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Lyn Gardner: Is honesty always the best policy?

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We’ve all been there. A friend has written, or directed, or has a role in a new production. You’ve been to see it and now you wish you hadn’t. It was so terrible you could hardly bear to sit through to the end. So, what should you say afterwards in the dressing room or down the pub? The question is: how do we talk about shows we don’t like, to people we do? Are there better, more honest and constructive ways to go about it?

It’s such a tricky situation that I’m interested to know how you have handled this when it has arisen. Either as that friend in the audience, or the best and worst responses you’ve heard from friends while working on a show that bombed.

To say nothing and ignore the elephant in the room is plain rude, but it certainly isn’t the moment to quip: “Well, at least nobody died.”

If you just gush about how wonderful the costumes were, everyone will know you really hated the rest of it. But even if the show is a real stinker, when is the moment for truth-telling? Is insincerity the best policy?

Many years ago, I witnessed first-hand a long and close friendship being completely wrecked by too much truth. At the post-show party a successful playwright gave detailed notes to her friend whose husband had written the play. She would have done well to heed Thumper’s advice in Bambi: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nothin’ at all.”

That’s why the roles of the friend and the theatre critic are so very different. While critical friends can be helpful to any artist, the friend who supports you unconditionally through the best and worst of times has quite another role to play, particularly at times of professional crisis.

When I wrote a piece about failure for The Stage at the start of the year, many who contributed were willing to talk about their sometimes very public fiascos but were also concerned about being respectful to others who had been involved in the productions. After all, what you might have viewed as a career low could well have been the pinnacle for some of the others involved.

Fail again, fail better: theatre’s high-flyers on flops and fiascos

In any case, while the run is on, those in the company have to convince themselves that it is all worthwhile, otherwise they would never make that first entrance each night. But it’s not uncommon in interviews long after the event for those involved in a production – particularly actors – to admit the failings of the show, and sometimes even themselves. But it’s not a friend’s job to tell them after press night. Better to leave that to us critics.

But even with critics there are ways and means and places where bad news should be delivered. I’m inclined to believe that it should never be on Twitter. I’m always more than happy to tweet my love of a show, but if I don’t like it, I feel it’s better to keep quiet than broadcast it loudly on social media.

Twitter is far too blunt an instrument to talk with any nuance about a play, and as last week’s Twitter spat between composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and opera critics Rupert Christiansen and Hugh Canning demonstrated, things can quickly escalate.

Canning had publicly agreed with a review by Christiansen in which the Telegraph critic had described Turnage’s score for an opera adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s children’s book Coraline as being “grey, sluggish and lacking in either charm or spookiness”. Turnage responded by announcing on Twitter his retirement from the genre, which would be a mighty loss to opera.

Honesty is the only way a critic can truly be a good friend to an artist, but no critic wants to be in a situation where their words lead artists to consider quitting the profession. Yet, as that social media exchange shows, the rawness that artists feel in the wake of opening a show – in the case of Coraline to both good and bad reviews – is intense, and any negative criticism can be wounding. Particularly when it is magnified so publicly on Twitter.

But there would be no point in having critics at all if they only ever wrote positively about shows or confined themselves to description. Our job is to say what friends cannot (even if they may be thinking it), and do so in a thoughtful, sensitive and constructive way. Although it may sometimes cause pain, it can also prove helpful in the longer term.

Many artists take the perfectly reasonable decision never to read reviews and all critics would respect that. But others who – broaching the critical response months after a project has finished, when they have moved on to something else – may find on occasion that the critic saw something in the show that is actually worth knowing. That can be far more valuable than all the post-show bouquets in the world.

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