I’ve often asked aloud here what the point of critics might be in a changing media landscape where we’re being pushed to the margins (in every sense) by the loud clatter of opinion all around us. And in the endlessly competitive distractions, too, of different kinds of entertainment that are on offer nowadays, there are those, too, who wonder what the point of subsidising public art is.
But a vigorous defence of both critics and subsidy was provided earlier this week by the presentation of this year’s Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards. First of all it provides a chance for critics to stake a claim to be heard above the crowd, in every sense; in the midst of endless publicly-voted for awards taken on theatre websites, in which the entire world can vote for them whether they’ve seen the shows or not, the Critics’ Circle Awards actually mean something and matter because they’re voted for by genuine accredited critics whose job it really is to go to the theatre three, four or more times a week and see the work, and do so year in and year out.
While it is certainly fun to see how the public and critical votes differ in the final tallies, those public votes are not necessarily about the work itself but about popularity. The lobbying that goes on for them via Twitter and Facebook proves that its often just about rallying the troops and the fans more than it is about honouring the best shows of the year. When Zack Braff, whose play All New People is nominated for Best New Comedy, in the Whatsonstage.com awards that are currently being voted for, is able to tweet some 918,000 twitter followers to vote for his play, he has a clear advantage.
The play got my own worst for the theatrical equivalent of a Razzie (the Golden Raspberry Awards presented to the worst films of the year in Hollywood) last year in my personal round-up of the year in The Stage. As Richard Bean said, collecting a Whatsonstage award last year for One Man Two Guvnors, “Now I know what Robert Mugabe feels like.”
So the Critics’ Circle Theatre Awards are a chance to redress the balance and genuinely recognise excellence rather than just popularity. What’s also genuinely heartening about the ceremony itself is the coming together of critics and artists, with the latter putting aside their natural wariness and suspicion of us, to enjoy a mutual appreciation.
Many of the speeches on Tuesday were moving and heartfelt, none more so than Lucy Prebble who in collecting hers for Best New Play for The Effect spoke of the importance of telling the truth as a writer, whether of plays or of reviews. The play came from her heart and so, she said, did some of the critical responses. Citing my introductory remarks about critical authority in a world of indiscriminate opinion sharing, she commented, “You write with authority when you write from your wounds.”
Of course we don’t all have direct, lived experience of the plays we see; one of the reasons we go to the theatre is to live the experience of other lives. But when we do have an experience in common with something that happens in a play, it can be both honest and revealing to share it. When I got home from the awards, I looked up my own review of The Effect for the Sunday Express, and found that I’d said this:
Theatre is my personal drug of choice: we know that it can create and manipulate our emotions, but can medicine do so too? Now the two collide magnificently in Lucy Prebble’s The Effect, a provocative new play that brings a highly charged intelligence to questioning how anti-depressants work, as it observes two doctors and the two human guinea pigs that volunteer for clinical trials for a new medication. Depression (at least for me) usually dulls the senses, as well as draining all colour and pleasure from life; this theatrical examination startlingly re-awakens them.
I explicitly identified myself as a sometime sufferer of depression. What I didn’t go on to say, both for lack of space and a degree of discretion in a review that isn’t about me but should be about the play, is that I know something of the medications, too. I have, however, previously admitted as much in this blog, noting last year:
Thanks to Matt Trueman, who in his Noises Off blog for The Guardian, wondered aloud if I “might be the happiest man in the UK?” He bases the question on a study that says that “the three things that make us Brits happiest are sex, exercise and going to the theatre.” Matt obviously thinks I get a lot of all three! But there’s a fourth: a daily little white tablet, and no, it’s not called Ecstasy. (I get all the ecstasy I need from the theatre, the cross-trainer and my home life!)
A blog, of course, is always an opportunity to be more personally revealing, and so is an awards ceremony, where several recipients of awards acknowledged their own doubts and insecurities. It was interesting to hear David Lan, for instance, accepting an award on behalf of Benedict Andrews as best director for his production of Three Sisters that was staged at the Young Vic, to say that when he asked Andrews to do the show, he knew how brilliant it would be – but was surprised that the critics agreed.
And Dominic Dromgoole, accepting a special award for the Globe to Globe season, was notably mischievous in suggesting how hard Michael Billington must have lobbied the rest of us to have the Globe recognised in this way. And Dominic also suggested that his own campaign of civility and charm with the critics over the last 20 years had obviously finally paid off. (He is an artistic director who takes no prisoners with us, regularly firing off cross, even abusive, e-mails at critics whose opinions he takes umbrage with. I’ve never had one myself – maybe this blog will finally precipitate one!)
In a pre-ceremony event, held an hour before the reception began and cleverly marshalled by David Bloom and his team at Target Live, the winners spoke to the press, and a great point about the importance of the critics was made to The Stage’s own reporter by David Lan:
To receive these awards from critics is helpful. One of the things the critics do is create confidence in a piece of work. There are some other ways of creating that confidence – partly the reputation of the theatre and partly the reputation of the actors. Not many people think too much about the directors but they’ll also think about the writers. One of the ways you try and talk to your audience is say ‘it’s not too big a risk’ or ‘it’s worth taking a risk on’ and what the critics can do when they write about a show is create that confidence in it.
The awards ceremony and its results were also a triumphant validation of the importance of subsidy – every one of the main awards categories were won by productions that originated in the subsidised sector, with no fewer than a third of them at the Young Vic, and two at the National. But interestingly, of course, the special award to the Globe recognises an institution that is entirely unfunded. So, as I told the BBC myself,
It’s apparent from our winners that subsidised theatre rules. Theatre funding is under great threat again, and once again this list demonstrates how important subsidy is. The special award for the Globe, which operates without subsidy, shows that it can be done the other way round.