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Kate Maltby: Theatre has much to lose when newspapers cut specialist critics

Fiona Mountford and Henry Hitchings
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It’s been more than a fortnight since Evening Standard critics Henry Hitchings and Fiona Mountford revealed on Twitter that they were being let go due to “necessary cost-cutting”. (Such is the employment landscape of 2019, when redundancy packages dictate what newly ex-employees can tweet about their departure). There was online outrage, tributes to both critics’ work… and then, it seems, acceptance.

The Standard has emphasised that theatre reviews will continue. Nick Curtis, a writer with decades of experience, will take over as chief theatre critic. He’ll be supported by Jessie Thompson, but it seems unlikely she will provide the same level of coverage that Mountford offered while she continues with the full load of her existing digital arts editor role. Curtis will also have a heavy roster of feature writing.

Clearly, coverage will shrink here, as everywhere. Andrzej Lukowski pointed out last week that it’s now not uncommon for papers to have only one permanent critic, supported by a team of revolving freelances – but that’s little panacea. When those freelances revolve too often, the readership doesn’t get to know or trust specific critical voices. Nor do young critics get to develop unless they’re being sent to see a wide range of work, instead of a snippet or a perceived ‘specialism’. Criticism is – notoriously – subjective. Only with a plethora of voices across the publishing spectrum can every theatregoer find someone they regularly trust.

Andrzej Lukowski: Newspaper theatre criticism is bloodied, but unlikely to disappear

Something else happens when arts desks are forced to do with fewer critics. At the Standard, two dedicated critics have been replaced by staffers who will remain – by necessity – deeply embedded in handling the paper’s relationships with PRs, producers and stars. That proximity, wherever it is found, is as dangerous to theatre criticism as the slash-and-burn approach that now governs newspaper layouts.

Some of the greatest arts writers are primarily interviewers. They instinctively empathise with their subject – presenting an artist’s vision in the best possible light. Great critics can’t be as generous. They don’t get too close to the industry. They are journalists, in the great sceptical tradition of that trade – not PRs. They don’t go to press-night parties, or hang out with billionaires at glitzy, producer-sponsored awards ceremonies. A dispassionate critic should experience a new production just as most audiences will. And that doesn’t mean two weeks after he or she has spent time embedded with a director explaining his vision.

That need for detachment also demonstrates why theatre criticism in non-specialist publications still matters. Much of the best theatre writing is now written for love, by people closely embedded with the industry. But we still need critics – paid, supported, and committed to theatre as an art – who speak to the non-specialist audience.

The brave new world of shrinking arts budgets doesn’t just mean ever more bite-sized criticism. It means the end of ethical screens in papers between the writers who trade on access and writers who trade on honesty. The arts world isn’t always fond of critics who don’t do PR. But you’ll miss us when we’re gone.

Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby

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