When critics go to the theatre, it is a given that they have differing responses. One man's meat, as the proverb runs, is another man's poison. And this is as it should be: theatre audiences are as various as the theatre itself. But sometimes there are extremes that ought to be noted.
On Monday night I went to see a show of such earnest, bum-aching, unparalleled awfulness that, after canvassing the general dismay, I decided that it was kinder not to review it; there seemed to me little profit in trashing a small, hard-working independent theatre company.
The show was Theatre@Risk's Requiem for the 20th Century, written by Tee O'Neill in collaboration with the company and directed by Chris Bendall. It is Theatre@Risk's largest (I won't say most ambitious) production so far, and it seemed to me a mistake of disastrous proportions. I couldn't understand how a work of such intellectual and theatrical naivety had made it to the stage.
However, I opened The Age yesterday and found out that tyro critic Cameron Woodhead has exceeded even my low expectations of him. He devoted a complete rave to Requiem for the 20th Century. It is, says Woodhead, "the sort of inspiring work, unapologetically ambitious, bursting with the humour and tragedy of life writ large, that might just rewire your sense of what local theatre can achieve".
This was, gentle reader, the worst show I have seen for a long time. I have been thinking about it all week. It was a kind of Theatre in Education whistlestop tour of 20th century history, only of such superficiality that no year 11 syllabus would stand for it. It induced the kind of despair only bad theatre can; I remember glancing at my watch after what felt like five hours and noticing we were only up to 1913. Like Dorothy Parker, I wanted to shoot myself.
I was by no means the only person who left at interval. Life, I thought, is too short to spend another 90 minutes pole-axed by this kind of anguished boredom. Also, I had heard Lorca turned up in the second act. Lorca is one of my favourite poets. After witnessing the bowdlerisation of Walter Benjamin in the first act, I couldn't have stood it. Such things actually, physically, hurt.
I hoped that Bendall - a director I respect - and the rest of the crew at Theatre@Risk would take stock, review how it happened that they had worked so hard and devoted so many hard-won resources on a work of such monumental silliness, and think again.
It may seem somewhat ungenerous to grudge the fact that a show I disliked got a good review. It may seem that I am unfairly picking on Mr Woodhead. It may also seem suss that I am talking about a show on which, after all, I walked out (although, to be honest, if a show is that disastrous by interval, nothing is going to save it). But after I recovered from my sheer astonishment, I found that this review worried me for several reasons.
First, such a review - after all, The Age is what passes here for the "paper of record" - may inoculate the company against the stock-taking to which I referred earlier. Let me make clear that, in my negative reaction, I was by no means in "mutinous isolation" (as has sometimes happened). If I were merely a minority voice in a chorus of effusive approval, I should not comment. But in this case, the general response of the first night audience was as close to unanimous as theatregoers can get. The best that could be said was that it was a brave attempt.
I should note also that if Woodhead had merely written a positive review, I would not have felt moved to say something. It's the fact that he wrote a rave.
Second, what about those audience members who, encouraged by the review, head off to the show, only to find their souls shrivelling as they watch? Will they believe, because the review tells them so, that this is the best theatre that our local companies have to offer and just decide, as so many do, that, after all, they don't like theatre?
Third, and perhaps most importantly, this review betrays the quality of theatre that is being made in Melbourne. As I have said many times, we are witnessing a renaissance: this year I have seen more good to excellent shows than I can count on all my digits. To single out with inappropriate and lavish praise one of the real duds is not only, like the love of God, beyond all comprehension: it is a slap in the face to all the hard working theatre artists out there making brilliant theatre.
The point is that misplaced praise can be as damaging as misplaced spleen. I believe totally in George Devine's exhortation of the "right to fail". Yes, absolutely, a theatre must have that right. Tee O'Neill, Chris Bendall and Theatre@Risk are all capable of much more than this, and such a failure does not compromise this possibility. What worries me is what lessons will - or will not be - be drawn from it.