Scene: Q Theatre Cafe.
Enter: An upstart, bitchy CRITIC. She's meeting one of her victims: a put-upon PLAYWRIGHT who receives harsh reviews for his sole crime: being too popular. Or, is he an Establishment hack and she a brave soul declaiming incredibly important truths in some cultural desert?
Our drinks fail to arrive. The wait staff apologise profusely. "These things happen," Vegemite Spelling Bee patron Roger Hall murmurs by way of response, "just not very often."
Ouch. However, New Zealand's favourite playwright is impressed by the offer of free muffins as compensation, although he merely requests a "proper cup" to replace the heated glass provided for his tea (English Breakfast for the former Englishman).
The heated glass is as heated as the meeting gets. We're very polite; I think we are both surprised to find ourselves sitting down together over a civilised cuppa. It's probably not what Hall had in mind when he wrote to me last month criticising my criticism of him.
Last year, as one of the Herald's two theatre reviewers, I cheekily wrote that Dave Armstrong's Motor Camp "makes Roger Hall look deep. No mean feat".
In his email, Hall pointed out that while I'd praised Tapac's recent Gwen in Purgatory for starting a theatrical discussion about getting older, Hall's own 2007 play Who Wants to be a 100? (Anyone Who's 99) had beaten Gwen to it, tackling many difficult issues like rest-home patient abuse. So the "comment that implied all my plays were shallow", Hall wrote, "was a bit galling ... Yes, my plays do make people laugh, but most of them have a serious theme beneath the surface".
The lightness of his "brand" has possibly been annoying Hall since before I was born. I sent back a mea culpa about carelessness in the Gwen review, and also something to the effect that "deep" doesn't have a monopoly on "good" - I could have added that "serious" doesn't necessarily mean "deep". He pointed out the context of my comment didn't encourage that interpretation. We left it hanging.
But I invited him to join me in a discussion about theatre reviewing in general and he kindly accepted.
Would this be The Revenge of the Reviewed? I've met industry types before who assume that reviews are written for producers, not audiences.
But surprisingly Hall played to the gallery - me - by being more hardline about reviews than I am. He brought a typed list: he wishes reviewers had control of their own headlines, and would like reviews to appear the next day like they used to. He likes reviews to have oomph, passion, opinions and not wish-wash. Otherwise, "you're not a critic, you're just a reporter! ... If people are sloppy, don't let them get away with it ... You have to have standards".
Amen to all that. However, I don't agree that a reviewer's position is "awful".
"It's a thankless task," Hall says. "If you give me a good review it's only what I deserve. If it's bad, well, it shouldn't be."
But reviewers don't have to befriend the people they review. Still, restricting your social circle is easier in Auckland than in smaller Dunedin, where Hall once reviewed theatre for three weeks. He gave it up when a compliment about one bunch of actors was seen as an insult to others. The grief, he decided, wasn't worth it.
Thespians - you're lucky he quit. I noted that I am rarely harsh about individual actors because they're so exposed, and Hall replied drily: "Nobody makes them do it." He loves the fun, mean quip by mid-20th century American literary critic John Mason Brown: "He played the king as if afraid someone else would play the ace." Yet Hall is also enormously admiring of New Zealand actors who, in general, get little rehearsal time.
He points out it's easier to produce fun, well-written reviews in London or New York, because "you can really let rip, knowing the audience has access to other reviews". Ditto actual criticism, which is longer-form analysis (a review being a quick traffic-light for the theatregoer).
He approved of my habit of choosing theatre companions - "plus ones" - who I think will like the show. In return for the ticket they promise not to imbibe corrupting free opening-night drinks and they tell me what they think, as a foil for my opinion.
So - surprise. The playwright and the reviewer agree on what makes a good theatre review. Perhaps we should meet again to discuss what makes a good play.