The grand old man of Australian criticism, Fairfax’s bombastic and often self-indulgent Peter Craven, is at it again today with some typically inflammatory comments in today’s National Times about Australian theatre.
Half the trouble with Australian theatre is caused by talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays. Often they cut their teeth with student theatre and have been too narcissistic to grow up. It’s much easier to treat student actors like puppets and to improvise a text than it is to treat Judy Davis like that. Most cut-and-paste postmodern tinkerings with classics make Joanna Murray-Smith look like Racine on a good day. But for every production such as Osage, there’s hand-me-down cardboard rubbish of the traditional kind.
Oh dear. Craven is one of the best known critics in Australia. He’s also one of the most reactionary.
There are so many non-sequiturs and errors of fact in even this one paragraph it’s tough to know where to start. Firstly, let’s give Craven the professional courtesy of acknowledging that he has picked up on a real trend in Australian theatre, away from realism and towards a bolder, artier, more hybrid and more design-intensive style.
But that’s hardly news. “Director’s theatre” is a serious movement in Europe and has been going on for decades in Germany, as the many obituaries for Pina Bausch record. It’s not surprising the style has spread to Australia, given the many tours by Bausch and other European directors and companies here, largely through the auspices of the various capital city arts festivals. In fact, about the only people who wouldn’t know about it are those who only go to see the state theatre companies. Peter Craven appears to be amongst this under-educated minority.
As for attacking “talented directors who feel they are above realism and well-made plays” – this is not only raking over the coals of Craven’s obsession with the (finally receding) culture wars, it’s also frankly wrong. I would be very surprised if any talented directors thought they were “above realism”, but if they were – so what? Realism is a style, often a very stale style, and to claim one style of staging and producing theatre should be privileged above others is the sort of claim a critic makes when he realises he is becoming increasingly irrelevant. I wonder if Craven would recognise truly authentically staged Attic theatre as “realism”? I hope not, because it wasn’t. As for the crack about student theatre and actors as puppets, it reads like the remarks of someone who hasn’t seen any fringe, student or independent theatre in a long time.
Peter Craven: wrong again, but no less eloquent as he rages against the dying of his once-impressive critical abilities.