The best critics are heartless, clear-eyed and not in the least compassionate

Helen Mirren said to see a bad review leaves actors feeling “angry and resentful and upset and disheartened”. But that doesn't mean critics should be kinder
  • @alicevjones

The pain of a bad review stays with you “forever… absolutely forever”.

So says Dame Helen Mirren, winner of four Baftas, three Golden Globes, two Best Actress Awards at Cannes and an Oscar. You have to feel for her.

There is a chance that the Dame is firing a warning shot across Fleet Street’s bows here. Her latest film Hitchcock is raising lukewarm buzz and she is about to return to the stage, playing the Queen in The Audience, for the first time in four years. Her last appearance drew the full gamut of reviews, from five star to one star. “The great Helen Mirren played Phèdre last night, and lost”, said one of the less enamoured critics. You see, that’s the problem with moaning about your bad reviews – people will automatically dig them out to read again.

The best actors pour their hearts into their work so to see a single star must leave them feeling, as Mirren says, “angry and resentful and upset and disheartened”. But does that mean critics should have more heart? Absolutely not. The critic must above all remain clear-eyed and, well, critical. Their job is to sift the cultural wheat from the chaff - a daily grind through the execrable, the exceptional and more often than not the extremely ordinary. They are instrumental in ensuring that the best performances get the widest possible audience. Equally they ensure that big names are not permitted to coast, selling tickets on the strength of past glories alone. However it might feel to the actor, there is nothing personal about it. Critics merely judge the performance in front of them. When it comes to theatre, there is rarely time to do anything else. With only 20 minutes between curtain call and deadline, preconceptions and petty point-scoring go out of the window. 

As for actors, if they are willing to scoop up the golden statues, they must also be willing to soak up the poisonous words. Accept the brickbats as graciously as the bouquets. And if Mirren really finds reviews as painful as all that, she should simply do what every other actor on the planet pretends to do - not read them.