SINCE How to Write About Theatre came out last summer, I’ve given around 20 talks, workshops and roundtable discussions everywhere from Edinburgh to Truro, from Manchester to Canterbury, from Colwyn Bay to London.
Largely for my own amusement, I’ve been calling it my rock’n’roll theatre criticism tour.
The lack of groupies and cocaine has been disappointing, but getting round the country has been great. With Bob Dylan as my model, I’m thinking of it as a never-ending criticism tour – a call from the O2 Arena is surely just a matter of time.
So what have I found on my travels? I’m pleased to report that everywhere I’ve gone, people have shown a high level of engagement in the idea of theatre criticism – although not always for the same reasons.
In Truro, the half-dozen writers on the New Reviewers programme at Hall for Cornwall are determined to improve the standard of discussion about Cornish culture. In London, the large contingent of directors on the Young Vic’s Genesis Directors’ Network are keen to find the most productive way to analyse each other’s work. In Poole, the Young Reviewers have been stretching their vocabulary by writing about children’s shows, dance performances and musicals.
Likewise, students I’ve met in Canterbury and Chichester, Leeds and Liverpool, Sheffield and Sunderland have been animated by the challenge of translating the theatre they see into words.
Along the way, there have been loads of interesting discussions.
At the University of Bristol, the students had just seen Matthew Zajac’s excellent one-man show The Tailor of Inverness and were now working on their reviews. The play is about Zajac’s father who was born in a part of Poland that became the Ukraine, was drafted into the armies of both Communist Russia and Nazi Germany and fled – depending on whose story you believe – across most of Europe before settling in Glasgow and finally Inverness.
One of the students had an intriguing question. Being half-Polish himself, he was wondering whether it would be appropriate to include his own family story in the review. I could see his dilemma. If he wanted to do justice to the work of the artist, wouldn’t it be self-indulgent to start banging on about his own story? On the other hand, when he had filtered the show through the lens of his own experience – as all of us do – wouldn’t it be relevant to mention it?
I think it would be very relevant. Whatever his opinion of the show, he is writing from a distinct perspective and, as a fellow audience member, I’d be fascinated to know how that perspective affected his interpretation. As a critic of this particular show, he would have a unique perspective in being half Polish. It would be the thing that made his review stand out from the rest.
I would still expect him to make The Tailor of Inverness his central focus, but if he could tell a parallel story that illuminated Zajac’s show in some way, it would only enrich the reader’s understanding. Depending on how he chose to structure his review, it could be the way he drew the reader into the story of his encounter with the play. That was the technique Benedict Nightingale used when reviewing the jury-room drama Twelve Angry Men in 1996:
I found myself questioning the Angry Men myth when I sat on a jury recently and found I was the only member convinced that the defendant was guilty of theft. It was deeply disconcerting to be the lion in a den of Fondas.
With any other play, Nightingale’s jury experience would be irrelevant, but here it had a direct application. He was able to use a personal story to explain his reaction to the play, giving the reader an insight into him and the thing he was writing about.
The only note of caution is not to let the personal anecdote overshadow the play. If Nightingale had been one of several jury members who believed the defendant to be guilty, his story would have carried little weight and could have seemed like an irrelevant or indulgent aside. A personal story is interesting only to the extent it illuminates the production.
At Falmouth University, where my gig even got a review, one student had a great question about how sure a critic can be of the artist’s intentions. He gave the example of Stewart Lee who has been known to alienate an audience deliberately as a personal dare to see whether he could bring them back on side again. The critic who didn’t understand what the comedian was up to and simply took Lee on face value may assume he was incompetent.
This was a game that Telegraph critic Dominic Cavendish took to another level when he gave a deliberately negative review of a Lee show as a kind of meta commentary on the comedian’s act:
It feels quite empowering to leave a Stewart Lee gig at the first available opportunity.
Unsurprisingly, Cavendish’s review generated much below-the-line vitriol, but maybe that was what the critic intended. I only suspect this, incidentally, because Cavendish told me he was fully aware of Lee’s methods and totally prepared for any backlash. He knew what he was doing. If that was the game Lee was playing as a comedian, why shouldn’t he play it as a critic?
In this case, it was as hard to be certain of the critic’s intentions as it was to be certain of the comedian’s. The best I can say is that most of the time we get the artist’s intentions more or less right, but we’re all fallible and sometimes we miss the point.
And it’s that level of uncertainty that makes the job of writing about theatre endlessly engaging. So here’s looking forward to more such discussions on my never-ending criticism tour.