Theatre in Wales

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"Artists should have the same relationship to critics as birds do to ornithologists”

On Criticism & Critics

Director Advice on How to Treat Critics , Theatre of Wales , January 19, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Director Advice on How to Treat Critics Cultures, like individuals, are revealed by their fissures. A chapter in the theatre of Wales was inaugurated on 20th September 2018. There are three primary keys for deciphering its occurrence. One is the nature of the relationship with the writers of Wales. It was prompt for the article above, December 19th, in which ten directors of quality spoke about their expectations of critics.

Over this last summer-into-winter of retrospection I re-read a brace of books on theatre. They are riddled with critics and comments on critics, the tales that they record spanning both good and bad.

Peter Brook in “the Empty Stage” (1968) recalled the era in New York theatre of peak critic power. “It is the audience, year after year, that has been forced to elevate simple fallible men [sic] into highly priced experts.” A couple of pages Brook changes tone: “A critic has a far more important role, an essential one, in fact, for an art without critics would be constantly menaced by far greater dangers...our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense: but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary...the critic is part of the whole.”

In “Stage Blood”, (reviewed 8th January 2014), Michael Blakemore enters into an exasperated correspondence against Robert Brustein. It is an unedifying account that lasts over five pages of the book. The reviewer promulgates clear inaccuracies and is unrepentant. The director ends with “it was soon apparent I could never have won.”

Director Steve Marmion in “Getting Directions” (reviewed 6th November 2013) takes a view of considerable generosity: “Rightly or wrongly, reviews are the measure of how a show will be judged or remembered by those who were not there. And more often than not, reviewers are right.”

It is in truth rarely so decisive. It is only an art of simple-mindedness that will receive a reaction of single-mindedness. If a work contains complexity it will engender a variation of response. Variation is a prime indicator of an ecology in health. Michael Billington this last autumn found himself in a group of one when it came to Robert Icke’s rewriting of “the Wild Duck”. The most off-putting production that I saw in 2018 was gaudy and vacant. My view was shared by online commentators, members of the audience, while the production was adored by the London critics en masse.

John Caird’s compendious 797-page book was reviewed 26th November 2011. Its format is alphabetical and on page 183, between “Crew” and “Crossover”, he comes to “Critics.”

Caird’s book is written as an address to a young director.

“Critics do not have a direct relationship with you or with how you work. Their primary professional relationship is with their readers, who may or not may be members of your audience. Your relationship is with your audience, who may or may not be readers of any particular newspapers or its critic. Indeed, members of your audience may not read the critics at all. So, be very careful how you think about critics and how you imagine they might be thinking about you.

“By and large, they are an intelligent and professional tribe. They have their likes and dislikes just as you do, their prejudices, preferences and peccadilloes. But if you consider any of them as being beyond the pale, consider your own likes and dislikes…

“…There are good critics and bad critics, just as there are good directors and bad directors. Good critics will sometimes be mistaken and bad critics will sometimes get it right, whatever “right” may be. Either way theirs is a deeply subjective craft- just as yours is.

“Most critics take as much pride in their work as you do in yours. Do not make the mistake of judging their efforts by the same standards you use for your own. Indeed, you should avoid having any opinion about their efforts at all, especially where your own work is concerned. Just because they judge your work doesn’t mean you should feel obliged to judge their work in return.

“….If you read the critics at all, and there is a very good argument for letting them alone, read them as a collective statement. Do not believe the good and ignore the bad, or vice versa. If you bolster yourself with a good notice from a particular critic you will be all the more disappointed when the same critic reviews you negatively in the future.

“In any case, the vanity that derives from believing in a good review and the depression that derives from believing in a bad have exactly the same effect on your work in terms of distraction. You should be striving to invent your next piece of work, not dwelling in pride or shame on the last one or on some stranger’s opinion of it. As Picasso is said to have said, artists should have the same relationship to critics as birds do to ornithologists.”

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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