The Global Mail, Australia's new and handsome online publication, opened its coverage of Australian arts and letters this Monday with a curious piece from arts editor Stephen Crittenden about theatre blogging. "Now, everyone really is a critic," the article proclaimed, rather disingenuously. It featured a profile of controversial Sydney theatre blogger Jane Simmons, whose blog Shit On Your Play has been ruffling feathers in the Emerald City for her unflinching treatment of some of the city's recent new work. Simmons rather enjoys taking a blunt instrument to contemporary performance, reserving some of her most trenchant prose for wunderkinds Benedict Andrews and Simon Stone. But Crittenden's uncritical puff-piece of Simmons has won few friends in the theatre blogging community. The tone of the piece, which seems constantly astonished that ordinary punters might go home and write reviews on personal websites, has rather grated on theatre bloggers, and indeed many in the performing arts community. After all, theatre blogging is scarcely a new phenomenon, and many are questioning the value of singling out Simmons, whose views on theatre traverse a rather narrow range between the reactionary and the self-aggrandising. Australia's best-known and respected theatre blogger Alison Croggon (who was revealingly unaware that Shit On Your Play even existed) is baffled as to "why this blog -- with some extra comments from Kevin Jackson and a nameless former print critic -- has been uncritically chosen to represent the theatre blogging culture in Australia, in the introductory arts feature on a high-profile new media site". "If the feature is supposed to be about theatre blogs as a whole," she writes, "it's a woeful misrepresentation: blogging is much more interesting, diverse, porous (and long-lived) than is represented here." Simmons' outraged views on German expressionism, which are generally negative (to say the least), also come in for criticism: "Simmons' profiling seems to be the occasion for a bit of arts-bashing in the finest traditions of Australian anti-intellectualism." In The Global Mail article, Crittenden gives Simmons plenty of space with which to vent her rather flimsy critiques of recent Sydney theatre -- complete with clangers such as this one:
"German surrealist literature … well, perhaps all German literature actually, can often be categorised as reflecting a people who understand that everything turns to shit. This being the case, Gross und Klein fulfilled its objective."
As another blogger Jana Perkovic observes, in a far more considered and substantial contribution than Crittenden's:
"There is so little in this kind of review that could of any value to anyone: to the audience, to the artist, to the production company, to the reader. It is largely opinion without analysis, plus critique ad personam, often amounting to the following argumentative logic: 'this play sucked because the director is stupid, and so 5 minutes in I wanted to go home and do my laundry instead'."
Perkovic concludes that:
"It is so tiring to see an Australian general-interest magazine focus on the arts, once again, only to construe a mini-culture war: overly polite, inner-city, Europhiliac, bleeding-heart critics and theatre establishment versus rugged individualists and suburban working families, with their no-bullshit, tell-it-how-it-is attitude. It does not need to be like this."
Augusta Supple has an eloquent post in which she questions the courage of Simmons, who has hitherto blogged anonymously:
"I'm not going to shit on anyone or their play or their blog. I don’t think that's cool. I don’t think that's useful. But I will ask those who delight in the style of writing that empowers the anonymous and aggressive -- if this is the tone and style of the artistic conversations we should be having? Is this the best we can do for each other?"
The controversy has even made it as far as The Guardian, which rounds up the debate and agrees with Perkovic that Simmons is not really reviewing at all, merely trolling. And so it continues ...