For the past week I’ve been getting very exercised about the subject of theatre criticism – no! wait! come back! – and when I say exercised I mean furious and when I say furious I mean seeing the precipice ahead of yet another existential crisis and trying to run away from it into a hurricane. For now I’m going to avoid talking about Lyn Gardner, because Tobi Kyeremateng on twitter and Matt Trueman in WhatsOnStage have covered a lot of the important ground already; instead I’d like to look at a series of tweets by James Varney, a writer I admire profusely*. On May 9 he wrote – and it’s worth quoting in full:
“i watch a lot of video game criticism videos
which are markedly different from the theatre reviews i write and read
because they treat the audience as a consumer
and very often talk about value for money
whereas theatre reviews are more academic
more about assessing how well a piece of theatre fits into an art world
and not so much about centering a rewarding, good value user-experience
which i think is because theatre is very rarely worth the money
i see a lot of theatre with the understanding its a new iteration
of trying to understand the world
and trying to understand theatre’s relevance to it
rather than being pure entertainment
or a visceral experience
i think i expect theatre to be cerebral and well-meaning
rather than affecting
(i am surprised when theatre is exciting and affecting)
(and worth the price of a ticket)
which isn’t to say it’s never affecting
but that when it is it’s experienced as complementary to a ‘message’
rather than the only reason im there
and i think all this contributes to (and emerges from) the idea
that theatre is Posh and Hard Work
for an audience
and that One Must Think to winkle out some enjoyment
and that if you are tired it’s best not to go
and that if you go there is pressure to ‘get it’
this is the impression i get from my friends who are not
and also how i feel about the world i work in”
and ever since I’ve been in a conniption trying to explain to people – and, for that matter, myself – why it bothered me so much. So far I’ve managed to come up with the following:
1: Treating the audience as consumer is everything I don’t want theatre criticism to do. I know I bang on about this to the point of tedium, but it reduces theatre to a product rather than a process, a lived experience. No theatre critic has the authority to describe that lived “user-experience” in connection to anything other than their own life. It’s why I love Theatre Club as a form of theatre criticism: it’s a room in which a group of experts in just being human, being alive – in all its simplicity and complexity – talk about work from their position of ordinary expertise. Taking as a basic assumption, as I do, that on any given night in the theatre, one person can be having a transformative experience and the person sitting next to them could be mentally compiling their shopping list, who can say if the transformative experience was worth £12, or £44, or £98, or if the person who spent £12 buying themselves the mental space to compile their shopping list (rather than spending it on five Starbucks lattes and a packet of crisps) didn’t consider it money well spent? And is value for money really how we’re going to rate personal transformation?
2: Since theatre criticism can’t speak to those two extremes, let alone the nuances within them, it might as well be doing something else. And yet, to imply that the concern for the consumer in games criticism makes it more user- or reader-friendly than theatre criticism – which, given the general connotation of “academic” with elitist, is what comes across to me here – is strange given that so much theatre criticism, with its star ratings and marketing-friendly quotations, has long been doing this work. And where is the concern for the artist’s livelihood in this equation? It’s a ridiculously obvious point but capitalism, as practised through globalisation, has warped perceptions not only of value for money but of time, usually by hiding abusive exploitation. If everyone involved in making a piece of theatre in London were actually paid for the time they put into making it, indexed against their obscene living costs, and taking into account the atmosphere of aspiration that asphyxiates us all, every ticket would cost the same as a top-price seat for Hamilton. To what extent does “centering a rewarding, good value user-experience” recognise, let alone challenge, that?
3: Possibly unfairly, I’m reading in this series of tweets a dichotomy between “cerebral” and “affecting”. I feel like James is reinforcing “the idea that theatre is Posh and Hard Work for an audience” instead of rejecting that premise, and presenting the notion that “One Must Think to winkle out some enjoyment” as though thinking were not in itself an enjoyable act. There is perilously little in our society that encourages thinking as an act of joy: it’s not in my children’s education, that’s for sure. And surely, surely we all know that this is integral to the neoliberal project of stamping out dissent. My mum – dyslexic, English second language, taken out of school by the time she was 15, introduced to reading as an act of pleasure by her sisters-in-law when she was 17 – told me recently that she likes to read “trashy” books because it opens up a space in her brain for thinking about other things, things that might otherwise elude her. Thinking is not Posh or Hard Work: it’s what makes us human. One Must Think! Art helps us to think, in all sorts of mysterious ways, and I don’t think you have to be a “theatre person” for theatre to be as good a thing to think about as anything else.
4: But then, what the fuck do I know: I’m a “theatre person”. I’ve learned how to use words like dichotomy and neoliberal that my mum would need to look up in a dictionary. I’ve made theatre – and writing about theatre, or performance, or live art, by people like Chris Goode, Mary Paterson, Andy Field, Simon Bowes, Selina Thompson – my access point to ideas about dissent that I wasn’t able to articulate when I was James’ age. And there have been times in Theatre Club settings when this has proven a problem: when people have literally shouted at me that they loved the show and don’t want to think deeply about it, they just want to hold on to the strong feelings they had when watching it. In that scenario, the person who didn’t “get it” – and by it I mean affect, I mean feeling – was me.
5: None of this has anything to do with Choral Cuisine. This, of course, is what makes theatre criticism academic and everyone hate theatre as a result.
Except it does, because Choral Cuisine is all affect and no meaning, all user-experience and no message. As such, the perfect review of it might be Ian Abbott’s gif review: there’s eating, there’s music, the two things are connected in some mechanical way that doesn’t quite make sense, it has potential but fails to ignite. Would knowing that the two-course vegetarian meal was pretty delicious do anything to shift the impression that he didn’t consider it worth the £20 ticket price? Probably not.
What Abbott’s review doesn’t convey, however, is that – even without meaning or message – Choral Cuisine still invites its participants to think. What is the relationship between the instrument listed on each place setting – marimba, percussion, bass, soprano – and the movement of forks, the lifting of cups, as each participant eats, and the sound emerging from the two speakers on the table? What can each of us do to manipulate those sounds, accentuate one over another? To what extent are we really the composers or conductors here, to what extent the machines being manipulated by the makers of the work? What would be different if everyone around the table spoke to each other more, coordinated their movements, tried to be in harmony when tapping on their plates? AND WHAT DOES ALL THIS TELL US ABOUT LIFE, THE UNIVERSE, AND EVERYTHING ELSE? I mean sure, this is exactly James’ problem: even when faced with pure entertainment or a visceral experience, I’m trying to understand the world. But even without going to such an extreme, the fun of this show is in the thinking, the trying to figure out how it works.
Sabrina Shirazi, the creator of Choral Cuisine, emphasises at the beginning that it’s a work-in-progress, and I hope as she goes on to develop it she’ll make it more possible for participants to be in charge of the music-making. But maybe they already are, and just don’t realise it. Maybe I’m asking her to take away the pressure to “get it” even though there’s already barely anything to get. Maybe I’m asking her to reduce the necessity of thinking, to make Choral Cuisine more consumable. And that doesn’t feel right at all.
* In case it’s not obvious, I still think James Varney is one of the most interesting critics out there, because his writing invites – requires – thinking. And that’s why this series of tweets has made me think so much.
Choral Cuisine was performed as part of Mayfest 2018 in Bristol. To see the rest of this year’s programme, click here.