Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

First Half of 2018: the Closing of a Unique Voice

Theatre in England: Comment

Lyn Gardner Fired , Guardian Media Group , July-02-18
Theatre in England: Comment by Lyn Gardner Fired A sense of proportion is important. If the arts councils all dropped theatre as an art-form, ninety-nine percent of those around- the passengers in the bus, the shoppers in the supermarket- would never notice. But the one percent, or half percent, or even less, who would notice would notice intensely. As with all minority pursuits, events that are in themselves small ricochet loudly. Lyn Gardner's announcement in May of her sudden firing after twenty-three years at the Guardian was a big event indeed.

For the newspaper it was not entirely out of character. Its arts coverage- although not books- has been shrinking for years. Her articles and weekly recommendations had been silenced a few years back. Coverage of performance of Wales by an informed local critic of Wales was got rid of six years back. But the corporate explanation was remarkable in its ineptness. “New voices” were needed for their arts coverage. Indeed. But the livelihoods of old voices were left unperturbed. Jonathan Jones on the visual arts and Peter Bradshaw on film have clocked up 19 years apiece compared with Lyn Gardner's 23. Theatre remains in the hands of Michael Billington with his Guinness Record Book 47 years.

The response to the announcement was fast and furious. Andy Field of Forest Fringe was first in for Exeunt on 9th May. Exeunt's prose is never light. But he homed in on what the presence of Lyn Gardner meant: “it is not about one person’s opinion, nor is it even about the potential boost in ticket sales that a positive notice might represent. It’s about the vital portal that she is able to open between your work and the wide-open spaces of our national, even international, cultural and political discourse.” Wide-open spaces is a careful phrase.

Maddy Costa followed a couple of weeks on. Her “Theatre Criticism and Circles of Power”, also on Exeunt 22nd May, was a 2400-word blast of critique and biography. She opened with a personal tribute. “For the whole of my adult life she has been a totem and a beacon, the example to live up to. Which made it quite weird when I joined the Guardian myself and spent the last four years of my 20s as one of her bosses. She always made her own decisions about what to review, but the theatre coverage I commissioned as deputy arts editor was undoubtedly influenced by her intrepid curiosity.”

“I had no idea what live art was until I started reading and talking to Lyn – and it took me a long time to summon the confidence she has naturally, to see this work for myself. Of course there are ways in which I wouldn’t be the person or the writer I am now if it weren’t for her.”

The article opened a rare window on how it is behind the scenes. “That time on the arts desk gave me unusual insight into Lyn’s working conditions: I saw the difference between the editors who appreciated her insight and care, and those who didn’t; I shared her frustration at the way Michael Billington operated as a law unto himself, refusing to collaborate as a team.”

Costa airs other aspects of the newspaper. Its liking for hiring the gilded children of powerful men has been well documented. Maddy Costa claims a pay bias against women, uses the adjective “toxic” for the corporate culture and recalls her own firing. But, while Lyn Gardner remained, “she has been the person visibly extending the parameters of what gets covered in a mainstream publication, and therefore shifting the cultural perception of what might be considered accessible to a wider audience.”

An open letter to the Guardian by Live Art UK read: “Through the remarkable depth and breadth of her theatrical knowledge, not to mention her indefatigable enthusiasm, she has enabled your newspaper to report on festivals, artists and performances that no other major paper has.” This letter of protest does not address GMG's corporate strategy. Minority theatre does not cut it when it comes to click-power.

Maddie Costa's article angrily conflates several things. Her own financial low rewards are one, along with an optimism that big media's retreat from critical coverage is opportunity for new modes. “Lastly I know this”, she knows this, “that the severing of Lyn’s relationship with the Guardian isn’t a disaster, it’s an opportunity...for theatre and funders … to stop relying on old media and think creatively about how they can support new platforms and critical voices both on a local and national scale”.

This is both utopian and woolly. “Support” comes in different forms. Invitations and press tickets are one thing. But criticism is such a slithery, halfway-house as a genre. Capital from both private and public sources will never come the way of online critics- at least not for criticism that is regular and trenchant. As for impact boards could not care less about bloggery. In fact both Costa and Field are emblematic of cyber-writing. Both are strong on their own territory of knowledge, fuzzy when they move to broader societal themes. Both lack the qualities that an editor brings. Those values are concision and precision.

At the end of all this tribute it must be said that the role that the Guardian has played in the cultural life of Wales is highly equivocal. Since GMG axed coverage by the knowledgeable Elizabeth Mahoney in the south and Alfred Hickling in the north, it has reviewed more theatre than other London publications. Lyn Gardner is the only critic, true to character, to have made it to the Other Room.

But a part- a necessary part- of cogent criticism is to view the thing-in-context. A critical presence that is part-present, but mainly absent, can not have a knowledge of context. The London critics' lack of knowledge of Wales is in the main profound. “Tiger Bay” stumped the whole lot of them. When they have reported from Wales, which was not often, the reviews of Sam Marlowe, Susannah Clapp, Clare Brennan were invariably more balanced, less partial, more clear-sighted.

Andy Field is at:

Maddy Costa is at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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