Theatre Critic and Journalist

Sideways Glance Backwards

Sideways Glance Backwards

Well that, as they say, was the year that was. The tolling of midnight on Thursday will signal the end of my first calendar year of reviewing on a regular basis. Technically, I marked my year anniversary back in September, but somehow those first four months seem now like a warm-up to a different phase. They were a particularly transitional time, during which I went through something of a crisis (post-Edinburgh, of course) and gave up first acting and later theatremaking in toto. At the time, that felt like something extraordinary: not just a change of lanes, but one of destination. Now, it feels just about right.

Only in the past few months could I call myself settled. That initial rupture caused reverberations that took some time to calm: a new job, a new set of daily hours, a new set of time constraints. For those that don’t know – and there’s really no reason that you should – I spend my days working as an agent’s assistant at Curtis Brown, before donning my critical cap when daylight fades. Aside from affording me financial stability, the day-job has brought with it certain other benefits – in particular a far stronger working knowledge of ‘The Industry’s’ populace and processes – that will, I’m sure, prove enormously fruitful down the line.

However, this particular dusty corner of the internet is not about an agent’s assistant’s existence, but that of an aspiring critic and, if you’ll excuse the self-indulgence (what, after all, are blogs for), I will reflect accordingly.

In fact, the word ‘critic’ is one that I’ve been struggling with for a while. A few months ago, I read a reflexive piece by Ian Shuttleworth (though I can’t remember where to find it) about a particular Edinburgh festival in which he felt that he had graduated to the moniker of critic from that of reviewer. In other words, the simple act of reviewing does not a critic make. Where, I keep wondering, does that leave me?

Other people have used the c-word (settle down…) when referring to me, but in truth I still feel like a reviewer. A while back I wrote about the situation facing young critics and latched onto the notion of authority as key. The critic writes with authority, his or her individual view – though entirely subjective – comes with weight of experience and expertise. As such, it approaches that mythical, impossible thing that Hume termed the Standard of Taste. Quite simply, I don’t feel that I’ve yet got to that point.

I guess it’s worth toting up some figures: over the past twelve months, I’ve seen 176 productions – across a fairly wide range of forms – racking up, in the process, over seventy reviews and a handful of opinion pieces and musings both here and at the Guardian’s Theatre Blog. That’s a great deal more than I’ve experienced in any previous year, and it certainly elevates me above the average punter, but it nonetheless pales in comparison to the full-time critics. Shuttleworth himself recently noted on Facebook that his yearly total was 310, so I still fall quite some way short. Multiply that figure by the number of years that he’s been on the block and it’s going to be quite some time before I feel that I’ve achieved the grounding to believe in my own authority.

Lest that sounds like angling for reassurance, I ought to qualify. First, by saying that I believe I’m on the right track and second, by flagging up an admission of Charles Spencer made in conversation with Mark Shenton for The Stage’s podcast on criticism, during which he confessed to a frequent anxiety about having “got it wrong.” Perhaps it’s the arrogance and naivety of youth, or perhaps the negligible scale of the ripples that might emanate from my writing, but I don’t really share that concern. (I’ll admit to one such blip in the past year, having over-praised The Overcoat by Gecko, which turned out to fade from the memory far quicker than anticipated. A five star show should, I feel, burn itself irrevocably into one’s mind. That said, there have been a couple of very wayward blogs along the way.) But then, I suppose, that’s the thing about reviewing: if you can transcribe, or rather translate, your experiences of a piece with honesty and accuracy you’re bound to believe that what you’ve written is spot on. At least you do at the time of writing.

I came across this piece over at a blog called Time and Space (I think the author’s name is Chris Dupuis, but I’m not sure) and it got me thinking about my critical identity from a different perspective. In it, the author writes:

Writing a piece that tells someone whether or not they should spend money to take in a piece of art is not criticism and the people who pen these articles are not critics, despite the fact that the publications that they work for, in an attempt to grant them some level of legitimacy, assign them this title. While reviews can be humorous, insightful, and (especially when they are scathing) quite fun to read, they do not constitute critical writing and including them in this category diminishes the value and importance of actual theatre criticism.

Criticism, whether written about theatre or any other art form, is writing which is designed to accompany the work, NOT writing designed to tell people whether or not they should see it in the first place. True criticism is written under the assumption that your reading audience has seen or plans to see the work you are talking about and should inform the viewer’s experience of the work, not to place a value judgement on the work itself. That doesn’t mean that everything a critic has to say about a work is going to be positive, however the minute a critic starts telling their reader that they should or should not see a work, it ceases to become criticism and becomes a review.

The question, following the rationale of the blog, is about the nature of what I write? Am I writing reviews or critiques? In that, I think I’m somewhere between the two. Certainly some of the pieces that I’ve written along the way – particularly more detailed enquiries into, for example, Internal or autotheatro – fall into the bracket of criticism, as do my writings for the Guardian’s blog. (In fact, in these terms the Guardian blog might be taken as the most important critical forum in the UK.) By contrast, most of my writings about individual shows are, according to the above definition, reviews. These pieces are not written for a readership that “has seen or plans to see the work” in question. Nor, however, are they intended as mere recommendations.

The truth is that I find this distinction unhelpful. To delineate between the review as consumer guide and criticism as support material is over simplistic. At its best, journalistic (as opposed to academic) criticism, conveys a sense of whether a show is worth seeing – for any given reader and their individual tastes – without aiming directly or solely at such ends. Even ignoring the enforced, emblazoned star-rating, the critic’s enthusiasm for a show shines through the writing about. In other words, in the hands of a passionate critic, any writing will serve both as a (re)commendation and as a guide. The value judgement nestles inseparably within the description. It will mix information, personal preference, context (artistic and historical), intentions, results, quirks and much more beside. It is an easy ideal to uphold, but always just that: an ideal. And, given the constraints of space, time, inescapable subjectivity and ignorance, an impossible one at that.

And so, I find myself returning to some words that Alison Croggon posted as a comment beneath an entry about critics reviewing critics:

On the question of subjective experience, I take a rather robust view: I think critics are there as professional audients, and their job is to be, first of all, interesting, to respond as honestly and articulately to the work at hand as possible. Whether one agrees with a critic or not is immaterial; there are critics I adore whom I argue with all the way. The point is to be a catalyst for thinking.

Rather wonderfully, this makes the status of critic quite relative and, accordingly, allows for – or better ensures, for it shouldn’t be a chore – a never-ending need to become more authoritative. I hope that my writing is worthy of interest, but even if it is, I feel I’ve a long way to go in the experience and expertise stakes. But then, that’s fine as well, no?

One Comment

  1. Do you find that your eyes are growing more mole-like thank to your many hours in the dark? That is the true mark of a critic, I feel. Consider Billing-o: he has to wear jeweller's glasses in both eyes just to see the programme.

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