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Mark Shenton: Critics are important, but they are certainly not irreplaceable

Dance critic Judith Mackrell is leaving The Guardian
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No one can see everything: it just isn’t possible. It’s one of the reasons we need critics: they see things so that you don’t have to.

In the last week, I missed two openings, and now I won’t have to trouble myself catching up with them. In the Sunday Times, Maxie Szalwinska wrote of The Gronholm Method at the Menier: “This is peanut theatre: ultimately unsatisfying, easy to wolf down after a drink.”

And in Lyn Gardner’s review of Confidence at Southwark Playhouse for the Guardian, she wrote: “One wag has worked out that if every follower of the YouTube star Tanya Burr bought a ticket to see her professional acting debut, it would fill Southwark Playhouse for 87 years. But Rob Drummer’s dreary, ill-pitched revival of Judy Upton’s 20-year-old end-of-the-pier play is more likely to empty the house.”

This was Gardner’s last review for the Guardian, after some 23 years writing for the paper; and it wasn’t so much dispiriting that she’s seen yet another lousy show, but that she will no longer be the canary we send down the mine to stop us from having to see them.

One critic doesn’t and shouldn’t exercise that degree of power alone – but both of these reviews appeared among others that came to roughly the same conclusions, even if they didn’t express them with quite the same devastating pay-off. Part of the power of these reviews wasn’t just the elegance of their writing, but also the fact that both came from ‘trusted’ sources, or at least trusted by me – not all reviews or reviewers are equal.

I know the tastes of both writers, and can position myself in relation to them. And this is why when it came to the Edinburgh Fringe, Gardner was the first critic I always went to – her long experience of the terrain, and her indefatigable searching out of the new and exciting, meant that she knew just where to look for it. I sincerely hope that this expertise will be drawn upon by another outlet this August.

You read critics not just as a consumer report to find out if it is worth spending time and money, but also for something deeper

But you read critics not just as a consumer report to find out if it is worth spending time and money, but also for something deeper. In Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, one character brilliantly says that they read book reviews (if not the book themselves) “in order to keep abreast of my ignorance”. I never have the time to watch television, but I read TV reviews for just that reason. The same is true of dance reviews (and it saddens me that, following on from Gardner’s enforced departure, the Guardian has just announced that its formidable dance critic Judith Mackrell is leaving her berth at the paper, since she would provide me with insight and access to a world of which I know little).

But no critic is irreplaceable. And it’s important and healthy, as the Guardian has asserted regarding its future plans, to find new voices.

We still do not have a black or Asian theatre critic working in any mainstream, non-specialist outlet, although it is encouraging that the independent Critics of Colour Collective was recently launched to support the development of critics from diverse backgrounds.

Still, in a world where everyone no longer just holds an opinion but has a means of publishing it, we are not short of voices. When I interviewed Ben Brantley, theatre critic of the New York Times, a few years ago for The Stage, he said of this proliferation of blogs and social media: “To some degree it’s healthy. If you’re willing to put the effort into it – and it’s really not much more than a matter of a few clicks – you can sample different points of view to find one that most naturally accords with your own.”

But what of the future? I asked him. “We are still so much in the early days in the way that the internet works – but eventually I believe there will be a shake-out and a hunger for vetted, authoritative journalism. It’s very much in flux and it is hard to predict at the moment what is going to happen. I feel very lucky to actually have a forum and a job. But there have always been critics, since the Athenians, so I assume there will always be some sort of market for it. It’s just that we’re in the twilight of a certain tradition of it.”

Brantley has, since we spoke in 2015, been joined by Jesse Green as joint chief critic of the New York Times, which is another adjustment in how that paper is positioning its coverage; though it might be pointed out that it now has two white, middle-aged gay men in charge in-stead of just one. Theirs are two voices I respect and trust. But it is time for more diversity and I hope more outlets will embrace that possibility.

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