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Deconstructive criticism

‘Wild Bore’ at the Malthouse Theatre is an irreverent criticism of criticism itself

It’s a premise that has every chance of backfiring spectacularly: take some of your own worst reviews, mix with other notorious smackdowns, and riff on them as the basis for a theatrical text.

If there were anything half-arsed about this show, Wild Bore (at Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, until 4 June) might well have fallen between two stools, neither satisfying theatre nor interesting commentary. But feminist performers Zoë Coombs Marr, Ursula Martinez and Adrienne Truscott can be reliably depended upon to go all the way.

I won’t forget the opening image: a panel of three naked bums, arseholes fully exposed, wobbling their cheeks before three microphones as they pontificate on their worst theatrical experiences, all of which are about a show called Wild Bore. It’s outrageous, crass and absurd, feeding into the voyeurism that everybody – and let’s face it, aside from the target of the review, it’s everybody – feels when reading a review that takes no prisoners.

There’s always an edge of scandal when artists talk back to critics, and Wild Bore explores this scandal to the hilt of its phallic hiltiness. Artists, so the wisdom goes, should keep their own counsel when they feel the lash of a critic’s tongue, no matter how provoked. To respond is ill advised, even graceless.

As someone who works on both sides of the fence, I disagree. True, sometimes artists’ responses are graceless. One of my favourite internet genres is “authors behaving badly”, of which vampire queen Anne Rice has provided several stellar examples.

On the other hand, while I think it’s dubious to take on ordinary punters who have laid out dollars to purchase your work, and simply absurd to think that everyone who encounters your work should like it, I have never understood why an artist shouldn’t question a professional critic. Why should critics be beyond critique?

In real life, especially since the advent of social media, critics are under constant scrutiny. In the world of performing arts, the role of criticism has long been a minor obsession, partly because of the art form’s transience: reviews are often the only historical record of a show. Sometimes debates about critique turn into all-in brawls, drawing a phalanx of gawking spectators, but at their best they become searching and interesting conversations on the nature of response and perception.

With Wild Bore, a theatrical grenade lobbed by three excellent comic performers, the artists make a show that is both brawl and conversation. Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott deal with the myriad traps that lie in wait for them by jumping into their jaws with a flourish: if the accusation is self-indulgence, then they will be self-indulgent! But mostly they evade them because they’re consistently, inventively and intelligently hilarious.

But back to the arseholes. As most critics know, schadenfreude is a true click bounty. Some reviewers, like the New York Observer’s Rex Reed and the Herald Sun’s briefly notorious Byron Bache (both name-checked in this show) make their careers on snark, cultivating a reputation for “hard hitting” critique. The well-churned gob of bile certainly has its attractions – the piss-take in Wild Bore is as much celebration as attack. But how critical is this criticism, really?

This is where Wild Bore gets interesting. Taking motifs from the initial reviews – a vague reference to Hamlet, some coprophiliac ickiness, a comment about “dramaturgical design” as opposed to “whimsical incompetence” – Coombs Marr, Martinez and Truscott construct an increasingly surreal and anarchic series of tableaux. The bums reappear, but this time they are masks on the heads of the performers. Hamlet herself strides on stage and gives a mock-Shakespearean speech about things that happen “for no apparent reason”. The meta-commentary begins to comment on itself, and then to comment on the commentary, in increasingly absurd spirals. There are ridiculous costumes, awful puns, dance routines, neurotic repetitions, a series of spoofs of contemporary theatre making. Finally a trans performer, the remarkable Krishna Istha, delivers a withering judgement of the already metastasised commentary, expanding on how arts criticism is often merely a defence of the status quo, functioning as a major contributor to processes of marginalisation.

What holds Wild Bore together is a serious argument about the reception of feminist and queer performance that threads through – or, more accurately, is embodied by – the rapidly spiralling anarchy. The previous work of these four performers challenged, in different ways, the expectations of conventional theatre making. And those very challenges – of aesthetic, of dramaturgical expectation, of intent and so on – are too often read as signs of incompetence, rather than as deliberate choices that are meant to provoke thought. “It might be shit design,” as Combs Marr says, “but at least let me own it as my shit design.”

The assumption of incompetence rather than conscious intention isn’t always gendered, but women are more likely to be at the wrong end of it. Likewise, the problem of creating a critical language in which to be understood is one that’s faced every radical artist at some point, but is a consistent problem for women and queer artists. Artists have often responded to this dilemma by creating their own critical language, sometimes becoming critics themselves. Or, as in this case, making merciless mockery of it.

For all its self-confessed masturbatory indulgence – or maybe because of it –  Wild Bore will appeal to anyone impatient with the stifling mores of patriarchal culture. It’s funny as fuck. And much angrier than that.

About the author Alison Croggon

Alison Croggon is a Melbourne poet, novelist, librettist and critic. Her New and Selected Poems 1991–2017 is out this month.

@alisoncroggon
 
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