Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

Critical Changes in Cardiff and London

On Criticism & Critics

Jafar Iqbal with New Site , Criticism of Wales , June 8, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Jafar Iqbal with New Site The ecology of theatre criticism continues to morph, and to thin. The Stage carries an opinion piece this week about London's Evening Standard dispensing with its theatre critics. It is a small thing for the theatre of Wales but the paper is there for pick-up on arrival at a London station. It has not a lot to it but the arts coverage stood out; the book reviews by David Sexton and the theatre writing by Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford are as good as the morning broadsheets.

The paper had better theatre writing than Time Out. Occasionally a review by Hitchings has sent me straight to a theatre. I am grateful to him for having provided the spur that led me to see Vivienne Franzmann's “Bodies”. Lyn Gardner's opinion piece had several points forcefully expressed. Between them Mountford and Hitchings have 27 years of experience”- an accumulated level of knowledge and expertise that allows them to put shows in context.”

That placing of art in context is crucial, one of the four elements in proper criticism.

The paper will continue to run theatre reviews- “presumably written by those who are on the staff of the paper. If that turns out to be the case”, says Gardner, “it rather plays to the mistaken idea that writing theatre reviews requires no skill whatsoever and that popping along to the theatre night after night is not a job but a perk for which reviewers should be grateful and does not require proper financial recompense.”

Lyn Gardner as ever is buoyant about the digital sphere. “But most of those people who now write tirelessly about theatre, and who are often writing about it with real insight and passion, are doing it for nothing. Every time a theatre criticism job is lost, it is likely to be lost forever. History tells us that when a publication cuts its theatre coverage, it seldom returns to former levels. That means many of those honing their skills as bloggers and going out night after night face decreasing opportunities to ever get on the ladder of paid work.”

She looks to the industry to pay. “That means that theatre needs to accept that it must support publications that are providing the reviews they value and not just expect to get content for nothing.” This feels utopian. Theatre is not an entity. It is composed of companies and has far more challenges and difficulties than finding the cash to pay for reviewers.

Money is the wellspring of a new critical site in Wales. “In 2008, fresh out of university, I realised I could get free tickets to the theatre”, writes Jafar Iqbal, “Free tickets, maybe a free drink, all for a 300-word review? I was sold! Eleven years later arts criticism is an important part of my life and, in recent years, its a role I'm synonymous with.”

“I've had the immense privilege of writing for publications such as The Stage, WhatsOnStage and Wales Arts Review, I've made television and radio appearances for the BBC, and I've directly influenced institutional change in the arts.” (The influences are not cited.)

“But what many people don't realise is that I get paid little or no money for this pleasurable but very time-consuming job. 2018 was my most prolific and profitable year: I reviewed over 50 productions and made a total profit of under £200. That is roughly £4 a review, though the actual figure is definitely lower.” For the record that is 5 times my own piece-rate income since 2007.

“All artists, companies, venues and arts organisations depend on critical feedback to guide their process - one can't function properly without the other. I believe I provide balanced, constructive, high-quality criticism; but in 2019, there isn't an organisation willing or able to monetise that hard work.” That is true; he has been Cardiff's best regular critic.

His solution is crowdfunding. “If enough people donate £1, I'll be in a position to bring more critics on board and pay them too. You won't just be helping one person, you'll be helping the critical landscape as a whole. That's pretty amazing. And depending on how much we can raise: who knows? This could be the start of something special, and you could be at the forefront of that change. All it takes is £1 a month.”

His claims to quality as a critic are well-founded., as instanced by “Crave”, “Louder is Not Always Clearer”, “How to be Brave” and others at:

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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