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January 21, 2015 How to write a review: Louis Nowra’s “Radiance”

This article is part of a series called English by Compass.

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What is the point of writing a review? We most often look at reviews when we’re trying to decide what movie to go see, but when it comes to theatre, reviews are not only about giving potential audiences an assessment of the quality of the show – reviews also serve an important function as cultural commentary, providing useful feedback to theatre makers and recording details about the production and its reception for archival purposes.

A theatre review is generally composed of three parts: an introduction to the context of the play and specific details relating to the production attended, including any interesting biographical information about the cast, crew, and production company; then a discussion of how the themes of the play were represented by the use of literary and theatrical techniques; and, finally, an evaluation of how successful the reviewer found the production.

For example, if you were going to review the current production of Louis Nowra’s Radiance at Sydney’s Belvoir theatre, you might start with a bit of background:

Starring Shari Sebbens and Miranda Tapsell (The Sapphires) alongside Leah Purcell (Redfern Now), who also served as the play’s director, Belvoir’s new production of Louis Nowra’s Radiance marks the first return of the play to the theatre since its premiere there in 1993. Originally commissioned by Rhoda Roberts and Lydia Miller, two actors who had become frustrated with explicitly political Indigenous theatre and wanted to create a solid domestic drama for a small female cast, Radiance has become a modern classic, and was adapted to film in 1998 starring Deborah Mailman and directed by Rachel Perkins.

Having established the basic details of the significant cast members, you can then move on to a discussion of the play’s content, starting with a general overview of the tone and setting of the production. As opposed to when writing essays, it’s not necessary to go into specific detail of the plot when reviewing a play – stick to broad themes and issues, and if possible avoid giving away any significant plot points that might spoil the show for someone who hasn’t seen it yet.

With contemporary costumes and subtle alterations and abbreviations to the original script, in this production Purcell pulls the play firmly into the present day, and brings a majestic authority to her role as Cressy, successful opera singer and absent eldest sister. The precarious balance between the poetic and naturalistic elements of Nowra’s dialogue is beautifully exploited by the tense, energetic performances of Sebbens and Tapsell as younger sisters Mae and Nona, who together create an uneasy but affectionate family dynamic.

In this section you might want to talk more about how various literary motifs are highlighted by the production – in the case of Radiance, this might include discussions of motifs like ghosts and poltergeists, voice and strangulation, and the symbolic cleansing power of fire and water. Or discuss how sound cues from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly are used to echo the references to the plot of the opera in the play text.

After you’ve discussed the substance of the play in some detail, wrap it up with your final thoughts about the production:

Despite occasional stiffness in the first act, as the play hurtles towards its harrowing conclusion, Purcell’s production really illustrates why Radiance has earned its place in the Australian dramatic canon.

This is just one model of how to write a review – review writing allows you quite a bit of freedom in content and form, and you can write conversationally or formally depending on who your intended audience is. The most important thing is to find a way to discuss both features of the play text and the live performance and how they relate to each other. You could also write about how your interpretation of the play is influenced by other similar plays you’re familiar with, or how the performances are informed by other roles you’ve seen the actors play.

Don’t be intimidated if you don’t feel like you know that much about theatre – plays are not made solely for professional theatre critics, and diverse audiences demand a variety of critical voices. Your review also doesn’t have to be positive; if you didn’t like the production, feel free to say so, but try to be as specific as you can about why you thought it didn’t work: people like and dislike different things and going into detail helps readers understand why you felt the way you did about the performance.

If you would like to write a review for A•STAR, get in touch (we’ll even pay you).

This article is part of a series called English by Compass.

Read the series >

Carolyn Burns
graduated from the University of Sydney with a PhD in theatre.