Sunday 2 September 2007

Critical distance

An idea that has been bothering me since returning from this year’s Fringe is the notion of “critical distance”, or rather: what is the proper/correct position of theatre critics to their subjects (be they actors, directors, writers or whoever)? As well as reviewing theatre I have a lot of friends and acquaintances, who act, write, direct and make theatre. I also work for three theatres and one company as a script reader. In short, I enjoy the company of people who share my enthusiasm for theatre. As a result, these days I end up seeing a lot of shows, particularly in Edinburgh, which are made by people I know, and reviewing them. To an extent this makes perfect sense - what attracts people to one another is, in part, some sort of kindredness of spirit and/or appreciation of one anothers’ work/talent/etc. You take an interest in someone’s show; you chat to them afterwards about it; you see each other around; it turns out you have friends in common, and before long you are at the least friendly acquaintances. On the other hand, historically critics have avoided such close integration to avoid accusations of compromise.

For fellow theatre makers this is fine. Places like Edinburgh (and similarly the NSDF) provide a crucial trade fair-like environment where liked-minded artists can meet, see each other’s work, enthuse, exchange ideas and forge vital alliances that result in brilliant new work. For critics/reviewers it is a slightly different ball game. For a start, we’re not even meant to be in the same business - we are essentially journalists, not theatre-makers. Our first duty, so the received wisdom goes, is to our readers and not to the theatre. And that’s quite right. Readers shouldn’t have to second-guess how much any given critic’s punches might have been pulled due to a misguided sense of “support” for a play.

A lot of critics (pretty much all those working for the national papers) make it a matter of policy never to stay for drinks after a show on press night. Of course this is partially a matter of practicality. If you have to file overnight then cutting into your already scant write-up time and then trying to do the job half cut is plainly idiotic. But, like the aisle seats and imaginary rush for the lobby telephone booth, this policy is starting to feel like little more than a formalised tradition. A lot of papers no longer appear to insist on overnight reviews for anything but the most prominent, starry West End openings. Yet in the main “the critics” (how I hate this formulation, implying as it does some sort of non-existent commonality) still see it as “bad form” to stay on.*
There is, of course, a more glaringly obvious reason why they avoid entanglement with their subjects, though: for the pure and simple reason that it is never pleasant having to disagree with friends, or to put it more bluntly, because they feel they need to maintain an apparently crucial critical distance.

So, what happens if a critic - let’s call him X (and assume that he’s a man, because we and society are a sexist) - becomes friends with a writer or director - Y - and then goes to see their next show? There are a number possibilities concerning X’s response. He might dislike it, and risk ruining his friendship with Y by saying as much. It takes a pretty strong stomach to say, “I really didn’t enjoy your new play at all,” to a friend, but X does it. On the other hand, because of his friendship with Y, X might limit his criticisms, and by doing so, deprive the public of an honest account of the work (I should make clear, X does not deprive the public of an “objective” account - there is no such thing - but by not recording a full and honest account, he fails to supply precisely what he has been employed to provide). There is also the third option, that because of his friendship with Y, X might have gained additional insight into the work. It is this last possibility which interests me most.

Does a friendship, or even acquaintance, between a critic and an artist, which enriches the critic’s understanding of the artist’s intentions, make the critic a useful idiot for the artist, or a better informed observer/interpreter for the public? An excellent example is the relationship between Michael Billington and Harold Pinter. Billington has written pretty much the definitive biographical study of the man’s work, and is clearly a huge fan - I think I’m right in saying that they are on pretty good terms socially, too. Does this invalidate Billington’s reviews of Pinter’s plays, or does it augment them with a greater understanding? Both are possible options. The two options may even run concurrently. Perhaps insight can only be gained at the expense of some critical distance. After all, even reading a director’s programme notes changes one’s relationship to what one is seeing. The question is: where should the critic stand in relation to experiencing the work. It soon starts to sound like “critical distance” is a deliberate space employed by a reviewer enabling them to score points and disparage. I’m not suggesting that if every critic “understood” the work of every theatre-maker then everyone would get good reviews. It is perfectly possible to understand someone’s premises and wholly disagree with them. The fact remains, it is a lot harder to say that to someone you know.

However, these friendships with theatre-makers spring up because of some sense of a common purpose, or shared take on the world. Although I might personally like some of the people making the work that I’m enjoying, quite often the reason we’re friends in the first place sprung from an enjoyment of their earlier work (much earlier in many cases - some over a decade ago). It stands to reason that I might well continue to enjoy subsequent examples of their work, irrespective of any matey-ness which may have occurred in the intervening period. At the same time, I wouldn’t shrink from writing an honest review addressing or describing problems in a show by friends that I hadn’t enjoyed. That said, it does feel strange to get emails saying thanks for a review (or indeed some very sweet and wry blog posts either giving a heads up to the review with additional personality profiling, or references to the ongoing "global stomach-turning love-in" between myself and Chris Goode). At the same time, it is really nice.

Of course Edinburgh always blurs the boundaries a bit. Performers and critics can often be found drinking in the same venue bars. And it feels like quite a healthy exercise for all parties concerned. Artists get to remember that critics are not just monsters, and critics get to remember that artists are humans too. And everyone gets to remember that even though we’re nominally on "different sides" the only reason any of us do what we do is because we’re all deeply passionate about what theatre can be - even if no one fully agrees what that is.

That said I’m still not sure that I completely buy into this "opposition" between critic and theatre-maker. Yes, a critic is a journalist with a responsibility to their readers and, in a wider analysis, to informed, entertaining writing. But, as well as being a critic I also work for the literary departments of a few theatres. Similarly, some of the sharpest critical writing about theatre these days can be found in the blogs of theatre makers. And it’s by no means all positive, touchy-feely, supportive stuff. There is no less rigorous critical engagement simply because the writer is nominally on the "same side" as his or her subject. Indeed at times it sometimes feels like there might be more so as a direct result of the theoretical parity at play.

On blogs, however, there is a far greater degree of foregrounded subjectivity. This is an interesting dilemma for the critic. On one hand we all know that - no matter how deeply held our feelings on any given play - we aren’t owners of the Objective Truth. On the other hand, I was certainly taught (by Robert Hewison, Theatre Critic of the Sunday Times) that egotism and personality-based grandstanding was to be avoided at all costs. His simple formulation: ‘Don’t say "I think". God knows it should be apparent enough to everyone that it is what you think because you’re writing it. Remember that the play is the subject of the review, not you.’

It is quite possible the critics’ observation of this rule that leads many an enraged theatre maker to conclude that theatre critics think they Know It All, when what they are striving to do is simply demonstrate that they know their own mind. Another of Robert’s tips for writing authoritatively is the avoidance of weasel words (perhaps, quite, possibly, etc.). Certainly, the removal of all such equivocations can turn a slippery piece of ho-hummery into a pretty (ooh, look, there’s one) bold assertion. Again, whilst strengthening the writing, it perhaps (ha!) introduces an unintended note of inflexibility into the work. But then, one knows what one thinks, why flannel? Either one liked the play or one didn’t, right? However, despite being less assertive and technically worse writing, in the context of the blogsophere it does somehow feel more relaxed and open.

I’m not sure that “the critical establishment” (such as it isn’t and doesn’t see itself) is in the parlous state that its critics sometimes fear, though. Look at the extra-curricular activities of Aleks Sierz and Dominic Cavendish (and co.) on TheatreVoice - surely an excellent example if ever there was one of a breakdown in the distance between critic and theatre-maker into a sympathetic, interested, robust exchange. Consider Lyn Gardner’s excellent, honest and thought-provoking blogs on the Guardian website. Or Ian Shuttleworth’s open and frank use of the comment sections of numerous theatre makers’ blogs and engagement with “the critics” at large in his Theatre Record editorials. Or Brian Logan, who as well as sometimes staying for press night drinks, is also part of a theatre company himself. Or Kieron Quirke, who also writes radio and TV comedies (and who, I believe, has just been whisked off to L.A. to have a pilot made of one by some Americans). Greater integration, less mystique, and perhaps even a bit of involvement seem to be the watchwords here. This is a terrifically hopeful model for a future “critical establishment”. Of course there still needs to be a sense of authority in the writing. An exchange of views does not mean that the critic should exchange their views for some that their interlocutor would prefer. Plays will still get bad reviews. But I am optimistic that gradually a shift is taking place, and the positioning of critic and artist is evolving for the better. After all, the point of the critic is not to “criticise” but to critique. As Ian Shuttleworth recently put it: 'the most succinct description of the critic's function that I've ever heard is Michael Coveney's: "to explain culture to itself". You do what you can: you know it'll never be the last word... but it can be, uh, word.'

* I wish London theatres would adopt the model apparently favoured in New York whereby press can attend a choice of press nights, but are vetoed from filing before a specific date, allowing a bit of time for the writer to mull over what they’ve seen. Exam conditions are never going to be the best way of getting the most thoughtful considerations of theatre works into the public arena. On the other hand, at least the rigorous schedule does keep one up to date with what’s opening. With the theatres essentially collaborating to avoid press nights clashing, critics don’t need to spend hours with a spreadsheet and list of possible press nights trying to work out how to fit everything in.

Edit: Sod it. Having linked to Theatre Record's excellent editorials page, I then realised that I hadn't been keeping up to date with reading them and, lo and behold, there's an excellent piece about Theatre blogging to which I really should have refered in the above. Ho hum.


Interval Drinks said...

Hi Andrew,

Very interesting piece. I remember Lyn Gardener writing something hereon the subject earlier in the year, thoughs she stood by maintaining a very clear line between critics and artists.

Andrew Haydon said...

Christ. That is stringent. I have to say I was impressed by the fact that I didn't see her in a single social situation in Edinburgh this year. She certainly has her principles and sticks by them. My own position re: after-show parties is that you've already seen the show, you know what you think, and it is only really dishonourable to take free drinks from someone you are about to assassinate.

I think Michael's piece that she links to is probably closer to the mark. Two passages leap out. Firstly: "Critics and artists may, if they choose, wine and dine together, sleep together... But, when it comes to the hazardous business of putting words on paper, something strange happens. Old friendships and enmities are temporarily banished and you would, if the need arose, give your own grandmother a stinking review if she committed the cardinal sin: that of perpetrating bad art."

And, if anything, more crucially:
"In writing a biography of Harold Pinter, I happily spent a good deal of time in his company and was given unlimited access to his archives... All I can report is that my admiration for Pinter's work preceded my writing the book."

Lyn is perfectly within her rights to avoid tainting herself, as she sees it. On the other hand, I don't think Michael's steely will-to-report is misguided or self-deluding.

Beside which, Lyn is primarily talking about actively becoming friends with theatre-makers, while a lot of my piece was informed by suddenly realising that several of my friends had become people whose work I would have been seeing irrespective of knowing them or not.

Statler said...

Fortunately having no involvement in the theatre other than as an audience member and blogger, it's been fairly easy for me to avoid becoming what could be considered too close to a production. Although having said that, even I have had to decline suggestions of post show drinks on several occasions.

It's not that I don't think I could be objective after getting to know someone, it's more that I know I would be, and that sooner or later I'd probably have to give something they were involved in a poor review. Yes, some theatre people may be big enough to take criticism constructively, and it's not really my style to be gratuitously negative anyway, but essentially it's potential grief I can do without. I'm sure I'm missing out on some great and indeed informative evenings, but even that would be at the expense of our aim at View From the Stalls to simply be representative of a typical theatregoer.

In fact I'd say it's easier for critics to remain isolated than it is for those theatre bloggers who are directly involved in theatre and who will often find themselves crossing paths with those whose works they will comment on, or even have already commented on. But I agree that they frequently offer the most insightful comments, and I'm sure their thoughts are more appreciated and respected by those involved in the production than my admittedly amateur offerings. I thank them for sharing their thoughts and hope that the sadly inevitable fall-out down the line is not too painful.

Me, I'll stick to slipping anonymously away into the night.

Anonymous said...

"and it is only really dishonourable to take free drinks from someone you are about to assassinate."

That is truly an honourable statement Andrew.

I believe that critics should interact between actors, writers, directors and so on purely for the reason that it does aid in people maintaining a human image of each party. I think that when parties are distanced it sometimes allows too much of a void to develop and believe that it can be detrimental in the long term. I believe that a critic should provide an opportunity for change so that theatre can be improved and that by simply slating a production a critic can bypass an opportunity to facilitate such improvements. For this a degree of understanding should exist between theatre-maker and critic; one that can only be achievable through mutual association and, to some extent, explanation.

That is my very humble opinion.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Andrew

I'm married to a playwright, which is pretty intimate fraternisation. So, as it happens, is the arts editor of the Age, the local broadsheet - a different playwright, I hastily add - and so was the former senior theatre critic for the same newspaper - so Australians might be said to be more relaxed about this kind of thing.

Worse, although I don't think of myself as a theatre writer, I've had a respectable number of theatre productions (though not for some time, and I would hesitate now to work as an artist in the theatre - I think that begins to be too difficult, and I am quite happy working in other artforms. I think I properly belong in the theatre as an audience member). I guess that even from the beginning, when I was a naive and starry-eyed tyro critic, I always approached criticism from the point of view of a practising artist.

Critical thinking has always been for me a crucial part of my practice as an artist. I tend to trust artist-critics - the good ones, anyway - more rather than less, since their critiques are generally much better informed. Some French person - Gaston Bachelard I think - says somewhere that in order to understand, one must first admire. Speaking very generally, since I think I can understand quite well some things I don't admire, every good critic should love the artform they criticise. Love being complex, tough and sometimes impossible, of course, like most human things. Some critics give the impression that they hate/despise/envy the artform, which is there only to give occasion for sneers, and they're inevitably poor critics.

Anyway, it seems to me that understanding is a desirable thing for a critic, since she (here in Australia, it's more than likely to be she) is a critic by virtue of her supposed expertise in the art. It's always baffled me that in the theatre, expertise can be considered a drawback rather than otherwise: no political commentator would be considered any good if she were ignorant of what's going on in parliament, and yet in writing about theatre sometimes ignorance is flaunted as a virtue (the mug punter "ordinary person" pov, I guess - but then, why have critics at all?)

Of course there are ethics to be seriously thought through, and that comes down to the personal conscience of the individual critic. But that's true of any activity, and it's an on-going interrogation - there is always a possibility of self-deception. My only ethic really is always to try to be as honest and upfront as I possibly can.

Alison Croggon said...

PS Lyn Gardner might be so stringent about keeping her distance because she seems like a very nice person. It is difficult for nice people to write things they know will be hurtful. Perhaps I am not so nice, even though I like to think I am.

Statler said...

Alison said:
"...yet in writing about theatre sometimes ignorance is flaunted as a virtue (the mug punter "ordinary person" pov, I guess - but then, why have critics at all?)"

Ouch. Trying to represent the typical theatregoer isn't about ignorance, it's about considering the experience most theatregoers are likely to gain from seeing a production. If a production only works if the writer/director has to explain his aims/intentions to you after the show, then it's of little use to 99% of the audience. I believe largely that productions should be taken at face value and in isolation. While it's great if a deeper understanding can be gained through a wide theatrical knowledge, a production should be able to stand on it's own.

Alison Croggon said...

Sorry Statler, that wasn't not meant to be a shaft at you, but at Editors I Have Known. Usually not arts editors, but the bracingly philistine news desk who think that reviews ought to be consumer guides. As I've said, I think there's a space for that, but reviews also create the climate in which work is received, so there's more to it than that.

This business about "explaining": I quite agree that a work ought to be able to stand "on its own", as it were. I have enjoyed taking my children of various ages to the theatre for this reason: they are naive watchers with no expectation of what theatre "should" be, and it's interesting to see what they respond to. On the whole, "straight" theatre bores them to tears, whereas the "difficult" and allegedly elitist stuff leaves them excited. (My 12 year old Ben has already insisted I take him to see the contemporary choreographer Jerome Bel, out here for the Melbourne Festival, after he saw him last year - he's very excited). Ok, my kids are privileged in that they probably see more - and certainly more various - theatre than their drama teachers, but they're still kids. They don't mind not understanding something if it gets them where they live, and they're probably more open to work because they don't expect it to be a particular shape.