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Andrzej Lukowski: Theatre criticism would benefit from a bit of monkeying around

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This October marks the 10-year anniversary of the best and most important piece of criticism of our time, wherein some dude called Ray Suzuki (a pseudonym) reviewed the second album by Australian pub-rock band Jet via an article that simply consisted of an embedded YouTube video of a monkey drinking its own piss.

Running on the music website Pitchfork, it’s a seminal piece of criticism for a number of reasons, not least that it’s a pretty accurate summary of the second album by the Australian pub-rock band Jet. But more important is its dazzling audacity and its clear-headed embrace of the new – YouTube was about 18 months old at this stage.

It’s essentially unrepeatable: respond to the new Coldplay album with a vid of a wanking squirrel and it’s just a homage, alas. But it’s entirely telling that what is probably the only famous piece of criticism composed this century wasn’t a theatre review.

I read quite a lot of theatre reviews, and while the best are all sorts of stimulating, I kind of think: we all bloody sound like each other, don’t we? I mean, there’s some textural variety: Susannah Clapp is poetic; Michael Billington does puns; Quentin Letts hates theatre. But, as a rule, it’s difficult to see exactly how theatre criticism has stylistically shifted since Tynan’s time – or before that, even: for Ben Brantley, the most powerful theatre critic in the world, it is forever 1851.

And the world of blogging… I mean the pieces are longer and generally have fewer puns, but with a few obvious exceptions (you know who you are) the discourse really isn’t far from the print critics. Almost everything reads like an offshoot of academia – mannered and a bit posh, rarely audacious, only outrageous when somebody says something catty (usually a blogger) or clangingly un-PC (usually a hack).

This is not something that can be said to the same extent about film or food critics, especially not music critics, who – even if their golden era may have passed – have consistently remained at the vanguard of the new. Why isn’t it us? Probably for obvious reasons: terrifyingly similar cultural and academic backgrounds, and the fact theatre criticism is difficult to extricate from the sort of literary criticism we all learned in academia. But overwhelmingly my nagging concern is that we’re all worried about looking clever enough, that we’ve bought into the idea of theatre as highbrow entertainment and are terrified our readers or our subjects or, above all, our peers will call us out as frauds if we deviate from a decades-old template of erudition.

Am I just having a grumble? Hopefully not. The Stage has very kindly asked me back as a mentor on its Critic Search and this, surely, is the moment for the Ray Suzuki of theatre criticism to step forward. The judges are in the process of drawing up the shortlist of finalists. Here’s hoping that a brave new voice steps forward to make us extinct. We’re all a bunch of dinosaurs anyway.

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