Mark Shenton: Are critics crucial to the creative process, or talking out their arses?
There are, as anyone looking at a poster for an Edinburgh show this year will know, more critics than ever. In the Hamlet cartoon in The Stage last week, a sheep hands out a flyer to his show that says: "As you can see, my show got a ***** review from IncrediblyOsbscureWebsiteThatNobodyWillEverCheckUpon.com.”
However, the explosion of these reviewing outlets has been matched by an existential threat to the professional ranks of theatre criticism, in which expert opinion is no longer being financially rewarded sufficiently for all but a few to make a living from it. While the internet has afforded a broadcast platform to anyone and everyone who has an opinion, this does not necessarily mean they are being heard. Notably, the question I'm most frequently asked by aspiring independent writers is how to get traffic to their sites.
On the one hand, this explosion of criticism is healthy. It's great that so many people are taking the time and trouble to engage with the theatre and what they see there. But at the same time, there's a profound issue with accountability. An independent writer is accountable to no one but themselves. While a professional critic will be subject to editorial control by a commissioning editor and checks by a sub-editor, there's no such protection in the 'wild west' of self-publishing.
As a critic who is used to having their work subject to editing, I value the process: it's not infallible, but it can catch and correct errors if and when I make them, and also guide and steer me should I be inconsistent or not provide enough context.
But the great thing about the critical conversation nowadays is that it goes in several directions at once; critics no longer have the field to themselves, and instead of being the first and last word on a production, we are only part of the discussion around it.
But some artists are determined to fight back, and are questioning the critics' role publicly. One of the Traverse hits at Edinburgh this year has been Wild Bore, in which three comedians use a device of talking out of their arses (literally) to quote from some of the negative reviews they've received. In it, Adrienne Truscott makes the routine observation, "Opinions are like assholes. Everyone’s got one." As Brian Logan put it in his review for the Guardian: "Wild Bore is a wild, wonderful and withering summons for more opinions from a wider range of voices. For less certainty and more open minds."
And the show offers its own deep provocation and immunisation against whatever reviews it receives. As Matt Trueman put it for WhatsOnStage: "The whole show dares us to take it seriously even as it dares us to dismiss it. It throws down a gauntlet: review this, chaps. Either we blow smoke up their bottoms or we dump on them from on high. We're damned either way and by harvesting a script from its own reviews, Wild Bore can absorb any critical response. Whatever we write, it's just fuel for the fire. It's a case of artists setting their own parameters, reclaiming artistic control.”
Yet what's the alternative? A world without critics?
When a number of LA critics were laid off from their papers in 2009, the artistic directors of three of LA’s leading theatres wrote an eloquent joint letter decrying it. “It may seem somewhat ironic that leaders of arts institutions would come out in favour of further criticism. It would be like fire hydrants getting together to come out in favour of more dogs." Yet that is precisely what they did. "We depend on the voices of critics and arts reporters to help create a conversation with our community. If we let these voices slowly and quietly disappear, the consequences are simple and inevitable: fewer people will know about the productions, fewer people will purchase tickets and, eventually, fewer theatres will exist."
So, to adapt the old adage: “If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”, if a theatre production opens and there is no one to list or review it any more, has it actually happened? Of course it has; but reviews act as a permanent record of an ephemeral art, and they also encourage people to attend and support it before it passes. We lose that at our peril. And artists are realising it, even if editors and proprietors aren’t.
When the Young Vic won three Critics' Circle Theatre awards in 2013, David Lan commented: "To receive these awards from critics is helpful. One of the things the critics do is create confidence in a piece of work. There are some other ways of creating that confidence – partly the reputation of the theatre and partly the reputation of the actors. Not many people think too much about the directors, but they’ll also think about the writers. One of the ways you try to talk to your audience is say ‘it’s not too big a risk’ or ‘it’s worth taking a risk on’ and what the critics can do when they write about a show is create that confidence in it."
If confidence in critics is undermined, in the way that Trump, for instance, routinely dismisses all but favourable news outlets as "fake news", there may be no one left to offer that sort of validation.