Monday, 8 September 2014

On criticism – killing cattle


I’ve been reading Catherine Love’s M.A. Thesis. It is about the theatre criticism and Royal Court, and, frankly, it’s such a clear-sighted, well-argued piece of work that I think it should be published by the Court immediately as an ongoing challenge to itself. I certainly think copies should be widely distributed to both everyone in the Court and everybody practising as a critic.

I won’t spoiler the work here, but it has raised a couple of questions for me relating to my own practice. One question had already been articulated somewhere else – perhaps in Alex Swift and Chris Goode’s recent must-listen conversation, and it’s the sacred cow that criticism should: “approach work on its own terms”.

The second point is where Love describes the endgame of Michael Billington’s critical practice in which he looks for a play’s “thesis” solely in the script of the play. This relates to the above point about “own-terms-only approaches”.

There is also the Tynan quote: “a good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening.” Which sets up an incompatibility between “greatness” and “approaching work on its own terms”.

I’m interested in reminding myself, at the start of the new term, not to fall into the trap of accepting work on its own terms, but investigating what those terms are. It’s silly to go to the end – as Žižek puts it – and use an extreme example, but if a play really wanted to be a recruiting tool for Britain First or the EDL, then the more it succeeded on its own terms the more I would despise it. So, yes, criticism can and should be partisan about terms, be they political or aesthetic. Which might well turn out to amount to the same thing.

This leads on neatly to the second point about looking for a thesis only in the script of a play. Love’s essay articulates this much better than I could, but she also quotes Chris Goode’s excellent essay on the question from late 2007, All you get is sensory titillation, which still serves as a useful marker of the problems with approaching *any* piece of theatre while thinking of it as a single-authored piece (or if it’s explicitly something that’s not that, then approaching it as something already-problematic).

I think I’ve got much better at talking about productions in terms of their myriad parts (direction, design, other designs, text, performances ), and at acknowledging how and where these various parts meet, or how they can be attributed, is slippery beyond usefulness. But I do still often slip into shorthands of discussing “script” (as in, the typed thing) at a slight remove from “text” (which might more rightly be seen as *everything* that’s shown on the stage – i.e. if I were doing my job properly, I’d *read* the production, not “the production *and* the script”).

Then there’s the question of context, about which I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations in the last few days. This also sort of relates back (again) to the question of judging work on its own terms. Except in this case, it’s a matter of when – or to what extent – one can even know what those terms are.

As I wrote in my piece about The Vile Blog, there’s often a general feeling that “critics should get out of London more”. (I don’t think I could get out of London any more than I have this year: I haven’t lived there since January. Nonetheless, I still visit it to see theatre with some regularity. More regularity than, say: Bristol (0), Birmingham (2?), Manchester (1), Leeds (0), Newcastle (0) and so on. (Possibly less regularity than Germany, though; almost certainly less regularity than “Europe”)). But I still understand the point – that London, as well as having a disproportionate amount of population and theatres, has an even greater disproportion of critics and reviews-of-shows.

But the more I think about it, the more I wonder if more London-based critics paying flying visits to other towns and cities is really the best approach. And that’s to do with context.

A German friend sent me an excellent email last night replying to my “what did you think of this review, btw?” enquiry with the sort of frankness that I really miss when I'm in the UK. Of my review of Minetti, they suggested: “I read Minetti as a play about an old actor, not about the specific person Minetti. One of Bernhard's main topics is the contradiction between ambitions and the banality of life. Most of his novels are about megalomaniac artists who fail at their masterpieces. These characters always want to succeed at some impossible task: build a space with perfect acoustics for instance, or create a perfect geometrical form out of wood... The actor in Minetti is such a protagonist: he never got to play big roles because his expectations towards the classics and how they should be staged were too strict for that, now he is spending New Year’s Eve nervously waiting for the artistic director of the Flensburg theatre (Flensburg is a tiny provincial town in the north of Germany only famous for its brewery). This actor is a complete failure and the fact, that the play was named after superstar actor Minetti and dedicated to him is a bitter joke. That sentence about the classics is, in my opinion, not related to the Third Reich and the real Minetti’s career: the Nazis were keen on staging Goethe, Schiller, even Shakespeare and Minetti played many classical roles between 1933-45 – it describes an actor, whose own expectations towards theatre and acting were so high, that he refused to play Shakespeare. For me, your interpretation of that sentence, was not an understanding of the 'German context', but in fact the most English thing about the whole review: taking something as abstract as the topic of the failed artist and linking it to a specific biography.”

I offer this largely in the spirit of: a) a correction to the review, and, b) not being ashamed of my mistakes. It is also c) a really brilliant example about how even seeking to contextualise something can lead to really spectacular “misreadings” (although, “misreading” in itself is interesting, perhaps another act of flawed translation or even simple appropriation).

Obviously, on one hand, it makes me worry a bit, and feel the urgent need to do a whole lot more reading of German literature (learning German better), but at the same time, it makes me wonder about the extent (cf. Confirmation bias) that we can ever really out-think our cultural upbringings. Like, even if I like German (or Croatian, or Polish, or wherever’s) theatre the most an Englishman ever has, will I not always basically like it, and read it, in a way that is somehow uniquely English?

Which is a roundabout way of getting to the question of more local theatre ecologies in the UK. That is to say, if we send someone from London/now based in London to see a production born of a different city’s theatre ecology, are they going to be best placed to understand it in context? Even reviewing a touring production in a specific place that isn’t your locality, well, aren’t you going to appreciate the show in a totally different way?

On this level, it makes me wish that there were *a lot* more theatre bloggers in English cities outside London. And part of me wonders why there aren’t. Yes, Dan Hutton’s blog was based in Warwick, and so he caught an enviable amount of RSC stuff, and also reviewed things going into the Warwick Arts Centre with an understanding of how they were impacting on his local (primarily university) theatre ecology. And I’m gradually becoming dimly aware of some other bloggers operating outside London in England, but in the main, it seems a desolate landscape. And I wonder what can be done about that. I wonder, for example, if Exeunt, and maybe the NSDF, in concert with local theatres, offering workshops on theatre blogging could effect any sort of change.

 Surely other cities in England outside London could sustain a theatre blogging culture. At the moment, I think I read more about theatre in English performed in Melbourne and Sydney than I do about theatre performed in Leeds, Manchester, or Newcastle. And that’s surely silly. Sure, I could (and occasionally do) go to those places, but, as with Minetti, I’m not local to the production (although I’d argue that *no-one* was really local to the Cairns/Eyre production, which was half the problem), and so I’d only be able to bring my increasingly stateless, but apparently enduringly “English”, and definitely too-London perspective to bear on the things. Perhaps this isn’t all bad. After all, a lot of actors and directors move around, and many base themselves in London, even if regularly working in theatres outside London. But then, that also feels like an issue.

It feels like I could go on arguing the toss with myself here more or less indefinitely, and I have to get a train, so I’m going to stop this post here. But I think we’re a long way from this question having any sort of satisfactory conclusion (I’m not even sure there is a “right answer”). Instead, it feels more like just a useful open-ended question to leave out there.


Mark Fisher said...

An interesting post. I'd suggest the answer to your first question is that you do both: you judge the work on its own terms first, then you judge the terms.

I am also fascinated by context - and the question of how much it's possible for a critic to get under the skin of a different culture (which may be a foreign culture, a more middle-class culture, the culture of a specific interest group, etc). As a critic, I often feel like a cultural anthropologist discovering what animates different groups of people watching shows that were not necessarily created with someone like me in mind.

Also problematic is the critic's own personal context - the context they bring with them to each show. Take this review of Rantin': (which I see you've already commented on). Here, Clare Brennan makes the observation that "Nothing fundamental about them – or their situations – would be different if they were relocated to England, Wales, Ireland (north or south), or some other European country."

From Clare's point of view, as a critic based in England travelling to see a show in Scotland, that's a valid observation to make. As an outsider, she was in search of a show that was distinctively about Scotland. She was disappointed that it wasn't distinctive enough.

But for me, as a critic based in Scotland, it would be odd to object to a play on the basis that it could also have been relevant in a different county. Why would I care? All I care about is its relevance to me in Scotland. I didn't need it to be uniquely Scottish.

I'm not trying to say that makes me right and Clare wrong - just that our perspectives are different. But I think you're right to raise the question about critics as they travel, because if any of us simply takes the same set of values from the place we live and applies them to a different context, the chances are we will misunderstand the work we find.

Natalia said...

I completely agree on your point that there should be more theatre bloggers (both in and out of London) and that the NSDF should consider offering advice to writers/potential bloggers.
I did read a great article actually that is useful for those wanting to know how to set up a theatre blog:

I personally live in Telford and there isn't much in the way of theatre. I do travel to Shrewsbury and sometimes Birmingham or even Manchester to see shows. I think perhaps the UK needs to look at even funding to regional venues and perhaps even look at building more regional venues. Personally I'd love to be in London seeing great Fringe shows at venues such as the Almeida. With smaller cities the best you can hope for is that the Wicked tour comes to town.....