If you felt annoyed by your neighbours would you write something down and pop it through their letter box, and also the letter boxes of everybody else in the street? Of course, you wouldn’t. So there is absolutely no reason why a reviewer should ever write a stinker of a review and then tag the artists in question on Twitter. Likely, or not, the company and artists will find their way to the review, but if it’s not a positive one, why draw their attention to it directly?
At best it’s bad manners and at worst it is cruel, particularly at the fringe where sometimes it feels as if the only real currency is how many seats you’ve filled and how many stars your show received.
Over the rest of the year it is perfectly possible for artists to avoid reading reviews until after the run is over. I know plenty who say they wait weeks or even months until after the run has ended and only then, when they have some distance from the project, will they read what the critics had to say.
That is probably good for both their art and their mental health. Some of the best conversations I’ve had with artists have taken place months after a show, when they’ve interrogated me about what I have written and we can talk about it in the clear light of day.
My personal preference is never to write about actors’ performances unless I can write about them positively. That’s because I’ve already moved on to the next show, but the actor in question has got to go out on stage again that night, possibly with my negative comments ringing in their ears.
Although, for obvious reasons, I do break that rule when the actor is playing Hamlet, or their name is above the title. Directors have often told me that they can tell post-press night which actors have been reading the reviews, and bouquets can sometimes have as negative an impact on a performance as brickbats.
But in Edinburgh it is nigh-on impossible to avoid reviews. Companies need them to sell their shows so are on the search for positive notices. But when they are negative and even when you haven’t sought them out, you can guarantee some joker will raise your one-star review, whether it’s in the Scotsman or on a tiny site buried deep somewhere on the web. Often in a crowded place, when you are surrounded by others whose shows are getting raves.
One of the unlovelier aspects of the Edinburgh Fringe is the way that for the month of August it divides artists into winners and losers. Tagging on Twitter plays into that, and it isn’t helpful. People will eventually find the review but it is up to them when and where they do so.
For the artists, it is always worth remembering wherever you are putting on work – but particularly on the fringe – that the reviewer’s write up of your show is only one opinion and just because they have a platform it doesn’t mean they have really engaged with your piece.
Sometimes it can come down to inexperienced reviewers writing about fledgling work, but even old hacks like me have moments of blindness when we don’t really see or read the show.
Or we can write about the show we wanted it to be rather than the one it is; or fringe exhaustion may have set in and you don’t have time to think about the work and process it properly before having to file and move on to the next one. Both artists and critics are often working in less-than-ideal conditions on the fringe and the work of both can suffer as result. It’s not an excuse, just an inevitable part of the equation.
But, if you don’t like a show you need to explain why. One of the most mysterious things about the Scotsman’s one-star reviews is how brief they are and therefore how tetchy and dismissive they sound.
Surely the one-star reviews should be given the greatest amount of space so the reviewer can explain in detail why they gave the show such a low rating? Failing to do so damages the potentially constructive relationship and ongoing conversation between critics and artists, and makes the latter feel as if they have been judged and executed without the evidence being properly laid out.
Maybe the lesson for artists is to take heed of the advice of director Yael Farber who I recall once talking in an interview about the gap between what you as an artist do and how the work is received. Not everything will be understood. “You can’t,” she declared, “become everybody’s whore.” Too right. It’s always worth remembering, but in Edinburgh more than ever.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest Edinburgh Fringe column every weekday morning at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner