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The critic’s critic

“Criticism, positive or negative, should be substantiated …
Often a theatre production’s worth rests upon critical feedback.
Future projects are sometimes at stake because of ‘bad feelings’
as a result of negative reviews … The worst thing is when the
reviewer knows nothing about theatre.”

Jerome Kugan

PEOPLE tend to observe something and make remarks, warranted or otherwise. It’s quite the common Malaysian past time, isn’t it? The everyday person on the street does it. Politicians do it. And the media definitely does it. But just how informed are one person’s comments? What qualifies him or her to criticise? Why are these comments being made, to whom, and for what purpose?

A scene from Dama Orchestra’s Butterfly Lovers, staged in Kuala Lumpur
in October 2006 (Pic by Nick Choo)

In 2006, I wrote a review on a local musical theatre production, Butterfly Lovers, by Dama Orchestra. “And as [the lead character] suffers, so does the show: the devolution of engaging drama into insufferable histrionics,” I had written, as was published in Off The Edge (December 2006). “The melodic becomes the melodramatic and quickly tiresome.”

Looking back, I shudder at the heavy-handedness with which I had criticised the piece. Subsequently I received an e-mail from the people at Dama. They suggested that I study the source material of the production, a classic Chinese-language film, The Love Eterne by the Shaw Brothers. They also suggested I familiarise myself with the style and trajectory of their works, so that I could understand how and why Butterfly Lovers fit in with their repertoire.

True, I hadn’t any prior knowledge of Dama’s performance history. Nor did I know anything about Butterfly Lovers itself, or the source material from which it was adapted. My response to their critique of my critique was, surely they couldn’t expect every audience member to study the production company and the show before attending the performance.

What I didn’t understand then is that as a published reviewer, I wasn’t simply “any audience member”. That as a representative of the media, I actually did have a responsibility to find out more about what I was going to write about prior to actually writing it. That I was a commentator in a public forum, which meant that I needed to equip myself with the necessary knowledge to make a fair and informed comment.

This isn’t to say that one’s opinions don’t matter. But surely opinions can only really be appreciated if they are presented with supporting arguments and/or suggestions, or if they are made by someone who has equal or greater knowledge about the subject being discussed. Saying that a character had grieved for too long to the extent that you wished they’d just “hurry up and die lah” is far from a fair review. Nor was it critical or constructive. Epic fail. Oy.

Critical discourse

“I would expect a review to cover a few things …
the impact the production had on the reviewer …
an analysis of the production quality — acting/singing abilities,
production values, directorial choices …
and perhaps some commentary on how they see
this production relating to life and society.”

Colin Kirton

Kirton (Courtesy of Colin Kirton)

Is it fair to say that the Malaysian media aren’t very knowledgeable or helpful in their criticisms of performed work? I think there’s some truth to this, from my point of view as both an arts practitioner and a journalist.

Granted, reviews are tricky things. They are highly subjective, dependent on the reviewer’s tastes and values. But more often than not, “reviews” in the local media tend to be a mere description of what happens on stage, with little or no critical discourse. Otherwise they tend to be purely opinion-based, with no rationalisation of the opinion. Why was this particular show good or bad? What could have been done to make it better? Where is the intellectual engagement in writing these articles, and in people reading them?

One needs to ask: why review in the first place? From the media perspective, it would be one way of demonstrating support for the local arts. From the artist perspective, publicity would help draw attention to a project, therefore affecting its commercial success or failure.

But beyond this symbiotic relationship, an artist might look to the media as a trustworthy provider of opinion. After all, not everyone is in a position where his or her writings are published to a mass audience. Surely, then, as a journalist writing a review, there has to be some weight in what he or she thinks?

Shouldn’t it therefore be the reviewer’s responsibility not just to state the obvious, but to provide viewpoints that challenge the artist, question his or her creative decisions, improve where necessary? The artist would then be free to consider these critical perspectives and incorporate them if desired, given that the feedback had presumably come from a respected, reliable and knowledgeable source.

“Reviews in Malaysian theatre usually come out after the event,
so what’s the point! It would be far better if it comes out
the day after the show opens … the person reviewing should also
do his or her homework, and must be someone
who has knowledge in the performing arts.”

Shantini Venugopal

Therefore, it becomes the reviewer’s job to make sure he or she knows enough to be critical, and not criticise for the sake of criticising. And in order to do that, journalists this columnist included need to be better educated; in the arts, as this case would be.

One way might be to engage more closely with production companies, to experience the workings of putting on a production so as to allow for more learned evaluations of artworks. Or if time restricts, perhaps reading the reviews in the likes of the Guardian or the New York Times could provide a few pointers.

The situation with Dama was resolved amicably, with invaluable lessons learnt by yours truly. Media reviews don’t necessarily have to say good things to be “good” reviews. More importantly, they should contribute towards the development, reception and appreciation of a creative work.

Nick Choo enjoyed Dama’s most recent outing, I Have A Date With Spring, immensely. This isn’t a review.

Read previous Merely Playing columns

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