The scent of blood

Kenneth Tynan famously admitted: 'A critic is a man who knows the way but can't drive the car.' The truth of that remark is about to be tested by a festival at London's BAC - in which four critics have been strapped into the driver's seat. By Sarah Hemming
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The Independent Culture
Next Tuesday evening, four critics will, as usual, attend the first night of a new production. This time, though, they will not be waiting to pass judgement, but to have judgement passed on them. The four - Michael Billington (The Guardian), Jeremy Kingston (The Times), Nicholas de Jongh (The Evening Standard) and James Christopher (freelance) - have all agreed to take part in a theatrical experiment. They have all accepted the invitation to direct a play.

The season, at BAC in Battersea, has already attracted intense media interest. When it was first announced, it made the 8 o'clock news bulletin on Radio 4's Today programme: civil unrest in Albania; poisoned water in southern England and critics on stage in south-west London. Attention focused, inevitably, on the appealing idea that the critics might be given a taste of their own medicine. As four theatre directors have agreed to review the critics' efforts in the papers they write for, there is the tantalising prospect of reviewers being cut to the quick with their own most acid phrases.

But aside from the immediate, bear-pit appeal of watching critics and directors draw blood in public, the season opens up interesting questions about theatre reviewing in this country, about the role of critics and about what they might learn from such an experiment. The assumption generally made is that critics and theatre practitioners are at loggerheads - a view fuelled by director Michael Bogdanov's recent tirade against reviewers in the New Statesman. The truth is rather more complex than that. Of course, there are colourful reports of directors and playwrights punching critics in the bar; but equally there is the fact that when Jack Tinker, The Daily Mail's critic, died suddenly earlier this year, the lights were dimmed in West End theatres - a mark of respect accorded to only a few theatre practitioners.

Lawrence Ellman, who is producing the season, has been an actor; Tom Morris, artistic director of BAC, has been a critic: both hope that the season will help foster understanding on both sides of the footlights. "I have always been baffled by the supposed hostility between critics and practitioners in Britain," Morris says. "You don't find it elsewhere in Europe and I don't think it really exists here."

Hostile or not, there is certainly a barrier that is not habitually crossed by many these days. Yet the literary pages of our newspapers are full of poets reviewing poetry books, novelists reviewing novels and biographers reviewing biography. So why not directors criticising new plays? Michael Billington points to an essential difference: "If you're a literary critic, you're a wordsmith reviewing another wordsmith. The performing arts are different - the dance critic doesn't have to be a dancer, the opera critic doesn't have to be a great tenor."

Stephen Daldry, artistic director of the Royal Court and soon-to-be-critic (he is reviewing Nicholas de Jongh's production for The Evening Standard) suggests that the British critic is more of a public ombudsman than his European counterpart: "You are guiding an audience that is not wrapped up in the profession. It is a personal opinion based on being a member of the audience, not a member of the profession. The audience-based idea of a reviewer is very different from the intellectual take that, say, the Parisian papers adopt."

In such a climate, is intimate knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the subject helpful to the critic? You don't need to know how to bake a cake to know whether it tastes good, so does the same not apply to theatre? Might too much inside knowledge render our critics too specialised, too indulgent or too bland? Might they be too compromised to be honest?

Clare Bayley, who is both a critic and a playwright, found the combination impossible to begin with - so much so that when she wrote her first play she gave up reviewing for a while. "I remember people telling me 'You've got to choose between the two camps' and I had a period of loss of nerve," she recalls. "Now I feel more at ease with it. The attitude of the theatre establishment has changed. With the first play the feeling was that I was just a critic and what the hell was I doing writing a play. Now they realise I am serious about it."

She is adamant that such a crossover is fruitful: "If we lived in the kind of culture where it was acceptable, it would be ideal. If critics and artists could see themselves as part of the same community, after the same ends - the best possible development of the art form - there might be a more genuine exchange of ideas rather than a feeling of defensiveness on both sides."

So what gains are the critics-turned-directors likely to make? Alan Strachan, who directs and reviews, thinks it will add to their understanding of theatre as a synthesis of disciplines. "Theatre criticism tends to be a form of literary criticism, perhaps because the text is so paramount in our tradition. It might help critics to understand better exactly what lighting, design and movement contribute."

"It's bound to make us more aware of the technicalities of theatre," agrees Michael Billington. "We're bound to know more about lighting; we couldn't know less."

Two weeks into rehearsal, Billington has already noticed a difference in his attitude to the plays he reviews. "The other day I was reviewing Peter Hall's production of Waste and I started to question his positioning of the furniture. I think it will make us more aware of things like that. We may become more rigorous critics. I don't think it will make us kinder; I think it will make us more analytical."

Billington has realised how intensely the director has to analyse the text: "That for me, is the interesting paradox: people tend to think of criticism as an analytical business and acting as an intuitive business. But I'm discovering that staging a play is more like dense practical criticism - and critics often depend much more on intuition. If you're a critic, you're a quick-change artist; if you're putting on a play, you're an obsessive."

Although Billington has directed a few times before, rehearsals on his double-bill of Strindberg and Pinter for BAC have already taught him a great deal. "I've learned how wrong my initial approach to directing had been. I thought the thing was to get the play moving on the first day and by the end of the first week to have a sort of pattern. Then you could start to probe into what it was all about. Now it seems to me that's totally wrong. I learned from the actors that what you've got to do first is find out who these people are and why they are saying these lines."

The Times' Jeremy Kingston has also found his critical perceptions sharpened. "It's perhaps made me more alert to the physical movement around the stage, to why it was done, how cunningly it was fitted in and how persuasive it is - or not."

And Kingston's experience as a critic has also contributed practically to his production. The play he is directing, Michel Tremblay's Albertine in Five Times, has five actresses on stage who each represent the same character at different ages. The key to staging it came to him from his memories of a fringe production. "It could have been played end-on with each person given a slice of the stage like a sort of cassata ice-cream. But I was very struck by a production of The Weavers at the Gate theatre, in which the audience peered down into a pit. So I asked the designer, Ti Green, if we could have something similar."

All this extra sensitivity is probably very beneficial, but as Michael Billington points out, there is far more to being a critic: "It's not just about having perception, it's about being able to express that perception. The bottom line is that the critic has to be able to write clearly and intelligently and it's no use having detailed inside knowledge if you can't do that."

This is a truth that will no doubt be borne in on the directors who are taking the return route. They have an even steeper learning curve to undergo, of course, since their education will take place on one night. Stephen Daldry, who faces writing an overnight review for The Evening Standard will experience all the joys of filing copy when most people are relaxing with a post-show drink.

"I think it is really difficult," he admits. "Even with some of the shows we stage at the Royal Court I think, 'How are they going to write about this? I don't know how I would write about it.' I imagine it is very stressful to communicate what you feel in a way that is interesting to read, to tell the readers what experience they are likely to have and say whether you thought it was a good or a bad experience. Tricky."

Clare Bayley thinks that a little experience on the other side would be good for many critics and directors. "Theatre practitioners often get away with being very bitchy and dismissive of other people's work, but they don't have to go public. They might see what a big responsibility it is. The critics on the other hand might learn how frustrating it can be and how hurt actors can be by reviews. It might just make them think about how they phrase criticism. And they may love doing it and get an injection of energy and enthusiasm. That can make you a harder critic - you're hardest on the things you love most."

And even if, as many perhaps secretly hope, the critics receive a panning in the press, Billington thinks it will have been worthwhile. "I don't think it's a gimmick. It's a modest experiment taking place in Battersea in which critics have a go at directing. We're not trying to take over the jobs of Richard Eyre, Adrian Noble, Trevor Nunn et al. And we're not putting our jobs on the line either. I hope".

'The Critics - Up for Review': 8-27 April at BAC London, SW11. Booking: 0171-223 2223