Theatre in Wales

Commentary and extended critical writing on theatre, dance and performance in Wales

Critical Codes

David Adams looks at the problems of critical writing in Wales

It cannot have escaped anyone interested in theatre (or, indeed, the arts) that media coverage of the subject is in crisis. There is in Wales very, very little professional print criticism (compared, say, to film or sport), ironically at a time when theatre in Wales might be seen to attracting some kind of international attention (Deep Cut, Eddie Ladd, Earthfall, Mark Rees, Volcano etc) even if it seems to many of us it may also heading into terminal decline. The Western Mail, the “national newspaper of Wales” has dropped its weekly reviews pages and instead carries the occasional criticism in its “Coffee Break” section in the main part of the paper (!): the reason, I am told, is economics – the paper can only rarely afford to pay critics, so what rare reviews they do publish are likely to be by staffers who fancy a night out at the WMC or New Theatre. I am told by the arts desk at the Western Mail that only “important” productions will be covered; by “important” I assume they mean not innovative, not new companies, not TIE, not international work, but theatre with which the arts desk is familiar.

At the same time there has been a small explosion of theatre commentary – on the web and by non-professional critics. (I wrote on the theatre-wales site about the phenomenon a couple of years ago.)

What this means is that the great majority of theatre commentary in the media is contributed by people with opinions, with agendas, with the desire to see themselves “in print”, often with friends in specific productions. Blogs may or may not be interesting, or provocative, or even useful, but they are usually written by a contributor with a particular reason for posting the comments. There may be the odd impartial critical commentator whose contribution is as valuable, perceptive and informed as we’d demand from a professional (as has happened on this site) – but they run the risk of being denigrated, abused and humiliated by other contributors to the extent that they are deterred from ever posting a review again (as has happened on this site).

And should you think that serious, responsible theatre criticism is not necessary to the development of theatre in Wales, think again. Theatre is an ephemeral, once-only event that without some published record and commentary will become invisible. Indeed, a lot of theatre happens in Wales without any record of it ever having taken place, or at least without any impartial evaluation of its value, and increasingly so. Any criticism is about putting into cultural context and informed judgement, and theatre criticism is no exception. But theatre criticism also gives permanence to a performance; good theatre criticism is a document of record but also tries to capture the ephemeral nature of theatre performance, making it real (rather than just a memory for those who were present) by describing it, examining it, interrogating it, analysing it, contextualising it, evaluating it. Theatre criticism, whether it is favourable or unfavourable, descriptive or analytic, subjective or objective, is proof of life. (All this I discuss at length in a Last Word rant in the latest New Welsh Review.)

Most professional critics are worried not because their jobs are at risk but because the profession is being brought into disrepute and because they care about theatre and realise the importance of responsible criticism. The Guardian blog pages a little while ago carried an opinion piece by one Andrew Haydon, who wrote opposing a plan to establish an international code of critical ethics as regards theatre criticism. Mr Haydon had it seems just been on a young critics forum organised by the International Association of Theatre Critics (of which I am a member) and had discovered the IATC’s ongoing project to formulate such a code. This, he thought, was a nasty non-UK plot to expose the peculiarities of what he saw as Anglo-American practice like freedom of expression (regardless of personal offence), lack of interest in the production values, unrestrained subjectivity, and so on. To be fair to British critics, I suspect many would deny Mr Haydon’s assertions, which is why Michael Billington, for example, is regarded as the doyen of theatre critics all over the world.

Ian Shuttleworth, the head of the British section of the IATC, replied to Mr Haydon but also indicated some reservations about an ethical code – some of which I share, such as its prescriptive clauses – but hinted that the current draft was over-influenced by a French-Canadian code (and pointed out that the secretary-general of the IATC is French-Canadian) and that the IATC as a body consisted mainly of “scholastic” critics. Both allegations are wrong. The most recent draft is based on one from the current president, who comes from South Korea, itself based on the previous (and initial) one from his predecessor, who is British. And while there are some academics in the organisation, most of the ones I know are practicing critics for either newspapers or magazines (and, indeed, for websites in countries where online journalism is organised in much the same as print – ie quality-controlled, professional, paid-for, etc).

In fact I am one of many IATC members concerned about some of the draft codes that IATC have been circulating – but they are drafts, and we on the executive committee will be discussing the latest proposals next month. When they are published, they will have been rigorously examined and amended by practising critics from Japan to France, from South Korea to Sweden, from Portugal to Serbia, from Canada to Wales, so that all the cultural and practical problems will be taken into account.

But in this age of the possible immanent death of criticism I for one believe that a body like the IATC is the only organisation which can reassert the need for theatre critics – and the need to have responsible critics who do not abuse their privileges. It has been suggested that there could be a kind of “kite mark” standard, perhaps simply a note indicating that the critic is a member of the IATC, much as accountants, builders, dentists and others do; however, that may work for those that know the IATC but for others – readers of this site, for example - there may have to be something more explicit. Like an assurance that the contributor has signed up to some sort of code with which it would be difficult to disagree, something which says “I don’t have any vested interests, I’m not taking any backhanders, I haven’t just lifted this from the internet….” and so on. In other words, some sort of stamp of authority, of credibility, of reliability.

I suspect that the knee-jerk reaction from Mr Haydon (and probably other minor UK critics) is based to an extent on the phrase “code of ethics”, which implies some sort of moral responsibility on behalf of the critic, much as city financiers recoil from the idea of more regulation. Any code would not be to impose moral authority but to establish an accepted standard of behaviour. To obviate this objection, I’d suggest a “code of practice”.

This wouldn’t be a prescriptive set of rules on how to behave, much less how to approach a theatre performance, but a clearly articulated list of what should be obvious and what long-term critics have learned through training or experience (perhaps without which they would not have held down their jobs or maintained respect).

The test of any such code is whether it works. Would it weed out corrupt reviewers ? If a writer continually breaches the code, will they be excluded from IATC membership ?

And what do I mean by a code of conduct ? Well, here are some suggestions which are surely indisputable:

Critics should (in no particular order):

• avoid prejudice
• be honest
• resist pressure or control
• not express personalised or offensive comments
• be accurate
• not plagiarise
• not seek to ingratiate themselves
• not accept bribes or favours
• show respect for theatre practitioners and fellow critics
• not bring the practice into disrepute

Obvious, isn’t it ? We all make mistakes, but any critic who constantly breaches any of these really can’t be trusted.

author:David Adams

original source:
06 March 2009


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