This was written in Wiesbaden, but for reasons of time pressure and annoying internet connection issues, didn't get posted at the time, so the tenses are mostly wrong. More accounts of the work and issues seen and raised in Wiesbaden are expected shortly.
Hot on the heels of Helsinki, Postcards finds itself on yet another Euro-junket. This time under the auspices of the International Association of Theatre Critics’ Young Critics Forum. Like the FIT programmes in Munich and Helsinki (and shortly London and Estonia) the seminars are running alongside a theatre festival – in this case Wiesbaden’s biannale Neue Stücke aus Europa (New Plays From Europe).
Unlike the festivals under the FIT umbrella, the work here is not so fiercely avant garde. Also unlike the other festivals - and quite probably as a consequence of the more mainstream programming – there’s also some representation of the British Isles with Tim Crouch’s England and Sebastian Barry’s The Pride of Parnell Street both making appearances. As well as the Young Critics programme, there is also a Young Playwrights course running, so I had a lot of fun sitting in the huge marquee on the lawn outside Wiesbaden’s main theatre as familiar face after familiar face (Joel Horwood, Tim Crouch, Ben Musgrave, Mark Ravenhill) walked in and waved. By the point where I’d chatted to Mark – who is virtually worshipped as a God in eastern Europe – one of my colleagues leaned over and asked exactly how famous I was in London. If only they knew, dear reader (singular)...
The critics’ workshops here are also less intensive than those organised by FIT. Yes, they’re rigorous, and there’s more writing to be done here than there was in Helsinki, but at the same time, a lot of what we’re talking about is to do with issues in current theatre critical practice. The FIT Mobile Lab series is intended to speculate about and develop new ways of writing about theatre, and most specifically new forms of theatre, which are have yet to evolve a useful language (at least in English) with which to be described – one only has to think of the way that the term ‘site-specific’ is bandied about to imagine the problems. Here the format is geared more to discussing the issues that we face as critics in our respective countries.
What is fascinating is the way in which similarities and differences manifest themselves. Between the eight young critics and two seminar leaders, Germany, Sweden, America, Austria, Hungary, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Großbritannien are represented, and everyone is a “professional theatre critic”.
One immediately noticeable difference is how often we see plays. Few critics seem required to slog their way through as much stuff as we British. When one thinks of the number of plays people like Shuttleworth and Shenton see in a week – even if not to write up every single play – and compare it with the apparently more usual three-a-week rate of Sweden, the British do start to look somewhat overworked. But then the London theatre ecology alone is simply without parallel. Nowhere on earth appears to have such a ludicrously high number of theatres and theatrical spaces, nor as much work being premièred every week. Another reason that British critics are overworked, however, is that unlike apparently any of our European colleagues, we are required to cover a far wider range of work. None of my colleagues here are ever sent to see musicals, it seems, let alone Derren Brown at the Garrick.
It is strange to consider the extent to which simple logistics can impact on the way in which criticism is written and even imagined. For example, a Slovenian with one review to write a week, apparently infinitely patient editors and an elastic work count, with the option of seeing the work under review more than once (seemingly not uncommon in former Eastern Bloc countries), is in a very different position to someone having to file for the following morning’s paper after a show that ended at 10pm.
Once again I find myself experiencing the same concurrent waves of pride and concern for British criticism. Of course it’s great that there’s so much going on, and that we see so much. Yes, it’s pretty impressive that every day our critics turn out readable, detailed accounts of the previous night’s theatre (let’s not get into whether one agrees or not, nor start worrying about style or word count diminution right now). On the other hand, does this break-neck turnaround ensure that analysis is limited to snap judgement? With time for thoughts to percolate, wouldn’t even the best of our critics improve dramatically?
One solution, as recently practised by the Royal Court for the premiere of Contractions (in this case thanks to its limited audience capacity), is to have a staggered series of press nights, with all reviews embargoed until a pre-arranged date. This could also have the useful effect of reducing the impression that the British critic is some sort of scruffy pack animal, prone to comparing notes with colleagues during intervals and after shows.
On the other hand, there is still something oddly appealing about the excitement of a proper press night, and while critics are pretty rigorous about not comparing notes before they’ve written their reviews, there is something quite nice about being able to see one’s colleagues and discuss at least the previous night’s offering on which you have both already written. I do wonder though, if the fact of this slightly collegiate atmosphere does have the subliminal effect of limiting British criticism’s capacity for change, and indeed self-criticism.