The Quote of the Fortnight for this issue was going to be culled not from a print publication but from Dominic Cavendish’s excellent Theatrevoice Web site (until I realised that, being a quote by Philip Ridley and vaguely related to his play Mercury Fur, it would be better to hold it for the issue in which that piece’s reviews also appear). A quotation from an online source, though, would have made a nice thematic bridge with a subject I’ve been thinking quite a bit about recently: the “new media” sector, and how it changes the landscape for Theatre Record in particular and for artistic and cultural discourse in general.
One of the reasons my esteemed colleague and predecessor Mr Herbert chose me to succeed him was that I gave a plausible impression of knowing at least the first thing about this Interweb thingy. I therefore looked a likely candidate to take TR down at least the middle lane of the information superhighway.
There are problems with such a strategy, of course, not the least being our limited reprint agreements with the various papers and magazines whose material we collect. If we were simply to post their reviews up on the Web, it would clearly be a major violation of those agreements... besides which there’d be no easy way of making that approach pay even for itself. So, the medium-term plans for Theatre Record are to expand online ordering facilities, and hopefully to enable delivery of individual shows’ reviews by e-mail as well as (or instead of) our current fax-back service, but there’s no immediately foreseeable threat to the physical artefact currently before you – as Net-heads have it, the “dead-tree edition” of the magazine. Rest assured. (Of course, if you’re reading the online edition of this column, that “physical artefact” bit makes no sense at all. Still, moving swiftly on...)
There’s also the fact that many of the titles concerned already put their reviews on their own Web sites. Of course, many of these are time-limited and/or hedged around with subscription requirements. But there’s also a sense that that’s sufficient publication. The editor of one magazine which recently declined to renew its reprint agreement with TR (a man who shall remain nameless apart from being identified as Peter Wilby of the New Statesman) responded, I’m told, that if people wanted to read NS reviews they could do so on the NS Web site. Which is all very well, but if they want to read “the reviews” then the only alternative to this magazine is combing either the dead-tree libraries or a number of Web sites. Moreover, Theatre Record includes reviews from a number of titles which, whilst important and authoritative, are often simply not perceived as being party to that general concept of “the reviews”. It’s not with any spirit of belittlement at all that I say the NS probably falls into that category; after all, my own other main outlet the Financial Times all to often does so too – despite its long and immensely honourable record in this area, when I tell people who I write for I still regularly hear the response, “Oh, I never knew the FT did arts reviews”... as if its readership were concerned with nothing but money from morning till night. Part of what Theatre Record does is locate within a general discourse a number of sources which might otherwise be unjustly neglected.
Now, to return to the Internet: it’s these notions of discourse and authority which have received such a shake-up from the online explosion. When I was a teenager, punk rock did a similar thing in the music business by spawning a horde of independent record releases; bands suddenly realised that, far from needing the attention of the corporate suits, they could afford themselves to book into a cheap studio, get a thousand or so copies pressed up and hawk the records around shops and concerts themselves. But with indie records, you still needed to make those transactions to get studio time and to get the records pressed. With online publishing, you need nothing more than a standard ISP subscriber deal, which is scarcely any more specialised now than having a phone. Then you can design every aspect of the site yourself, and put it up on the Web for an audience, not simply of a few hundred, but for anyone who happens to come along – which amounts now to potentially billions. The value of the Internet for demystification and democratisation of publishing is incalculable; the scale of the phenomenon in just a few years has been mind-blowing.
Indeed, there’s one way in which I think it has blown the collective mind of the culture somewhat. There’s a frequent fallacy in debates and discussions that since everyone has the right to an opinion, every opinion must be equally valid and accorded equal respect. That is, of course, tosh: if I were to ask you to respect my opinion that I was Bartok, the King of the Giraffes, I don’t think I’d get very far, except possibly straight into a secure facility. But Net publishing has enacted this fallacy in spades. You can find apparent corroboration for pretty much any viewpoint you want somewhere online. And, because someone else has said it first – and not just said it but published it – it acquires a specious air of authority.
This phenomenon is particularly pernicious in any area related to opinions or discourse more than to hard, crunchable facts. In the theatre field, for instance, official resources such as the SOLT Web site are being joined by an increasing number of invaluable facilities such as www.doollee.com and hopefully-to-be-invaluable enterprises such as the Internet Broadway Database and the Internet Theatre Database (both inspired by the gold standard of such sites, the cinematic equivalent). But review and debate are another matter. Sites like whatsonstage.com and the British Theatre Guide have earned their authority by sustained and diligent effort, but in each case their reviews coverage is one aspect of a general package including news and listings information, which are what tend to bring the punters in.
Online reviews are still looked at within the profession as less “proper” than those of print outlets: the Drama Section of the Critics’ Circle, for instance, continues (for the time being at least) to operate a presumption against inviting online reviewers to join its number. Similarly, Theatre Record doesn’t reprint reviews from online sites. And as things stand, I think that’s the right arrangement. Print reviews, like the sites I mentioned, have the formal structure of commissioning and editing to locate reviews within a framework of conventional publishing standards. Unlike those sites, however, the viability of print outlets is determined not simply by finding a sustainable financial model through advertising and various other sources of income, but directly in the retail marketplace. People buy newspapers and magazines as they don’t buy Web sites (subscription sites notwithstanding). Such sales are, if you like, an ongoing conferment of a kind of authority, a conferment of worth on that material in the most direct way possible, by paying money for each dose of it.
In the absence of this kind of system, online cultural commentary needs to find another model for conferring authority. Simple figures – numbers of “hits” received by a Web site – goes only a little way towards this, because we feel numbers to be somehow abstract. One possible avenue is through a sense of ongoing peer review. This is currently working online in two ways. One is the route of ongoing peer-review taken by the likes of the open-source encyclopaedia Wikipedia: simply put, anyone can write an entry in it for anything, or correct any entry. There’s a certain amount of editorial presence to prevent abuse, but otherwise it’s entirely self-regulating, and against all expectations is proving a huge success. Again, though, that’s a fact- rather than an opinion-based area, so it’s hard to see how it would work with regard, say, to theatre reviews. The other area is the blogosphere. Weblogs have taken off in the past three years or so, as personal journals, commentary sites, resources linking to other sites, whatever the user wants. And almost all blogs include a facility for comment, so that each entry can generate a sub-discussion amongst visitors to the site, and with feedback from the original author. This kind of model for online theatre reviewing lack the element of financial “review”, but ultimately that may not prove necessary. Authority would derive from the volume and tenor of immediately accessible comments.
It’s not quite ready yet, though. I’d been considering augmenting the professionally commissioned reviews archived on my personal Web site with a blog of my own, in which I might post up my opinions of shows I didn’t get the chance to review elsewhere, or opinions from perspectives or couched in terms I wouldn’t get to indulge in via more formal channels. In the end I decided against it because I thought a reviewer’s blog would devalue my professional work in various ways: the size of the potential Web readership could have an element of intangibly marginalizing the notion even of an international paper like the FT, as if the work from which I earned a living were somehow more rarefied than my blogged opinions; similarly, the more polished, considered and tailored expression of my paid work might be misinterpreted as less “honest” than the blog. (Ah, but the culture of immediacy is a different matter...) At any rate, the bottom line is that for the time being it’s no change either at Theatre Record or, as far as I can see, in the wider realm of arts and cultural criticism as a whole.
It’s worth a quick chuckle to imagine a blog written by Kenneth Tynan. How would his status as a critic and essayist at the time have been modified by a parallel cyber-samizdat record of spanking, vodka enemas and the like? This, I think, is where Lyn Gardner and Quentin Letts are mistaken about the RSC production of Richard Nelson’s adaptation of Tynan’s diaries from his final years. This show isn’t simply a superfluous “live radio” event, or an inferior experience to reading the diaries themselves. Corin Redgrave’s performance is not a strict impersonation, but what it does is locate the content in relation to a person, a person before us recounting and responding to the events and thoughts he speaks of. The physical presence, even in such an understated performance, transforms it into theatre.
In contrast, this is a transformation that I’m not sure either Days Of Wine And Roses or A Dream Play achieves. Owen McCafferty’s stage adaptation of JP Miller’s teleplay is wonderfully intelligent in the way it reshapes and repoints the narrative; Peter McDonald’s and Anne-Marie Duff’s performances are impeccable; and Peter Gill’s direction brings his characteristically unflinching, unjudging eye to bear on proceedings. Gill and McCafferty don’t judge, but I think the original story does. I couldn’t shake the feeling that what we were being presented with was not a human drama, but an instructional case history. I’m afraid I thought of Reefer Madness an altogether more unflattering way than did Victoria Segal. Meanwhile, Katie Mitchell’s production at the National retreats from any kind of specificity, even from that of either the original work or Caryl Churchill’s adaptation of it. C’est magnifique, mais ce n’est pas Strindberg.
Written for Theatre Record.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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