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"Who guards the guards?" : A note on theatre criticism.

In Edinburgh, the dust is still settling on the Royal Mile. As the last performances of the 3,193 shows produced this year as part of Europe’s largest arts festival came to a close last week, the curtain fell on a sea of tired but elated performers, pundits, punch-lines and plaudits. Reverend Productions was not producing work this year, but independently I directed a show at Ghillie Dhu and our erstwhile Producer, James, also had a show on at the Merchant’s Hall, so we all travelled up to support and see some theatre.

Normally I plan my Fringe experience well in advance. I scrutinise the programme to within an inch of its life, then comb the city for flyerers with intriguing or outlandish pitchs. Like most Fringe regulars I listen to a network of friends, colleagues, technicians (who see – and hear – everything!), producers, promoters… and then, of course, once the whole thing is up and running, I turn my attention to the reviews.

No actor, I would hazard, ever comes to the end of a lifelong career entirely satisfied with his or her press. Theatre criticism must be – in some form – as old as the theatre itself, and whereas Sheridan’s The Critic may be among the more perceptive satires of the reviewer’s art, dramatists and dramaturgs have been preoccupied with their press since long before the advent of the printed newspaper. In the internet age – when, as they saying goes, everyone’s a critic – this preoccupation frequently manifests itself as obsession, such that it’s hard not to feel in constructing a play that you are setting out to please two masters: the paying audience and the critics who precede and, albeit subliminally, condition them to approach your work in a particular way.

There is a strange kind of symbiosis between press and performers. We court the critics, without whose seal of approval full houses seldom follow. But they need us too – we are their subject matter; their bread and butter. Brecht was firmly of the view that all theatre really needs is an actor and a spectator. Increasingly in the Western World the critic positions himself as the invaluable middle-man; the broker; the marriage councillor, reconciling suspicious punter with self-conscious entertainer. It is not uncommon for the curtain to be held before a press night opening because some particularly renowned reviewer is held up in traffic. At a festival as large as the Edinburgh Fringe, where audiences in single digits are far from unknown and where vast sums of money are staked on the off chance of a break, your reviews really matter. But who writes them? And how do we, the punters, read and interpret them?

In his book Great Moments in the Theatre the Times critic Benedict Nightingale acknowledges the inherently subjective aspect of his job. “Great theatre,” he tells us, “can be excellent or unforgettably bad or strikingly in between. It can doubtless be cathartic, whatever that means, and very occasionally it can be magical, whatever that means.” Glad we’ve cleared that up. He actually makes a very fair point, though: if the purpose of theatre is fundamentally to entertain (and I believe it is) then each one of us will respond to it in different ways depending on how we like to be entertained. Much as a Stanislavski-inspired actor will base his character choices in part on a set of ‘given circumstances,’ so too the given circumstances within which an auditor (or ‘spectator’ – for theatre is both seen and heard) receives those character choices will condition his or her response to the play as a whole.

And herein lies the challenge for the critic. How to report on a play in such a way as to best serve a reader whose given circumstances are as unknown to him as his would be to that same reader. What’s good for the goose isn’t always good for the gander (or, for that matter, the Nightingale). Just because a production inspires you with a sense of catharsis or magic, can you be sure that it is having the same effect on the person in the seat three rows in front?

So what makes a good critic? What qualities must they display? Objectivity is largely impossible in a medium designed to entertain, since as human beings we all find different things entertaining. Consensus and the test of time may identify great writers like Shakespeare and Sheridan as worthy of their place in a critical canon, but how do you evaluate a new piece, as it were, in a vacuum? Knowing, moreover, that your verdict may forever colour its future reception and longevity? These questions are especially pertinent in an environment like the Fringe, where much of the work on offer is unfinished; where experimental artists go to experiment; where vulnerable ideas are tentatively exposed to an uncompromising critical spotlight. We artists might be tempted to argue that a critic’s job is to support new and exciting ideas; but a critic also has an obligation to her public, to her editor, to her newspaper, and to her profession. If all criticism were positive in tone, what use would it be in helping a punter narrow down his list of options? On the other hand, if we empower critics to tells us what we should and should not see, don’t we dilute our own critical agency? And isn’t that a cop-out? How, after all, do they know what we, as individuals, are most likely to respond to?

I’ve heard it argued that a critic should have seen a lot of theatre. Fair enough, but are they then competent to reflect the interests of a theatre virgin? I’ve heard it argued that a critic should have a strong academic background. Fair enough, but doesn’t that risk academicising a visceral medium and excluding work which comes from a place of genius as yet unrecognised in academic circles (I ask this as an academic myself)? I’ve heard it argued that a critic need only be a good writer. Fair enough, but don’t they also need to evince good judgement? I’ve heard it argued that a critic need only be a good judge. Fair enough, but who, in turn, is the judge of their evaluative capacities? An editor? A newspaper proprietor? A corporate sponsor? Or – in the blogosphere – perhaps no one at all.

These are large and serious questions, and I hope to begin to answer some of them over the course of a lifetime in the theatre. For now, I simply ask, ‘who guards the guards?’ If we are content to base our theatre-going habits on the predilections of people we’ve never met, isn’t it worth finding out a bit about them first? And isn’t it worth, once in a while, taking in a show that’s been so universally savaged that you might find yourself the only person in the audience? You never know: depending on your given circumstances, you might just stumble onto genius.

Then again, maybe not.

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