What are theatre critics for? And what are they worth? Critics have one view; playwrights and performers quite another. In the current New Statesman, the director Michael Bogdanov called reviewers `vicious, excretory, arse- licking and arrogant'. Here The Independent's chief theatre critic Paul Taylor has his say
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
I can understand the impulse to attack theatre critics. There are one or two I could cheerfully throttle myself from time to time. Just now, though, everyone seems to want to get in on this critic-bashing act. I think it would vastly amuse Jack Tinker, who was a lovely man and a very skillful journalist, to know that the interest in this category of person, sparked off by his untimely death, has landed the rest of us less mediagenic theatre critics in the spotlight and in the dock. Certainly, over the past couple of weeks, open season appears to have been declared on the Men (and the appreciably fewer Women) in the Stalls.

The attacks have come from all sides. The director Michael Bogdanov's boisterous New Statesman article is careful to leave no aspect of British theatre critics (our lack of technical training, our lack of vision, our not being German, etc, etc) unsavaged. But then, given the reviews he received for his recent Faust, it's not exactly a prostrating surprise to learn that we've been crossed off his Christmas card list.

The air has also been filled with the more salutary sound of dog eating dog. Matt Wolf, the American critic of Variety, has, both in print and on radio, taken London theatre critics to task for being softer and more complicit with the industry than their New York counterparts. A similar charge was made, among many others, in a thoughtful Spectator piece by Harry Eyres, who, in the late Eighties and early Nineties, was the third string critic for The Times.

The heir to the throne in Alan Bennett's Madness of George III remarks that being Prince of Wales is not a career but a predicament. It's not just in my more vainglorious moments that I feel the same could be said of my line of work. In trying to sort out which of the many recent charges have real substance and should give us professionals pause, it's worth looking at those distinctive features of being this kind of critic (as opposed to, say, a film or TV reviewer) which make it a particularly tricky, no-win business.

On a number of counts, theatre critics have a closer, potentially more incestuous relationship with the people they review than their counterparts in most other art forms. There is, for a start, the whole dubious business of First Nights when some critics like to feel as much a part of the event as the show itself. To sweep into the premiere of, say, The Mahabharata wearing a little something bought at auction from the wardrobe of Liberace would win you Brownie points from some folk who imagine that a theatre critic's duty is to be theatre as well as to write intelligently about it.

More important is the special power of the theatre critic. This is not just a matter of being able to close shows. A theatre piece, unlike a film, has the potential to be a work in progress (or regress) for the whole of its existence. That's the glory and the risk of it. A theatre critic's comments can therefore have an effect not just on the commercial viability of the show but on its nature and content. Witness the recent case of Martin Guerre, which has been radically rewritten and improved as a direct result of the negative critical reaction to the original version.

No wonder, then, that the theatre industry is so pathologically touchy about reviews or that it so frequently challenges critics with the question "Are you for us or against us?".

There can be no blanket answer to that query. The crucial point is that critics aren't writing for the industry but for the readers of their newspaper. A theatre critic had better believe, and believe passionately, in the value of theatre as an art form and as a vital part of our cultural life, but he's not obliged, if the evidence is to the contrary, to believe that any of the current theatrical institutions are safeguarding and promoting the art's best interests. The same is true of a political journalist writing about democracy in practice. Each case has to be judged on its merits. The softness/ hardness dichotomy is a deceiving one. After all, a well argued assault can be constructive: not biting the hand that feeds you but an attempt to improve the quality of the food that the hand is offering, not to mention the state of its fingernails.

To that extent, I fully agree with Bogdanov's contention that critics need to have cultural vision and to be proactive. I would add the point that we should expect more not just of our theatres but of our readers and assume that they will respond positively to theatre criticism that constitutes a play of mind and an ongoing argument about values as well as being a consumer guide. One of the reasons Jack Tinker was a remarkable theatre critic is not that he knew his audience well and played up to it but that he changed the mentality of that audience in all kinds of artful, witty ways. You can't tell me that a man who could argue the merits of a play called Shopping and Fucking in the Daily Mail was the obliging mouthpiece of Middle England.

What practical steps could be taken to improve matters? Well, I've long thought that we should switch to the American system whereby critics are allowed into the last few previews of a play, the resulting reviews embargoed till the morning after the First Night. Which, over there, is purely a social occasion. Critics need to see plays with "real" audiences. Stuffed with the celebrity friends of the show's creators, West End first nights tend to be a circus parade of stage-managed adulation. So when you see quotes like "The audience roared its approval" outside theatres, it's about as objective a recommendation as "Mafioso praises own family". In the American system, it would actually mean something.

The circus atmosphere and manufactured tension of some of the more newsworthy British first nights don't do the theatre people any favours either, since they can narrow a critic's response down to the bleakly mindless alternative of drawing blood or lobbing bouquets. Again, look at Martin Guerre. As the critical confraternity watched the improved version last week, it became retrospectively clear that there were latent merits in the original and that a truly considered critique of that show would have teased these out. But the reviews, pro and con, were overwhelmingly devoid of such commentary. Newspapers should pay unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and consign the Society Report to the news pages, leaving the critic time to think properly. After all, what you make of a play is a matter of how you feel straight afterwards and of how you feel the next morning. A review written the next morning can attempt to do justice to both experiences. Besides, as Ezra Pound once remarked, "Art is news that stays news."

I also think Bogdanov is right to say that we critics should extend our knowledge of the technicalities of theatre production. Not through sitting in on rehearsals, though, which would corrupt you with factitious empathy or through accepting invitations to direct, about which there's always too much the air of a stunt. On the other hand, if a group of theatres were to arrange for us critics a course of meeting with technicians, I'd sign up like a shot. It would be inestimably illuminating to be able to work out from which range of technical possibilities, a particular aesthetic choice has been made.

Finally, I'm all for critics being criticised, by name if necessary. To do so requires a certain courage of the critic of critics since, as the playwright Robert Mueller once remarked, a theatre practitioner commenting on critics is "in the position of a man in the pillory making faces at passers-by..."