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Mark Shenton: Can critics and artists be friends?

Critic Kenneth Tynan (left) was famously appointed to become literary manager for Laurence Olivier’s (right) National Theatre
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The theatre world is quite a small one and I spend a lot of time immersed in it, both as a critic and an audience member. Over the years, I’ve become friends with some of those that make the art I love so much. Even though critics are sometimes seen as being on the ‘other’ side of the artistic fence, I don’t see it as an oppositional relationship. We both want the same thing: to be able to participate in the making and watching of great shows.

But the reality is that not every show can be great, and critics can’t and shouldn’t spare their punches when they’re not. It is only ever a personal reaction – other people may feel very differently, not least the people who made the work.

Reflecting on the mostly negative round of reviews for his production of Macbeth at the National recently, director Rufus Norris commented to the Times: “It’s part of the job of an artist that you offer stuff up, and sometimes it’s lauded, and sometimes it’s not, and when it’s not, it ain’t comfortable. It’s not nice to be hammered or traduced or whatever way you put it. It’s interesting, actually. There’s sort of two experiences. There’s the experience of getting hammered for something and you quietly think they’re sort of right – there’s something about it that isn’t quite right. And then there’s the other one where you go, ‘Actually, I really stand by this piece of work’. And that’s painful in a very different way.”

I was recently blocked on social media by someone I regarded as a friend, after negative comments I’d made about a show they are in. I understand the impulse and I readily acknowledge that they might prefer not to see this kind of stuff on their social media channels, and that their need for self-preservation and company solidarity might have to come first.

As Lyn Gardner wrote in a column about the impact of negative reactions: “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.”

Being both a critic and a friend is fraught with danger

Being both a critic and a friend, however, is fraught with danger, not least on Twitter. Gardner also wisely counselled that social media may not be the best forum for this kind of exchange. “Twitter is far too blunt an instrument to talk with any nuance about a play,” she said. Referring to a spat between composer Mark-Anthony Turnage and critics Rupert Christiansen and Hugh Canning, she added: “Things can quickly escalate… 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 is intense, and any negative criticism can be wounding. Particularly when it is magnified so publicly on Twitter.”

That’s definitely a lesson learned. And it made me wonder whether it is safe for either party to have these sorts of friendships at all.

As Gardner again remarked: “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.”

Some critics avoid anything other than formal interactions with theatremakers. Others regularly cross the creative divide between critics and practitioners – Brian Logan, who is a long-time comedy critic for the Guardian, is also artistic director of Camden People’s Theatre; Stewart Pringle, who has just taken up a new position at the National Theatre as dramaturg, used to run the Old Red Lion and has reviewed for both Time Out and The Stage.

We all have potential conflicts of interest between life and work. The Stage contributor Matt Trueman wrote a column for The Stage in which he admitted: “I have lost a friend over a review. Years back, Time Out sent me to a fringe show directed by an old university mate, a fresh twist on a Greek tragedy. I hated it – as much for its old-school Royal Shakespeare Company declamation as its generic Middle Eastern setting – and wrote as much. Cue a furious text of complaint. Quality-wise, that was never a two-star show, it said. It must have been personal. We’ve not really spoken since.”

But the problem can’t always be avoided. “Close friends have also worked their way to bigger jobs in bigger theatres – shows that need reviewing and can’t just be skipped,” he said, and concluded: “The best way to review friends is to treat them as you would anyone else: carefully, considerately, ethically. I am not a robot, after all.”

For me, it depends on a lot of factors. And rules of engagement may need to be drawn up. Early on in my close friendship with singer-songwriter Scott Alan, for example, we agreed that I would never review his work.

Yet I’ve also been proud to have been honest and true to my job as well as theirs with other friends in the business. And I’ve been gratified by the maturity with which people have approached it. After I tweeted that I wanted to gouge my eyes out after watching one show a friend was in, she replied, publicly: “Don’t do that – you have beautiful eyes.” She accepted the show just wasn’t for me.

Another time, I reviewed the Broadway opening of a play directed by a different friend. The day after the opening, we met for coffee. He told me the press agent had sent around the reviews that morning, with the best at the top and the worst at the bottom. And he said mine was at the bottom. Yet we were still able to be friends.

But when another friend found herself producing a show I didn’t like, she told me that she had cried. “I thought we were friends,” she said. And I replied: “Yes, and friends tell each other the truth.”

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