With great power comes great responsibility. But, argues our theatre editor, should we give critics so much power? In fact, do we need them at all...?
The worst review I ever got called me “a Tory boy c**t.”
It was in the comments section below an article I'd written. Now, I’m no fool – I’ll take the hit for the third point. Hell, I might put it on a passport. But a certain lack of penis and affection for social justice surely excludes me from the former two. Which, I suppose, makes the criticism far easier to shrug off and move past.
But a bad review can terminate a creative career. Stop writers writing. Stop actors acting. Stop dancers dancing. Stop songwriters writing songs. Which strikes me as something of a problem.
Many of you will probably have read Hannah Silva’s interview with the playwright Joanna Laurens by now. In it, Laurens discusses how the “vicious” reviews for her second and third plays, Five Gold Rings and Poor Beck, in effect killed her career. “They mocked the language, belittled, and shamed me, publicly,” says Larens. “I was only 25.” Ah, the second album backlash – as fun as a bath of cold sick and about as helpful. Even when it’s deserved.
Now, while we can debate the extent to which this kind of backlash is due the critics’ envy of young talent, distrust of early success or a desire to buck a trend of popular positivity, I think the more interesting question is, probably, whether we need critics at all.
The best plays I’ve ever seen haven’t been suggested to me through a review – either in print, online or broadcast media. They have come through personal recommendations – in a pub, in an email or, most likely, over Twitter. I don’t have critics who I trust implicitly – I have friends.
I didn’t read a single review in Edinburgh. Or, to put it another way, I did more press-ups on the top of Arthur’s Seat while wearing knicker elastic around my head (one) than I read reviews of shows in Edinburgh. I’ve read a few since I got back, mind you, because I was interested to see if the critics had spotted something I’d missed, or to get another perspective on a show to which I had reacted strongly. But I rarely, if ever, refer to a critic before I’ve formed my own opinion.
And do you know why? Because, often, critics are more interested in their writing than about what they're writing. Young writers – and I know, because I am one – use reviews as a way to learn their craft and cement their own reputation, often giving little thought to how they might be damaging someone else’s. Some reviews – the bad ones – are little more than lexical masturbation.
Of course, there are wonderful critics out there. People who write clever, sympathetic, useful and informed interpretations that encourage discussion, help young artists break into public consciousness and maybe even improve the work they’re reviewing.
Also, as a bad postman blames his cat, artists will often blame critics for disliking what is, basically, bad work. Or, at the very least, will mistakenly expect critics to take the same interest in their work as they do. As Joanna Laurens says “I made the mistake of assuming the critics at least would be vaguely familiar with The Three Birds, and would know where I’d come from – but it turned out afterwards that they weren’t.” You cannot, unfortunately, expect critics to always do that level of research – to know your other work, to understand the context, to jump through your hoops. Just in the way that you cannot expect it of your audience.
The interdependent relationship between artist and critic can be painful, useful, dispiriting, sycophantic, provocative and even marital. The only way we could possibly solve the mutual distrust would be for critics to make work and artists to write reviews.
But that’s never going to happen, surely.
Do you disagree? Has a review ever helped you improve your show? Do you write reviews and want to tell us why they matter? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below...