The subject of a critic’s work is, of course, what we see and are invited to comment on. The subject shouldn’t be ourselves, though sometimes it is hard to avoid. We inevitably bring our own life experiences to what we review, and sometimes it is worth sharing with our readers.
In his Daily Telegraph review of Ben Travers’s Thark, revived at the Park Theatre this week, Charles Spencer offered this priceless anecdote that speaks of lived experience:
There is an especially sublime moment during their sleepless vigil when [Clive] Francis, who as well as adapting the play gives a deliciously ripe performance as the whisky and port marinated Sir Hector, asks his nephew if he “would fancy a quickie just to rock you off?”
“I beg your pardon,” replies the appalled Ronny before Sir Hector revels that he is only offering a swig from his hip flask. I’m pretty sure the line is Francis’s own invention rather than Travers’s but it left me spluttering with joy. Mind you, Travers, like your reviewer, was educated at Charterhouse where such invitations weren’t exactly unheard of.
Meanwhile, the Edinburgh Fringe has just ended – but not before some critics got their own critical pasting, whether in person in the case of a few brave and hardy members but mainly in photographic form, in Peter Michael Marino’s brilliant revenge wheeze of a Critical Mass Tomato Toss that he staged in the Meadows the week before last and I previously previewed here.
Peter allowed himself to be at the receiving end of the tomato toss, as the photograph that accompanied a blog he wrote about the event showed, but he’s nothing if not a good sport, regularly turning critical adversity into artistic triumph. As he wrote about the show Desperately Seeking the Exit that he was performing on the Free Fringe,
As performers, we get feedback from the critics and our audiences. Critics share their feelings in print for the world to see. Audiences often share their feelings during the show. We can choose to utilize this feedback by running with it (if it’s good) or running from it (if it’s bad).Both critics and audiences savaged my West End musical in 2007, so I ran with it – turning the tale into a solo comedy about the show’s demise. Luckily, critics on three continents have embraced this little show about a big show.
And he proceeded to reveal how audiences have not always fully been embracing it this time. As he says,
Live audiences are a different kind of critic. Their response is right in the moment. Only they “walk”, rather than run… One burly local rushed out after 30 minutes. “Thanks for stopping by!” I passive-aggressively shouted as the door slammed behind him. Moments later he returned with two bottles of cider – one for him and one for me. The next day, two couples in their forties began whispering and twitching during the show. I paused to assure them that if this wasn’t the show they expected, they were free to walk. The women bolted to the door, as one of the reluctant husbands addressed the audience, “I apologize. I don’t want to go…but my wife is making me leave.” He then proceeded to drop a £10 note in my bucket – receiving a generous round of applause.
Edinburgh, of course, is a place where critics and their subjects come face-to-face, in every sense, more readily than in other places, where we are separated by things like proscenium arches. But there’s also something about Edinburgh that encourages a dialogue between us. In a piece on Chortle.co.uk, comedian Liam Mullone warned aspiring critics (of which there are far too many in Edinburgh) off from following their dreams. Apart from the bald truth of his opening assertion – “Journalism is dead” – he came to even harsher truth:
You know the Night’s Watch in Game of Thrones? A phalanx of men whose past crimes are forgotten but, in return, they can never know happiness or family or friendship or warmth ever again? That is the vow you take when you become a reviewer. Perhaps you really are guarding some intangible wall behind which is a marauding horde of unfunny dark unfunniness. But nobody likes you. Nobody will ever like you again. They’ll be friendly to you if you give them a good review. But that’s not friendship, is it? That’s just pandering. And awkward.
But it’s a truth we actually embrace. As The Stage’s own Julian Hall stated in a blog response on this website,
It’s a dirty job, but someone has to provide perspective by standing outside of performers to constructively critique them – thereby ‘protecting’ the public from the artistic equivalent of the White Walkers. Ultimately, no one likes us and we don’t care, so yes, we are a lot like the Night’s Watch.
And proving just how virulent that dislike can be, Mary Portas spoke out against certain TV critics at last week’s Guardian Edinburgh International Television Festival, and said of AA Gill:
It’s this culture, this slightly sociopathic attitude that TV critics have to write … I don’t think he’s got an emotional filter. I wouldn’t be able to sleep at night if I wrote what he wrote.
When I tweeted this, Portas herself replied to clarify:
@ShentonStage I also stated how fair and informative theatre and film critics are and that this is a peculiarity to some tv critics
— Mary Portas (@maryportas) August 24, 2013
And on Sunday, we saw first-hand how fair and informative one particular film critic is regarded, when the Observer bade farewell to Philip French after 50 years of service, and rounded up some notable film-makers to pay tribute to him.
Danny Boyle dubbed him “the perfect critic, serving public and artist both.” He went on to say,
Never more important than the effort he’s reviewing, no matter how poor the result, he maintains a balance of decorum between someone who spends two hours in front of it (and sometimes I’m sure it felt like the longest two hours of his life) and those who have spent years creating it, negotiating all the horrors and wonders of making a film… Philip French never underestimated a responsibility best expressed in Plato’s dictum: Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. A lovely man. A great critic.
When you make a movie, it’s nice to be appreciated. But it’s genuinely heartening, and rare, to be understood…. I want to say that his criticism, taken altogether, has ennobled cinema, the people who create it and the people who love it. Like his many devoted readers, I’m sorry that he’s retiring. The man is irreplaceable.
Those may be harsh words, of course, for Mark Kermode, who is replacing French, to hear. And for David Hare, who has never been especially fond of critics and has often gone into public battle against them, he notes that French’s own knowledge has sometimes made him an object of parody:
We can all dream up a Philip French spoof review in which a new film with Jane Fonda called The Fridge is unfavourably compared to 17 previous films whose plots have revolved around ice-boxes, and whose leading ladies all have fathers who starred in Italian westerns. At times, his mastery of the repertory has carried more than a whiff of the pub quiz. But when you compare the expertise of his judgments with the work of those presstitutes on broadsheet newspapers who believe that criticism consists only of loudly saying whether they like something or not, then you are bound to be grateful for someone who believes that film may be art, and that intimate knowledge of art may lend power to how deeply you are empowered to think about it.
It’s ironic of course that, having flattered French as worthy of parody, the one that Sir David was himself recently on the receiving end of in a fake Twitter account was quickly removed (though some of it lives on in the blog I wrote at the time here)