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Reluctant gamekeepers: why won’t theatremakers be critics?

Dominic Dromgoole. Photo: Helena Miscioscia
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Open the arts pages of any broadsheet newspaper and read a book review. Notice anything? It has likely been written by an author, rather than a critic. In the literary sphere, artists review other artists. But rarely is this practice replicated in the theatre world.

There are perhaps understandable reasons for this, primarily the conflict of interest that can arise from trying to be both poacher and gamekeeper.

“Theatre people are likely to know other theatre people, especially those working in a similar vein,” says Evening Standard theatre critic and author Henry Hitchings. “But it’s comparatively easy for a writer of books to have nothing to do with other writers of books and therefore feel sufficiently detached to review their work.”

One actor I spoke to put it more bluntly: “If I wrote reviews, I wouldn’t get invited to parties.”

full-roomBut is it healthy that, a few honourable exceptions aside, the voices of theatremakers are almost entirely absent from critical discourse? The history of theatre is rich with examples of those who have successfully crossed – or even straddled – the critical divide: George Bernard Shaw, Charles Marowitz and Kenneth Tynan among them.

Contemporary equivalents are hard to find, however. This is partly due to the gulf between the disciplines. As Hitchings says: “A review is a piece of writing, so doesn’t feel alien to someone whose business is writing. But many theatremakers, while they may be good writers, don’t regard writing as ‘what they do’.”

Despite this, there are a few recent exceptions. Fifteen years ago, director Dominic Dromgoole published The Full Room, an A-Z of critical essays about leading playwrights of the day. Although seen by some as a betrayal of his fellow professionals, the book is a shining example of the unique level of insight those within the industry have about their craft.

I ask Dromgoole, currently taking time out after his tenure as artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, why The Full Room remains such a rarity. He says there is a “necessary solidarity” among artists when it comes to writing criticism, a solidarity that did cause some negative reactions to the book (though he says David Hare, who was among the most savagely criticised, responded with “grace and generosity”). But Dromgoole feels that such comradely loyalty can be unhelpful.

“It can lead to an excessive sentimentality about all artists being one, an excessive omerta, and a lack of critical awareness of what each other is doing. Leni Riefenstahl [a Nazi propagandist] was undoubtedly an artist, but also held appalling attitudes. We have a justifiable tendency to loyalty, but we also need to keep a critical awareness.”

So why has he largely kept his powder dry in recent years? He reveals he was offered a “high powered” critical post in the wake of The Full Room, but turned it down due to the “night on night” relentlessness of the job. It seems a shame we never got to read his observations from the stalls.

Stewart Pringle. Photo: Alex Brenner
Stewart Pringle. Photo: Alex Brenner

To get a feel for what it’s like to wear the hats of both critic and practitioner, I spoke to Stewart Pringle. He is a critic for both The Stage and Time Out and former artistic director of the Old Red Lion Theatre in London. He’s about to become associate dramaturg at Dromgoole’s former stamping ground, the Bush, and is taking a break from criticism to do so.

Pringle says he enjoyed juggling roles. But did this ever cause conflicts?

“There was one occasion when I reviewed something at another fringe theatre and got accused of doing the show down in order to sell tickets at my own venue. And, although the accusation was nonsense, it did make me realise I was leaving myself open to it. But it only rarely happened.”

Crucially, he says that his job as a director helped him to review with a more sympathetic eye.

“You appreciate the pressures a company at a 60-seat venue is under compared to a company at the Royal Court, for example. You have a keener awareness.”

He raises another important point, which is that theatre-makers can channel their criticism into their work. “I often felt that the job of artistic director was not dissimilar to criticism. My excitement about getting great people to work at the Old Red Lion was analogous to the excitement of finding out about their work as a critic. Reviewing is a very constructive way of thinking about theatre.”

Matt Trueman, another critic and regular columnist for The Stage, echoes Pringle’s words. He became a journalist after a brief spell as a performer. He says it taught him that “I may be not be able to do it, but I can understand how it works”. This brings to mind Tynan’s famous line about critics knowing the way but being unable to drive the car. Trueman adds that his experience both as an actor and an agent’s assistant prior to becoming a full-time critic helped him to “understand how the industry works”, as well as learn the fundamentals of drama.

But Trueman can also see why practitioners putting their heads above the critical parapet doesn’t happen very often.

“It can’t be stressed enough how strong the bonds in a rehearsal room are. You can’t really compromise that. And there’s also the question of whether it would make good criticism. It’s hard to write a negative review, and it’s even harder when you know someone involved. You can’t be seen to have a vested interest.”

Critic and playwright Nicholas de Jongh with fellow reviewer  Fiona Mountford. Photo: John Thaxter
Critic and playwright Nicholas de Jongh with fellow reviewer
Fiona Mountford. Photo: John Thaxter

A number of critics, including the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, the Evening Standard’s Nicholas de Jongh and the Daily Mail’s Patrick Marmion, have successfully written plays. And a handful have gone on to become full-time practitioners – Bristol Old Vic artistic director Tom Morris among them. Surely there is room for more transference in the other direction?

Social media has given theatremakers a greater voice in the critical conversation, with playwrights Dan Rebellato and Stella Duffy being especially eloquent examples. But the vast majority stay silent.

Writing criticism seems in some ways a logical extension of the art, so it’s a shame we don’t see more of it. And just imagine some of the articles – Caryl Churchill on Sarah Kane, anyone? I’m not suggesting that theatremakers replace first stringers, but the industry should encourage them to speak out without fear of compromising themselves.

After all, debate and discussion are fundamentally good for theatre, and there has never been more opportunity to have it. As Dromgoole says: “One hoped that the explosion in new theatre websites could have encouraged a greater participation by artists, and in some cases it has, but not sufficiently. Let’s hope that in the future it does. Anything to keep the conversation lively.”

There are some signs of change. The Guardian recently invited four young playwrights to respond to Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, to mark the play’s 20th anniversary. The results were illuminating. And the Royal Court’s upcoming podcast, hosted by playwright Simon Stephens, looks set to deliver more such artist-on-artist insights.

Here’s hoping this is the start of a more relaxed and open attitude to critical conversation. Can’t we just agree that it’s okay to occasionally disagree?

The Full Room by Dominic Dromgoole is published by Bloomsbury

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