Wednesday 9 March 2011


Three years ago, a fellow critic and I were discussing Michael Billington. As one does. My fellow critic made the following assertion:

“The problem with Michael is that he isn't so much a critic as a Soviet-era censor: he marks plays on their politics.”

At the time (late Feb 2008), I thought this was a spot-on bit of analysis. But it's a remark that has haunted me ever since.

Why? Well, one of the basic tenets in the unwritten laws of British Theatre Criticism (also here) – at least as I've always understood it – is: “Judge work on its own terms”. Or, to put it more caustically as “Fred2006” does under Michael's review of Tiger Country: “I wonder what you think the reviewer's job is here.... Is it to lament the fact that she hasn't written the play you think she ought to have written?”

Of course, Michael is perfectly open and candid about his tastes (I wish I could now find the blog I read yesterday where he actually spells it out word by word, something like: “I favour plays that foreground the personal and the political”). Indeed, I'm tempted to suggest that it's precisely this candour that sees him being pilloried so often. Or rather, its the combination of candour and the star-rating system. Because, once his remarks have to be translated into a kind of score, one gets much more of a sense that he's docked a point from a playwright for leaving “no room to ask the really big questions. Who, one would like to know, is responsible for creating the kind of selfish society we now inhabit?” For example. As an observation in a piece of writing, one might let it pass as a foible far more easily if it wasn't seen as the justification for a lower score than might otherwise have reasonably been expected.

I say “might” advisedly. One could get the feeling these days reading Michael's reviews and some of the comments under them that his "foible" might have become a bit of a one-note rut; his position becoming a parody of itself. Praising shows which conform precisely to his prescriptive requirements, and ticking off those with whose argument he takes issue or which just don't do “about” “properly”.

The most interesting example being perhaps the contrasting reviews given to Seven Jewish Children and England People Very Nice within a fortnight.

“[England People Very Nice]'s prime flaw is that it substitutes generalised caricatures for detailed investigation of particular ethnic groups. ...while the gags come thick and fast, and the play theoretically pays tribute to Defoe's idea of “that heterogeneous thing, an Englishman”, the abiding impression is that Bean doesn't think much of our modern multiculturalism.” Two Stars.


“[Seven Jewish Children] confirms theatre's ability to react more rapidly than any other art form to global politics... Churchill, I'm sure, would not deny the existence of fierce external, and internal, Jewish opposition to the attack on Gaza. What she captures, in remarkably condensed poetic form, is the transition that has overtaken Israel, to the point where security has become the pretext for indiscriminate slaughter.” Four Stars.

It could be cynically implied that one man's “generalised caricatures” might be the same man's “remarkably condensed poetic form”, when they happen to agree with the politics.

But, of course, that's nowhere near the whole story. I said earlier, “it's precisely this candour that sees him being pilloried so often”. But it's not just that; the other reason that Billington gets the stick he does is, I would contend, because of the massive respect in which he is held, and the affection (yes, affection) which he also inspires. Much more even perhaps than out of frustration. I think I'm right in saying this year marks Michael's 40th at the Guardian. During that time, he has also published pretty much the definitive study of Harold Pinter, the best history and guide to the sort of plays he likes imaginable and a pretty neat collection of reviews from his first twenty years at the Guardian. Much more impressively, he's stuck to his guns. He has his beliefs and I think it would be well nigh impossible to even begin to argue that he's ever betrayed them.

Of course people argue with him. He's The critic whose mind people want to change. Perhaps that's partly down to the fact that he has such an identifiable, and thus challengeable, agenda. It's probably also a lot to do with the fact that he's the chief theatre critic of The Guardian. Which, let's be honest, is the paper that pretty much everyone working in the arts reads. As such, because of his curiously hierarchical system, it also means he winds up being the critic who covers nearly all the openings at the National Theatre, Royal Court, most of the RSC, and probably the majority of Donmar, Almeida, etc. etc. (although, part of me wonders how much of this is chicken, egg, and clever manoeuvring – i.e. by putting in enough time at the NT and West End, he is able to make his presence at The Cock or The Finborough seem like they've really arrived).

And then, beyond that, there are his politics themselves. As Chris Goode has previously suggested: “What's frustrating is that if Billington were to actually engage with the collaborative practice and collectivist principles that have inspired so many devisers, I think he might find them congenially compatible with his own politics, which are obviously amiably leftist and impatient with rigidity and deference.”

Exactly. Another part of the frustration is precisely because Billington isn't Quentin Letts or even Charles Spencer, harumphing at Martin Crimp or Katie Mitchell on the basis of their politics. He's harumphing because his politics, or more properly, a combination of his personal taste and his politics have suggested an entirely different set of solutions as to how theatre might work best.

And this is where this whole edifice I've been carefully building spins 180° on its axis...

This is why the accusation: “he isn't a critic, he's a Soviet-era censor: he marks plays on their politics” turned into the biggest question I've ever had about criticism, and about my place within it.

First, because on one level, I'm not at all sure I'm at all different.

Second, because of that assertion's close relationship to the mantra of “Judge a play on its own terms”.

This is probably the point toward which the last three pieces in this series (“About”, “Properly” and “Professional”) (or , perhaps, “thes Sieris”) have always been heading.

Oddly enough, the narrative, the story (Yes, in other news, there's a post forthcoming about “narrative” as soon as these are done), the back-story here picks up pretty much where yesterday's back-story left off. Yesterday it was late September 2007 and I was just about to have my first blog published by the Guardian.

Today's story starts two months later on in 2007 and I've just got back from Munich. The post begins:
“For the last five days I've been attending the SpielArt Festival in Munich under the auspices of the concurrent FIT Mobile Theatre and Communications Lab programme...” and goes on to detail the work I'd just seen. To cut a long post short, Munich had blown my tiny mnd.

Over the next year, thanks to the Festivals in Transition (FIT) MobileLab and also an International Association of Theatre Critics Young Critics event at the Neue Stücke aus Europa festival in Wiesbaden, I saw a lot of work from the rest of Europe.

After the last MobLab festival finished I wrote this post. It was only just over a year later. I am slightly staggered by how many of the embryonic forms of this series it contains. And how much it prefigures what I'm saying in this piece.

Lyn Gardner remarked a year after that post, “I do worry that our sending you to Europe utterly ruined you”. Ironically, I think it was outside the Barbican after The Roman Tragedies.

Which is where the Billington comparison comes in, I guess.

First of all, there's the question of “marking plays on their politics”. Initially, at least, this is largely unrelated to Europe. But, surely, don't all critics (that's professional, amateur, and very much academic) actually “mark plays on their politics”? Or rather, all other aspects of a production being equal, aren't critics *obviously* going to prefer a performance that appears to “say” something they find palatable?

This is a slightly difficult thing to describe, because I'd rather not just go straight back down the road to “About” or – Christ help us all – the “Where are all the Right Wing Plays”.

Possibly one of the most striking reviews of a play's “politics” is Lyn Gardner's one-star review of Romeo Castellucci's Purgatorio (go on, read it). I don't think I've ever disagreed more with a piece of analysis, and certainly never more with a star-rating – the piece was, even if absolutely nothing else, spectacularly well made. The production values alone should have set it apart from [anything else Lyn one-starred] (although, I suppose Lyn is one of the more regular contributors to the Zero Star Hall of Fame, so perhaps the single star was for those production values).

At the same time, who am I to argue. Lyn makes her case perfectly clearly. She saw something that she felt was utterly morally repellant, and said as much. What other mark should she have given it? And yet, isn't this precisely marking for “politics” (admittedly in the wider sense of the word)?

Quite apart from the fact that I'd argue that Purgatorio could just as easily (although I won't swear to anything – opaque doesn't begin to cover this work, and I'm not even going to try to claim I really understand Castellucci's work; although I certainly got a lot more out of it on a personal level) be trying to provoke that response, or suggest those thoughts, in order to question them. It briefly reminds me of the old NSDF catch-all term for what should be selected: “dramatic effectiveness” was the only criteria.

But can dramatic effectiveness ever be value free? (This is a whole blog all of its own, so forgive the brevity with which I'm about to skip through it now) I'd argue, almost certainly not.

What's interesting, though, is the extent to which it seems also to be controlled by context. For example, if the National Theatre were to announced tomorrow that in their next season they were going to stage Hanns Johst's Schlageter (it's the play, by Hitler's favourite playwright, from which the quote “Whenever I hear the word culture, I reach for my revolver” originally comes), would anyone seriously imagine Nicholas Hytner was putting it on to promote National Socialism? I imagine instead it would be received very seriously as a way of looking at a horrifying document from the past which might shed light on Britain's own current atmosphere of febrile racism.

But, extreme examples aside, don't critics review morally? Ethically as well as aesthetically? If a play was basically really good, and really well acted, apart from the homophobia, or the racism, would it get past the critic? Equally, does anything which advocates to much the reverse ever get past Quentin Letts or Tim Walker without getting a long telling-off? Did Christopher Hart not use his review of a play about homophobia in the 1950s to explain to his readers that he could not look at two men kissing in 2010?

I've always tried to resist the idea that particular dramatic forms are inherently political in a particular direction. Although, I'm not sure I succeeded. Is The Musical the “ultimate authoritarian artform” as Howard Barker once claimed? Is the problem play irredeemable after Johst's Schlageter as many Germans now argue? Is so much of theatre made within and utilising right-wing structures that its nominally left-wing message can't possibly hope to succeed? Or, conversely, is the view of theatre as irretrievably leftie such that even when we're shown the most right-wing play imaginable, we muse over it as a fascinating provocation, while the right grumble about how they're always the targets and never the snipers?

I have absolutely no idea, despite having read some convincing arguments for and against in my time.

Ultimately, my problem boiled down to the simple one of taste. Where for Billington, the taste question often seems to be one of content and authorship (fair enough, if intensely annoying for a lot of those not doing that – although there is other stuff he likes. Like "smut", surprisingly); for me it was (no surprises here) staging.

I'd always tried to like alternative theatre as well (as opposed to "instead of"). And the change in my tastes was a gradual thing. Have a look at my hilariously bemused review of Thomas Ostermeier's Zerbombt (Kane's Blasted) from 2006 (an irony being, now that I live in Berlin, the Schaubühne strikes me as the most English theatre in town. At the time, I remember thinking Zerbombt was the most German thing imaginable). But, gradually, I knew that in my reviews there was increasingly an element of either thinking-it-but-not-saying-it, or was just coming right out with it.

While Billington would frequently be: “longing for some acknowledgement of the way the NHS is ultimately the beneficiary or the victim of conflicting political ideologies.” (Tiger Country), I'd be “longing to see the German premiere, ideally with all the characters played by 70-year-olds so that one could appreciate the text, without worrying about nit-picky issues of detail and realism. ” (Punk Rock) ; or arguing “The problem is that directors in Britain still seem largely reluctant to stick their necks too far out in terms of staging. I can't imagine any British premiere of a new play by one of our leading playwrights being given such non-literal treatment as the world premiere of Stephens's Pornography was in Germany.” (When it comes to staging, we play it way too safe); or even “The new 'modern adaptation' of the Ibsen, written by Lucy Kirkwood and directed by Gate co-artistic director Carrie Cracknell, was always going to suffer from comparison with Thomas Ostermeier's recent astonishing modern dress production from the Berlin Schaubühne” (Hedda at the Gate). And we all know there was so much more.

Now, don't get me wrong, this isn't a teary confessional. I'm not even sure it's a mea culpa, per se. I'm certainly not saying I was wrong to like all that German staging (I wasn't. It's ace). And, if criticism is about writing one's most honest response, then I can't apologise for the reviews either. And realising as much reconciles me to Michael's expression of his incompatible-with-mine taste more than any other thought experiment I've ever tried.

Of course, it's both easier and more difficult for me than it is for Michael. He has his position, which I imagine is pretty secure, from which he can ask for what he wants. But then, what I wanted had a whole country (continent, possibly) where I could just go to get it. And I now live there.

Because my position, certainly when at bottom of the food chain at Time Out, was pretty much untenable. I'd argue it would have been untenable, or at least unfair, in any position, though.

I mean, don't get me wrong, it's not that I had totally fallen out of sympathy with All British Theatre. Ironically, I think the best thing I saw in Britain last year was Thea Sharrock's incredible production of Rattigan's After The Dance. But then, that worried me too. Perhaps the was the moment when another penny dropped – that if I was actively disappointed by myself for liking something on the grounds that it was deeply old-fashioned, albeit perfectly executed – then I was really in trouble. That I was definitely not playing the critical game “properly”.

I do wonder about this. After all, Tynan didn't make his name by signing up for the status quo. On the other hand, the much-heralded championing of Look Back in Anger also clearly adored the way that Shakespeare was staged in Britain. Then again, he also travelled abroad, and was also able to report from Paris, Berlin and Moscow. And, when literary manager of Olivier's National Theatre drew up a massive list of world theatre classics (downloadable list at bottom of page) only a fraction of which have yet been staged.

I suppose my conclusion – AT LAST – is that I think I'm doing the right thing. I'm enjoying being back in rotation for the Guardian blog, and more than that, I'm enjoying writing here on Postcards... again. It's a slightly odd feeling admitting that I'm sort of stepping out of being a “professional” critic back into doing it online just because I think it's something worth doing. Of course, if anyone wanted to pay me for review of stuff out here, I'd be very pleased, but I think that might have more to do with just feeling a bit more chilled out generally.

Anyway, sorry, this all seems to have gotten rather personal, but I kind of felt it wanted saying. Perhaps it didn't and in a couple of months I'll take it down. But anyway, here's hoping this new rate of productivity holds up (maybe not quite this rate) and that you find it interesting, worth reading, worth recommending and, more than anything else, helpful and inspiring.

[Top picture, a Picassa treated version of a picture from here, bottom picture, author's own]

[Edit: or, to put it another way... ]

1 comment:

Jana said...

It's very nice to read these posts of yours because, firstly, I've missed Postcards, and because, secondly, your journey through European theatre paralleled my journey through (all) theatre - your gradual discovery of forms was really quite in tempo with mine, and I always found Postcards a pleasant place to be as a result.

I've been having a similar set of quandaries over here in Melbourne, which is why I've just about stopped seeing what most Melburnians would consider theatre - I often feel like theatre is a very big place, and much of the local scene is stuck in a very small paddock thereof. It becomes very hard, after a while, to uphold such an opinion in review after review without getting exhausted in squabbles about whether something should be credited for a bit of innovation here, a bit of flair there - and who am I to say this, anyway, since we're on a whole other continent? The question of context becomes an important one, especially on this island at the end of the world.

The question of having unorthodox tastes as a young critic - ditto. I've actually been asking to be excused from reviewing great many Australian artists loved by all, because I am just tired of all repeating myself in trying to explain, to myself and the world, why I don't think they're any good. But I find myself equally annoyed when I like something which, a few months later after coming out of, say, C de la B, looks very mediocre - the bell curve meaning that C de la B becomes... what, out-of-this-world amazing? It is, I mean, comforting to see someone else working through the same questions.

Maybe you will learn German and write for Theater Heute?