It was astonishing to see the profile of Joanna Murray-Smith by Alison Croggon that was published in the Arts pages of The Australian on February 8. Croggon, the paper’s Melbourne theatre critic, suggested that Murray-Smith (whose play, The Female of the Species, is being done in Brisbane) was a right-wing purveyor of soap, that her “anguish” was all a matter of upper-middle class aspirationalism, and that she was essentially a vapid, self-involved commercial hack who had turned her back on any form of artistic seriousness or political commitment — Murray-Smith is the daughter of the left-wing intellectual and editor of Overland, Stephen Murray-Smith — and that her comprehension of feminism (The Female of the Species plays on a famous incident where Germaine Greer was tied up by a young female intruder) was shallow and self-dramatising.
Murray-Smith’s conflicts with Robyn Nevin, the former head of the Sydney Theatre Company, are presented as the real wellspring for her comedy’s conflict between an older and a younger woman.
The overwhelming implication is that Murray-Smith is only concerned with motherhood issues in the pejorative sense because her work and her statements about it are so many walking cliches.
Croggon’s piece is an odious piece of work and has caused widespread dismay. This so-called profile is an extraordinary case of poisoning the wells and it is also a category mistake. Alison Croggon has written a hatchet job opinion piece and served it up as a profile in a way that (if it were to set up a precedent) would make anyone apprehensive of an arts interviewer.
It is one of the remaining virtues of Australian journalism that we do not have any tradition of publishing the kind of profile (much flogged by the British press) that begins, “She was fatter than I expected and just as stupid as I remembered.”
For good reason we do not have have any collective faith in the sort of profile purveyed by Lyn Barber of The Guardian, who is known, with some fear and loathing, as the Demon Barber of Fleet Street. Life might be more interesting if he did but (except in some areas of political interviewing) it is not our way and for very proper reasons.
Besides, Alison Croggon has not ridden into battle, all colours flying, she has presented this attack under camouflage of the
conventional profile and in such a way that The Australian may not have realised quite how poisonous the portrait was. Much of the article sounds like an interview where a fair fraction of it is made up of cobbled together quotes taken out of context.
Don’t get me wrong. I have no objection to Alison Croggon articulating (with whatever fire or bile may be in her), any opinion she may have as the Melbourne theatre critic of The Australian. When she compared the Ian McKellen/Trevor Nunn King Lear to The Pirates of Penzance, I thought her judgement was wildly aberrant and the way it was expressed utterly inappropriate, but she had a perfect right to articulate it because, as a critic, she is licensed to praise and attack.
But to write a devastating profile of a dramatist under the cover of the traditional structure is an abuse of journalism.
Alison Croggon blithely assumes at the outset that any diverting or amusing theatre is liable to be right-wing, on nothing but the say-so of a facetious English critic, and then proceeds to beat Joanna Murray-Smith with the stick of this accusation for the story.
Croggon has a perfect right, if she wishes, to speak on behalf of a progressivist, avant-garde theatre practice, that spurns the mainstream and the establishment, but the logic of her piece is to marginalise Murray-Smith at every point as an object of legitimate exasperation.
Never mind that the equation of mainstream with a right-wing would have mystified Karl Marx, or the naked unfairness of the angle, the exasperation is all Alison Croggon’s.
There is a disdain for Murray-Smith’s success which burns though the entire piece and is palpable to anyone who knows anything about the world of the theatre.
Of course there is a consistency in this too. Croggon despises a world in which Joanna Murray-Smith is performed by actresses like Diana Rigg or Eileen Atkins, at places like Britain’s National Theatre.
This is the world of Mammon to her. It represents the meretricious glow of the bright lights of the big city.
At the same time you do wonder at the motivation. Alison Croggon can’t stop herself from saying that the Australian playwright who vies with Joanna Murray-Smith in terms of how much his work is performed overseas is her own husband, Daniel Keene.
And there’s a consistent effort in this anti-profile to deflate anything that might look like achievement. Croggon says (because she can hardly deny) that Trevor Nunn — not exactly a marginal figure in the modern theatre (ask Judi Dench, ask Vanessa Redgrave) commissioned Joanna Murray-Smith to adapt Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, for the English stage in a version to be directed featuring Nunn’s wife Imogen Stubbs and Iain Glen (Nicole Kidman’s co-star in the original Blue Room).
Alison Croggon has to admit that the British reviews were good (as they were) so she quotes the one thing in them which was eloquently critical.
She knows that Bergman is one of the titans of the modern cinema and theatre, but she refuses to be impressed by Nunn’s commission (after all, he’s just the Andrew Lloyd Webber man who makes King Lear look like a comic opera, never mind that his Macbeth, with Dench and McKellen, is the most highly regarded production in the last half century).
She tells the readers of The Australian that she “can’t imagine Murray-Smith approaching the forensic compassion and intelligence of Bergman”. Well, I can’t imagine John Osborne or Andrew Upton approaching those qualities as they exist in Ibsen either, but they might have delivered the goods in their respective adaptations of Hedda Gabler.
In fact, Alison Croggon can’t imagine much about Joanna Murray-Smith that could amount to anything good, which is why she should not have written this profile in the first place. Apart from anything else, her piece suffers from a crippling inability to allow for the possibility that Murray Smith’s success could represent anything of value.
It was the great Marxist critic John Berger who helped teach us that worldly success is not a negative thing in itself. If it were, we would have to dismiss the Shakespeares and Ingmar Bergmans.
It is surely to Joanna Murray-Smith’s great credit that Trevor Nunn wants to direct her work, or that a great actress like Eileen Atkins has performed it. It is extremely interesting that Annette Bening wanted to play the Germaine Greer part in The Female of the Species in New York and that Helen Mirren has been considered as a replacement.
The kind of driving ambition and self-confidence that Joanna Murray Smith has shown in handling her career is precisely what the Australian theatre needs in terms of getting international attention.
And, for heaven’s sake, there is no necessary competition between the highbrow and the commercial. It’s good that people saw the Cate Blanchett/Sydney Theatre Company Hedda Gabler at the Brooklyn Academy of Arts and Music, just as it would be good for them to see Geoffrey Rush in Exit the King or in a Steve Sewell play. And it’s also good that a London audience should see Priscilla.
It should please us that the mainstream theatre in London or New York should see Joanna Murray-Smith’s plays.
It would be good to see her work performed with the glitter and panache that one hopes for from the Blanchett/Repton reign in Sydney. It is pleasing that the Queensland Theatre Company production of The Female of the Species is being directed by that superb director Kate Cherry.
And, yes, it’s good that Daniel Keene is treasured by one kind of audience in France.
But there is no competition in the quest to establish Australian theatre. As Geoffrey Rush never tires of saying, we want our directors like Neil Armfield to be able to jump from doing Steve Sewell or Hamlet to the biggest kind of musicals.
At the end of the day, the rare classics of the theatre will emerge. And, along the way, as critics we can furiously rage together. But, however we rage, we should allow each other a fair shake. The profile is the domain of the fair shake. Leave the rage for the reviews, Alison.
Peter Craven is a leading literary critic.