In this post, I examine three reviews and question the assumptions that are brought to bear in order to ascertain whether or not the performance reviewed is considered ‘good’ or not.
Lady Gaga and Tony Bennett perform live in Atlantic City
Review 1 from Billboard by Joe Lynch
This review is of a concert in Atlantic City featuring Lady Gaga, one of the highest-earning artists of the 21st century, and Tony Bennett, veteran performer and founder of the Frank Sinatra School of the Arts. Perhaps Bennett’s presence on stage rendered inevitable the type of review produced, but this piece is steeped in nostalgia. The review radiates a certainty that popular music and its performance used to be of a higher quality than it is now, claiming that ‘concerts grounded in musical talent’ are ‘rare’ these days. Lynch’s piece focuses on the rapport between the two performers, the enthusiasm of the crowd and Lady Gaga’s solo performance of La Vie en Rose. Lynch’s emphasis on the ‘astonished’ reaction of the audience to the latter has as its subtext the suggestion that today’s singers lack the talent to sing the old songs; Bennett – one of the old-time singers – is described in hyperbolic terms as still having ‘one of the greatest voices on the planet’. The review ends with details of what Lady Gaga did after the show and the attempts of her fans to obtain photographs, which is a testament to the cult surrounding this popular figure and our increasing fixation with celebrities and celebrity status.
The performance, therefore, is a ‘good’ one because it evoked past times. It is compared with present-day concerts in order to voice an unfavourable opinion of the modern-day lack of rapport between artists sharing a stage, and the concert is evaluated through the rapport between the performers involved, the audience reaction and the quality of the vocal performances. The material performed is listed without comment, with the implication that its superior standard is a given. The performance is treated as entertainment, with (for example) its descriptions of the banter between the performers, but the music performed clearly has a status approaching that of high art due in part to its continuing appeal and existing longevity.
Faustus by Christopher Marlowe
Review 2 from The Telegraph by Dominic Cavendish
This reviewer describes Marlowe’s text as an ‘epic 1594 tragedy’ and considers this production a ‘modish’ version. Cavendish writes for The Daily Telegraph, a very conservative publication, so it is perhaps not surprising that this word (‘modish’) should sum up his entire attitude to the performance. Cavendish describes the production as ‘borderline forgettable’ in its original 2013 version and opines that this 2016 revival ‘verges on being totally incomprehensible in this dismally conceived rehash’. The reason for this animosity would appear to be that Acts 3 and 4 are deleted ‘on the grounds that audiences don’t relate to this less accomplished (and likely not sole-authored) central section’. Cavendish describes what is put in place of these acts, but he does not evaluate further; he comments instead on Kit Harrington’s celebrity status and suggests that his fans may feel ‘bamboozled’ (although it is not clear why this should be so). The rewrite is ‘hip but slack’, to which Cavendish adds the apparently unqualified comment that ‘the emphasis is on de-anchoring the original text from its customary moorings’. In the wider context of the review, I assume this latter comment to be a negative evaluation. Cavendish seems determined to rate the production on the level of a B-movie in his use of the simile ‘like staring apparitions from a low-rent zombie flick’. On Harrington’s delivery, Cavendish comments that he is ‘competent and clear but hardly a match for Marlowe’s mighty line, lacking sufficient fervour and meaningful interiority’. I’m not quite sure what this means, or what sort of delivery would satisfy Cavendish’s expectations.
The performance, therefore, is rated ‘bad’ because the original text was altered, ostensibly to meet the requirements of a 21st century audience. It is compared with B-movies and Game of Thrones, both examples of popular entertainment, and the set is likened to Willesden Junction. The performance is rated in comparison with the original text and analysed in terms of its departure from it. Overall, this production is firmly categorised as entertainment in comparison with the original text which is high art. Cavendish clearly considers the show to be the cheapest kind of entertainment – a star vehicle with gratuitous sex scenes – to titillate an audience who would struggle with anything more demanding. The reviewer demonstrates a solidly reactionary response and an unwillingness to examine any potential interest raised by this particular interpretation.
The Taming of the Shrew at The Globe Theatre
Review 3 from Londonist by Savannah Whaley
The Taming of the Shrew is a notoriously difficult play to stage for a modern audience. The BBC series Shakespeare Re-Told addressed the play’s issues by rewriting Katherine (Shirley Henderson) as an MP, and later the PM, so although she eventually bends to the will of Rufus Sewell’s eccentric Petruchio (whom she genuinely comes to love), she does so from a position of the most powerful person in the country. In 1978 Michael Bogdanov produced a feminist Shrew, with a Katherine finally destroyed by a patriarchal society; Bogdanov argued that this reading is inherent in the play, claiming that Shakespeare asks for ‘an egalitarian society of equal rights and opportunity’ (Dollimore & Sinfield, 1994: 197). Whaley is not so generous to Shakespeare, although she does conclude her review with a comment that identifies inequality as one of the themes of the play. The production is set in 1916 Ireland around the time of the Easter Rising and thus takes as its context an occasion when women were once again denied the same rights accorded to men. This decision, states the reviewer, is ‘impossible to ignore’.
The performance, with its clear message and unmistakably feminist agenda, is considered to be good, in spite of a negative comment relating to the first half of the show. It is compared to other productions less brutal; Whaley describes Katherine as being beaten onstage and suggests that this abuse is ‘generally left off’, but such physical abuse is surely an addition on the part of this particular director and does not feature in the text itself. The performance is evaluated through the way in which it addresses the abuse of women and their unequal status in society in its chosen 1916 context. Finally, this production is treated as high art, and moreover, as art that is important because it seeks to educate and to highlight a societal problem.
Reference: Dollimore, J. and Sinfield, A. (Eds.) (1994) Political Shakespeare: Essays in Cultural Materialism. 2nd ed. Manchester University Press: Manchester.
2 thoughts on “The ideology lurking behind reviews”
Interesting comments on these reviews. The comparison between the reviewers and their points of reference is telling. Are you going to follow this up? I’d like to see where it goes. It seems to be flowing on from your ideas about Wordsworth and the canon.
My own opinion is that blogs are revolutionary precisely because they are non-canonical and I love that. It doesn’t mean that we should leave the canon to people wearing cravats and speaking through their noses. It does mean that this arena is open and interesting in the way that a review of a Marlowe play published in The Telegraph will never be.
Hi Jason. No plans to follow up at the moment – the Gothic genre is my current obsession du jour – but, as you say, one always has to consider the provenance of a review and what that particular publication’s agenda might be.