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Andrew Haydon: Should theatre critics need an ‘intellectual background’?

Michael Billington. Photo: Daniel Farmer Michael Billington. Photo: Daniel Farmer
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Unpaid bloggers often lack ‘intellectual background’ to write theatre reviews

Thanks to some eye-catching headlining here at The Stage, fringe producer Danielle Tarento has – inadvertently, I suspect – opened a massive can of worms with a few short sentences uttered at a recent panel discussion on theatre criticism:

[Some bloggers] do not have the intellectual background or the historical background or time to know what they are talking about. What they are writing about is did they like it or not, which is not what I think a review should be.

The reason everyone’s leapt on this piece is because she’s used the word “background”.

‘Fringe producer bemoans lack of historical context in reviews’ is not clickbait. “Unpaid” and “intellectual background” are, because they sound massively classist. When it comes down to it, who in Britain really has an “intellectual background”? (Not me, definitely – I literally only read books that goth bands based songs on.) What even is an “intellectual background”, and how much use would it be in theatre criticism?

If I’m honest, I don’t think either Tarento or Michael Billington really mean or want “intellectual”. I mean, I’ve seen Slavoj Zizek’s review of Titanic (see below) and I can tell you that while his appraisal might not rest on whether he likes it or not, I’m willing to bet that his Marxist-Lacanian psychoanalytic approach to film criticism isn’t what fringe producers are really after for their posters and mail-shots. But, perhaps I misjudge Tarento.

Her other charge, a lack of “historical background” is more vexed. If she means, ‘unless you’ve seen as much as Michael Billington then you’re functionally useless as a critic’, then we can all go home now. Because there’s no one else like Billington. He is now unique among theatre critics; he saw the original productions of everything: Look Back in Anger, Betrayal, Blasted, Three Kingdoms. The man is unparalleled in terms of sheer hours of theatre seen. No question. He is a criminally underrated national treasure, even if you don’t agree with him, and I honestly hope there will be a statue of him outside the National Theatre one day. At the same time, it’s worth remembering that of the above listed theatrical landmarks, it’s only the one that he saw as a member of the paying public, Look Back in Anger when he was a teenager, that he actually liked when he saw it. Neither ‘professionalism’ nor ‘historical background’ are any guarantee of getting it right. Because, of course, there is also no ‘right’; there are only battles with and for posterity.

So, what should an ideal critic really have? I think only a talent for vividly evoking what they’ve just seen in a theatre. Sure, if they’ve seen a few other things, or read a few things, or have experiences of other art forms, then sometimes the odd comparison that illuminates the piece more for the audience can be nice. But all that comes with being alive longer and having just seen and done more stuff. And in the meantime there’s Wikipedia. A review shouldn’t be just about whether the reviewer liked a show or not, but surely the last thing we should be telling anyone is that they need an “intellectual background” first. They just don’t.

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