cultural fluffers & grand canyons, the former ending, the latter starting, with a trickle from the top. John Smythe reports from the front, saying, “It now runs very deep.”

The following is a comment posted in response to John Smythe’s review of Ross Jolly’s production of Mary Stuart by Friedrich Schiller at Circa Theatre, Wellington. (Full review here.)

A couple of statements stick out at odd angles from this review so I feel compelled to comment. To wit, the first line:

Since Shakespeare died many playwrights have attempted to add to the library of plays about the kings and queens of England-cum-Great Britain.

No. It’s really the first three words I have a problem with, “Since Shakespeare died”… Does John Smythe mean ‘since 1616’ or ‘because of the death’ and therefore having to take it into account, the death, or that he did die; or, additionally, and to gloss, ‘Since Shakespeare did die in 1616, young, only 52, because of that and ever since many, many playwrights have both tried to emulate him and to enter the canon, add to the library, with plays about British kings and queens’? (What is England-cum-Great Britain? A sort of metaphorical fluffer? connoting a white-out? … a fluff, nonetheless.) The statement is to say the least disingenuous. And as unworthy as the following of inclusion in a serious review with a serious message. But ought we to believe John Smythe?

Surely the role of New Zealand companies is to produce New Zealand work, especially of the kind that might be attractive to other international festivals.

It has become something of a strategy or model for theatre companies in NZ to produce work to appeal to international festivals. There are cultural as well as economic reasons for this: these reasons warrant examination beyond John Smythe’s self-complacent sureness about the role of NZ companies being to produce NZ work. (I’m thinking particularly of Red Leap Theatre’s The Arrival, here.) About that notional role, what makes John Smythe so sure?

What irks me most, I suppose, since I don’t agree with the message, is the reviewer’s presumption to being able to suspend our disbelief for us. For example, in lines like this:

I must suppose the way director Ross Jolly and his cast have rehearsed this play has not exploited its true qualities.

What a bizarre thing to say! Since Shakespeare died I have not heard attempted such additions to the library of bizarre things as assayed here in the name of John Smythe and under the guise of a review. The failure of the review lies in direct proportion to the degree to which it oversteps itself in finding a critical point of view. Yes, such a rare state of affairs, that the pitfall of commonplace is not avoided. Or, ought one to take seriously that the role of NZ companies is to produce NZ work? After all, what was Downstage Upfront but a protracted promotion of this facile agenda? [here]

It’s never fun to watch or read backstory, but as has become the rule, the review duly and dully provides us with its own, in a series of paragraphs commencing with one that shouts:

To backtrack:

I’ve an interest in criticising the writing of theatrical reviews but the standard has slipped so far – or trickled down so deep, as we will see – that it has become hard to find anything worth holding onto, anything worth salvaging. My interest in these lines is the inspiration behind the review, just as for the review it is the inspiration behind the choice against staging a NZ play… or NZ-cum-Aotea roa-cum what may.

Returning to the question of why Circa chose Mary Stuart as their Festival play, yes, I accept it is part of our own cultural heritage.

Whose? There’s that word ‘culture’ being bandied about again, and the reviewer clearly does not accept that the choice of play meets with the standards he imputes to the professional culture, or cultural heritage, of our theatres! To gloss once more: ‘Our theatres do our plays to serve our culture’… out of respect for what? To attract the interest of international festivals?

The concession the reviewer makes is a sham, a nod to the ‘Let’s-acknowledge-but-then-pass-quickly-over-the-whole-issue’ crowd ‘That Blighty too is in one’s blood, with its bloody kings and queens, if not in one’s England-cum-Great Britain.’ The issue of belonging is as important here, in NZ, as the issue of what art is, because it’s about what art does and whether it can or ought to have ongoing relevance.

The ad for Playmarket bores me, as if, as in the review’s self-conscious rhetoric – an attempt at pointedness? – the directors of Circa can possibly not be aware of the ‘many superb but neglected plays by proven [how?] New Zealand playwrights that languish on [its] shelves.’ [sic & here]

Or do they just find it easier to ride on the coat-tails of international companies and be a ‘cover band’ for their cultures?

Sends a shiver down my spine just to think of it! Circa, Downstage, Court, Fortune, ATC, ‘cover bands’?! The suggestion is diabolical. And, again, what are the cultures of these international companies? Since they have coat-tails, must be something élitist.

The reviewer saves his graceless coup de grace – of what I wish to entertain is a far more blooded subject than he gives it credit for being – until the last when names are named:

I find it […] strange that Peter Biggs, an ex chair of Creative New Zealand, should be sponsoring this production. I am just as bemused that Chris Finlayson, an ex-chair of the CNZ Arts Board and now our Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage, has only ever sponsored Circa productions of non-New Zealand plays.

Oh? I was hoping for so much more, that the criticism might ground itself beyond the tired stories we tell ourselves in order we may sleep at night, AKA ‘Telling our own stories in our own words.’ The living discussion of WHY DO THIS PLAY NOW? still seems to be one in which we are unwilling and perhaps incapable of engaging, at least, as per the evidence given here. Too soon mired in the side issue of NZ bolsterism.

To end:

The failure to recognise the fundamental responsibility of state-funded theatres trickles down from the top, it seems, and now runs very deep.

… We visit and take pictures of the Grand Canyon because we don’t have our own one. But at least we understand how it was formed.