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Mark Shenton: Rising above the noise of internet commentary

Carly Bawden (centre) in Wonder.land. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg Carly Bawden (centre) in Wonder.land. Photo: Brinkhoff/Mogenburg
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The internet is a noisy place. There are always lots of voices, shouting to be heard. One of the reasons I put forward for the long-term survival of formal criticism is the authority it provides in a world where there’s a relentless, unmediated din. The world needs voices to rise above that clamour and offer some kind of calming, unruffled perspective. Online commentary tends to polarise between extremely good and extremely bad; critics can provide a more measured voice.

While some once-reputable papers such as the Sunday Telegraph and The Independent on Sunday seem to have abandoned criticism, it is precisely for this reason that The Stage is specifically investing in more and better reviews, and taking it very seriously.

No one, for instance, reviews more Christmas shows than we do; yet Christmas shows are generally almost bullet-proof against real criticism, because families plan their outings to them months in advance and have already committed to going, whatever they’re like. But as the industry’s own guide, we like to celebrate — as well as hold to account — the creative and acting talent behind the shows that work as well as those that don’t.

Likewise, every August in Edinburgh we commit huge resources to providing one of the largest offerings of professional reviews of any publication. In Edinburgh, there’s more critical noise than just about anywhere, with a plethora of formal and pop-up free-sheets, websites and magazine publications now seriously outweighing the national press.

Where the latter is concerned, most – apart from The Guardian and the Scottish titles The Scotsman and the Herald – have more or less abandoned more than the most cursory coverage of the fringe. In the midst of this, a properly edited publication offering vetted, commissioned reviewing is again going to stand out above the noise.

But if professional critics are doing that, we no longer do so in a vacuum. We can’t fail to hear the stories on the grapevine. Last week, when David Mamet’s new play China Doll finally opened on Broadway after a two-week postponement to its opening night, The New York Times’ critic Ben Brantley specifically alluded to the delay in his review:

Of the plays opening on Broadway this fall, none have had a more fraught back story than China Doll, though it was always guaranteed to be a commercial slam dunk… But even with weekly grosses exceeding a million dollars, China Doll, which is directed by Pam MacKinnon (a thankless task), soon found itself being circled by theater vultures for whom the scent of disaster is an aphrodisiac. The word was that Mr Pacino couldn’t remember his lines and that audience members were walking out in baffled annoyance at intermission. The show’s original opening night was delayed by about two weeks, and Mr Mamet was said to be rewriting copiously.

This is a case where Michael Riedel, the New York Post reporter who does a fine job of keeping on top of Broadway scuttlebutt, sets a critical atmosphere, too. And this week, Damon Albarn’s new musical Wonder.land opens at London’s National, again after already generating a lot of contrary opinion on bulletin boards, blogs and twitter.

Megan Vaughan, a fellow contributor to The Stage, wrote on her Synonyms for Churlish blog:

We should quickly mention the delicious industry schadenfreude that accompanied Wonder.land’s first outing at Manchester International Festival back in July. Rumour had it that it was THE most gloriously heinous stinker. Like, embarrassing. Mick Fleetwood and Sam Fox levels of bad. We can’t pretend we didn’t enjoy hearing the stories, so let’s just take a moment to wallow in that joy and then we can all move on, like grown-ups.

But online no one seems to have grown up. The stories have just amplified and solidified. And in this case, I am not a blank page either. I didn’t just hear the stories of the Manchester run, I actually saw it there and reviewed it for The Stage, mentioning some of its problems as well as praising some of its successes. I said then: “This is only the first pass at making the show work. I’ll be intrigued to revisit it in a few months time.” And I’m doing so for The Stage, where my review will appear in due course.

To be frank, the negative reactions it has been getting will undoubtedly be ringing in my ears. But it is also my job to approach it as freshly, eagerly and dispassionately as I can. The National Theatre and its creative team and cast have invested a lot of money, time and effort in their work. It is the least they deserve.

As much as the online vultures are circling overhead ready to feast on the latest theatrical carcass, we can do better than that. But we can also ask tough questions, if needed, about its creation and execution.

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