When I teach criticism, one of the first things I tell students is that it’s impossible. The very process of translating a multifaceted, ephemeral, emotive event into words is, by the very nature of language, an act of failure – even before word counts, deadlines and all-round inarticulacy come into play.
Reviews fall short. They can never say all they want to say or do all they want to do. Theatre will not be pinned down. Criticism is impossible. That’s what keeps it interesting.
I’ve done this for a decade now and, for a long time, I clung to that. At some point, though – I don’t know when – it started to feel doable. Comfortable, even. Faced with the fixed stare of a blank Word document, I knew I had techniques and tactics, formula and phrases enough to get by. Fewer and fewer shows left me stumped, searching for ways to make sense of what I’d seen, and a few hundred words came to seem so constrictive as to be reductive. I began to feel a bit ‘on repeat’. British theatre is a small patch at the best of times, and criticism’s scope is only contracting.
Coincidentally, I’ve just read a book about a critic struggling with similar issues. I’d picked up Tom Kristensen’s Havoc, an obscure 90-year-old Danish classic, in a charity shop in Brixton, because Karl Ove Knausgaard was quoted on the front cover. In it, a 30-something literary critic, Ole Jastrau, cracks up mid-career. “His job, of course, was impossible – altogether impossible,” the hack reflects. “A person could not be completely honest when he had to earn a living. But wasn’t he honest, honest in his reviews? Yes, he was.”
The critic must be true to themselves and fair to those they represent. That can chip away at your tastes until you succumb to a form of Stockholm syndrome, cheering an art form that’s taken you hostage
Goodness, did that chime. To write professionally is to write responsibly. The critic has a duty both to be true to themselves and to be fair to those they represent. That can chip, chip, chip away at your tastes, one eroding the other, until you succumb to something like Stockholm syndrome, cheering an art form that’s taken you hostage. “Why, then, had he stagnated, become sterile?” Jastrau asks of himself. “Why?”
Why indeed – and, moreover, what to do about it? I’ve been lucky to do this for a living for so long, but I have been craving a change for some time. Kristensen’s critic spirals: Jastrau lurches into alcoholism, lechery and wilful self-destruction. I’m saving those joys for my mid-50s, so I thought I’d roll the dice and try something new – something I don’t fully know how to do.
Later this month, I start a new role in creative development at Sonia Friedman Productions, and I can’t wait. I’ve long admired the company’s work – its hunger to bring new audiences into theatre, its determination to reform the West End and to marry artistic ambition with popular appeal – but I’m really excited to start working with and alongside artists for the first time in years.
If criticism is a privilege, artists make it so. Because from the comfort of the stalls, all art looks improbable, if not impossible. That, I suspect, is what keeps it interesting.
Matt Trueman is a theatre critic, journalist and blogger. Read more of his columns at thestage.co.uk/author/matt-trueman