Tuesday 29 May 2012

Embedded III

[needs an edit - possibly a big one]

Catherine Love has written an excellent Next Piece on the subject of “Embedded Critics”. Or rather, she really specifically hasn't.

Now that I've got the first of my pieces about my visit to Iraqi Kurdistan up, hopefully the reason I originally chose to use the term “embedded” is more apparent.

It was primarily intended as an ironic reference to the “embedded” journalists seen during the invasion of Iraq and I used it fully conscious of the compromise and partial-failure-of-journalism it implied. As such, part of me wonders whether I shouldn't hurry up and find a new term for what we're all discussing before a slightly cynical joke gets picked up and run with and the whole possible enterprise founders thanks to semantics.

Or maybe the problematic nature of the term is helpful. Maybe we need that cynicism about the project as the grit in the oyster.

But anyway, that isn't the subject. Today's actual topic is best presented in Love's own words:
“[The] issue of distance was not something that had previously worried me... 
“[after talking to the artist] I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects. 
“There is the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that you will be unable to distinguish whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to.

“There are even occasions [...] when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.”

The question these observations suggest to me is: "Can there ever be an ideal standpoint for a critic?"  I hope to explain what I see as being the current Prevailing Way of Doing Things, to question some of its underlying assumptions, and to argue that there is no such thing as an ideal position for a critic.

It's something I've been thinking about a lot recently. In fact, this question runs all the way from Forest Fringe at The Gate, through the Embedded essays, through Three Kingdoms, and the mucky attendant sub-debate about “Xenophobia”, up to reviewing different theatrical cultures at The Globe (on which subject I've written a guest column for The Stage [will link to actual article when/if it's online]).

The question “can there ever be an ideal standpoint?” covers an awful lot of ground.

Thanks to having written “embedded”, I'd recently been thinking about the question in relation to the potential positive aspects of a closer proximity between critic and artist. It is interesting at this juncture to note the article that originally prompted Micaael Billington's neat blog on the subject back in 2007 (significantly also the year when the tectonic plates under theatre criticism really began to shift): Did someone mention courtiers? by the Guardian's art critic Jonathan Jones.

The situation Jones describes, both historically and in 2007, is that of an “art world” where the critic is more-often-than-not a friend of the artist. He concedes results, the greatest being Vasari's The Lives of the Artists, but Jones is plainly writing from a position of great irritation.

It is interesting to note that, several years down the line, in Twitter'12, Jones is one of the few critics from another discipline who regularly breaks into my theatre-centric feed with articles like his recent description of paintings by Damien Hirst as “Dictatorship Art” or his attack on The Shard last year as “a flashing warning sign of disease, a terrible vision of the future we have been building”. Granted, this is partly because in these phenomena he is writing about significantly less niche subjects than theatre, but I suspect it's also because he's engaging in some very polemical writing. One can virtually see the fizz of his pleasure at his own moral indignation rising off the articles.

What might interest us more however is that, as Billington rightly points out, theatre criticism has hitherto nearly always functioned in almost exactly the opposite way. This is why it looks so odd when Quentin Letts or Tim Walker attempt to paint “Theatre” (including its critics) as some sort of powerful metropolitan elite monolith which is to be feared and mistrusted. It looks odd because the dynamic between theatre and theatre critic has always contained (rather “theatrically” at times) an element of the adversarial system; at its worst, this is represented by the critic through a pantomime of wariness at being “sucked in”, “taken for a ride”, or “tricked”.

While it is certainly worth taking Jones's exaggerated concerns about the art world on board, it is also worth bearing in mind the successes that he (and Billington, re: his definitive critical biography of Pinter) also highlight.


The issue of whether or not the critic is compromised by personal dealings with the artist is only one aspect of this wider question of an ideal critical standpoint, though.

After all, Love's article isn't about “friendship” with the artist, or even about “immersion” in their process (though “Immersive Criticism” has a ring to it, doesn't it?), it's simply about talking to the makers of a particular show prior to seeing that show.

In MSM theatre criticism (which we shouldn't forget was just about the only theatre criticism we'd got outside of prohibitively expensive academic books and journals until a few years ago), it is the generally accepted current practice that if one critic interviews a company/writer/director/actor prior to a specific production then generally speaking the paper's *other* critic is sent to review that production (designers and stage managers are seldom interviewed. A pity; I suspect many of them are charming and might well shed a good deal of light on oft o'erlooked aspects of a production – Matt Trueman's forthcoming interview with Tom Scutt for the Stage will be, I suspect, a forward-looking exception (although I notice with displeasure that The Spectator *of all places* also has an interview with Scutt online, so maybe people do interview designers all the time and I've just not noticed. Anyway...)).

This approach introduces several elephants into a room that has already resembled an elephantarium for some time. Off the top of my head:

  • It ignores all previous interviews the critic in question might have had with the company/writer/director/actor (CWDA).
  • It ignores whether or not the critic is familiar with all/some/any/none of the CWDA's previous work.
  • It essentially ignores whether or not the critic is even in sympathy with the CWDA's aims/objectives.
  • It ignores the fact that if only one of (typically two, plus perhaps another arts writer or two) the critics at the paper *does* like CWDA's work, then the CWDA are either going to be subject to a preview or review that might take a fairly dim view of their efforts
  • It also discounts the possibility that the critic and maker know each other already.

But, we can see the logic. Or at least, we can see the logic if we accept the model of critic-as-rigorously-unprepared-spectator who never talks to artists outwith professional engagements.

Except, by this point, even that logic already looks a bit flawed.


Another key plank in the current orthodoxy of How To Do Theatre Criticism is “going in blind”.

I frequently refer to, but can't actually find to reference [if you know it, please comment a link], a blog in which Lyn Gardner says that she emphatically does not read programme notes. At least, never before seeing a show, but the process of “going in blind” can (would have to?) start well before that (see Tassos Stevens passim).

Obviously it is linked to the orthodoxy detailed above whereby one critic talks to the CWDA beforehand, and *the other critic* reviews their work, but there are also the lengths to which a critic might seek to avoid “knowing anything before they go in”.

As far as I can guess, this is linked to the British enterprise of the critic *acting as an “ordinary” member of the public*. This pretence strikes me as perhaps the most curious and contradictory aspect of Britain's reviewing culture – it also lies behind a lot of the more specious self-justification on the blogosphere. It is also linked to the phenomenon of the critical pantomime of “not being taken in”.

The reason I think it is “a pretence”, “curious” and “contradictory” is this:

Most people base their theatregoing choices on *preferences*.

Granted, most people I know that go to the theatre also have a professional interest and so their “preference” often tends to be “seeing as much as possible”. So I'm guessing a bit here. But, assuming that the NT and the Royal Court and the RSC and etc. etc. etc. don't sell *all* their tickets to theatremakers and critics, there must be a reasonably sizeable public who *choose* to see plays.

It is my contention that these people do not go to see everything that opens. That they do not go to the theatre four, five, six, or more times a week. That they might only *choose* to see one or two shows a month. Further, it is my contention that to maximise the likelihood of their enjoying the performance that they choose to attend, these *theatregoers* *choose* what to see by taking into consideration a variety of *factors*.

These factors might typically include:

  • The theatre where the performance is happening – they might like the sort of work that a particular theatre seems to be doing; it might be a theatre that is situated particularly conveniently.
  • The fact that they have seen and enjoyed previous work by the CWDA.
  • The subject of the performance.
  • Something they've read about the piece which makes it sound like it will appeal to them.

Now, *none* of these factors really apply to those theatre critics currently working within the general orthodoxy of the MSM. Or rather, they might, but in a funny way it seems like they're not meant to/allowed to. Or because they get hampered by hierarchy. Or financial considerations.

And then, beyond the slightly curious ways in which critics find themselves fitted to plays, we get back to the difficulties of “going in blind”. Now, if you're a mainstream critic and *you've* chosen to see a show, there could be a variety of reasons: it might be the “biggest” opening on a given night and despite being chief critic for, say, forty years, you're still not above territorial pissing; it might be by a CWDA who you particularly admire; it might be in a building which does the sort of work you like; or it might just be that you feel a weary sense of professional obligation.

All of which presupposes a certain amount of prior knowledge. After all, you don't get to be in a position to choose what you review when you're writing for a British newspaper without at least a considerable amount of prior knowledge (unless you're the chief critic for the Sunday Telegraph, the Sunday Times or the Daily Mail, in which case God knows why you're even writing about theatre at all). None of this is going in blind.

The alternative is that you *get sent*. Plays are divvied up, and your lot is to trot along to the ones that haven't been taken by your elders. This makes going in blind a lot easier, should you wish to.

My question, in this section, though, is: Is going in blind *best*? (I should at this stage apologise to any blind readers of Postcards for trotting out this stock phrase so many times without once thinking about what it really means or implies. Sorry)

There are advantages, certainly. I absolutely won't deny that there are advantages to going into a play with virtually no pre-knowledge. These are, in fact, advantages that might be almost entirely unique to you, the critic-who-has-been-sent. And this is perhaps worth bearing in mind for the-critic-who-has-been-sent. Because you're about the only person who's ever going to see that show those conditions of complete surprise (I'm talking here about work by a CWDA – none of whom you've ever seen do anything before).

Ok, I'm exaggerating – there might people who will go to the theatre at random, friends of the CWDA who know that they're going and try to avoid seeing anything telling them about the show, people who just block book their theatre tickets at a theatre in advance and take pot luck – but generally, the critic who turns up to a show with no specific expectations/impressions is almost unique among theatregoers (perhaps not least because they'll have least *invested* in the outcome – they haven't paid, and *will* *get paid* whatever they think of the damn thing).

And after all, if you (let's pretend *you*'re a critic) really like something, and review it favourably, probably some people might buy tickets on your say-so. And, well, they'll have read your review for a start, so they'll start out where you've apparently “left off”; they'll go into the show with all the knowledge that you came out of it with and saw fit to share. Plus, quite possibly, they'll go in with *your opinion* in the form of a star-rating out of five. Indeed, in a worse case scenario, it might even have been only the star-rating that they've read; all they know is that can expect to enjoy it 80 per cent.

So at this point, we start to see just what a pantomime *not reading the programme notes beforehand* could be construed to be. And after all that, the chances are that the “regular punter” sitting next to you *will* be reading the programme notes before the, uh, curtain rises .


Beyond this, there does seem to be a bit of a yearning in Brit Crit for the tabla rasa; for being able to eschew not only prejudice but also foreknowledge, and even just plain knowledge sometimes. Most notably, this issue rears its head again and again in the thorny issue of the Previously Seen Production...

The Previously Seen Production is the professional critic's stock-in-trade. Whatever anyone might say about being able to write well, insatiable curiosity, a point of view, or whatever... at the end of the day the way that (I've seen some) critics win arguments is by belligerently counting up the number of times they've seen Hamlet (or whatever), smacking it down on the table and saying: “top that” (we might idly observe that we saw a certain amount of this sort of arguing being done by and on behalf of the closest-to-Death of the White Male critics during the 3K thing).

And, of course – what with theatre being a live medium, and theory being no substitute for experience – one can in a sense, only ever be as good at theatre you've seen and the connections you're able to make between things you've actually lived through. Ok, so you might be able to connect the things you see up to other stuff you've read, to music you've heard, to art you've seen, even to stuff you've read *about* plays or to other plays you've read, but I'd contend that these strike you very differently to the performances you've witnessed (shared?) in person.

At the same time, for all that knowledge there is a price, and that price is Jack's complete lack of surprise.

And I'm not just talking about seeing many directors' “different” versions of Hedda, or Hamlet, or Happy Days. I suppose I also mean types-of-things.

What you get is a critic able to write something off as “unoriginal” because they happened to see something a bit like like it thirty years earlier. The value of this ability is debatable. There is a school of thought that suggests this sort of experience turns our critics into novelty hunters. It's not a school of thought to which I particularly subscribe, though. Not least because of my perception of how the word “unoriginal” tends to get deployed. i.e. - rarely at some of the least original direction, and often at direction that actually looks quite unusual, if an elderly critic (or blog-commenter, come to that) can put their hand to even one faintly comparable production from the mists of time.

But, more than that, you get critics who run the risk of not being delighted by productions in the same way as first-time or occasional theatregoers might be.

The play-off between “expertise” and “being jaded” strikes me as one which is nigh-on insoluble. And I say this from the standpoint of one who is possibly more prone to getting jaded than many (although I don't claim a fraction of the expertise).


Reading back over all that I've just written I realise I'm in dire need of stopped and concluding this a a piece of writing. So:

Love's piece noted that “[after talking to the artist] I was unsure whether I could trust my own critical perception of the piece and its effects” and suggested that “there is the danger, once you have been told what the intention is behind a certain creative decision, that you will be unable to distinguish whether this decision actually produces the desired effect or whether you are simply reading it in that way because you’ve already been instructed to.”

She went on: “There are even occasions [...] when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, which seems something of a failure of the concept itself.”

The question all these observations suggested to me was: “Can there ever be an ideal standpoint for a critic?”

I hope that what I've said above demonstrates that despite a current Prevailing Way of Doing Things which perhaps hopes in part to codify a model of Best Practice there can be no ideal position for a critic. Any critic, just like any audience member, brings a specific and unique set of understandings, information and preferences into a performance with them. Those factors have as much to do with how they receive/watch/read a show as whether or not they read the programme before or after they watch the show. Or whether they've ever spoken to the artist.


After all, an artist can tell you what they're trying to do until their hoarse, and you can still either, a) not believe them, or, b) think they haven't succeeded.

In this respect, I think “when explicit, laboured reasoning is required to explain a production’s concept, [it] seems something of a failure of the concept itself” is actually, potentially linked to a different question; partly the question of where and how we attribute fault in a production, partly about hw we think theatre should operate, and partly again about who we should really blame when someone doesn't understand a production...

But I think I'm going to save that for another day...

No comments: