How the critics are out of joint

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Anyone trying to decide whether or not to see the new Hamlet at Stratford on the basis of the reviews might be forgiven for feeling a little confused. The production, and Toby Stephens's performance, found no consensus; indeed, the traditional Jacobean-style production utterly divided the responses. John Gross, in The Sunday Telegraph, thought Stephens gave a "dashing performance". His colleague on The Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer, said Stephens was "charmless" and "dismayingly superficial". Quentin Letts thought it was "magnificent" and called it a "huge performance... which catapults Stephens into the very top league". Others strongly disagreed: Spencer called it "grindingly dull"; Nicholas de Jongh thought it "traditional, bloodless, sex-starved".

Not having seen the production, I can't say which of the views is right, or indeed whether either is justified. But in the face of such strong disagreement, the punter wavering on the booking line with his credit card is entitled to ask a couple of questions. If professional critics can come to such incompatible conclusions about a performance, then what, objectively, is any of it based on?

The lazy response to that is to say that, of course, it isn't objective; it is just a collection of subjective responses; one person's taste, printed by the papers. But that won't do, because, of course, if the opinion really is purely subjective, why should anyone else be interested in it?

The truth of the matter is that the opinions of critics do count for something, and do have a sort of objective status. We, the paying public - and as a very irregular attender of theatre, I'm probably more of a gawping amateur - can expect a properly informed response from the critics. They've probably seen Hamlet dozens of times, whereas I, embarrassingly, have only seen it once on stage. They can compare and contrast. They have probably seen a brilliant account of it at some point, and are less likely to be tempted into wild enthusiasm by the first remotely reasonable production they see.

That, at any rate, ought to be the theory, though it's been rather confused by the appointment of some very surprising people as drama critics, who don't always seem to know what it is they are watching, or whether it is very much like the play as printed on the page - one young man confessed in his review that he didn't know what happened in Much Ado About Nothing, and had to seek assistance at the interval.

From such a critic, one can expect very little. At the very least, the reader is hardly likely to find out how adventurous the director has been in his dealings with the text. In that situation, wild, unfounded enthusiasm and, conversely, savage condemnation of apparent innovations which in reality are by now perfectly conventional can arise in a most confusing way.

But, for some reason, critical opinion rarely divides in this sharp way. More often, the critics generally agree on whether something is worth seeing or not. I have to say, from the point of view of an audience mem- ber, that far from being excessively savage, as the profession at times thinks, drama critics as a whole genuinely love their jobs, and often roll over in paroxyms of joy at the remotest signs of talent.

They don't reach a consensus out of co-operation. Though drama critics do often see each other at the same event, they don't discuss their verdicts. Like the critics of pop music, who rarely see each other but also often agree, they simply come from similar backgrounds, with similar prejudices. Disagreement over a Hamlet is unusual; more ordinary is the across-the-board ecstasy that greeted Trevor Nunn's production at the Old Vic, which closes tomorrow - an ecstasy not shared, apparently, by all paying customers.

Whether this is good for the performing arts, I don't know. Although drama critics are open to new experiences, and are people with a high degree of curiosity, it is surely a healthier sign when they disagree sharply, as here, than when they all seem to like the same things. It's probably most unfair, but I'm not sure whether to go to the National's A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum - all the critics loved it, but all seemed to quote the same lines, which isn't a good sign.

As any publisher, theatre manager or gallery owner can tell you, the really helpful response isn't a pile of unalloyed raves; it is helpful to have a sense of some debate. The strong disagreement over Hamlet isn't that, exactly. But it's a relief, for once, to see that not all critics are, as they say, coming from the same place.

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