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Mark Shenton: Critical disagreement can be a very very very healthy thing

Critics were divided in their opinions on Martin McDonagh's new play A Very Very Very Dark Matter. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Critics have their opinions, but ultimately, it’s always the reader who decides whether or not to act on them. That decision may be based on past experience of agreeing with them – or the precise opposite.

I remember the days when Nicholas de Jongh held a ruthless (and frequently perverse) sway over the pages of the Evening Standard. He was an invariably infallible contrarian, but his disdain for something meant I’d almost inevitably love it, and vice versa. It was a reliable barometer because I knew where he stood in relation to my own tastes.

The most useful way to read a critic is in the context of their other work. That’s why readers need to build a rapport with them before they can judge either way. The accumulated online chatter of Twitter, bulletin boards and blogs only goes so far and can be meaningless white noise unless you invest in following the same voices regularly, so at least you know something of the person’s taste behind those 280 character snippets.

But, as the noise gets increasingly loud, critics and commentators find themselves amplifying disagreements and grievances with each other and the world. I acknowledge that I have been guilty of this myself.

In a media landscape in which critics are under threat as never before, this may not be a good look and could be hastening our irrelevance. An alternative perspective, though, is that it proves how robust critics are – that we can rise above the fray and participate in an open conversation with each other.

Recently I saw two examples of this online, from critics and editors who work for the arts desk of The Times.

After Ann Treneman’s four-star review of A Very Very Very Dark Matter at the Bridge Theatre, Nancy Durrant – a commissioning editor and arts interviewer on the paper – saw it and tweeted her own reaction:

But then Treneman herself didn’t fully agree with her colleague Dominic Maxwell, who had reviewed Company extremely favourably for the paper, or indeed the audience seated around her, tweeting after she saw that show:

(Given that she herself is American, this is not as US-phobic as it sounds).

This is also interesting because it proves that critics don’t write in a vacuum.We respond not just to the show, but also to the audience around us. And the collective response of the audience ultimately matters even more than what an individual critic thinks.

On normal first nights, this is difficult to gauge, as the audience is not a typical one, but is packed with investors and friends who want to rally support and encouragement. But Treneman attended a regular performance and the audience’s “mega” response helped alienate her enjoyment rather than encourage it. Certainly, there’s nothing lonelier than being in an audience who are going crazy when you are not.

Also, no two performances are ever alike and she may have seen a particularly energised one, but there’s an interesting gear change to an audience’s reaction when they’ve already been told a show is a hit: they feel especially lucky to be there, and may (over) react accordingly.

Now The Times is putting its review to the test, and inviting readers to comment on whether they agree with Maxwell’s original in a poll.

So critics are effectively being reviewed themselves and held accountable for their views. It could be a means of establishing a new democracy in theatre criticism. Or could it be another nail in its coffin?

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