It was fascinating to read our guest blog on this site about the responsibility of critics and their generally devastating (and therefore perceived as destructive) responses to an out-of-town musical. The sad truth is that critics have no responsibility towards the theatre; they are responsible only towards their readers and their own ability to write.
It's much better, of course, if the critics have some sort of connection with the theatre, in terms of its history and its personnel. But people like our guest blogger - to whom great praise for resurrecting the subject - only complain when the reviews are unflattering. Nobody ever complained about an incompetent, ill-informed "good" review.
As John Gielgud said of reading Kenneth Tynan, our most brilliant critic, whom the theatre world loathed, partly because he knew so much, and partly because he wrote like an avenging angel: "It's wonderful when it isn't you!" If the reviews of Water Babies in Leicester really are nipping something in the bud, so much for them; and if they are not, the talent will out anyway. It's not a critic's job to keep people happy or in work; it's his or her job to entertain the public and sustain a level of public conversation that goes beyond tweets.
Star evaluations and stars across the sea
Our survey of star ratings among the critics (see below) suggests that we really are too kind. I had a conversation this week - soon to be relayed in a feature article here - with the playwright Nicholas Wright in which he said that everything seems to get four star reviews these days and that there's no-one authoritative consistently putting the boot in… as the late, rather great, Charles Marowitz, used to do, for instance.
As an operating critic, I always feel the shadow of Ken Tynan behind me, always wanting to know what he would have thought about the plays and musicals I dislike, even more so than about the ones I like. I can't imagine Tynan conforming to the new system of star ratings. He came from a time when you asked people what they thought about something – and waited for the reply – rather than how many stars it rated. The truth is that no critic really likes giving shows stars; they pride themselves, still, on what it is they actually said and thought about a production. We have an ongoing debate about the star rating system at WOS. Although we are alert to its shortcomings, there's no impulse to discontinue the awarding of stars.
Our brief analysis shows that Michael Billington gives almost half the shows he reviews in the Guardian four stars. This would suggest one of two things: Billington's a real old softie (which he undoubtedly is); or the theatre really is going through an extraordinary period of renewal and innovation (which it might well be).
I veer towards four stars rather than three stars where possible, on the basis that three stars implies boring competence and therefore a reason not to read the review. The fact is, though, that most interesting things in the theatre rate a three star review and I hope WOS readers are patient with that; the worst outbreak of four-star yattering is at the Edinburgh Fringe each year, where a show is deemed an utter failure if it hasn't got the four star thumbs up.
And as every critic will confirm, you start a review with a three star rating at the top of the copy and the act of writing either leaves you where you are or transforms it up or down a notch.
The legacy of Tynan and Marowitz casts a critical shadow
It's thought that Libby Purves, the former Times critic, was "let go" because she wrote too many four star reviews. What the editor wanted, apparently – and this is only speculation on my part - was a whole lot more two, even one, star efforts. Libby, who's a fine critic and writer, continuing to blog reviews on her Theatrecat site, tended towards a four-star mindset because she believes that most of what goes on in the contemporary theatre is absolutely wonderful and, who knows, she might be right.
It's a darned sight better than most of what goes on in British television, for instance, or on film, though Tynan, or his friend and spiritual confrere, Charles Marowitz, who's died aged 82 in Los Angeles, might not agree. Marowitz was one of three bearded Americans - the others were Ed Berman and Jim Haynes - who shook up the London theatre in the late 1960s.
And he didn't stop there, as he proved the point about directors being critics manqué by launching himself as a brilliant, unforgiving scourge of everyone else's work even while he peddled his often critically derided wares at the RSC (as Peter Brook's right hand man on the experimental Theatre of Cruelty seasons; he convinced Brook to hire Glenda Jackson in the first place) and the Open Space hothouse basement on Tottenham Court Road.
That last venue, which was run, in effect, for him, by the actress and administrator Thelma Holt - who "seduced," no other word for it , the critics into going there; Charles never charmed anyone, except beautiful girls and perceptive editors - put on the plays of Sam Shepard, Howards Brenton and Barker (How Beautiful With Badges was a favourite of mine), B S Johnson, Arrabal, Peter Barnes and countless other unaccommodated geniuses - including the critic Irving Wardle, whose The Houseboy, with Thelma Holt cracking the whip in her satin underwear, was a revelation, in more ways than one - and forced a level of discussion about the theatre - in Encore, and later Plays and Players and the Los Angeles Times - that has not been equalled since, I reckon. I loathed the guy - he was always so rude to young upstarts, telling me I wrote like a geriatric when I was 23 - but I revered him, too, and his obnoxious talent.
He tore the guts out of Shakespeare and Ibsen, revisiting (wrongly) The Taming of the Shrew as a full-on exercise in sexist misogyny and re-casting Hedda Gabler (ridiculously; but very well played by Jenny Agutter) as a Freudian-fixated nymphomaniac; this Hedda even fantasised the General's portrait into a real-life sex object, going down on dad and prompting poet James Fenton, the Sunday Times critic, to re-name her "Hedda Gobbler."
My last abiding memory of Marowitz is of meeting him in the street in Edinburgh before the press matinee of Kenneth Branagh's staging of King Lear starring Richard Briers. Was he going to see that show? No fear. He was away and over the road at an early screening of Pedro Almodovar's Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down. He'd made the right choice.
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