON’T ARGUE ABOUT THAT ONE)
  • a sound knowledge of theatre and the performing arts in general
  • an interest in research and the acquisition of accurate details and interesting titbits of information pertaining to the show and its performers and creative team
  • a reasonably objective perspective

Which brings me to: if one were to know someone involved in a production one reviews, should one ‘fess up? Or is it possible for a theatre critic to remain objective about a production whilst sustaining a connection with it? I think we like to think (expert readers of critical reviews that we are) that it’s not possible. However, I think it might be that many theatre critics are inextricably linked to their local theatre scene…am I right? It’s a small world, this little local growing theatre industry…perhaps it’s different in New York. Perhaps the New York readers can comment on that. Do I have any New York readers? Anyone? Anyone?

So. Far be it from me to go out on a limb and proclaim that there are really very few good theatre critics around here. If I were to go out on said limb and say so, I’m sure I would not be the first. And yes, of course there are a few very good ones (you will find a few of those links on this page). After receiving great reviews for our recent production of La Ronde, I had been thinking about these things. Actually, I have been thinking about these things since Ian Austin finished up at The Sunshine Coast Daily as theatre critic. Ah-hem.

And then, this morning, on a friend’s Facebook page, I read this

Brisbane needs to invest in some new theatre critics. Just saying. We have a couple of great writers, and a lot of theatre lovers who love talking about their feelings. Quoting song lyrics in a review? Listing the emotions that you felt in Act 2 (‘sadness and happiness all at once’). Really? Who keeps inviting them places?! Ok rant over.

This made me quite determined never to write a review again! Mainly because I think I fall somewhere in between the emotional self-labelled critic and the objective academic critic. So here is Not Another Review (Stockholm). It’s not even very long. No, really. You can go back to whatever it was you were doing in just a minute. Were you making coffee? Go on, put the kettle on first. Right.

The thing is, it floored me. This Stockholm show, which I’d read rave reviews about and heard mixed feedback from friends, absolutely floored me like no other. At times, sitting there, in the dark at the top of the theatre (thank the box office I was not closer to the action) I actually thought I couldn’t breathe. Frantic Assembly‘s production of Bryony Lavery‘s Stockholm is an extraordinary piece of theatre. I cannot imagine sitting through it again, which is just as well because it has sold out. And because it really got me.

I noticed at its conclusion that I was the first out of the Roundhouse Theatre and in front of a mirror to fix my make-up. And then I couldn’t think. I couldn’t think what it was exactly that got me. And it was not immediately, either, let’s just clarify; during the first ten minutes I was wondering if it was going to live up to the rave reviews. I had to climb into the same space and tune in. And into the eleventh minute I was in tune and in love with Socratis Otto and convinced that he and the show were indeed going to exceed all expectations (though I was still fearful of how they – and I – would deal with the subject matter). What my friends and the critics had failed to express was how I would personally respond to this challenging piece. And how could they know? It’s certainly a tough gig those theatre critics have, because without assuming how any theatre goer will respond, they are to present an objective overview of the production, taking into consideration all aspects of the production and yet, at the same time, resist giving away too much (incidentally, this is where a lot of movie critics, IMHO, miss the mark). There’s a fine line between tell-all-know-all summaries of the story and writing to entice, seduce the audiences into our theatres to experience the thing themselves.

If I had been on my own to see it and in another theatre, in another city, I might have left before the end, something I have only ever done at extraordinarily bad productions. So not because it was bad but because it was so good I almost couldn’t bear to see (and feel) the inevitable end of it. But again, I can’t think exactly what it was or at what point I felt so helpless, hopeless and lost and alone. It certainly was not  the actual fight scene, which I felt was over-choreographed and under-rehearsed. There. I said it. In fact, that’s my only criticism. Every other gesture, expression, move (oh! the delicious devouring cutlery debauchery on the island bench), every other word (oh! and how about that Cate Blanchett influenced vocal work, huh?) got under my skin. Let’s clarify again. On the night I saw them, Socratis Otto and his little smile got under my skin and Leeanna Walsman sometimes left me cold and wondering why must we continue to define and justify our behaviour as women by what ails us?! Perhaps that was her intent in the role. Perhaps that was the intent in the writing. Suspicion and jealousy will drive you mad.

I actually can’t remember thinking at the time that a disease or some sort of malady was addling her brain and keeping her there, I just recall that the first thing my husband commented on afterwards was, “Why choose the easy option and make it a disease that holds her there?” Did he/I/we miss something? Seriously! It’s Stockholm Syndrome! It’s already a recognised psychological disorder…isn’t that enough?! I was such an emotional wreck that I’m not sure I got it and if somebody would like to explain why she wouldn’t simply feel enough to want to damage him and why he wouldn’t simply love her enough to keep her/stay regardless, I would appreciate it. Also, was it so clear cut that she was the captor? Really? Did I imagine that he could just as easily be her charming captor, even in all his apparent innocence and when all signs eventually indicated otherwise? Look, I am gonna have to read me some Stockholm script!

When we coach actors, especially younger actors, we tell them to raise the stakes! I actually would see this show again – on the condition that they raise the stakes and show us the relationship as just a relationship. Nothing “wrong” with her, no disease, just a really bad match. And they have captivated and then captured each other. The devastation we witnessed in the various (cyclic) stages of the relationship disintegrating and healing (sort-of but never really healing) just HAPPEN. Hell, Sam and I have our fights. He will tell you he’s the one held captive! I have in fact, stabbed him…out of pure frustration. Not even a big deal. Not due to suspicion or the fact that he still won’t quit smoking or that he never picks up a wet towel (guys, what is WITH THAT?!)  No, no. In fact, he will tell you. He loves to tell that story!

So we were in our old kitchen. Doing the dishes. This was pre-dishwasher days. She’s going to write a book: The Dishwasher Saved My Marriage. It’s true. It did. Anyway, I was flicking her little butt with a tea towel and she’d already told me to STOP IT several times. I love how it starts out as this quiet little “stop it, ok?” and gets to “FUCKING STOP IT OR I’LL FUCKING STAB YOU!” And she did. She fucking stabbed me!

“Told you I’d stab you, didn’t I?”

What the…??? “YOU FUCKING STABBED ME, YOU CRAZY WOMAN! I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU ACTUALLY FUCKING STABBED ME!” A huge fuck off carving knife in my chest, blood and everything! She’ll tell you I’m exaggerating. But I’m not. There was blood. She was mad! What? Nah, I was alright. No doctors for me, mate! It was just a little stab wound. Nothing really. Had a scar for years, though. Well, it’s gone now, faded; you can’t really see it now. The real wound runs deep, though…What? Nope, never flicked her with a tea towel again. What, you think I’m stupid, mate?

Clearly, there was a lot in Stockholm to recognise, either because something like it has happened or is happening to you or somebody you know or because nothing like it has ever happened to you or somebody you know. Be grateful for that! I think every relationship is just as destructive as the last (or the first) unless we continually work on the communication part. And the healing part. And of course, the sex on the stairs part; now that is always a good therapeutic session…………

The working set, designed by Laura Hopkins, was the best I’ve seen, although I have to be honest, my more macabre, disturbing self was waiting for somebody’s head to be held under the running water and rapidly filling sink (but we’d already had the head-under-water a different way – that desk a freaky genius touch, with astonishingly precise lighting by Andy Purves to guarantee the desired effect) and/or for somebody’s hand to be held down against the stove top (but HOW I hear you ask. I know…I don’t know). Was that just me?! I loved the raised bed, I loved the physical risks the actors took, I loved that it was all for NOTHING. That the way in which they played in that space was an accurate reflection of the futility of trying to mend their broken hearts (and damaged, not diseased, minds) again and again and again. I think I was heartbroken by the end of all that trying and forgiving and trying again and could see so much that I never want to…feel.

And now you see why I can’t write the reviews my friend is wanting more of. Because I FEEL. Because I can’t keep what I feel out of what I’m writing. Or living. And that seems to be a bigger issue at the moment for lots of reasons. And for another post, though they are few and far between at the moment. Now go make your coffee. And go make your husband/wife/girlfriend/boyfriend/partner/captor/friend/fuck buddy one too.

And stay if you must. And get out when you can.

6 Responses to “Not Another Review (Stockholm)”

  1. 1 Katherine Lyall-Watson
    May 21, 2010 at 4:50 pm

    Brilliant post Xanthe. I love every word of your “non-review” and hope you write many more.

  2. 2 Kate Foy
    May 21, 2010 at 5:23 pm

    Yes this is so a review, Xanthe! And a nice one too.

    To answer something you pose in the post – whether or not a reviewer ought to write about a show that includes colleagues or friends, or one that is produced by an organisation they’re involved with … well, that’s a little teaser that occupies me from time to time. Whilst tricky, it’s not impossible; if you run a blog, as I do on Greenroom, then I ask guest bloggers to write review posts – with their names attached – on productions from Queensland Theatre Company, for example. And of course, a blog is not only about reviews; interviews and opinion pieces, as well as profiles are all possible for the theatre blogger. In a city the size of Brisbane it is going to be very hard to exclude a review of a play on the basis that you know someone involved in the production. It comes down finally to paying the respect due to the work of being honest and informed, whatever your affiliations or relationships.

    Most bloggers on theatre in this state are not, of course, paid employees of a media organisation. Those who are are reined in to a greater or lesser extent by editorial policy and time constraints, advertising and so on. ‘Indie’ bloggers can say whatever they please whenever they like, and link to other informed sources, even alternative points of view. This is something that attracts me to writing about theatre online.

    Finally, I believe that reviewers of all kinds are going to attract readership and respect through the quality and integrity that their articles display, and “Your blog is only as good as your position is clear and your bias exposed.”

    PS I like what Jack of Kent had to say about about what bloggers can do that journos can’t. It was an article that focussed on why blogging is not the new journalism: http://jackofkent.blogspot.com/2010/04/orwell-shortlist-and-journalism-v.html

  3. 3 Kate Foy
    May 21, 2010 at 5:39 pm

    PPS .. and thanks for the link! 🙂

  4. May 22, 2010 at 9:55 pm

    Write more reviews, please!

  5. May 22, 2010 at 10:24 pm

    Told you. TOLD YOU! Knew you’d love it. Told you I had to have 3 fags and 2 champers before I could even talk after! Told you it was lucky Sam was going with you so he could do the drive home!!!

    I love being right 🙂

    and PS: you do write awful nice

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