Theatre in Wales

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Reviewers who “do not know what they are talking about.”

Theatre: the Talk in England

Andrew Haydon, Michael Billington & Others , The Stage , June-30-16
Theatre: the Talk in England by Andrew Haydon, Michael Billington & Others Discussion of theatre is not often prone to ruffling or agitation. But a remark, probably spontaneous, gave vent to a small storm. The Stage of May 11th reported on it. The remark from the producer, in Andrew Haydon’s reporting, referred to “some bloggers.” The reference was to just “some” who “do not have the intellectual background or the historical background or time to know what they are talking about.” In fairness she was asking for more than a thumbs up or down. “What they are writing about is did they like it or not, which is not what I think a review should be.”

Nothing is ever wholly new. An article entitled “Are critics and bloggers on the same side?” was written by Lyn Gardner on 22nd August 2013. The comments that followed broke the rule in their civility. The other side of the argument can be seen in a article “2008: the Year When the Experts Lost the Plot”. The author was Richard Morrison, music critic of “the Times.” “The internet has been the main driving force, spreading the pathetic illusion that all knowledge (and therefore all wisdom) is accessible to all.”

There are three issues. Veteran critics are not happy. John Lahr believes that the result of the thinning of criticism in favour of features means that “if we see a play today, it’s usually in the context of no context.” “Michael Billington used the event to criticise the amount of online outlets not paying reviewers” writes Haydon. “You need to be paid” says MB “The appetite for criticism is as strong as it ever was. People still want to read a review, so we need to find some economic structure that allows it to be a paid profession. And I don’t know the answer to that.”

Here’s an idea. Start at home. Guardian Media Group, a vast media conglomerate, prefers to fork for out for rail ticket and accommodation to a critic rather than pay fifty quid to a young genuine new critical voice of Wales.

The second issue is the perspective of the reader. “I read a lot of reviews and find the main problem with the professionals” writes a contributor “is that they are restricted by space and often have to resort to the soundbites that are so disliked, whereas those reviewers doing for their own or other internet sites have the freedom, if they want it, to really go into a production and say exactly what they thought of the show.” Bloggery allows length even if it lets in a lot of uninhibited indulgence as well.

Some of the exchange is civil. “So, what should an ideal critic really have?” asks another. “I think only a talent for vividly evoking what they’ve just seen in a theatre. Sure, if they’ve seen a few other things, or read a few things, or have experiences of other art forms, then sometimes the odd comparison that illuminates the piece more for the audience can be nice. But all that comes with being alive longer and having just seen and done more stuff.”

A third voice: “Theatre, like all art, is created (usually) with communicative intent, and requires interpretation to some degree. Reference, context, etc, are all components of art that can only be translated by someone who has both sufficient knowledge and ability to do so – bearing in mind of course that the depth of translation required will vary from piece to piece. The bottom line is that a critical opinion is not just an opinion – it’s an informed opinion. Yes, that means that a measure of intellectual engagement will be required.”

It is the word “intellectual” that seems to be the invitation to rancour. A feisty voice from Cardiff in fact aims at a number of targets. First is an attack on the “good old days”. Those days when theatre could only be written about by a privileged, privately educated few.” This is simply off the mark. Harold Hobson, one of the two most influential critics of his generation, went to Sheffield Grammar School. John Peter, the critic who above all others travelled to Mold to pay witness to Terry Hands’ string of classical productions, was educated in public schools in Hungary. Tynan was at a direct grant school in Birmingham. Eric Bentley came from Bolton and the list goes on.

Fuzzy thinking thrives on dichotomies that are wholly imagined. “Amateur critics are not out to impress people with their fantastic knowledge or their rich CV of experience, they are responding to theatre in a pure, untainted way. They are only what they feel.” So there we are. The critics from London who were at the Sherman in a good group are in reality quiet, thoughtful and generous to a degree. Under assault they are impure and tainted. Professionalism itself becomes sin. “London-based theatre critics are viewing theatre from a narrow prism of opportunity…most of us out here in the real word [sic] are the true theatre champions.”

Writing on any topic asks for accuracy of scrutiny of the subject under view. “The days of the tweed-wearing, pipe-smoking, hoity-toity critics peering over their horn-rimmed spectacles are over…and they know it.” Harold Hobson, one of the two voices who shattered the theatre of tradition, was disabled from early age. James Agate was gay as is Nicholas de Jongh. Joyce McMillan is the esteemed leader of the critical pack in Scotland. Most of the best under-forties critics are women. If to be intellectual is to give a half-way attention to the world let there be more of it. As an assertion for the superiority of the digi-domain this sets the bar high for silliness.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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