It's time to kill off the press night
As the new co-chief critic is announced at the New York Times, Matt Trueman looks at what producers can do to foster good criticism
This time last week, the New York Times announced Jesse Green as it new co-chief critic. From May, he'll divvy up the Broadway beat with Ben Brantley. Despite a few diversity quibbles – Green's another greying white man – the appointment seems to have gone down well. Rightly so.
I spent the weekend getting to know Green's work and, whoosh, the man can write. His New York Magazine reviews serve up sophisticated thinking with a sense of humour. They draw the reader in, never sacrificing complexity at the altar of readability or vice versa. He's not a pat opener kind of critic, nor a pull-quote dispenser. Instead, Green's reviews build, and, best of all, they widen the lens. Many look past the particular show under scrutiny to a wider body of work and a cultural context. If there's a distinction between criticism and a review, that's it.
The problem is, criticism is left with neither space, nor time
In an interview with American Theatre magazine, Green says he's "looking for a good argument" in criticism. He wants it to make a case – and, for that to happen, "the top requirement is good writing." Good writing doesn't just happen. It needs time and space (and, well, talent). Green deems his NY Mag reviews short: "When you have 1000 words, every line had better be pretty big." Woah. Hold up. 1,000 words? British critics rarely hit half that, even a third - at least in the mainstream media.
But then American critics have time to write at length. Rather than seeing a show en masse on a designated press night, they spread out over several press previews, leaving a day or two before the publication embargo lifts with an official opening night. When it does, every review is ready to go live at the same time. Here, there's often a sprint to deadline in the race to publish.
The internet should have shifted things. It offers unlimited white web space and freedom from printing press deadlines. Instead, thanks to a quirk of the transition online, it's actually exacerbated the issue. As broadsheet subscriptions fell, papers shrunk and, with it, the space for criticism. Those reviews were then plonked online as they were. However, as the internet took precedence, offering infinite space, hits became paramount and so the need for speed kicked in. Being first is a surefire way to be read, after all. That's journalism.
Producers have it in their power to help foster criticism
The problem is criticism is left with neither space, nor time. The press night system, the starting gun of the curtain call, has started to look not just unnecessary, but actively unhelpful. After the Almeida's four-hour Hamlet, some critics had just 15 minutes to file their reviews. That's no way to do art justice, let alone a major Hamlet. It's certainly not the route to a good argument.
There's a reason the Sunday papers have historically produced some of our most feted theatre critics. Kenneth Tynan was, of course, the Observer's man for eight years and, even if Sunday mornings were synonymous with "the sound of Harold Hobson barking up the wrong tree," the two writers' sparring week by week did a lot to liven up the theatre of the day. It's why so much of it survives so vividly in the imagination. Tynan and Hobson caught it well and, between them, they made a great case for it.
Of all the British critics writing today, it's Tynan's successor Susannah Clapp who best exemplifies the critic's art. Her sentences snap like spun sugar, giving her reviews poise and precision, and she writes with an almost expressionistic style that captures the sensations of a show, not just its substance. Often, she dwells on unusual details; things that get glossed over in overnight reviews.
That's what Sunday papers – with a bit of space and time – can make possible. There's a reminder of that in Dickie Beau's Re-Member Me. At one point – heaven forfend – it almost celebrates a critic. John Peter, formerly of the Sunday Times, reads his review of Ian Charleson's Hamlet – and, in the circumstances, it's the only account of that performance. Memories aside, it's more or less all that remains of it, and it's extraordinary. "A different Hamlet will create a different Elsinore," he writes. His argument sashays, his descriptions swish – elegance and insight bound up together. In it, you hear the passion of a writer pinning something down for posterity. It's no coincidence that Peter wrote weekly. He had room to stretch out and space to think. He was free to fix his own schedule and follow his own instincts.
Some talk their way into previews, winning a head-start for their words
True, press nights have their advantages. There's an extra crackle in the air – a certain electrical storm tension. Actors sometimes say they feel off-kilter, that the occasion can warp a performance out of shape, but seen from the stalls, it adds an edge of excitement. Theoretically, it means every critic is seeing the same show – although, in practice, that's not the case. Some talk their way into previews, winning a head-start for their words. For some critics too, speed enhances a review. It pressure-cooks the writing, ups the intensity of excitement or dismay before either cools with rational analysis. Critics talk of the white heat of the playhouse. Press nights are hotter than most.
In the wake of Lyn Gardner's blog being cut, a cry went up from the theatre community. That blog was an example of a critic with time and space – with the freedom to slow down and stretch out. The theatre industry felt the benefits – just as readers and audiences did.
That response was a rare thing. Mostly, the industry regards criticism sceptically – understandably so – but if it really values criticism, producers have it in their power to help foster it. It's time to kill off the press night. West End shows have started offering press previews. Fringe venues are following suit. For the price of a preview or two, artists can get the criticism they deserve. Seems a good deal to me.