Theatre in Wales

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Are Critics and Bloggers on the Same Side?

Theatre: the Talk in England

Critic and Commentators , The Fringe , September-03-13
Theatre: the Talk in England by Critic and Commentators Ten years on from the tech bubble and the Internet is turning out to be not quite the transformational flattener as wildly forecast. Taking the historical view its impact, outside certain sectors, is looking rather less, say, than the invention of tarmac. But media and music- and retail to a lesser extent- have been turned upside down. At their peak of employment two thousand cartoonists worked full-time in the American newspaper industry. The number now is forty.

The wholesale dismissal of its entire arts staff by the Independent on Sunday prompted a Guardian article, not the first, on 22nd August “Are critics and bloggers on the same side?” It prompted an enlivened brace of responses, characterised by a great deal more sense and seriousness than the usual knee-jerk, oft flippant and bile-filled flood that is a norm of reader feedback. Good though it was, it passed on one important point.

The twenty-five comments included, rightly, a complaint about bloggery’s descent to “unargued opinion”. A fiery playwright, a good one as it happens, posting as "Riverman" fulminated against “a coterie of theatre studies graduates bigging each other, and their favourite writers.”

A third comment made welcome to the sheer efflorescence “the more critics the better - online and in print - because then there's a chance that the law of averages will enable the good work to emerge through the clamour.”

The occasion was the Edinburgh Fringe, bigger than ever in 2013, and the retreat of the professional press. Lyn Gardner used to reckon on six shows a day for three weeks but the number of shows reviewed by the heavyweight press is a shadow of what it once was. The footwork is now done by the amateurs for “Broadway Baby” and all the other daily freebies and updates.

The newspaper buyer might be entitled to read “print is hugely constricted by space” with a small degree of scepticism. Arts editors seem to have no problem in finding space for features, extras and background material, few of which appear untouched by the PR industry.

Sour, broad-brush dismissals are inevitable: “criticism is essentially parastical” and critics “should be hated as much as bankers and politicians”. The Internet does attract small and hateful minds. The last of the contributions, however, mingles respect for the genre with a soberness of experience.

First: “Arts journalism is, when done well, an art in itself but an art with a very valuable purpose beyond the aesthetic for it allows those of us with experience and knowledge to scream to the high heavens about which shows and performers the public should be seeing (or avoiding) and - most importantly - why.”

But the writer continues with a dose of reality “going by my inbox, it seems that many Fringe performers (comedy, theatre, music etc) see a reviewer as little more than a meat puppet to sit there and hand out stars. They don't seem to want a critic. Just turn up, give us something we can stick on our flyers as free promotion and be on your way…The standard of criticism across the Fringe has dived in the last few years across all categories. And not just in the blogs/websites. Both the Scotsman and the Daily Telegraph need to look hard at themselves if they feel they like championing quality criticism in the future and the Guardian and Independent's blinkered approach to the Fringe is not something to be proud of.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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