Preamble: I wasn't going to review Hoy Polloy's new production Electronic City because one of my oldest friends (and current housemate) is in it. This is, in the classic parlance, a conflict of interest. But it's had me thinking about that old doozy for a while, and of course it's something that every critic in Melbourne probably bumps their shins against once in a while. In a way, I think a critic who doesn't have conflicts of interest might be in a more difficult position than one who does. After all, a 'conflict of interest' can also be shortened to an 'interest' and the whole idea of the disinterested critic is, to me, a troubling one in an artistic culture of the sort this city boasts.
Maybe 'interested' and 'disinterested' are too vexed terms to employ here, bringing with them a long history of argument over the objective and subjective relationships between a critic and a work. For 'interested' I could substitute the word 'invested', because I do feel that anything I write about local theatre is an investment I'm making – I want it to result in a better return. But investment implies an economy, a financing, a fiscal dynamic that sours as it hits the tongue, too close to the imperatives of funding bodies and business models and strategic planning.
So we can replace 'investment' with 'involvement', cuckoo-like, and see what hatches. There are problems when a critic writes about something with which they have a personal involvement. How can we be assured of integrity and transparency and even-handedness, despite any number of disclaimers? It's why I haven't written reviews of Melbourne Fringe shows in The Sunday Age for the past few years, since my partner was Creative Producer for the organisation, and now that she's Artistic Director of the Next Wave festival I'll be doing the same for that (but also partly why, incidentally, this blog was established, since I think the hundred-odd Fringe shows I saw over that period deserved discussion somewhere).
But I also find it hard not to have an interest, an investment, or an involvement in the things I write about. I don't know any writers who don't. It's why, despite any claims to the contrary, Melbourne is an astonishing city to live in if you're at all interested in the arts. Just dip your toes in and you'll soon find yourself doing laps with someone whose worked you'd admired from afar, or who'll one day be treading the world stage. I can't count the number of judging panels, critic discussions, post-show foyer evaluations or on-air reviews I've been witness to that didn't include someone uttering the words “I have to point out that I'm a friend of so-and-so in this production”. Of course. That's why you're qualified to speak. Because we're all friends with some so-and-so, somewhere. That's what got us interested in the whole shebang.
I once sat in a pub stairwell with a maudlin Rose Byrne as she lamented a break-up. Once an award-winning local comedian asked me for a cigarette paper so he could roll a joint, and he hung around for a long chat about his dreams and disappointments. I once had a chorus role in a Daniel Keene play. I had a lead role opposite a Red Stitch ensemble member, alongside the director of new Australian flick Summer Coda. I went to uni with Ben Ellis and Caroline Craig and Angus Cerini. I was in a VCA film with Dan Spielman, and his performance put me to shame. I had an impromptu dance-off with Lally Katz (she won when she brought a full pot of boiling water into the mix). I've even been in a short play alongside Age critic Cameron Woodhead.
These (among others) aren't professional anecdotes but dim recollections, since for most I was working in a convenience store or getting fired from waiting jobs or scribbling for the street press. Short of arriving in Melbourne from overseas and leaping straight into a career as a critic, I don't see how someone could avoid personal involvement with the people you're writing about, and in that case I'd be wary of the authority such a person invoked to discuss the thing they witnessed. All the time, I see people checking out a show that a friend or family member is in and years later run into them making work themselves, embedded in a community that has sprung up around them.
Maybe Melbourne's artistic culture is like a virus, and close proximity must result in infection. Maybe the best critics are those with a rare resistance, or those who've been inoculated somehow. I doubt it. I think the best critic is someone who has the energy to discuss what they see, whether they're involved or not, whether they have an investment or otherwise, whether they have a personal interest in any sense of the term. I guess I hope that the handful of paid critics in this city have the professionalism to disregard personal bias, if not personal interest (and just between you and me? They do).
But maybe this is all just the longest disclaimer in blog-gone history.
Review: Electronic City is a damned fine piece of work, and I'd recommend it to all.
Mechanic's Institute, Brunswick. Ends. Nov 27.