Reviewing Feeling

Why do we go to the theatre? Is it for the narrative? Is it for the acting? Or is it for the emotional response? I look down my lists of top plays for each of the last three years and I am surprised by how many of these plays made me cry. At an event at Stockport Garrick last year I asked Simon Stephens what made him cry in the theatre and he said bravery. I asked Twitter, and the responses included: relating to a personal experience, truth, triumph over adversity, exposure of true/raw/painful feelings.

Of course these are very personal responses. We do the same with music, where words and instrumentation might resonate with our present or our past. Two people look at the same piece of art and experience very different reactions. But if we try to describe art or music, Rothko or ABBA, in terms of the components does that mean anything? If we describe theatre in terms of the components, does that mean anything?

If the emotional response of each audience member is unique and depends on their own personal history, how can the reviewer incorporate such a subjective idea? Mobile made me cry because it took me back to the intense struggle I faced when I went to university to fit in. SansMerci made me cry because I had to deal with the themes of the play every time I talked to my mum. As I walked home after WishList I struggled to hold in my emotions at the desperation of the situation and the sense of a wasted life. Yet for every person that sees bravery and truth in a struggle there is another saying ‘just get over it’.

When Kazuo Ishiguro delivered his Nobel Lecture on 7 December 2017, he said: But in the end, stories are about one person saying to another: This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying. Does it also feel this way to you. 

So perhaps a review should be asking how well the production gets across the writer’s intention. Is the writer’s intention valid? If a production induces a strong emotional reaction isn’t that validation that at least one member of the audience feels the way the writer wanted them to feel?

When I started to review, a friend suggested that there wasn’t enough of ‘me’ in my reviews. I know this to be true because I was trying to write a review that appealed to everyone, and by trying to appeal to everyone you inevitably appeal to nobody. Too many reviews simply rewrite the marketing blurb. Too many critique the actor’s technical skill. Few discuss how well the actor manages to get across the emotional message of the playwright. Even fewer try to delve into the wild swamp of complex emotional responses.

To be human is to connect, whether directly or digitally. To be in love means to want to be a part of the other person. The best gigs are those where the music takes you to another place, somewhere in the air between you and the band. So too, the best theatre connects the actors and the audience. That doesn’t mean anything for the fourth wall. I have seen the most powerful plays staged traditionally and the most appalling immersive plays. But it does mean that somewhere in the space between the actors and the audience there is a connection, where someone feels what the writer intended.

One of the responses on Twitter summed this up. Your response is unlikely to be unique. In a world of unimaginative reviews we need more voices that tell of the emotional potential of great theatre to move us and change our lives.

Theatre lover, amateur director, occasional actor, writer.

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