Where has the passion gone?

Theatre critics are deeply divided about their role, according to a new book. Critic turned playwright Clare Bayley <i/>calls her former peers to account
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Is a theatre critic's task to "convert people to the religion of theatre" or to act as a "consumer recommendation"? For British critics, the answer seems increasingly to be the latter. But whose side are critics really on? Is their ultimate responsibility to the theatre, to the readers, to their editors - or a mixture of all three?

Is a theatre critic's task to "convert people to the religion of theatre" or to act as a "consumer recommendation"? For British critics, the answer seems increasingly to be the latter. But whose side are critics really on? Is their ultimate responsibility to the theatre, to the readers, to their editors - or a mixture of all three?

These questions are raised in Who Calls the Shots on the London Stages? - a book of candid interviews with critics and practitioners by the Bulgarian critic Kalina Stefanova.

It is largely the fault of editors that criticism is becoming merely consumer recommendation - helped by star ratings replacing sustained analysis. It makes a serious theatre critic's job harder when there is pressure to produce headline-grabbing reviews - sneering condemnation or going for hype in the rush to spot "hot" talent. Reasoned criticism is considered automatically boring. But it is the critic's job to hold out for detailed responses to a complex art form. Critics themselves are complicit in this. When they belittle the form they live by, they ultimately humiliate themselves.

At bottom is the media mentality which believes that theatre is not as relevant as film, television or pop culture - or does not sell as many issues and has to justify its existence.

Depressingly, Stefanova's book reveals that some critics are buying into this mindset. The Evening Standard's Nick Curtis, now famous for his dismissive reviews, admits, "When I was younger I had a much stronger belief in theatre as being something potent, life-changing, and important with a capital 'I'. I'm now no longer convinced that it is that."

And he's not the only one. So much for the religion of theatre... and we thought it was only Church of England vicars who lost their faith. But is it healthy - for all concerned - to continue to write about something one no longer believes in? Step aside for someone who enjoys it, rather than staying and souring it for everyone else.

The director and writer, David Farr, identifies a dichotomy between older and younger critics. "The older generation instinctively sees theatre as central to our culture," he says. "Younger critics won't talk about theatre as a serious art medium. They question it all the time." Indeed, it's becoming exceptional to read articles giving an overview of British theatre which compare it to international drama and relate it to the rest of our cultural life. A few of the older generation do it successfully, and the better critics do it naturally throughout their reviews. But readers and theatre lose out when the job of a reviewer is just seen as a piecemeal response to individual shows. Critics should be advocates, interpreters and campaigners on a broader scale.

But all critics collude with the trivialisation of their role when they object to being thought of as "intellectual". "I see myself first and foremost as a working journalist rather than an academic, or as a part of the theatre scene. I don't have a lot of dogmatic beliefs or theories," says Charles Spencer of The Daily Telegraph, a view echoed by many of his colleagues.

In Bulgaria, theatre critics are academics and often practitioners too. Here, the fear is that this leads to "soft", reviewing, as if closeness to theatre might obscure "truth". In other cultural areas critics are expected to use specific knowledge to analyse their subject. Only in theatre criticism is too much knowledge considered to be élitist or thought somehow to impair judgement.

Practitioners want critics to know more about the process. Katie Mitchell, for example, calls for critics to come to rehearsals. It's disingenuous to pretend that a theatre critic is an ordinary Jo(e). How many other audience members see shows five nights a week, 50 weeks of the year? Why bother to pay to read the opinion of someone who knows no more than anyone else?

A critic must have a privileged inside view, a passionate expertise upon which to draw. Until they take pride in their knowledge, theatre will be demeaned. Production of theatre draws on academic and practical skills: so should the reviewing of it. This is not to say that all critics should be academics and practitioners, but those who are should not be ashamed of it. And those who are not might learn something by crossing over the dividing line between the two camps. Theatre is central to our culture, and critics are part of the artistic community. It's something to be proud of.  

'Who Calls the Shots on the London Stages?' will be published by Harwood Academic this month

Comments