[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/43863?ns=guardian&pageName=Noises+off%3A+The+rules+of+being+a+theatre+critic%3AArticle%3A1306788&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Chris+Wilkinson&c7=09-Nov-18&c8=1306788&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Stage&c13=Noises+off+%28Stage+blog+series%29&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2FTheatre[/img]Stay sober, stay conscious and stay to the end – are these really the only obligations theatre critics have?
What are the rules for being a good critic? Bloggers are wondering just that this week as Charles Spencer, the Telegraph's chief theatre critic, kicked the discussion off with this article. In it, he addresses the newly published code of practice for theatre critics, issued by the International Association of Theatre Critics. This asks critics to acknowledge that they are "explorers in the art of theatre", and tells them they should "welcome new ideas, forms, styles and practice". These seemingly gentle suggestions have put Spencer in quite a huff; he describes them as "completely wrong-headed". "The critic's obligations can be summed up very briefly," he writes. "Arrive sober, stay awake, stay to the end and don't take a bribe unless it is big enough to allow you to retire in comfort for the rest of your life."
It's worth pausing for a moment to reflect on just how astonishingly low Spencer is setting the bar here. After all, if sobriety and consciousness are the only qualifications that a critic requires, then surely anyone can do the job? As Mark Shenton suggests, we should expect at least a little more than this from the critical establishment. He argues that critics should be "keen – and hopefully well-informed – observers whose enthusiasm does encourage and support what is, in our considered opinion, good work; but who also attempt to police bad work, too."
It is this question of being "well-informed" that seems to be the key. As Michael Coveney asks: "Have you ever heard of a football writer who was not totally dedicated to his subject, a political writer who was not interested in new ideas of political theory, or a gardening correspondent who closed his eyes to the advances in new rose breeding techniques?"
Of course many critics (Spencer, I suspect, among them) do pride themselves on their many years of theatregoing, and see that as a justification for their scribblings. Yet longevity is only one form of experience. Thirty years of sitting in the stalls in the West End, or at the National and the RSC, is only ever going to expose you to a narrow range of work. Where are our critics who have an in-depth understanding of European or experimental theatre? Where are those who have any idea about production process itself? There are a few who do, but not many. And this limitation of experience can be a problem. Andrew Haydon recently suggested that "in Britain: critics reviewing a new play will generally credit most of what happens on stage to the writer, and assume that the director was simply 'serving the text'." It is key assumptions like this that can quite seriously get in the way of making a sound judgment.
It's a point agreed on by Isaac Butler of Parabasis: "I think we'd all be better off with reviews that discussed the production as a whole rather than focusing on just the script, particularly writers, who frequently get blamed for things that clearly aren't their fault, or production choices that highlight weaknesses in their scripts instead of strengths etc." To this end, Butler sets out a series of guidelines to help critics tease out, more intelligently and accurately, what they see.
Of course, a critic can't ever know everything. But surely an inquiring mind and a willingness to learn and experience new things should be de rigueur for any writer? In his response to Matt Trueman's recent blog on accessibility in the theatre, George Hunka argues: "What is accessible to Matt may not be accessible to me, and vice versa, and this is dependent not only on our cultural knowledge, our schooling or our individual philosophies, our preconceptions and prejudices, but on our openness to new theatrical experience – or music, or plastic art – as well." Perhaps if Spencer is unwilling to experience new things and to challenge his own preconceptions and prejudices, then the Telegraph should give his no doubt hefty salary to someone who would be happy to work a bit harder.
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Guardian: Noises off: The rules of being a theatre critic
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