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Natasha Tripney: Critics need to remember their power and ditch the toxic adolescent commentary

Sienna Miller and Jack O'Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson Sienna Miller and Jack O'Connell in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at the Apollo Theatre, London. Photo: Johan Persson
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Lyn Gardner has already done a very good job of covering the meat of last week’s Widening the Lens debate on diversity in criticism at the National Theatre.

Though a large number of issues were raised during the Act for Change event, what resonated most for me was the way it highlighted the responsibilities of the critic.

As Alice Saville said so eloquently in her recent Exeunt piece on sexual harassment in the industry, critics are part of the system and so can perpetuate a culture in which women are still all too often turned into objects to be violated or venerated, discussed purely in relation to male characters, or simply overlooked.

Similarly, critics are in a position to question and challenge such things. In all of this language is key. The language critics deploy in their reviews and the choices they make in regards to the things they hone in on and the things they omit, contribute to the way a work is perceived in the culture at large.

The reviews for Young Frankenstein – which includes a scene that seems to suggest that being raped is basically fine if your rapist has a big enough penis – are a case in point, but they’re just one of many recent examples I can think of.

Because, let’s not skip around this, there’s a dismayingly adolescent quality to the criticism of some mainstream media outlets that intensifies whenever the work under discussion involves sex or nudity.

It might be 2017 but a flash of thigh still sets some critics sniggering, while two actors of different ethnic backgrounds playing siblings apparently still has the capacity to unsettle and baffle.

Just look at the reviews for Benedict Andrews’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. The Telegraph, after confirming that Jack O’Connell’s Brick spends a substantial amount of time naked, adds that “his co-star Sienna Miller bravely does the (in)decent thing too, joining him in her birthday suit come the most unbuttoned climax the West End has seen for yonks”.

The Daily Mail was less coy, stating that “the chief reason for catching the new West End version of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is seeing Sienna Miller remove her kit”.

This is just a single example. There are many others I could have picked. It shouldn’t take revelations like those of the past couple of weeks for it to be abundantly clear why this kind of commentary is toxic.

When a high-profile show opens there’s an ungainly scrabble to be first in with your opinion. The rush to deliver the first night verdict has historically always been part of the job, and this has only been intensified by the need to keep feeding the insatiable hunger of the internet.

There’s an inarguable thrill in this, I won’t lie, but it’s not a situation that leaves much room for reflection, nuanced analysis – or care.

While some might disagree, I don’t believe writing about a performer’s body is off limits. Bodies are part of an actor’s toolkit, and it is a pleasure to be able to write creatively about sweat and skin and strength.

If nudity is central to a performance, it should be possible to discuss this, intelligently. But we have an absolute duty of care as critics when we do this. There is no excuse for the callous ‘fat girl’ comments that cropped up in a British Theatre Guide review of Jess and Joe Forever this summer (though this was subsequently edited out).

Writing like that is not only ugly, it’s lazy. (While we’re on the subject of laziness, can we please put the word ‘feisty’, as a description of a woman of strength and resolve, in the bin. And burn the bin.)

What the Widening the Lens debate did so well is provide a reminder that this is all about power, who wields it and how. To be a critic, and an editor, is to be in a position of power and it’s essential never to forget this.

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