Sunday 26 August 2007

Consensus: right and wrong

As I mentioned briefly yesterday, one of the most frequently made comments on the Fringe this year is the perception that critical opinion is more scattergun than usual. Of course, on one hand, this is disquieting and disorienting for Fringe punters. With hardly any time to get to know the tastes and/or prejudices of individual critics/reviewers on the larger, multiple review titles (The Scotsman, Three Weeks, The List) trust becomes a precious resource. And corroboration is about as useful a way of establishing trust as anything. If five independent voices all agree that something is good/bad then they must be right, right?

And here’s where the other hand comes in. I’m not a big believer in the oft-voiced theory that the usual critical cadre (Billington, Spencer, Nightingale, de Jongh et. al.) all speak with one voice (see critical furores passim). But I am amused at the alarm with which the opposite situation is greeted. All year, a significant number of artists, other critics, and voices on the blogosphere have been calling for a more diverse range of opinion in the critical panoply. And now here one is. So much so that it feels roughly equivalent to the Infinite Monkeys school of criticism – at least one will write the review that you want to read. Of course there’s no guarantee that they will write it well, but you can’t have everything. And, surprisingly, no one seems very pleased with it. Well, those whom the Gods wish to destroy...

Many of the other criticisms levelled at critics remain. The lack of space being one. The Scotsman’s policy of only allocating 50-80 words for any one- or two-star show continues to appear as damaging as it is pragmatic. Curt dismissal with barely an adequate explanation is never going to be pleasant. At the same time, I appreciate the position of the reviewer who has seen potentially four or five shows every day who does not wish to spend further hours rehearsing their misery for any longer than is strictly necessary. Another criticism often aired is the editorial policy of sending, well, people who aren’t going to like a show to a show. Yes, in London it does sometimes seem perverse that the papers don’t have a wider range of critics, or that they send critics in order of seniority, rather than likely appreciation, to various openings –Lyn Gardner, for example, is manifestly more suited to assessment of much of the work now being produced at the National than Michael Billington, if only for the simple reason that she likes it and has sympathy for and interest in it and he frequently doesn’t. In Edinburgh it is often much harder to tell who will be “right”, since no one has anything like the same measure of one another. With few rare exceptions (Johann Hari), and contrary to popular opinion, critics don’t actively seek out turkeys for their own amusement. Few normal people actively relish sitting through shows which they don’t enjoy. No one enjoys being bored and irritated by something which is not to their taste.

What I found interesting is how similarly unreliable word-of-mouth recommendations can be. Edinburgh is a potentially testing time for many otherwise firm friendships. Greater love hath no man than that he lay down ten quid and an hour of his life on someone else’s say-so to watch Russian clowns/a one-woman-show/an eco-friendly mime cabaret.

I’ve also noticed that my own personal tastes this year are oddly out of step with the mainstream this year, with almost spookily tidy parallels. Three of the most widely recommended shows I’ve seen are Hugh Hughes in..., I Wish I Had a Sylvia Plath and Mile End - a one-man show, a one woman show and a new experimental piece respectively. The three shows that have impressed me most this year have been: Hippo World Guest Book, Simple Girl and La Femme est Morte - a one-man show, a one woman show and a new experimental piece respectively. It’s not that the popularity of the “mainstream” hits is wholly incomprehensible – all three have obvious merits and skill behind them, but without exception each lacks the spark, originality and excellence of its opposite number. And yet the shows on the mainstream list are gaining large audiences and my favourites less so. I find it somewhere between perplexing and mildly depressing. On the other hand, I do wonder if my continued championing of the three aforementioned shows is partially attributable to their “underdog” status. If each had been picked up by a huge audience, transferred to a larger space, and been awarded multiple garlands, would I feel as affectionate toward them? I’d like to think I would. But, perhaps, if I had seen Hughes, Plath and Mile End with small audiences and “discovered” them for myself I would have spent more time trying to promote them and less time saying “Yes, but...” to their many fans.

Edit: Melanie Wilson's penultimate show sold out, so I had probably better stop referring to her as an underdog. 

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