Why Reviews Matter


What the point of a review? One basic answer is that is tells the audience whether something on show is worth their time and money. Reviews can form an influential part of the decision-making process for would-be audience members.

That’s the obvious stuff. But there’s more to it than that. The arts industry is a fickle thing, with funding and other opportunities raining down on some, while others languish in the drought of favours and bank loans. Artists put a great deal of time and effort into producing their work, and an event like the National Arts Festival provides exposure – that overhyped commodity – if not the immediate gratification of money.

As an artist, it’s nevertheless a leap of faith to travel to Grahamstown to take your place in the myriad Fringe shows that populate the festival. You do this knowing you or your company will be playing to uneven ticket-buyers, some of whom won’t show up for your 10pm cabaret because they’re too busy enjoying wine-soaked conversation at the Long Table.

So you put on your show for 20 or 25 people, an audience of consumptive coughs and obnoxious won’t-switch-off-my-phone behaviour. You give it your all. You collapse into bed exhausted, and you wake up the next morning to a lukewarm, or even chilling, review in Cue.

The stain of a negative review can be hard to wipe clean. Artists feel aggrieved, as if the reviewer had personally dashed their life’s work on the cruel rocks of acerbic put-downs. The reviewer obviously hasn’t understood what you were trying to do, you think. They have some vendetta, you speculate. You google them, scanning the internet for proof that Mr Cue has a generic hatred of neo-Butoh.

I penned a review this week of one of the many adaptations on the Fringe’s play circuit. I suggested in that review that things were not as they should’ve been. An angry letter followed, from someone who suggested that I was wrong, and that I was wrong because I was ignorant of the adaptation and what it was trying to do. I had clearly touched a nerve, but the reasons why are intriguing.

On the South African artistic scene, it seems to be verboten to call out work for being of poor quality. The counter-accusation is usually that the reviewer is being priggish, that they are preening their own ego, and that ultimately they really have no right to decide that a production is “bad.”

But is there truth to that? The work of the reviewer is to “read” the work as hospitably as possible, to see it both as it is being performed there and then, and as it could be at its best. Works of art are open, volatile things, and a reviewer has to respond ethically to what s/he is reviewing.

Unfortunately, while all opinions are valid, not all of them hold equal weight. A reviewer is (hopefully) chosen on their ability to read in a skilled and expansive way. The opinions and views they express are considered and come from a place of attentive noticing. In my case, the play wasn’t bad simply because I said it was bad. It was bad because it was a group of talented young performers who were given a flawed adaptation to work with.

Does a negative review mean the show shouldn’t go on? Certainly not. A negative review improves the breed, if those behind the show take the criticisms which matter to heart. Often, a mild tweak here or there can produce an immeasurably better work.

And what of reviewers themselves? I read Cue to see how other critics pen their craft, and while the reviews are generally of a wonderfully nuanced order, some clangers do slip through. One reviewer revealed the entire plot of a show that was based on suspense. Anyone intending to go to the thriller production would have been rightfully angered at having the entire thing revealed to them so unceremoniously.

To say this is to point out a crucial distinction: bad reviewers simply recite the content of whatever they’ve seen, leaving the reader to decide if the show which has been revealed is still worth seeing. If you’ve ever heard someone say “I read the review, so I don’t need to see the show”, that person has read a bad review.

Good reviewers, by contrast, tell a story about what you’ve seen. They don’t try to recite the work line for line. They don’t retell jokes. A good review expands the horizon of the work, putting it in conversation with other things the reader might see or have seen.

Or maybe I’m wrong. Your opinion is as good as mine.

Wamuwi Mbao
Cue Specialist Writer