Wednesday, 11 June 2014

On Criticism – the Guardian years

[compiled primarily for my colleagues on the theatre criticism workshop series at the Festivalul Internaţional de Teatru de la Sibiu]

For the last three days alongside seeing plays and reviewing them, I’ve also been taking part in a series of two hour seminar-style discussions on criticism. I suspect these are far more interesting to me than anyone else in the room, who already know all about the situation of theatre criticism in Romania, how it’s practised, what the problems are, and so forth. And, again, what’s striking is how many more similarities than differences there are, even if the state of Romania’s newspaper industry seems to be in a more advanced state of decline, with several national newspapers having gone “online-only”. I was briefly shocked when they said that several newspapers had also been bought up by groups of businessmen and were no longer independent; until I remembered that the reason that can’t happen in the UK is that *all* our national newspapers bar the Guardian are already owned by private individuals who use their newspapers to propagate their own worldviews and advance their interests. Ir’s just, as a Westerner, when I hear it described in a Romanian context I think “corruption!” and when I know it in a British context I think “good old, incorruptable old Britain!” It really is spooky how deep that conditioning goes.

Anyway, below is just a collection of the pieces that I wrote about criticism five or six years ago for the Guardian. What’s remarkable is the frequency with which these very subjects have reared their head this week, so I thought it collecting them in one place might be a useful resource for my colleagues. And the rest of you can have a look too if you like. Links to the full article are under each title, and I’ve stuck in a snippet so, without clicking, you get a vague idea of the direction in which the piece heads. Hope it’s useful.

Reading the play before seeing the production:

“As preparation for our reviews, our coordinator sent us all the respective scripts of the plays that we would be seeing. I was surprised to say the least. In Britain, I think it's fair to say that we have a pretty established tradition, if not a hard and fast rule, that critics don't read new plays before they see them... Moreover, playwrights are often keen that this remains the case...”

Saying whether it’s actually any good or not:

“...British criticism has been way too co-opted into the PR industry. Have British theatre critics, along with pretty much every other branch of journalism, been tricked into moving away from serious analysis into giving things the thumbs up (where possible) in order to sell tickets? […] Similarly, when compared with a rigorous, extensive and articulate interpretation of a play, the way that some British critics simply shut down and refuse to engage with writing or direction starts to look like the height of ignorance... On the other hand, this interpretative school of criticism can fall prey to finding meaning where there is none...”

Ethical guidelines:

“Where I foresee the IATC's attempts to create a global code of ethics running into real trouble is on the matter of irresolvable international cultural differences. The Canadians, for example, argue: ‘It is expected that critics be as objective as possible to achieve a balanced review.’ Not in Britain, it isn't. Here a critic offers a completely subjective response to a piece of work...”

The division between journalist critics and academics

“The critic is (quite unfairly) criticised for their lack of space. Show more cultural breadth, they are told, when in truth it's as much as many of us can do to fit the bare bones of a plot, cast, design and direction into a review with the word counts we are now given to work with... The academic, on the other hand, is berated (again unfairly) for their narrowness and insularity. Studies of minutiae are cited as reasons why the academic fails to capture the imagination of the general reader. ”

What should we teach our young critics?

“Before we all charge about arguing that we need more tuition for our up-and-coming critics, we should take some time to consider what we want them to be taught. Do we emphasise the often depressing commercial realities of the current situation, or do we try to instil in them a desire to make writing about theatre as vital as possible, with the hopeful goal of making it a must-read?”

Identifying who did what – praise and blame:

“As a theatre critic, the need to apportion praise and blame is a bit more pressing; we have to identify who is responsible for what – and we don't always get it right. One such example comes from Telegraph critic Charles Spencer, reviewing Mark Ravenhill's pool (no water) a few years ago. It was a particularly personal attack on Ravenhill, arising from Spencer's distaste over a scene in which four friends of a coma victim sexually violate her. But Ravenhill didn't write that scene – it was created by Frantic Assembly, the theatre company behind the production, who sandwiched the sequence between two of Ravenhill's scenes, making Spencer's fury entirely misdirected.”

How to even describe acting:

“Time and time again, when reading reviews, you are struck by the extent to which the play is the real star in Britain. Be it written or devised, it's the action, not the acting, that really gets reviewed. It sometimes feels as if theatre is marked for content and social utility, and the small matter of its delivery is a given. There are those old examples of Kenneth Tynan spending 90% of a review describing just one performance – say, Olivier in Shakespeare. If anyone wrote that sort of review now, I suspect they'd prompt a few letters to the editor asking what the rest of the play was like. ”

Star ratings:

“It's this insistence on a rating, particularly at the Edinburgh fringe, that highlights how varied opinion can be. Last year at the festival, with the increased proliferation of online reviewers and freesheets working alongside the national press, it seemed as if every show was scoring a full bingo card of stars, with ratings anchored only to a publication and rarely to an individual critic. In this instance, the question of authority – and whose opinion to trust – was rendered almost insignificant by the show's promoters, who merely clutched on to whatever stars they could...”

– Fin –

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