Theatre Criticism is in crisis and this isn’t something new. Financial issues, the shift from print to online and the emergence of theatre blogs etc have all had their impact. However, there is another issue that is going unaddressed and that is, the hush hush muzzling of the critic.
Opportunities for emerging critics are few and far between and so, many are opting to create their own platforms and use social media to promote and disseminate their reviews. However, there seems to be an unspoken rule that makes writers uncomfortable with writing negative reviews. The idea of writing a negative review conjures feelings of anxiety about: how it will be received, whether or not you’ve the knowledge and competency to say such things, concerns about the backlash, worries about upsetting the company in question, fear of rocking the boat and, feeling as though you’re not established enough to be the Craig Revel Horwood of criticism. All of these feelings are valid however, how much of an influence have external sources had in forging these feelings? Probably quite a lot.
Let’s start with rocking the boat. There are multiple media platforms around Britain that do not allow negative comments about plays in their reviews. If as critics we are only supposed to write a positive and/or polite commentary of every piece of theatre we see, we may as well take off our hats and hand them to the PR team.
Criticism, by definition, is about assessing the merits and flaws of a piece. And of course, the merits are raved about by default. But what happens when a piece is flawed from beginning to end and arguably inherently problematic? Are you supposed to right good things based on what others have said or on what the company was trying to do? Or maybe write a synopsis with a polite dig at the end? Or maybe just don’t write anything at all? Should you decide to write a very negative review, you have volunteered yourself to walk a very thin line and possibly sacrifice your credibility as a writer and that’s because credibility isn’t what it used to be. Just like Sunny D was pulled from our shelves and returned with the same branding yet a completely different taste, criticism is slowly becoming a going through the (positive) motions participatory activity, rather than an observational, analytical commentary. How did we end up here?
Fear of becoming a car crash and theoretically upsetting the establishment is what led us here. If you’re not one of the high flyers yet, one review is unlikely to have a national impact on how a piece of art is perceived and if it does, well that says something about the art, the critic and the audiences of the two. A negative review with no point to it will sink relatively quickly but, one that has a point may well gather some momentum and cause people to have some conversations (and prompting discussion has its plus points). You may well be branded the devil incarnate by a whole wealth of people but, your duty here is to your audience and the art form as a whole, not to individual artists. If a piece of art empowers you and people like you, you’ll push that boat right out into the sea so, if a piece of art offends and dehumanises you surely you are allowed to do the same? You have agency over your words. The pressure to give everything a more mellow tone to ‘take the edge off’ is a washed up means by which to limit freedom of opinion, pigeonhole us into a writing in a template that leans towards regurjitating tired, standardised views and, it stagnates the positive changes occurring in theatre.
Theatre is moving – it is growing and it is slowly dismantling its elitist roots and this is something we all need to see. So many theatres are making the active effort to welcome in new audiences and diversify their productions and staffing structures. These changes are huge, necessary and encouraging. So when you spot a piece of theatre that does the complete opposite, if you wish to, you have every right to call it out and challenge its message. You have the right to write what you feel and place it in the public sphere. Not everyone will agree with you, you know this. In fact, most people will disagree with you. But, there’ll a lot of people who do agree with you but didn’t feel that they could air such an opinion. To clarify, criticism isn’t a voice of the people but, it is a possible window into a world that still only attracts certain types of people and makes acknowledgement of the audiences who aren’t sitting in theatres.
Theatre criticism was like Baby Jane (full of spark and potential) and it can be that again – but, writing critical honest letters to our audiences may be a more transformative (though controversial) venture than simply pretending to write a heart felt letter to daddy.