Monday 6 April 2009

Noises Off: Editorial – Monday

Enjoy your symptom!

The first full day of the festival is over, and what a glorious day it was. Clear blue skies, bright sunshine, it even felt almost warm at times. Where was the week of freezing rain we’d been promised? The sunlight seemed to permeate every aspect of the Festival. Everyone beamed at each other like they couldn’t believe their luck. The first shows had been pretty well received and, if not universally lauded, then certainly they had been respected, discussed and thought about. In short, the atmosphere couldn’t have been better.

So it was with some trepidation that many approached the first discussion of the festival. Out of the beautiful sunshine into the darkened cavern of the Stephen Joseph Theatre’s In-the-Round space for a discussion “about nothing”. As it turned out, this discussion, much more so than the opening ceremony, served perfectly as a get-to-know you session for both staff and festgoers alike.

What marked this first discussion out was the quality of complete openness and transparency in the exchanges. James Phillips led the session with an attitude of complete sincerity. There was no ego on show, just a desire to underline the approachability and manifest interest that the selectors have in helping the festival population with advice and a willingness to engage.

There are comment pieces in today’s edition that praise this finely judged Q&A session and there are those that bridle at a perceived atmosphere of docile, uncritical, “PC”, worried by the potential chilling effect that an atmosphere of “constructive criticism” and “celebration” might have on honest, robust critical exchange.

Obviously, as a magazine much of whose content is theatre criticism, a declaration of interest can be taken as read. As our editorial policy states, we will not publish simple invective. That is to say, if someone hands in a piece of paper with a show title and a couple of lines saying “_____ is the biggest pile of shit I have ever seen in my life”, we won’t be publishing, no matter how true a reflection of its author’s feelings it may be. On the other hand, we do not demand that all criticism we print be “constructive”. Or rather, not in the sense that those who demand it mean. Rather, Noises Off takes the rather longer view that sometimes the most constructive choice for a play would be for it to stop.

Criticism (derived directly from “to critique”, not “to criticise” it is worth reiterating) isn’t meant to offer solutions to a director with a terrible show, it is meant to honestly report to its readers the subjective responses to a work experienced by the critic. Of course Art has the right to take risks and to fail as a result, but Culture (once usefully defined as “the stuff that surrounds art”) has a responsibility to divine and report that failure. After all, no one learns anything if they aren’t told when they are going wrong. Noises Off doesn’t believe that the critic is infallible, though. If you look carefully through our pages, you will notice that there is a wide range of opinion here. All given equal weight. Similarly, if artists want to engage with their critics at all, and I can understand those who don’t – even if their decision saddens me a little – then they must have the courage of their convictions as much as a willingness to learn. It’s a difficult balancing act, but it’s at festivals like this that such exchange starts to look less like an impossible dream and more like an urgent, emerging possibility.

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