Opinion //

The importance of being earnest

Who critiques the critics? James Holloway, that’s who

On May 12 and 13, the 2016 Sydney Uni Revue will be performed in conjunction with the Sydney Comedy Festival. It’s a kind of “best of” show, a compilation of last year’s individual faculty performances showcasing the best sketches, songs and dances of the 2015 season.

But how good were those performances really? Honi Soit doesn’t have the answers.

For many readers, scrolling through the review section of the Honi website can feel a little like eavesdropping on a kindergarten show and tell. Each play and musical production is met with only the bare minimum of scrutiny; they are received not with discernment but instead with an automatic chorus of patted backs and high fives. It is a realm dominated by tacitly mandated positivity and dire inoffensiveness, where to lodge an even slightly negative review has been known to generate more drama off stage than on.

While it is important to celebrate those university productions (and there are many) that well and truly hit the mark, plenty miss it, and to say otherwise is dishonest and even potentially damaging. In our rush to create a culture of growth and positivity we run the risk of doing the opposite. When we refuse to challenge our performers or hold them to a high standard, we risk rewarding and reinforcing mediocrity.

When it comes to reviews, there are a few factors holding back even the smallest hints of negativity. The first, and probably the most influential, is an unwillingness to upset close friends or future associates. This is understandable. To find yourself aiming crosshairs at the enthusiastic faces of your own peer group can be daunting. But this attitude assumes the term “criticism” need be synonymous with “negativity”, when reviews can and should strive to be constructive and honest without delving into cruelty.

The second is the risk of being seen to be “taking things too seriously”. This is the University of Sydney, not NIDA or Juilliard – the people performing aren’t professionals. For many, the stage may be a refuge from the artillery fire of the tutorial or Turnitin page. Yet while the theatre is, and should be, a place that celebrates inclusivity, one that encourages enthusiasm and promotes teamwork,  to strive for these values at the expense of critical reporting does a disservice to the ambitions of many of the University’s performers, whose aspirations do lie beyond the humble doors of the Cellar Theatre.

If the purpose of a review is to indiscriminately celebrate its subjects, what function does it serve in the first place? What incentive is there to read a review when the article is written before the curtains even rise?

So when it comes to reviewing this year’s productions, let’s practise balance and discernment and challenge our performers because, simply put, sometimes the things we make suck.

And that’s OK.