Is criticism in crisis? Spoiler alert: No.
Like winter flu or X Factor or the hawthorne blossom outside my window, rarely does a year go by without someone declaring that theatre criticism is in crisis. This time it was Mark Shenton of The Stage, who made an offhand remark about there being 'no jobs' for younger critics. Matt Trueman reprimanded him, so Shenton defensively called Trueman defensive then Karen Fricker weighed in and it all kicked off in the comments. Which is all a bit yada yada we've been here before.
The issue that Mark is raising is that so far, in the drift towards online reviewing and blogging, no very clear financial model has been put in place to make this work as well as it has done for the broadsheets. As far as I know, this seems largely correct. Matt Trueman makes his living as a critic, but lots of people don't, despite contributing to the new-ish world of theatre blogs.
What is less clear to me is why Mark suggests that, because of this, he fears for 'quality journalism'. It's true, of course, that if someone can't 'put food on the table', they won't ultimately be able to write reviews. But while having an income may be necessary for quality journalism, it's not sufficient (viz. Quentin Letts, Tim Walker). It's possible that the future's theatre critics will find some way of 'monetising their content', through partnering with theatres or publishers or newspapers or advertisers or maybe Web 3.0 will seamlessly produce flows of income in some as-yet unanticipatable way. It may be that theatre critics support their work by taking on day jobs, like resting actors. Either way, it seems to me very unlikely that theatre criticism will disappear; the evidence is, startlingly, that people want to be theatre critics and happily do it as a hobby.
More importantly, I'd say that it's the broadsheets that are threatening the quality of theatre reviews and have been doing so for decades. For a while I've been editing new editions of Terence Rattigan's plays; whenever I call up those original reviews, no matter how many times I do this, my jaw always drops to see the space critics had in the 1950s; two, sometimes three columns to expatiate with complexity and at some length on the play they've seen. Tynan, Hobson, Trewin and others sometimes had over 1000 words to respond with wit, style, and erudition to the theatre. This has been cut back and cut back and now a critic is lucky to get 600 words on an evening of theatre, quite often 350. Once you've set the scene and complemented a couple of actors and the set, what do you have for analysis and discussion? 150 words? Critics rarely have the chance to think aloud, to speculate, to take an idea for a walk. They don't have the space.
They also don't have the time. We still seem to be obsessed with the overnight review and, yes, it's exciting if you're involved in a show, but actually, would it hurt to wait a couple of days? It's no surprise that the best critics have often been the Sunday reviewers, where they have a few days to let a performance settle in the mind and can build something more substantial in an essay that compares two or three shows.
Our best critics - and I think we have good critics - are good at quickly compressing large insights into tiny spaces and conveying the tang of a performance in a few words (look at Michael Billington on Maxine Peake), but at best these are hints and glimpses; they can't be developed into anything more. Everything is instant, capsule judgments.
On the contrary, the highest quality critical writing about theatre at the moment is on the blogs. While I do check out the Guardian reviews (because the theatre page is a bookmark on my computer) I more eagerly seek out Andrew Haydon, Matt Trueman, Catherine Love, Megan Vaughan, Maddy Costa, Dan Hutton, Exeunt, A Younger Theatre, and more. And I do it because the blogger now has the space afforded to the critics of the 1950s and when they want to they can use that space to really work through a set of ideas and in the best of that writing you can that vivid, thrilling sense that the theatre is something that matters. It has got inside these writers and they are trying to figure out how it has changed them. They can really take time to think.
It's also a matter of style. Again, because I did a lot of work on theatre of the 1950s, I can understand that excitement about what Tynan would say on Sunday but also how would he say it? He famously used his column as a space to explore different styles, often as opportunities to display caustic wit, but it meant he would write rather wonderful reviews as dialogues; there was an famously acid review of Rattigan's Separate Tables (1954) in the form of a dialogue between Aunt Edna (middle-class middle brow theatregoer) and a 'Young Perfectionist', ending with the devastating couplet:
A.E.: Clearly, there is something here for both of us.
Y.P.: Yes. But not quite enough for either of us.
It's a stylistic conceit that maybe in 1954 only Tynan could have carried off or would have though to try.
But the bloggers have a different freedom. Just today, I find Megan Vaughan's review of Teh Internet is Serious Business; seriously, how great is that - marvel at what the internet has made possible in the form of a review. I haven't seen the show yet but it is so delightful and witty and smart and also incisive, I can't wait to go. And this has been happening for a while; one of the pioneer theatre bloggers, The West End Whingers, wrote a review of the shonky old play Fram by Tony Harrison in rhyming couplets. And more generally, you get a strong sense of style off each of these writers I've mentioned: Andrew Haydon's meticulously raging passion; Matt Trueman's sternly intelligent inspections; Catherine Love feeling her way empathetically through the turns of a production; Maddy Costa's tumblingly confessional intensities and so on. It's a pleasure to turn to these writers to get a sense not of a capsule review, but an unfolding project of cultural engagement.
Things flared up again a week ago at the ITC Conference, on 16 September, when Bryony Kimmings declared that, apart from Lyn Gardner of The Guardian, UK criticism was rubbish. This, not surprisingly, caused a bit of a flap-doodle among the online bloggers who may have felt a little slighted. An interesting debate emerged on Twitter between what we might call the interested parties. My inclination with Bryony Kimmings is to agree with everything that brilliant woman says and in this instance, I don't think she was wholly wrong. I mean, as I've been saying through this article already, I think she's wrong in that there is some great criticism, but the whole model still seems to be wrong: that is, the review as a sort of one-off judgement-from-high for-all-time that places the critic on the other side from the artist as sparring partners - though with the artist unable, realistically, to fight back.
(Is that right? Can the artist not fight back? Well they can. The Guardian briefly ran a right to reply thing on their website. It never worked; artists always seemed petulant or pleading or arrogant. Mind you, anyone remember that documentary from the early nineties when a bunch of theatre critics were invited to direct plays at the Battersea Arts Centre? The sequence where Nick de Jongh read the review written of his show by Stephen Daldry was a remarkable demonstration of self-righteous petulance that I've rarely seen from an artist. The artist can only probably fight back through brilliantly unfair means. A playwright I know, tired of the pissy reviews they got from the Sunday Herald's Mark Brown - who, full disclosure, has also given me a couple of gloriously shitty reviews - toyed with the idea of introducing an off-stage character in their next play who would only ever be referred to as 'the cunt Mark Brown'.)
The shorter the review, the more pugnacious and unappetising it seems. Summing up what might be two years of work in 400 words with some condescending dismissal just doesn't accept the weight and value of people's lives and work. I wrote, very early on in maintaining this blog, a short piece explaining that I wasn't writing reviews, just things that looked a bit like reviews. By and large I've tried to maintain this jesuitical distinction. The fact I don't write about everything I see and that I don't accept press tickets helps me keep this distinction in my head. I try not to give summary judgments of the shows. (When I do post something very negative, I take great pains to show my working, so that I can be argued with, that I'm not descending on it from a high horse but struggling to make sense in the middle of it.) The aim with all these pieces is to engage with what they're doing and think about what it means to do things like that and to walk some of the way with the artist.
And this is where I think the blogging world is really changing things. There is a real move away from this one-shot smackdown in the online reviews. First, because of space; when you've got 1000 words or more it admits complexity and that allows for a much more complex response. Second, because of time: because when you're freed from the overnight deadline, you can reflect - not just on the show but on other reviews. A dialogue can be set up. It's brilliant that Megan Vaughan and Stuart Pringle and Aleks Sierz wrote the first wave of reviews of Little Revolution at the Almeida; then Matt Trueman and I were able to write reviews puzzling over those initial responses; and then Andrew Haydon writes his review where can reflect on our commentaries. Which might seem all a bit incestuous and getting further away from the work but it doesn't feel like it - it feels more like a really good conversation in the pub afterwards just with more time, space, maturity of response and reflection. I've had loads of reviews for things in my life: I'd far rather have a play of mine battered around in an argument between bloggers like these than have it exposed to summary execution in the inky fingers of the traditional critics. Or rather, I'd simply learn so much more from the former than the latter. The latter is marketing, the former is criticism.
And there may be something here for the economic model of the critic; the embedded critic, which seems to have taken off much more online than offline, that is, the critic who is invited into the rehearsal room - as Andrew Haydon was with Secret Theatre at Lyric Hammersmith, for instance - is someone who might not be paid by a newspaper, but by a theatre or by a publisher. (Actually, that's not new: one of my favourite theatre books is Jim Hiley's Theatre at Work , a long account of watching the rehearsals for John Dexter's National Theatre production of Brecht's The Life of Galileo, a production I watched, aged twelve, standing at the back of the Oliver circle. Hiley was, to all intents and purposes, an embedded critic for that show.) It might seem risky to have critics paid by artists because we won't get fearlessly objective commentary; true, but there will always be space for the short star-system review. This is a way of improving the quality of the critical culture we have around theatre and the blogosphere (yuk that word) seems to me more likely to be its salvation than its damnation.