Theatre Thought: Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer Reconsidered

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I’ve been thinking about Melanie Wilson’s Autobiographer which I reviewed here during the week. It would perhaps be fair to say that I didn’t give it a glowing review, and yet the production has been in my mind ever since. It’s almost been haunting me;  it’s not that scary, but it’s like a small child tugging on my jumper sleeve demanding my attention. In some ways, I feel it’s Wilson herself who is demanding to be heard. Now, I’ve not had any contact with Wilson, and she doesn’t know that I’m writing this now (why would she?) and yet I feel compelled to write this to her, to explain to her inner child that has morphed at my side the reasons why I wrote what I did. This goes back to the conversations that are currently being had on Twitter and in excited hushed conversations with Maddy Costa about reviewing theatre and theatre criticism as a whole (more on that later). This goes back to star ratings, the traditional model of reviewing theatre, and the limitations that I (and most ‘critics’) have to deal with. When I’m invited to review a show on behalf of A Younger Theatre I generally write up my thoughts, however unfinished and non-final they may be, as soon as I get home. We might not impose the big deadlines of overnight review filing but I can’t write the following day when I have a day job and another show to see that evening. We have a rule of 48 hours to publish a review on A Younger Theatre, and it is rare that I will leave it beyond 12 hours to write. I believe wholeheartedly in the immediate reaction to determine a review with my gut instinct and like the Ruler of Rome, I hold my hand out and give a thumbs up or thumbs down – no five star rating system for us. (Although after writing all the below, I’m starting to think less about this idea of reviewing with gut instinct.)

So when I left Autobiographer I went straight home and wrote my thoughts and filed, and not 12 hours later the review was live and I had moved on. Clearly I hadn’t moved on and now I’m writing this. Melanie (it feels odd to call you Wilson when I’m speaking directly to you), I’m sorry. I don’t think it was fair for me to judge your piece so soon, I don’t think it deserves me leaving your piece and putting my thumb down. I’m sorry that I didn’t offer a careful, considered review like you have given a careful and considered performance piece. I struggled at the time of writing the review to convey a sense of the tenderness that you have shown in your writing and also within the performance. I can’t remember the last time that I saw a show that took such care over the story, over the delivery of dialogue that was then given to the audience. Your work should be celebrated for this approach, for how delicate you make the subject matter and in your passing of story from performer to performer which is then handed to the audience. It’s so tender, so careful, and this is what I am continually drawn to when I think back on the piece.

There are issues that I have with the performance, but the more I think about them the more I think that they are more about what I want from a performance – forcing my ideals upon your work, rather than considering what you want your audience to experience. I wanted to feel the heartbreak, the devastating affect that dementia has upon your character Flora. I wanted to be moved emotionally and like Flora I wanted to feel so lost, so helpless and I wanted to cry for how messed up the human body can be. A work colleague of mine has recently had to put her mother into a home as dementia has started to sink into her mind, making her elusive to the world around her. I can see the pain it causes my colleague, and I want to reach out and tell her “it’s ok”, when of course I know it’s not ok. This is what I wanted, and this is what I based my own demands on when I spoke of your work, and why I said I was “disappointed”. I wanted to be taken there emotionally, and perhaps it was because I was tired, perhaps my working week clouded my ability to sink into your work and get lost within the cascading of lines that flow between the characters.

I have to admit that even after days of thinking about the piece, I still think it has some directional problems. But the more I think on it, the more I come to appreciate what you were attempting to do with it, too. Your poetic form that was split between those three performers and yourself, creating a flow of words that presented a dreamlike reflection upon the world – of a world slipping away from Flora. I think there was consideration taken in the casting, showing a progression of age through your cast, and the older Flora was the full stop, the ending point for your cast because at that point the dementia you are portraying has set in.

There were harrowing moments, especially as older Flora lent in her chair to a nearby audience member and asked them what her daughter was “she was… She was.. My daughter is..” “Kind” “Yes, my daughter is kind”. Oh god, I could shed a tear thinking about it now, call me an emotional fool, but that image and dialogue are burned into my mind. I can see that happening with my mum and me, I can see so clearly the future dementia set to strike my family and when it does I will think on this moment you have created. “Kind”, yes it really is kind. Considered kindness.

There is so much I could write about the lighting and sound you and your team have created. My word, it’s a sensorial overload. It represents the closing and opening of brain cells and the nervous system. It represents the slow diminishing of control over memory and brain activity. It is perfect, it makes a feast for your eyes and ears, and I could have easily have let out an awe-inspired gasp (my conscious mind stopped me). There was such beauty, such perfection within what you created. The lighting created a sea of lights above the performance space and with such careful timing they rippled with life and death. Each light bulb flickering with life, and each one slowly being extinguished too. Then there were moments when the lighting was used as a device to startle and provoke unnerved responses from the audience. We are caught in the headlights of stark lighting and the performance space is awash with light. Then at times we are plunged into pitch darkness, and I suddenly found myself helpless in the dark. Is that what it feels like to have dementia, I wonder, is this it? A darkness that envelopes everything and nothing. Does it render you this helpless? And I know the answer, I know it’s true. What you have done is to allow the audience to feel exactly what it is within that moment of darkness that Flora feels. It’s not within the moments where it is clear that her memory is slipping away, it is within the moments of complete darkness that I get Autobiographer.

You see Melanie, I can feel something for your piece, I can be moved and feel emotion for it. Perhaps it’s a piece the works away at you over time, perhaps that is the intention of your work. I want to ask you these questions, I want to understand the work, because I feel it’s not fair to just give a review of story, lighting, sound, direction, performance, tick, tick, tick. I want to tell you that I’m on your side and that your work has a place. I mean, you’re supported by Fuel for goodness sake, what better producers could you have to help nurture your work? That’s why I feel I have to write this, because you have spent months preparing the piece, labouring over developing just the right structure of dialogue against the soundscapes that you create. You’ve (from what I gather from reading the programme notes) spent time in places that care for patients who have dementia. You’ve witnessed first hand, and you have used your skill as a theatre maker to translate this to a language in which you understand and can explain to others. THAT is worth so much more than me as ‘the reviewer’ saying yay or nay. That shouldn’t do away with all the time you’ve spent making the work. How sad it is that I will judge your work within that hour-and-a-half, and then discard it with my words so readily. I understand that that is the nature of reviewing, the relationship that is formed between maker and reviewer. I understand that I have to be objective and see the work as it is, and to give my view on it. I can disagree with it, I can tear it to pieces but I’m not the person to do that – you can find that elsewhere.

So what is it then? What is it that has made me get so worked up, into a frenzy almost, to want to write to you so openly, to apologise, to reconsider, to pull apart and examine (and I fear I’ve failed to actually do this)?

If a piece of work has got me thinking continuously about it, then surely it resonates with me more than any 500-word review can convey within a hour or so of seeing your work. Surely there is much more to it than that. I don’t completely agree with the performance but, my word, I see it so much more now that I’ve given it time to sink in. I guess I want to apologise for writing a review that wasn’t considered, wasn’t careful in the same way that you have made your piece. Because it is careful, considered, tender, fragile, and it haunts so much more than I first thought.

There are big questions underneath this writing. Questions of how ill-considered theatre reviewing can be towards the maker, and here I can hear responses that say “reviewing, the critic, the art of theatre criticism is to distill the production on the stage into a piece of writing for the reader”. It’s about letting a reader understand the highs and lows of a piece, and if ultimately it is worth attending, worth spending their time and money on. But when a piece of theatre such as Wilson’s delivers questions and thoughts hours after it, surely this has a place within the structure or model of theatre reviewing. There are, of course, instances when the critic ‘got it wrong’ and later admitted that. There are of course those times when the audience will speak for themselves and make a show a sell out without the help of the critic.

I’m frustrated by how time-dependent theatre reviewing is. I know that I can’t spend hours at a time trying to distill the heart or essence of a production for the readers of A Younger Theatre but surely I can add a dialogue that speaks beyond the ‘this is good, this is bad’ that most reviews ultimately fall down to. Surely there is a dialogue that is waiting to be had with the artists and the writers, surely there need to be more dialogues. Yes, there is a place and a time for the star rating and the Billingtons and Spencers for the audience who want a simple yes or no answer to seeing theatre. Those audiences have every right to read the broadsheets and see the star ratings and nod their heads and buy their tickets, but there is (I hope) an audience who want to explore in depth the mechanics of a piece such as Autobiographer. It seems so obvious now, but the piece itself is complex and to skim across it pulling out the threads to present to the reader is not a healthy solution. Instead, 2,000 words on and I’m feeling as if there is room for something more than just reviewing, something that leads to dialogues, leads to a space in which I can attempt to unravel the fine details of theatre work that haunts me day after day of seeing it.

Which leads me to the very point that I didn’t realise I had set out to make until I got here. The last week has been an inspiring, eye opening week of revelation, epiphanies and scheming of a new way of working. I think pieces such as Autobiographer, and especially Wilson as an artist, deserve more than just a review. They deserve an open, honest and frank dialogue about the work, and here I put forward a week’s worth of hushed and excited discussions with Maddy Costa and numerous other writers and artists.

There needs to be a space, an online space that doesn’t seem to review theatre with a thumbs up or thumbs down outlook. There needs to be a space in which the artist and ‘the critic’ share mutual ground, and where ‘the critic’ – well, let’s do away with the term ‘the critic’ and call us theatre writers – is an artist too. The craft of writing about and for theatre, for the artist, for the work, for an audience willing to engage. We need dialogues that delve into theatre work and pull out the questions, that provoke and challenge, that inspire and fail. We need a space where the work of the theatre writer allows for them to contemplate at length the work of Wilson and Autobiographer, a space that isn’t determined by a PR agenda where the only outcome is a star rating. We need a space that can be manipulated, distorted, moulded and reformed. We need a space that adapts and evolves with the changing work of theatre writing, we need to document the inner workings of theatres. We need to embed theatre writers to explore this work, and we need an audience to be willing to try this new work. We need not only artists, but those who make up the very foundations of our theatre spaces, to work with us to build a new method of seeing, discussing and engaging with theatre.

We need a dialogue.

Maddy Costa and I are proposing a space, a digital, online, playful space that harnesses a new dialogue between theatre makers and theatre writers. It’s a space that allows me as the theatre writer to contemplate and pick apart the inner workings of a play such as Autobiographer without feeling guilty that I’ve not done it justice in a 500 word review.

If we’re serious about seeing the future of theatre criticism, then we have to be serious about looking outside the format that current exists. This format has its place, but so does a space built upon dialogue.

We need a dialogue.

We have no idea where this may take us, but we’re inviting artists, curators, chief executives and audiences to join us on this journey. We’re launching a new way, a new approach, a new online space.  For now it’s just dreaming big and inviting others to dream with us, but I hope that me writing this, me considering the work of Wilson again, and to give it some space to breathe and live shows just one small example of how writing about theatre doesn’t have to fit into the mould of a review. Come play with us.

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