This is a much better way of editing Noises Off - lying in bed watching The Wire, sleeping at night and getting the finished magazine whizzed over to me once it’s stopped being painful. I’ve even had time to sit in the garden and do a bit of reading today. Also, not being at the festival actually gives me enough time to actually write something, and enough sleep to ensure that it makes a kind of sense.
So, what to say as editor-in-absentia? Obviously, Claire and Phil are doing a horribly good job of proving just how dispensable I am, and there’s already plenty of thought-provoking content in the first issue to engage with.
The piece that most caught my eye, was Dan Hutton’s spirited defence of *proper* theatre critics. I’ll jump straight in at the least important point...
Dan Hutton says: “…if that isn't a perfect example of hypocrisy, I don't know what is.”
Dan, I’m afraid it’s the latter. The Daily Mail, for all its innumerable faults, emphatically never uses expletives, hell; it can only bring itself to describe oral sex as “an obscene sex-act”. If it is forced to quote swearwords for reasons of context it will invariably opt for three-letters-starred-out out of four (i.e. ‘c***’ as opposed to ‘c**t’, and certainly never ‘cunt’). Thus, Quentin Letts at least is free of hypocrisy when attacking a playwright for their use of expletives. Now, if Quentin Letts were to have attacked the play on the grounds that he was worried by its snide, insinuating, homophobic, racist, little-Englander tone, then you might have a case for this charge of hypocrisy you’ve now got going spare.
Hutton goes on to suggest: “Granted, the reviews of figures like Michael Billington of the Guardian and Charles Spencer of the Daily Telegraph may not be ideal if you want a riveting read...” For what it’s worth, I reckon Charles Spencer is a pretty good read actually, not super politically, or taste-wise, perhaps, but he can write. But neither he nor Michael Billington give the “balanced” argument Hutton claims for them. Perhaps if you were to offset the two critics one against the other, you *might* on occasion get a sort of left-right balanced view for those of retirement age, but both Michael and Charlie have their political leanings, their proclivities, their passions and their blind-spots. So let’s quickly scotch that idea of “balance” right now. Theatre critics don’t have to be balanced to be good. Indeed, they shouldn’t be “balanced”. They have to explain what it is they think they’ve seen – ideally in a way that allows other readers to see between the lines and think: “Well, Time Out’s Andrew Haydon *says* this new bit of postdramatic German avant-garde theatre is wonderful, but I think it sounds like nonsense and I shall not go.”
I’d also take issue with: “That’s what we need in a critic; someone who can put themselves in the shoes of the paying public and make a reasoned decision as to whether or not you should see the play, based on past experience.”
In fact, this is increasingly the view that editors are serving by appointing journalists who are essentially no different to the shoes of the paying public. Sorry. …whose shoes are essentially no different. The public (apparently) *want* Libby Ordinary and Quentin Pretend-to-be-Ordinary because the public can much more readily identify with them, because they disingenuously pretend they’re doing a different job. Faux-naif criticism of the sort practiced by Q. Letts, T. Young, M. Portillo, C. Hart and T. Walker isn’t different to criticism, it just knows less, or pretends to know less. It still needs to do the same thing – to tell people what it’s like seeing a particular play. Where Letts differs from Billington (and I’m not sure they differ half as much as you think – at least in terms of marking a play largely in terms of their approval of its political message) is that Letts foregrounds himself in his reviews as a harrumphing moral guardian, personally sickened by the way in which public money has been used to create yet another sickening celebration of sweary gays, or “trendy” something else. Billington, on the other hand, while just as steely in his opposite beliefs, generally absents himself from the picture altogether. What he says, *is*. Indeed, so thorough is his modesty, that he often runs the risk of looking like he really does believe that his word is definitive truth. It isn’t, of course, and while I’m sure he’d argue to the death for the primacy of the writer’s vision, he would at least concede that other people might see it differently.
Critics can’t and shouldn’t put themselves into the shoes of the paying public. For a start, it is hugely condescending to try to second guess “public taste” – as if it were somehow different to your own. Critics can describe a thing they’ve seen, perhaps lightly drawing on the authority that years of theatre-going have lent them, plus ideally a bit of other cultural knowledge, put it into a wider horizontal and vertical contexts (sorry, Robert [Hewison], nicked your phrase) and hopefully write it up in a way that other people find enjoyable to read.
I should end by apologising to Dan Hutton. You didn’t ask for any of this. You wrote a nice piece agreeing with Ian and defending theatre critics and what happens? A critic who’s not even at the festival picks up on your article and uses it as a framework to float a load of their own ideas. Perhaps that’s the most fundamental point. Ultimately, dear reader, no matter how good we critics are/think we are, you can always console yourself with the thought that we’re just parasites. Important, friendly parasites that are good for the overall ecology, perhaps, but parasites nonetheless.
(Team Noff, could someone buy Dan and drink and explain that I’m not really a c***)