Write, and be damned, ridiculed, assaulted and even permanently silenced. Critics in Sri Lanka generally have a raw deal, especially when the arc of their writing illumines inconvenient truths of governance, and violence in government. Remarkably, some of us discovered last week that critics of other traditions invite a disturbingly similar response.
I had just finished reading Irving Wardle’s compelling memoir of reviewing theatre in England for 40 years, published in the Economist’s Intelligent Life, when I was forwarded an email concerning a discussion thread on the official Facebook group of Colombo’s best known and oldest theatre groups. The discussion was about a review of a production staged by them at the Wendt around two months ago. I don’t intend in this column to use names to shame – danno danithi. The initial post and subsequent comments quickly became such an embarrassment for the theatre company, they decided to close the entire Facebook group. I also understand that a letter from the group was sent to the critic apologising for the particularly vulgar expression used. However, the episode raises interesting questions over criticism and its reception in Sri Lanka today.
Wardle notes in his memoir that “the reviewer’s task is to report on the events of the night”. Lamenting the shrinking space in the British mainstream press for theatre reviews, he rails against “the prevailing expectation of reviewing as a garbled form of news” and the challenge of writing about the deictic expression and action on stage – always in the present moment – for readers who may not even have seen the production – in the past tense. Reading Wardle is as enjoyable as it is intimidating, for the man’s incisive turn of phrase and critical gaze stands as an example of what a review should ideally be, and how difficult this is to achieve.
In Sri Lanka, there is really precious little space for well-written reviews in the mainstream press. A media house that sponsors a production isn’t really interested in an independent assessment of it on their channels or newspapers. The web provides an alternative space, but too often, the garb of anonymity or pseudonymity results in diatribes cloaked as reviews, and the most awful commentary. Too often, a lazy critic who ill understands the form and substance of theatre feeds into a self-indulgent, inward looking, jealous and insecure theatre culture, violently opposed to any robust critique that risks upsetting Falstaffian egos on and off stage. It’s a deeply unhealthy, catty context and one, as demonstrated so markedly last week, that doesn’t take kindly to the happy accident of a better review. Invocations of ‘family’ and a patriarchal figure who has given so much to theatre were disturbingly reminiscent of the mindless genuflection by so many of Sri Lanka’s first family, and how they must be beyond reproach, because of what they have done for country in the past.
This must change, and I believe, will. Deified individuals and patriarchs – whether they direct and choreograph stage or country – must be critiqued. Families – whether in theatre or government – who believe they are somehow privileged and by extension, beyond reprove, need to be chastened through penetrating reviews of their performance.
Intelligent Life has for free and online, another essay by Wardle on his relationship with Pinter. Here we see the playwright engaging the critic through many years of intellectual duels – the thrust and parry of wit over how forceful dramatic intent is, for Wardle, variously perceived and for Pinter, should really be appreciated. However, it ends on sombre note, with a friendship that fades away. There is a lesson there. The critic can be a close friend of actor, playwright or director, but the review stands independent of this relationship. If critical reviews are only ever anchored to the parochial and personal, or if thespians only ever perceive reviews as prejudiced affronts to be rudely dismissed, we may never see productions out of the ordinary, or performances on stage that really deserve a standing ovation.
For so many of us who love theatre, that would be a great loss, and best avoided.
Published in the print edition of The Nation, 20th May 2012.