Monday, 16 April 2012


Strangely, this is a piece I've been quite interested in writing for a while now, but my fortnight at FF@TG seems to have made it feel a bit more focussed than hitherto.

The idea of “embedded critics” seems to have gained something a momentum recently. Perhaps the most interesting session (to me) at this year's Devoted and Disgruntled was the one called by Maddy Costa and Jake Orr on this very subject. Their basic question was: “What new dialogue can we set up between people who write about theatre and people who make it?” with the sub-question “Do we want to maintain a distance between the people who write about theatre and the people who make it?” (full report here).

Only a couple of days after D&D, I went to Kurdistan with ATC and their touring production of Roland Schimmelpfennig's Golden Dragon (my first report on this is published in the paper version of The Stage this week – doesn't seem to be online yet). Being in Iraq and a journalist, jokes about my being “embedded” abounded.

And it is an interesting position for “a critic” to find themselves in. Indeed, the question of “embeddedness” is one that goes to the very heart of what we think a critic is *for*. Or what a critic's job is/should be.

I've written before about the slightly funny, symbiotic relationship between critics and theatre. Obviously there is a school of thought which holds that the critic is essentially a parasite, feeding off a host body and is incapable of surviving without it.

As a basic model, I think I prefer those birds that apparently hop into the mouths of crocodiles and pick bits of food from between their teeth. On occasion it's probably quite annoying for the crocodile and they might think, “Look, for God's sake, you can't kill these things that you're eating, so why the hell should I let you pick at my leftovers”. And probably those birds *could* go off and eat something else, but mostly the crocodile benefits from have the bits picked from between their teeth. It improves their mouth just as much as it apparently sustains the bird.

Is that too much metaphor? (I do hope I haven't misremembered those birds – I think learnt about them when I was three and haven't really thought about them since)

Anyway, my point is, critics aren't a cancer on theatre. Our survival and reproduction does not entail the death of theatre. We essentially have a vested interest in theatre's survival.

Beyond which, as I also said before, I think I've pretty much given up being a “proper” critic. There are a bunch of reasons for this, which I might or might go into at some length at some point, either in the future or indeed in this essay, but, for the time being, let's just say that I'm more interested in experimenting with new models of how to write about theatre (/performance)

I'm not going to say that the “old model” is broken, nor am I going to claim that I'm trying to *fix* it. I think (star-ratings aside) *normal* criticism, or “the old model” has its uses. And I think some mainstream critics are very good at doing it. I have to admit that, actually, I think a lot of my reasons for trying to find a different way of *doing criticism* are as much down to the bad-fit that I am for proper criticism as anything deeper or more philosophical.

Anyway, I seem to have got off the point slightly.

So, “embeddedness”. Is it desirable? What are the problems? What are the benefits?

Obviously, there's an initial massive, potential problem with the “embedded” critic. And that is the problem of readers' trust. At root, before knowing anything about theatre, before being able to write, before even having anything like “good taste”, the one thing a critic needs is the trust of his or her readers. Mostly, I get the impression that our critics do ok on that score. We might think, in various cases, that their taste is lousy and their writing is abysmal, but I don't think I've ever heard anyone ever really question whether a critic was telling the truth. The only one I'd question is sometimes Quentin Letts, who, I'd say, sometimes looks like he's second-guessing or rehearsing a political position more than actually saying what he really thought. I mean, it's possible that he really does think like that, in which case, God help him. But I think it's far more likely that he knows what he's expected to say and says that.

If a critic is “embedded” then there's the possibility that that relationship of trust is shaken slightly. The reader might conclude, in the words of Mandy Rice-Davies: “Well, he would say that, wouldn't he?”

I want to have a bit of a look at this assumption. And also at what it means for criticism.

Because, I think on one level, there's something in it. I don't think that the reader would be right to *mistrust* the “embedded” critic, and I don't think that the “embedded” critic is any the less truthful. But on the other hand, the relationship between them and the artist is plainly going to be different.

At various papers, there's an informal policy that if one critic writes an interview or feature about a company/director/actor to preview their forthcoming production, then it should be the/an- other critic who reviews it.

This stems from the somewhat puritanical conviction that a) the work should speak for itself, and b) it contaminates the critic's, I dunno, purity of mind, if they've had the director explain to them what they're driving at already.

I can see two answers to this. On one hand, yes, if someone's told you what they're going to do before you see them do it, or try to do it, then, well, you'll know what they're trying to do as you watch it happen. This is a different experience to working it out yourself from seeing them do it. Lyn Gardner has gone further and written about how she doesn't even read programme notes before watching a show.

As I've written before, this is certainly one approach, and I can see its value.

On the other hand, firstly, it is very culturally specific. I've now gotten over my surprise that German critics read the texts of plays they're going to see, before they see the productions. Of course, that approach is partly informed by the way that German directors treat texts, but I think it also bespeaks a certain thoroughness and rigour that Germany's theatre has that we don't.

That said, the not-knowing-what's-coming approach *does* fit the way a lot of mainstream British theatre operates. And there is an advantage to being made to jump in your seat, laugh, and squirm in the same way as the rest of the audience is.

At the same time, other members of the audience might read the director's programme notes before the show starts – theoretically giving them potentially more insight into the show than the critic who has denied themselves that opportunity.

There's also Tassos Stevens's maxim that states: “The experience of an event begins for its audience when they first hear about it and only finishes when they stop thinking and talking about it” (he's written a fuller account of that idea here).

In one way, that very maxim, and the thought process behind it, ensures that the critic's experience of a piece of theatre is always going to be different to that of a regular audience member. As The Reduced Michael Billington blog brilliantly skewered it some years ago: “critics are uniquely equipped to see through all of the PR and marketing that surrounds plays. They do this by going to theatres on special nights set aside for them, where they are met by the play's publicist, handed a handy press pack put together by the marketing department and given free drinks at the interval which come from the play's marketing budget. How could an ordinary member of the public possibly see through the marketing, which, from the theatre's point of view, I am a part of?”

As such, one sort of “embeddedness” could just be framed as an extreme version of reading the programme notes before watching the script.

Actually, it strikes me I haven't really discussed what I even mean by “embeddedness”.

Maddy and Jake's original D&D discussion seemed to focus on being present in the rehearsal room, doubtless informed in part by Maddy's involvement in Chris Goode's Open House at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last year, and Jake's subsequent attendance of (and upon) various companies' rehearsals.

I haven't done, or been doing that exactly. Granted, I did sit in on one run-though of The Golden Dragon in Suleimanyah, but since all but one of that company had already spent at least a month touring India with the production, that was far more of a run-through of a play (which I'd already seen in Edinburgh last year anyway) for the benefit of the one actor who'd just joined. As such, there was very little of the actual creative process on display – not so much of the emotional nakedness that one imagines might go on at the very start of a rehearsal process.

What I did do in Iraq/Kurdistan was spend six or seven days travelling about with the company, eating with them, sitting in the mini-bus with them, and, hell, experiencing a totally new country with them. Which obviously changes my perspective on those actors, and that director, stage-manager and producer. Apart from anything else, it humanises them. It strikes me that in the usual run of things, theatre criticism sometimes kind of requires you to forget the humanity of those about whom you're writing.

Or at least, it's helpful if you don't think about it too much.

Because, after all, you're writing about the art. About the achievement, or otherwise, not actually about the *people* who have made it.

But of course, it was made by people.

It's a bit obvious to suggest that if critics were to consider their subjects as *people*, then they might be a bit nicer. Or more polite. Or might put things differently. But I think that's simplistic. I like to think that I'd be able to say everything I've ever written to the face of the people about whom I'd written it. Even if a couple of times actually doing so might have earned me a slap.

I think there are about four reviews I've written where I've probably gone too far (for the record, they are: Sex Idiot, Behud, Off The Endz and Berlin). Interestingly, they're also amongst the reviews that people have told me they've enjoyed reading most often. Because people do love a good pasting at someone else's expense.

In my defence, I do still stand by those reviews and maintain that they are still accurate records of just how cross some pieces of theatre have made me in my time. Also, for the record, Bryony Kimmings and I are now friends on Facebook and hung out a whole bunch in Edinburgh last year. And she's a really nice person. And I still don't think I'm ever going to like Sex Idiot (although, I do partly blame the way that it was framed at the Pulse Festival for the extent of the violence of expression in that review. That and the fact I might have subconsciously been feeling more removed than usual from considering UK artists as people, since I wrote the review after I'd returned to Berlin). But, if I saw it now, I'd have a lot more information at my disposal, as well as having met her in real life. It kind of goes without saying that I'd write the review differently. I'd still write it honestly, but there are a lot of different ways of saying the same thing, aren't there?

So, does that mean I've been compromised?

I'd say not.

There is an interesting maxim in theatre criticism that your first duty is to your reader. Having had a bit of a think about this, I've concluded that I disagree. I reckon one's first duty is to one's own humanity (which, I agree, is a sickeningly pompous way to put it). But, I don't think it's healthy to lose sight of how cruel one could be being simply because a lot of people enjoy reading critics being cruel.

That said, there's every chance I'll forget these noble sentiments next time I see something that I *really* hate, and realise that some bastard has just stolen three hours of my life to bore me to tears with their crappily performed, sexist/racist/homophobic/solipsistic rubbish, but, in the main, I don't think it's unhealthy to sometimes be reminded that you're writing about people. And people who are mostly acting out of good faith.

Another aspect of “embeddedness” that I think worth addressing is whether, if a critic gets “embedded” in some way or other, it will make them view the work more favourably.

Well, here's a thing. I reckon a critic's actual *opinion* of a piece is frequently the least important part of a review. Yes, some people treat reviews as some kind of consumer guide. I suspect many of them might be the same sort of people who grumble if they suspect a critic isn't “being objective”. They're the people who prize the star-rating. And, having taken into account what I've said only a couple of paragraphs earlier about respecting the humanity of others, I still think those people are the wreckers of civilisation.

Ok, it is useful to know if something is good or not. But unless you're actually the person who's reviewed the show – or you have the magical good fortune to have a critic with whose taste yours corresponds exactly – the good/not-good question just boils down to that most mysterious of things; one's taste.

What *should* be useful in criticism, is the expertise of the critic. Their insights and ability to cast light on a work; to describe what that work is doing;how it does it; etc.

Of course, all this involves value judgements too, but judgements that are a good deal less crass than the false binaries of good or bad. And it takes *words* to *explain* them. You can't just explain a plot, or a set of synaptic responses, or a philosophy, or a design with a number of stars out of five.

If you accept this as a view of criticism, then it makes the idea of whether a critic is embedded or not suddenly seem a lot less relevant. I guess, in part, that's why I'm interested in this as a possible new direction for writing about theatre.

Which brings us pretty much up to the present, which, as of this sentence, finds me sitting in the small ante-office of the Gate Theatre, sat next to Forest Fringe co-director Andy Field, writing a piece justifying why I believe this state of affairs is in any way acceptable. And why, moreover, I think it's *useful* and perhaps even *better*, than if I just turn up at half seven and scamper off as soon as the show finishes.

There are a couple of other elements which I haven't mentioned yet. These could usefully be filed under the headings: “Festivals” and “Friends”.

I remember while I was taking part in the Festivals In Transition Mobile Lab. one of the elements that we spent a bit of time thinking about was that of the position of the critic at an (international) theatre festival. The vast majority of those festivals that we visited, as well as the Neue Stücke aus Europa festival in Wiesbaden, were distinguished by the closeness of the festival communities that quickly grew up within them – much more like the National Student Drama Festival here, than either the Edinburgh Fringe writ large or even the Edinburgh International Festival. And, as such, we did a bit of thinking about whether one writes any differently as part of a community rather than as an individual voice, more or less lost and anonymous in a metropolis as vast as London.

I don't think we concluded at the time that we thought we did, or would write any differently. And, hell, you only have to read my attempted evisceration of Superamas's Big 3rd Episode: Happy/End, to see what we meant (and that review, fwiw, was written at a festival in Rakvere, Estonia, a town where the festival existed in more-or-less total isolation from the rest of the town, with performers, audience and critics all eating and drinking together in a little arty bubble).

Actually, I think the impetus for the spirit in which I'm approaching my FF@TG has a lot more to do with the spirit of Forest Fringe itself. And the fact that some of the pieces are first scratches – which is a different sort of review again.

And then we come to the issue of writing about friends' work. Last week at Forest Fringe, I did know quite a few of the people performing, through various channels. I was at university with Chris Thorpe and Lucy Ellinson (and indeed playwright John Donnelly, who came along on Tuesday night). Indeed, the first thing I ever directed as a student was a short play by John in which Lucy took the lead role. I've also known Andy Field for an aeon since he reviewed for CultureWars while I was still theatre editor there. I've known Ira Brand since I saw Tinned Fingers at NSDF '08, and subsequently recommended them to Andy for the first publicised season of Forest Fringe in Edinburgh, at which they were a huge hit, and their relationship with Forest has since blossomed. And, hell, I've Chris Haydon for long enough for him to have stolen my made-up surname to be his made-up surname. Actually, and perhaps most relevantly to this argument, I shared a flat with him in Edinburgh the year that, while reviewing for the Scotsman, he effectively *discovered* the TEAM, five-starred them, got them awarded a Fringe First and, I guess, put in motion the chain of events that led to their storming hit Mission Drift last summer.

You'll notice that both Field and Haydon (Christopher) also used to work as critics, before they hopped over the fence.

Which perhaps explains another element of how and why I feel that this experiment in being almost a “critic-in-residence” for this fortnight makes sense. And I think, why I've been allowed by both theatre and resident/guest-company to do it. These are entities led by people who also understand first-hand the value of writing about theatre.


Anonymous said...

Beautifully written. I have shared your writing on the LAFPI blog (and cited you). Thank for for writing this.

Hannah Silva said...

Thank you very much for this blog, it got me thinking. I guess the question of what a 'critic' is, is central..
Not exactly a response, but here's what I've been thinking: