Reviews and Spoilers
I write a fair number of theatre reviews, and I take performance photographs of some shows, which are used to publicise the piece. Anything which illustrates a work of art is bound to give away a certain level of detail about the production – so how much information is needed, and does too much constitute a ‘spoiler’, something which degrades the audience’s enjoyment of the play when they finally get to see it?
I think it depends on what we mean by a ‘review’. Is a review something which is meant to encourage potential audience members to go and see the show, or is it some kind of assessment process employed after the event? Where reviews award stars, does a five star rating mean – “You really must go and see this”, or does it mean – “This was a really high-quality production, and the company did superbly well”. ?
If it’s the first, then it’s really a form of advertising – a preview, that gives people a flavour of what to expect when they finally do see the production, and so presumably too much detail would spoil some of the freshness and surprise of the performance. They don’t want to be told – “The butler did it…”
But in the way of theatre – especially fringe theatre – most of the population won’t get to see the show, so for them the function of the review is to provide some kind of record of the event. They can read about a production that they didn’t experience for themselves at first hand, and decide whether the company, and the author, are worth pursuing in the future. That’s certainly how I read reviews.
My dictionary defines ‘review’ as – ‘a survey; a critical examination; a critique. That’s what I try to produce when I write. To that end I put in as much detail as is needed to describe the production adequately. But I’m actually trying to do more…
‘News is only the first draft of History’. Alan Barth, a journalist on The Washington Post, wrote that in 1943. I don’t see myself as writing ‘History’, with all the academic analysis and perspective that the word implies, but I am trying to write a contemporary ‘eyewitness account’. What was it like to BE at that performance on that particular night? What did that production FEEL like? If I can give some of the flavour of the event – if I can make readers experience a few of the sensations I felt myself – then I’ll have produced a piece of writing that’s useful today, but hopefully has some lasting value as well. Remember that after a few years, the review might well be the only record of a production.
During the 2013 Fringe Festival I saw a wonderful production called ‘Belvedere’ (you can read my review here on this website) and at the end I gave away the final twist of the plot. That action has been criticised (though certainly not by the author, who was delighted with ‘the encouragement and feedback’), and I’m not totally happy myself. Did you see the show? – probably not – but now by reading my review you have the opportunity to examine the writer’s imagery and plot construction. And you might be encouraged to see more work by Ana-Maria Bamberger. Surely that’s the job of a reviewer.
I think we all – reviewers and theatre companies – need to treat our audiences as grown-ups. Most adults go to the theatre hoping to see a well-crafted, sensitively realised performance – to be shown a range of human emotions and dilemmas put up for their examination on a stage in front of them. To see how well it’s been done. If they were only concerned with the final ending, no-one would go to see a performance of ‘Romeo and Juliet’. (Spoiler alert – they both die …)
I describe the sets, the costumes and the action of the show. I set out the plot and usually quote enough of the lines to give a flavour of the author’s voice, too. If that involves ‘spoilers’, it should become obvious before I get to the point where I reveal that it was ‘the butler who did it‘, and people don’t have to read the review. Robert Capa (I’m a photographer, remember) once said – “If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough”. I try to take my readers very close indeed.