[Arts Equator] Ultimate Insult Thrown by Estragon: Critic!

Picture: Richard Chua

by Ridhwan Saidi

Translated by Sandee Chew


It started when I arrived late at the Meeting of Writers/Critics/Reviewers in Performing Arts at the Café White Sands, DPAC, Damansara. Around the table were already 13 people discussion the differences between reviews and criticism, and the their importance as documentation. Richard Chua from Theatrex Asia moderated the session.

This is the first meeting emerging out of the KL Critic group on Facebook. According to Richard, he didn’t yet have a concrete plan, but his intention is to more towards a monthly meeting, and “to have a more building capacity workshops for local critics.”

Fasyali Fadzly chooses not to write reviews, or criticism, if a production or performance does not offer something fresh or new. This action is seen by a young person name Jian as self-censorship. Foo Chiwei, a dance practitioner did say that sometimes, “Silence speaks volumes.”

Nandang, a producer, said that good criticism will help sell a production. Other than that, criticism needs to be directed to the ‘product’, and not the person making it. The word product (not work) was used, and this, in my opinion, is because it is expressed in the context of a producer’s thinking. “Criticism as marketing tool,” as concluded by Richard.

Tria Aziz, a performer, said that she wanted feedback. And when she watches friends’ performances, Tria sometimes needs to sugarcoat her opinions (after a performance) so as not to hurt, or disturb the focus of her friends (for their subsequent performances). However, at the same time, she wanted her friends to improve. Foo Chiwei assured that discussions and full criticisms could be done after the end of the entire production, at the coffee shop.

Bilqis Hijjas craves more than one voice, hence the Critics Republic was formed. Kenneth Wong, a culture practitioner, said that there are needs for critics, who link the situation in Malaysian arts and the international world. Fasyali said that criticism is a search for meaning. Foo Chiwei said that criticism involves cognitive arguments and visceral emotions. Émilia Giudicelli, a French dancer discussed the subject of temporality, and that interviews with artists will give a little bit of foundation. It opens the door to something. Critics as intelligent cultural being. “There’s always… an energy.”

Richard said that good writing would raise awareness. Nandang, however, said that critics need to have empathy, and compassion towards an artist’s effort.  Foo Chiwei retorted by saying that it is not the issue of effort, but whether the artist “get(s) it or not?” Foo Chiwei’s statement indirectly asserts that an artist must be critical toward his own works.

Jian says that reading materials on the Internet are more like click-baits, or more precisely, listicles, with conclusions as simple as thumb-ups or thumbs-down, and this affects the way reviews and criticism are written nowadays. Fasyali, however, takes the example of Krishen Jit, who tried to identify the national theatre identity in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. The role of the critic as cultural agent.

I said that criticism in the form of writing allows us to connect to the past the same way future generations will read the writings of today. My issue with reviews on social media, such as Facebook, is that it cannot be googled (if it is written in a blog it can be googled, and will also be etched into the internet’s cache). Nandang responded by emphasizing the importance of hashtags (#).

Émilia explained that all criticisms and reviews are meta-events, collective of responses that open probabilities for a collaboration. A creation or writing is not complete without responses—how to present it, how it’s read.

Picture: Ridhwan Saidi


In the following event the next day, which took place at Purple Cane, Shaw Parade, Kuala Lumpur,  there were three presentations by Benny Lim, Amy De Kanter, and Octavian Saiu.

Benny Lim proposed criticism as cultural capital, while Amy De Kanter listed three elements that make a good critic, that is: 1. A good writer, 2. Passionate about the arts, and 3. Has an arsenal of knowledge. Amy also shared about the shortcomings that happen in the Malaysian theatre criticism scene, including editorial ignorance. For example a positive review of a production will be accused of being a review of a friend’s production.

Octavian Saiu, a critic from Romania explained that most critics become academicians. However, there are issues where in the academic world, it  (criticism) can be limited at the level of critical discourse, whereby a critic must have critical thinking skills that involves articulation.  Critic as animator (with the root word anima, from the Carl Jung concept—vital spirit) that has critical awareness in celebrating cultural literacy.

Octavian did share about a scene in Waiting for Godot by Samuel Beckett, where the ultimate insult is the word_________.

Octavian also equated bad theatre to pollution, and the funding of mediocre works as a disaster. He said criticism could also happen outside the framework of writing, such as dialogues, and verbal discussions. Octavian explained that because theatre is temporary, therefore it is etched in memory. And when we remember, we don’t just dig into the past, but at the same time, memory also overlaps with imagination (that is renewed with each attempt to remember) —to apprehend imagination. “Memories are the best critics.”

Graduated with a Bsc in Architecture, Ridhwan Saidi is a Malaysian novelist and playwright. He started writing seriously since 2008 when he initiated the blog Binfilem where he wrote about film and architecture among other things. He runs an indie publishing outfit Moka Mocha Ink (mokamochaink.com) which focuses on contemporary Malay fiction. He’s part of LiteraCity research team, a literary mapping project of Kuala Lumpur. He was selected for residency programme at ASEAN Literary Festival 2016 and Makassar International Writers Festival 2017. Currently he’s working on Teater Modular, a series of offbeat playlets.

Editor’s Note:

The note was first published in Arts Equator on 17 July 2017.

We would like to express our gratitude to Sandee Chew for kindly assisting us to translate the article into English.

About the translator: 

Sandee Chew is an actor and award-winning lighting designer with interests in audience and theatre development, as well as experience in theatre consulting and startups. Current activities include participating in a voluntary committee for MaTA (Malaysian Theatre Association), a grassroots initiative aimed at developing a sense of community, and resource/information-sharing across Malaysian theatre.

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