Critics Circle

Dangle and Sneer

The brave new world of social media has meant that everyone with an opinion to voice has found a place to shout it to all who care to listen. Critics galore abound –  rather would be critics abound. Opinions get passed, but all too often they are simply the reaction of someone who has enjoyed a night out at the theatre, and says so without actually saying anything constructive or informative about what they have seen and that is what criticism is all about. It is a point of view intended to enlighten, to provoke, to create discussion.  A critic’s review, Michael Billington said the other day in The Guardian, is not the end of the debate, but the start – and it always had been. It was the opening salvo in the debate.

In the past readers who disagreed with a critic would write to either the critic or the publication in which the review appeared.The critic – or those who took the content of the letter seriously – would usually reply personally. Sometimes the debate would be continued in the letters page of the critic’s publication with others joining in. Today the person with something to say has their own blog or writes for a web site, some of which are actually basically personal blogs, some of which have a policy of being kind come what may, and a few offer a genuinely serious critical platform. But oddly they often do not provide a platform for discussion as well.

It is a strange world out there and while the old rules as far as writing and phoning copy and print deadlines may have changed completely, the rules about what constitutes criticism remain the same. So what is Billington’s advice to would be critics? This appeared recently in The Guardian whose theatre critic he has been these past four decades.

  • They should be true to themselves, be honest about their opinions, otherwise it will show in their writing.
  • They should see as many styles of performance as possible, and be flexible and adaptable.
  • They should read widely and learn from the great reviewers of the past.
  • They should develop a writing style that was clear, succinct, fluent and – with luck – occasionally witty.
  • They should prepare for a performance just as actors do, and they should arrive at the theatre relaxed but alert.

His colleague Lyn Gardner had words of her own to offer. She said that a review was not an exam. There was no right or wrong and all the critic could do was respond. They should not ask – is this theatre? They should ask what is it that theatre can and might be? Nor should they turn down any writing opportunity. They should go to see the widest possible range of work they could.

The days of the newspaper critic with acres of space to fill may have ended, the day of the web has arrived, but the day of the critic is not over, it is just that the place where a lot of criticism appears has changed. What matters is what appears on the web, often written by people who do the task part time, theatre enthusiasts with day jobs that do not stimulate. But if what appears on the web is ill informed, simply written to ensure that the theatre publicists have stars to award thus giving the blog or site a name check as well as access to review tickets then the days of criticisms could be numbered and we would all be publicist fodder.

The late Penelope Houston elsewhere on this site is scathing about the star system which so many outlets and publications have succumbed to. It suits the publicists. It suits the publication because it gets mentioned in those advertisements. Five stars from this, that or the next thing. It looks impressive on the advertisement and it asks no awkward questions.It must  be good. But  stars do not give the reasons why a conclusion has been reached and it is those reasons that matter, and the background against which judgements have been made.

It is possible to lament the decline in print criticism, but it is far more important to look at what appears on line and evaluate it. Is the writer reviewing, offering insight, setting something in context, inspiring the reader to investigate, to think, to question, or is it simply a paean of praise for a good night out? And what is a good night out?