Thursday 1 November 2007

The shock of the "slightly established"

Chris Goode recently wrote beautifully about one of those silly lists which lists “influential” movers, shakers, and, unaccountably, actors, in the theatre world. The Evening Standard Awards are a much less muddled affair. This is, after all, simply a list of the things some people thought were best. From which shortlists and eventually winners will be picked.

Apart from serving to highlight how much I have managed to miss at the theatre this year, the lists and categories really illuminate precious little. Unlike the Oliviers, there are, to my knowledge, no restrictions placed on what can be nominated, but unlike the Critics Circle Awards, there is a far smaller panel making the choices. Indeed the Evening Standard Theatre Awards judging panel is a curious collection, comprising as it does Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard, Georgina Brown of the Mail on Sunday, Susannah Clapp of The Observer, Benedict Nightingale of The Times and Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph. Heaven forfend that I should kick off the Dead White argument all over again, but there are considerations here that should be looked at. For a start, they are all senior critics, Taking a wild stab, I’d say the youngest (one or other of the two women) was probably closer to 50 than 45. Not a problem in itself, but they are also all first stringers. That is to say, the senior (or indeed only) critic on their paper.

The way that newspapers in this country seem to organise their arts coverage often appears to be as rigidly hierarchical as an old-fashioned prep school. There are hierarchies of theatres, and hierarchies of critic. Given that papers will run one or two, maybe three reviews a day, and there will be a corresponding or higher number of openings, these generally appear to be divvied up through a process of matching a theatre’s rank to that of a critic. Generally speaking, depending on the paper, the West End comes first. A massive new musical with star names and big budget will take precedence. Frankly, no one with any sense will open against it. It often strikes me the National should use such occasions to open their more experimental offerings to the (usually younger and far more receptive) second stringers.

After the West End comes the National or the RSC. And not close behind the other major subsidised and boutique London houses like the Royal Court, the Donmar, the Almeida and so on. After these come the leading Fringe venues like the Bush, the Soho and probably still the Gate, maybe now also the Arcola and Chocolate Factory, which is fast overtaking the Gate in terms of critical acclaim. The BAC probably still fits in on this rank, but thanks to Artistic Director David Jubb’s determination (until Masque of Red Death) to make the damn place almost critic-proof by limiting a majority of runs to about three nights it hardly ever manages to get coverage for its wide variety of work. Behind these venues will be places like Theatre 503 and that other new writing venue in south London that I can’t remember for the life of me. Behind these - if it’s a really slow night, you might find a critic venture out to the Old Red Lion, The Hen and Chickens or the Pleasance. But the show in question would have to have a pretty impressive press agent to get a national broadsheet through the doors without a major name of some description.

Outside of this London ranking, regional coverage by first stringers seems to be increasingly dying out. Manchester, Leeds, Birmingham and Sheffield all now seem to be largely the province of second stringers, or regionally based critics, while Scotland, outside festival time appears to have been handed pretty much wholesale to critics based in the country.

To return to the point: there is, then, a rather obvious problem with the Evening Standard’s Awards if its whole panel consists entirely of first-stringers. They will only have seen a tier of work that is deemed “top rank”. Fine, one might say, awards are elitist, and so only the top rank should be under consideration. Except that no one is even pretending that the “top rank” is top because it is best. It is top because it is largest and most expensive.

So what to do? Well, for a start, why not introduce a couple of second stringers onto the panel. Lyn Gardner and Dominic Cavendish would do nicely. Interestingly, they would also bring a whole new ethos to the table. After all, there is, perhaps, on the current panel’s line-up, something of a tendency toward the comfort-zone in terms of taste. Sure, all matters of taste could be considered comfort zones of a sort, but I would argue that the comfort zones of Cavendish, and especially Gardner are still a good deal more, how to say this tactfully? adventurous?

So there we have it: The Evening Standard Awards, through presumably no deliberate malice aforethought, managing to preserve a vision of theatrical excellence that is predicated largely on grounds of size and expense.

To round off, I’d like to echo Chris Goode’s comments by highlighting some of the seemingly odd choices in the “Promising” playwright and “Newcomer” categories. Surely by now Dennis Kelly has done a lot more than “promise”. Christ, whatever it was he promised, he more than delivered both before and after Love and Money. And Matt Smith, while quite brilliant in That Face, was also brilliant in Chatroom / Citizenship at the National in 2005, wasn’t he? Still, maybe “slightly established” is the new “new”. Which doesn’t bode well for the new.


Anonymous said...

Mm, yes and no. That hierarchy exists not because the shows are bigger and more expensive, but because they are considered more newsworthy... which is not necessarily simply because they're bigger etc :-) Look, for instance, at the way the Express divvy up their reviews: it's not so clear-cut as number one and number two, since Simon Edge gets most of the musicals (because Paul Callan is old and Edgy's a fortysomething gay man).

Most crucially, you're assuming that the only shows that critics see are the ones they're reviewing. It varies, of course, but I know a number of critics who are fairly dedicated in checking out work beyond the mainstream-for-their-pages... and at least one of them is on that panel.

The other thing, of course, is what the evening Standard want their awards to be, or to be perceived as... and they want maximum attention, which means maximum attention-getting lists. Where and how do you break that vicious circle? The Indie tried, in its early days, by appointing as its theatre critic relatively young Turk Alex Renton; but as in so many other areas, they found they had to retrench because nobody was following suit and their way was commercial suicide. I mean, attention is plainly the reason longlists were published this year - nothing to do with invidious choices yadda yadda, they wanted to be able to drop more names at once.

And as regards old lags in the Most Promising category: Marius von Mayenburg's Fireface was performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1999 and Upstairs at the Court in 2000 :-)

Andrew Field said...

Yeah... wot Ian said.

And also, as regards theatre in the regions - it might be useful to note that regardless of how much it puffs its chest out and stands on tippy toes, the ES is a local paper, and consequently its London-centric bias can be justified.

But yeah... maybe we should do our own Internet Bloggers Awards - you, me, Alex, Dan, chris, the whingers, Natalie, etc - all nominate, come up with a shortlist and post them on our respective blogs, create a gmail account that we get people to send their votes to. Then we could count them up and have the first Blogger Awards - be interesting to see what came out on top.

Andrew Haydon said...

Ian, points taken. I was tired and being a little broad. But I stand by the gist. Yes, "newsworthiness" is another consideration - cf. Mick Jagger's son getting an interview spread across two pages of Sunday Times Culture Section for doing a play at the King's Head.

Lest we forget, this is the country where the original title for Drop the Dead Donkey was Dead Belgians Don't Count. This wasn't really intended as an attack on Critics, or specific critics - more of a general note on the general framework which everyone ends up working within.

I'm aware that I'm being mildly hypocritical too. After all, I tend to prioritise the Court and the National. And I've been to shows this year - Lord of the Rings springs to mind - because I felt they needed reporting on. For me, there is a real tension between wanting to see all the most indie shows, and bring a - potentially, at least - different voice to bear on the mainstream.

How to break the vicious circle? I reckon, like punk, if smaller things are to succeed (and I'm aware that "success" in this context is a problematic term) - or at least achieve recognition, a reputation, and at least some footnotes in theatre history, they need their own journalists working away with acuity and enthusiasm, and gradually penetrating the mainstream later in life (cf. well, Parsons and Burchill for a start) and essentially writing the second, official drafts of history as well as the first.

Andrew, like sport, I'm mildly wary of awards. I think I like theatre partly because in general I, absurdly, I know, don't view it as a competitive event. Also - if you can find me a show that a panel containing the Whingers and Chris Goode could agree on, then I'll buy you a pint.

alexf said...

christ, if a new Burchill and Parsons is the price we have to pay for having the avant-garde break into the mainstream then frankly, i'm happy for all the theatre companies i like to remain in the shadows.

Anonymous said...

Andrew H, yes,agreed, I was trying not to seem more tendentious than I meant to be, which was hardly at all - that was more one of my council-of-despair posts than one of my this-is-the-way-it-is-AND-IT'S-RIGHT posts :-)

What punk did in the short to medium term was provide the majors with some new emperor's clothes that they could prance about in for longer. It might be argued that, e.g., the business with te latest Radiohead album wouldn;t have come about without the DIY/demystification ethos of punk, but I tend to think it's more a function of available technology than of driving ethos.

There's also the fact that the Evening Standard is really feeling the pinch of the freesheets now, so is keener than ever to exploit whatever edge it can find. (The fact that two of the three freesheets are owned by Associated Newspapers or Daily Mail & General Trust, and that one of them is a rehash of the Standard itself, doesn't seem to have elicited any joined-up thinking in Northcliffe House.)

Andrew F., I like that idea, but the thing is that to get attention the awards need to be more than an accolade in name only: you need actual artefacts (which may be simply home-produced certificates like Blanche Marvin's Empty Space Awards, though those come with dosh attached) and an actual ceremony... in short, you need a budget. Plus a publicist. And tempting though it might be, Theatre Record doesn't have the cash to spare, never mind possible conflict of interest :-)

But you might start investigating now with a view to a first set of gongs in late 2008/early '09...

Andrew Field said...

Point taken re: competitiveness and the joy of the plural, multifarious nature of theatre, but you'd look lovely in a nice new frock.

Also what I think awards do that is more significant than the winners and the losers is set up an orthodoxy for what is considered 'good' or 'succesful' theatre - in which circumstances it truly is being allowed to take part that counts.

The advantage of awards is that they are have slightly thicker veneer of, if not objectivity, then certainly consensus - after all, despite your naming of the judges most people are unlikely to know who they are or, indeed, what they were fighting for. Instead, like the Fringe Firsts, they seem to be have bestowed from upon high as some undoubtedle, agenda-free mark of quality.

The point of an alternative awards would not be to decide what was really the best show of the year, but instead to at least present some kind of counter-narrative to that of the first stringers at the Evening Standard.

I'm sure Chris would be ga-ga for Hairspray.

Anonymous said...

I think mine is the only review of "Hairspray" so far to take serious issue with one aspect of its writing. Though I'd defy anyone's heart not to melt during Michael Ball and Mel Smith's duet, seriously.

Yes, authority through consensus is weightier than authority simply through declaration, but it needs to be a kind of authoritative consensus, if you see what I mean. I emphasise here that I'm just describing, not necessarily condoning: but compare the kind of status given to awards decided by panels of the great & good with those voted for by the public. Even more, in theatre, compare the actual results. As far as I can see, the popular-vote ones are far safer in their verdicts, and go by media profile more than comparative quality: more people have seen the bigger-name, bigger-coverage shows, more fans around to vote for their idols, and so it goes.

That's why I say that awards need a publicist, not just to get them a profile in the first place, but to locate where that profile sits. Luckily, of course, the Standard awards have a publicist in the form of, er, the Standard.