Tuesday, 26 June 2007

The Critical Debate Continues…

Gosh, everyone wants to have a go at our esteemed theatre critic fraternity don’t they? From Nick Hytner calling them dead white men, then withdrawing it, to the general position of the newspaper critics in the brave new world of the blogs, the paid critics lot is not a happy one (apart from the very fact of being paid to go to the theatre in the first place). As you may have seen from several of my earlier posts, I think that some of this criticism has been unfair (certainly to write off a whole group because of age/sex/race is not on in my books), and that a more gentle approach to the subject might get better results (i.e. directors should probably not worry quite so much, or get as excited as Hytner did, and concentrate on their actual work). As for the vexed question of appreciating new forms in theatre, I do think our critical friends have some way to go, but a purge to create intellectual purity or conformity is equally as abhorrent to me as censorship is. People are entitled to their views, and we should respect those with deep knowledge and years of experience, instead of routinely rubbishing them in favour of the flavour of the month or the cult of youth just for the sake of it. On the matter of the web diluting the critics power, maybe, but specialist blogs talk to particularly interested people anyway, and the wealth of choice might make the seemingly reliable newspaper reviewer the one people to turn to for a simple and more straightforward view (read any number of blogs whose authors you know little about, or seek out a veteran newspaper critic?).

Anyway moving on from all that, the renowned theatre lover AA Gill has stuck his oar in and generally called the critics useless idiots (see article here: http://entertainment.timesonline.co.uk/tol/arts_and_entertainment/stage/theatre/article1961473.ece). Gill seems to want some kind of intellectual yet highly entertaining criticism to emerge, a phalanx of modern day Tynan’s are required in his view. Whilst I very much enjoy Tynan’s work (I’ve just read a book of his reviews), newspapers are different now, which is the fault of the public and the editors. The critic can’t go into an intellectual treatise in 300 words (or less), and most newspaper readers wouldn’t be very receptive to them if they did (perhaps exempting one or two of the more serious papers?). That begs the question, are theatre reviews for the general reader or only those particularly interested in theatre? On the whole I would say the latter, with only big hyped shows (like Lord of the Rings last week) making it into the mainstream and even popular conversation. Those kind of events are not frequent and the discussion isn’t exactly about the quality of drama onstage, more like a gossipy report of an event (‘the orcs did this’ or ‘Gwyneth got naked’ etc).

But back to Gill, in his desperation to say that his kind of criticism (TV and restaurants) is modern and relevant, as well as entertaining, he uses the fact that some of the critics are a bit scruffy and don’t clap at the end of performances as planks of his argument. He is also very annoyed by the fact that critics sit on aisles for some reason, he’d supposedly like to see all central aisles removed just to show those dammed critics. Frankly for Mr Gill, an ultra refined habitué of The Ivy and other posh restaurants, to complain about the tardy dress sense of the critics is laughable. Who cares what these people, who are working remember, not on social outing, wear? Will better dressed critics make better writers? Presumably Gill’s snobbish answer would be yes (heaven forbid that Gill would ever wear ‘comfy shoes’, he’s a man who clearly suffers for his fashion).

He also tosses aside the experience of the critics, but imagine his horror if some upstart tried to review a restaurant without an understanding of food and the restaurant business. I think they’d get short shrift to say the least.

Gill also seems to place an immense duty in the art of criticism. Whilst I do think critics are important, the really important people and the driving force are the artists (occasionally in conjunction with the public). But Gill as a critic himself wants to make his job a lot more important than it is. When did a TV review ever leave you shattered like great documentary can, or a restaurant review make you salivate like a superb meal? Same with theatre, the critic is essentially a journalist (and yes, they should be entertaining/compelling and relevant too, just like any good journalism). The problem with Gill is that he writes amusingly before he writes about his subject, he is the story not the restaurant, TV show or play, but AA Gill.

He then goes on to give examples of the crimes of critics, citing their reviews of The Sound of Music last year. I personally really enjoyed the show and could relate to some of the joyous saying of the critics. What the hell is so bad about honestly enjoying a show, and we’re talking a big West End musical here, not Gogol, and saying so. They were not writing in a Victorian periodical, but in modern newspapers, writing for many a reader who will have watched ‘How do you Solve a Problem Like Maria’ on TV and want to see how Connie had fared (the virtues of reality shows for theatre casting is debatable, but certainly good box office). Thus the critics did exactly what they should have done, delivered their relevant opinions about a show to their readers. Now if Billington has gushed in quite the same way for Rory Kinear in Philistines I might be worried.

Gill says that ‘Drama exists in a closed museum of nostalgic experience’. If so, and I don’t think that is true, is that only the fault of the critics? He rightly points out that commercial theatre is doing very well indeed at the moment (which for financial reasons can be Innately conservative), but so is more innovative work (on a smaller stage, granted) and there are lots of interesting writers out there. But smaller scale work is not ever going to be the realm of the popular critic, but there is good serious minded (and entertaining) writing about such things, should you be interested enough to look (which you can so easily now, in the digital age). You misunderstand what a national newspaper critic is to think they will be particularly cutting edge (I’m talking about certain papers here).

I personally would like to see a slightly more forward looking and diverse bunch at the helm of the critical ship, and also more space for reviews and articles on theatre to be seen in the national press. But Gill is attacking for the sake of it, and proposing no constructive way forward (and frankly this is a much bigger question, encompassing society today and what and how we want our information).

By the way, the fabulous people who attend the first nights with you Adrian, are generally backers of the show and minor celebs; they have a vested interest in cheering the show to the rafters. Some of us humbler people actually walk out quite soon after the end of a play if we didn’t much like it, but we do that at ordinary performances, not the oh so special first nights (no fat people to offend your eyes at those?).


Statler said...

I think your comment on Gill's over inflated sense of the importance of critics in general really hits the nail on the head. His emphasis on reviewers as journalists also confuses me greatly, as I would tend to class them more as news reporters whereas he clearly wants them to be columnists.

Th other aspect that has crossed my mind on this debate this morning, is that a lot of the things that he says are missing from reviews (some of which I can agree with) are actually covered - but in theatre feature articles rather than reviews. I do often see fairly in-depth analysis of plays in well written pieces including interviews with writer/director/cast, it's just that it's in advance of the play opening. Much safer from teh productions point of view as teh play can't be panned in it and it gives them pre-show publicity to boost sales.

Thanks for a good take on the whole fuss.

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