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Features Essays Published 25 November 2012

Interrogating Criticism

How is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?

Catherine Love

The Bush Theatre’s interrogation of today’s critical landscape, part of its RADAR festival of new writing, began with a question: “how is critical discourse keeping pace with contemporary theatre?”

As Andrew Haydon hinted at with the title of his contribution – “interrogating the terms” – the framing of this question already invites certain kinds of responses. There is an assumption that critical discourse needs to keep pace with that which it critiques, and an implication that it might be dragging its heels. There is a bias towards the pairing of “critical discourse” and “contemporary theatre” that might unintentionally elide audiences. And importantly, it’s just one question among many that might be asked of the theatre criticism of the present moment and its relationship with the work that is being made.

Chaired by Selma Dimitrijevic of Greyscale, the Platform invited possible answers to this question from Sean Holmes, Ramin Gray, Andrew Haydon and Maddy Costa – two theatre-makers, two critics (or, as they increasingly identify themselves, writers-on-theatre). Perhaps unsurprisingly, it took mere minutes for the small phenomenon of Three Kingdoms to raise its head. This one particular production, which cleaved opinion into (broadly speaking) two camps, has felt like the hinge around which critical discourse has turned this year. It acted as the catalyst for some of the most exciting and impassioned criticism of recent months, and through the discussion that surrounded it there emerged a critical community of the kind that did not seem to exist prior to the event.

Sean Holmes, however, identified something else in Three Kingdoms. He identified a hunger in theatre-makers and audiences, a hunger that was not being satisfied and that Three Kingdoms fed. He also dared to voice the thought that “maybe theatre in this country isn’t as good as we tell ourselves it is”, and that maybe that has something to do with a fear of critics and their possible responses. As Chris Goode recognised at Dialogue (another event dissecting contemporary criticism) in his analogy of the child holding up a painting for the approval of a parent, the haunting presence of the critic’s potential reaction can both influence and inhibit makers.

There is a fear, Holmes continued, that if critics might not understand then it could harm the work. The “mind-blowing” aspect of something like Three Kingdoms, a characteristic of the production that emerged through much of the vocabulary used to engage with it, is just too dangerous. But Holmes closed by shifting the emphasis back to those hungry audiences, who he suggested don’t care that their desires aren’t reflected in mainstream criticism. In all this talk of keeping pace, perhaps it’s the audiences who are really one step ahead.

Andrew Haydon continued in this thread of questioning the notion of “keeping pace”. First of all he asserted that, far from lagging behind, critical discourse is often ahead of contemporary theatre. Or, in his words: “if we’re picturing this in terms of a race – as the question seems to invite us to – then, most of the time, the critical discourse is standing-about having a bit of a natter while contemporary theatre runs backwards and forwards over a very small section of the track from about 50 years ago”.

But he also expressed concern that a critic’s principle responsibility might be to keep up, when of course staying apace of what theatre is up to is not the same as endorsing it. There might be the odd “mind-blowing” show like Three Kingdoms, but most of the time it’s a difference of taste rather than a lack of understanding that influences poor reviews – a difference of taste which will by no means necessarily be shared by audiences. Which then, as Holmes suggests, places the onus back on theatres and makers. Haydon’s final point was something of a provocation: “theatres should stop blaming their own timidity on the imagined tastes of old men and ignore them”.

It felt as though, by design or not, the evening’s talks gradually built towards a rejection of the artistic influence of the mainstream critic, culminating in Ramin Gray’s distaste for the journalistic agenda that guides theatre criticism in Britain. Unlike in Germany – a theatre culture that Holmes, Haydon and Gray all share a self-confessed enthusiasm for – where there are a number of journals and magazines in circulation whose primary focus is culture, theatre criticism in Britain is the preserve of the broadsheet newspaper. As such, newness and perceived “significance” are prized above all else; Gray depicted the critic as “prowling the savannah”, sniffing for a scent of novelty or newsworthiness.

The links between newspaper journalism and criticism present other dangers. In a culture that insistently attaches star ratings to productions and in which the key aspiration is to navigate a path first to the West End and then to Broadway – a rags to riches trajectory that the media cannot resist – the commercial imperative is king. There’s also the bias inherent in a paper’s editorial tone, which can infect the tone of reviews and neglect aesthetics in favour of politics. What all of this produces, according to Gray, is a race in which theatre is constantly running too fast in order to keep up with the critics and their fetishising of the new. From Gray’s perceptive breakdown of mainstream criticism’s journalistic tendencies, a picture emerges of a model that is irreversibly broken.

Maddy Costa closed with a vision of a new alternative. Asking the question that seemed to sit behind all of the other contributions – “what are we afraid of?” – her focus was on a mode of criticism that engages in a dialogue with artists. Drawing heavily from her own experience in Chris Goode’s rehearsal rooms and the “playspace” that she and Jake Orr are currently creating through their Dialogue project, Costa questioned and challenged the collective anxiety that seems to haunt the idea of critics being invited into the process of theatre-making. What exactly is at the root of our fear?

There is a concern that the critic’s presence might somehow damage the delicate process of piecing together a show; that a critic will make judgements in a way that another artist wouldn’t; that forging a connection with makers through an involvement in the process inhibits the critical faculties. Countering this, Costa suggested that if critics are to do more – if they are to become advocates and ecologists and all the other terms that have been attached to the role during recent discourse – then it doesn’t make sense for them to be always on the outside looking in.

For all the optimistic, forward-looking momentum of Costa’s vision, however, these ideas emerged as not being all that new after all. Costa concluded with an extended quotation: “Our relations with critics may be strained in a superficial sense, but in a deeper one the relationship is absolutely necessary: like the fish in the ocean, we need one another’s devouring talents to perpetuate the sea bed’s existence. […] The critic is part of the whole and whether he writes his notices fast or slow, short or long, is not really important. Has he an image of how a theatre could be in his community and is he revising this image around each experience he receives? How many critics see their job this way? The more the critic becomes an insider the better.”

The author of these words? Peter Brook, writing in The Empty Space back in 1968. Despite all this talk of fast and slow – of “keeping pace” – perhaps everyone is just running up and down that same section of track. At the close of the event, the possibility that presented itself was one in which theatres and makers do not feel the need to sprint in an effort to keep up with the requirements of critics, and in which critical discourse might jog comfortably alongside contemporary theatre rather than in competition with it. One thing was clear: a theatre culture in which the speed of artists is determined by the imagined approval or disapproval of critics is not one that is likely to be conducive to great work.

In Haydon’s words, “you run faster, we’ll keep up…”

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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