Why is it important?


Another morning, another angry-making article about theatre criticism. Today’s harbinger of doom is Tim Walker, recently axed former theatre critic of the Sunday Telegraph, bemoaning “a bloodbath among my fraternity” (what a telling choice of words there). You can probably save yourself the depressing read and guess the gist of what he’s complaining about.

Loathe as I am to treat Walker’s opinion with the seriousness that a response implies, there’s a grain of something in his article that I worry goes deeper. There’s plenty in it to get the blood simmering: the quoting of an anonymous theatre impresario’s dismissal of “young, spotty” critics, the barely veiled contempt for online writers, the suggestion that the Daily Mail “takes theatre criticism seriously” (ha!). As a young and, yes, often spotty theatre critic (my skin doesn’t seem to have received the memo that I’m 25), it’s hardly surprising that I’m a bit irked by it. But there’s one sentence in particular that had me fuming over my breakfast this morning:

“The fact is the serious newspapers and the theatres have the perfect relationship because the demographics of their respective clients are pretty much identical: middle-class, affluent, and, of course, getting on a bit.”

Is this what theatre criticism is supposed to be about? Selling pricey cultural products to the middle-class and middle-aged? Obviously, I don’t think so. But I worry that the picture Walker paints here is not solely his own. This, for many people, probably is what theatre criticism represents: something distant, cosy and irrelevant, hawking a few more tickets for that West End show with whatshername off the telly in it. And it’s not a kind of theatre criticism I really want to be part of.

Also slightly enraging, but on a much more manageable scale, were Sunday night’s Evening Standard Awards. Mostly I think of them as a bit of dressed-up silliness that might better be titled “Most Famous People on Stages This Year”, but it’s still irritating when some of the best productions of the last twelve months don’t even get a look in. Most of my Twitter feed was outraged about the lack of awards for Ivo van Hove’s production of A View From The Bridge, and understandably. Meg Vaughan, however, offered a challenge to those venting their spleen:

“What good is an electrifying night at the theatre if the only effect is to have us all up-in-arms when a bunch of self-serving capitalists on the ‘advisory panel’ at the Evening Standard Awards don’t recognise its greatness as we feel they should? Yeah, they woz robbed. Categorically. But if we can’t protest that decision with anything other than “But… but… but it was just THE BEST innit!” then it’s not worth fucking protesting at all.”

Later in the same post, Meg demands “Why is it important?” And I wonder if that might be a better way of thinking about both theatre and criticism. Why is it important? What does this work of art contribute to the world and my understanding of it? What relevance or impact does it have beyond the plush seats of the auditorium? Why, quite frankly, should anyone bother with this at all?

Because if theatre and the column inches it generates are only really of any interest to the “middle-class, affluent, and […] getting on a bit”, then we might as well hold the funeral now. If that’s the case, then it’s not just theatre criticism that’s dying, it’s theatre too.

Luckily, I think we can put the brakes on the hearse for now. When I look back over the last year, that question “why is it important?” still has an answer. Because an astonishing student production of Road – a play I previously associated (and not flatteringly) with GCSE Drama – made me really fucking furious about the legacy of Thatcherism and the coalition government of today. Ditto Beyond Caring, the washed-out, bleakly hyper-naturalistic aesthetic of which I still think of every time I get angry about zero hours contracts. Because I went on a protest march and found myself thinking about Hannah Nicklin’s A Conversation with my Father. Because I saw three other shows about activism that made me want to take immediately to the streets. Because This Is How We Die made me feel like I’d burst right out of my skin and still gives me tingles every time I think about it and everyone deserves an experience like that. Because I struggle to imagine any kind of therapy more effective than the morning I sobbed and smiled my way through Every Brilliant Thing in Edinburgh feeling as though it was made just for me in that particular moment. Because for a fleeting pause during Am I Dead Yet? I stared the thought of death right in the eyes.

I could go on. But the great thing is, I don’t really need to, because there are loads of brilliant critics out there writing about theatre as if it actually means something. As if it might just be important. And yes, there are problems for us to face and questions for us to answer. At the moment, I very much doubt that this blog or any of the other online platforms I write for reach any of the people who I really want to convince that this stuff matters. But acting as though it matters is a start. And if newspaper criticism as Walker sees it is just about serving a privileged, ageing minority, reinforcing in the process the idea that theatre is not really “for” the majority of the population, then perhaps it’s not such a loss.

7 thoughts on “Why is it important?

  1. HI Catherine, thanks for this excellent response. Re the “fraternity” thing — within my first six months of reviewing in London (UK), about seven years ago, a senior London theatre critic excused himself from a conversation with me before a theatre opening because he needed to go deliver a message to the other members of the Critics’ Circle, to whom he referred un-ironically as “the brethren.” Nauseating, infuriating – but also sadly reflective of the demographic and values of the mainstream field.
    In NYC the domination of mainstream criticism by men clearly still pertains; see the list of participants George Hunka mentions in his post about a theatre criticism event last week: http://www.georgehunka.com/criticism/whos-writing-and-whos-not-writing-about-theatre/
    It’s notable not only that there was only one woman amongst seven participants, but that Hunka does not see this as worth commenting on.
    I think we need to work to bring gender (and diversity more broadly) to the forefront of the ongoing dialogue about the changing face of theatre criticism. It is my observation that women are more present and active in the the online-critical milieu than the mainstream, and I’m curious why and what the effects of this are.
    Something of a tangent from the Walker conversation, but wanted to put it out there.

    1. Karen, I find it just as disheartening as you to find so few women in reviewing — but to be fair, Helen Shaw at Time Out New York, Miriam Felton-Dansky at the Village Voice, and other women are indeed active reviewers in New York; they just weren’t weren’t on the panel. (Neither was the New Yorker’s Hilton Als; if anything is concerning, it’s the lack of what are generally called “minority writers” in the theatrical critical community.) But as you say, this is a tangent.

  2. Until June this year I really hadn’t engaged with the twitter / theatre blogosphere – then for reasons to do not only with frustration with and growing resistance to other media, but also with an ever-growing, personal need to seek out more personally engaging productions and new plays quickly and assuredly, I found myself following a favourite name here, a new name there on twitter – writers, directors, producers – who quickly led me to the new breed of theatre critiics, online. Suddenly there appeared a shared, responsive world of seemingly like-minded, passionate arts obsessives, theatre freaks like me – and I’m still discovering their potential. Now I can be informed at will about the things and people and ideas which at core have constantly mattered so much to me. They increasingly fuel not only my theatre engagement and wider appreciation of performance and arts criticism but also add to aesthetic, community and political considerations. They are intelligent, talented, creative writers in their own right, with sharp wits and tongues and occasionally sharp teeth, you don’t need to cosy up to them and they can take a rebuttal if the need arises for dialogue I’m immensely grateful that they are writing about theatre, performance, contexts and sharing around criticism. It matters a great deal to me, particularly this year which has been astounding for the diversity and quality of productions and performers I have seen and needed to consider more AFTER performance. Despite terrible funding cuts to the arts they have helped make me hopeful. So I’m saying thankyou here to you and them and all those they follow and hope you all keep going strong.

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