Against Racist Reviews: A Challenge to White Power?

IATC Hong Kong 28 June 2021


If you live in Hong Kong, you don’t need me to tell you about Great Britain’s history of colonialism. At the start of the 20th century, the British Empire covered nearly a quarter of the planet. Hong Kong, which it occupied from 1841, was a small part of the largest-ever empire.

Like all empires, it wasn’t to last. At the end of the Second World War, it began to shrink as countries claimed independence one by one. The process culminated in the formal handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997. Today, after just a few decades, the British Empire no longer exists.

Attitudes take longer to change than territory, however. The Empire has gone but in my country the colonial mindset persists. In the popular imagination, Great Britain is still at the centre of the world, powerful, influential and respected. In this out-dated vision, it is a world in which white people—white men in particular—are in charge.

A small number of those white men end up being theatre critics. Do they also regard themselves as colonialists? I doubt it. More likely they see themselves as liberal-minded arts lovers. Opposed to discrimination, embracing the modern world, they are not people you would think of as racist.

For this reason, I was intrigued when I heard the actor Emmanuel Kojo had persuaded Equity, the actors’ union, to launch a campaign against racist theatre reviews. As a white middle-aged man myself, I was largely blind to the problem Kojo had identified. Although I was aware of some egregious examples of racist commentary, I regarded them as outliers. In 2018, for example, The Sunday Times described a televised Royal Shakespeare Company production of Macbeth as being “less garishly diverse” than a previous production. It was a horrible thing to say but the view seemed out of step with mainstream opinion.

Not so, Kojo would say. Talking to The Stage newspaper, he argued that white critics never referred to the colour of a white actor’s skin, but routinely did so for non-white actors. White was the default and anything else was, he said, “cause for constant mention and discussion”. What he was identifying, in other words, was not the overt racism we associate with the far right, which is as easy to spot as it is to condemn, but a more insidious form of racism born of blinkeredness and complacency.

Like the male gaze in cinema, the white gaze in British theatre assumes everyone sees the world from what is actually a partial perspective. White critics subconsciously write for a white readership and, like the colonialists who ran the British Empire, treat whiteness as the norm. This default perspective, intentional or otherwise, regards anyone who is not white as different, other, not one of “us”. The effect is to discriminate and exclude, even if the critics’ intention is the reverse.

Emmanuel Kojo (Photo courtesy of the author and Kojo)

By chance, at the same time as Kojo was promoting Equity’s campaign, playwright Chinonyerem Odimba announced on Twitter she would pay for two black critics to participate in one of my online criticism workshops. Other people matched her generous offer, the numbers grew and I invited Kojo to come as a guest. It was one of the most interesting sessions of the year.

Through this initial contact, I was invited by Ian Manborde, Equity’s Equality & Diversity Organiser, to help devise guidelines for theatre critics wanting to write responsibly about race. Working with fellow critic Laura Kressly and consulting widely, we drew up a set of proposals that would promote empathetic writing without curtailing the freedom to be critical. We called for critics to use their cultural power responsibly, to consider their biases and to approach unfamiliar themes with openness.

The guidelines were published in a special edition of The Stage alongside an excellent set of articles on the question of race and theatre criticism.[1]

The exercise should not have been controversial. We were simply asking critics to treat their fellow human beings with respect. We even began by saying critics should be “free to express themselves openly and honestly without fear or favour”.[2] And yet at least four commentators were outraged.

Most bizarrely, Dominic Cavendish, The Daily Telegraph‘s theatre critic, called the document “positively Stalinist”. Quoted in a news article, he said: “I do not have any obligation to write with an eye continually on those within the theatre industry who wish to subject me to tone policing.”[3]

Why did Cavendish feel so threatened? Nobody had obliged him to write anything nor had they subjected him to “tone policing”. But these open and equitable suggestions put him on the defensive.

Would he prefer not to treat theatre workers with “dignity and equal respect”? Does his cherished “freedom of thought” preclude him from being sensitive? Why should considering his privilege and potential for bias be so “overbearing”?

Cavendish said he was defending freedom of speech but his unwillingness to engage with the guidelines suggests he was defending his position of power. He sounded like a man who was very happy with the way things were and didn’t want to be told otherwise.

The Daily Telegraph followed up this news report with an article by commissioning editor Ben Lawrence who said he was “appalled that Equity are trying to tell me what I can and cannot say”.[4] Curiously, he said he was “not at odds with Equity’s concerns” and went on to list a number of examples of racist writing that he found “pretty horrific” and “disturbing”. His objection seemed not to be to the ideas themselves, but to an “external organisation” trying “to set the agenda”.

“Yes, sometimes critics may seem cruel,” he wrote, “but they need to be given the latitude to be emphatic.” Needless to say, there is nothing in Equity’s suggestions that would stop a critic being emphatic, although cruelty hardly seems a worthy aspiration.

After that, Lawrence had to invent objections. He worried that critics would be “forbidden” from talking about age, race, gender and appearance “even when it’s appropriate”. Yet the document says writing about such characteristics is fine if they “directly affect the production’s meaning”, so there is no disagreement there.

And somehow, he had understood the document to mean that reviews will “fail unless they relate to the critic’s own life”. It said no such thing.

Inventing arguments was also the approach taken by Frank Furedi in RT (formerly Russia Today). He sustained a whole article on the premise that Equity believed “critics can only write objectively about their ‘lived experience'”.[5] The guidelines actually said the opposite: that “true objectivity does not exist,” a phrase Furedi should have known because he quoted it in his article.

Rather than engage seriously with Equity’s plea for critics to write with care, these commentators preferred to situate themselves on one side of a culture war. Writing in The Spectator, Toby Young saw only a “narrow ideological orthodoxy rooted in critical race theory”.[6] Like Furedi, he went on to talk about universality, citing two canonical works from the western repertoire like they were self-evidently appreciated by everyone. As if the guidelines had been drawn up for no reason, written in a world where racism did not exist, he simply asserted that Julius Caesar and Hedda Gabler can speak to people of all backgrounds. Well, that’s all right then.

I’ve focused on the writers who took issue with Equity and have no reason to believe their views are widespread. But their resistance shows how hard it can be to challenge power, even in the benign world of theatre criticism. I don’t mean to say the guidelines themselves are beyond criticism. They can surely be improved. But why couldn’t these writers have acknowledged the problem of racism and resolved to do something about it, instead of acting like they were the ones under attack?


[1] Emmanuel Kojo & Naomi Obeng (Eds.), Special Feature: Race and theatre criticism—We need critical change, The Stage, 21 April 2021. https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/race-and-theatre-criticism–we-need-critical-change

[2] ‘On writing about race: Equity’s recommendations for theatre critics’, https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/race-and-theatre-criticism–on-writing-about-race-equitys-recommendations-for-theatre-critics

[3] Ewan Somerville, ‘Keep actors’ age, race, gender and appearance out of it, theatre critics are told’, The Daily Telegraph, 23 April 2021. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2021/04/23/theatre-critics-should-not-mention-actors-race-gender-age-avoid/

[4] Ben Lawrence, ‘Writers should be free to express their opinions—not strangled by Stasi-like “diversity” rules’, The Daily Telegraph, 29 April 2021. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/theatre/what-to-see/writers-should-free-express-opinions-not-strangled-stasi-like/

[5] Frank Furedi, ‘Equity’s woke indoctrination of theatre critics will cause cultural segregation’, RT, 29 April 2021. https://www.rt.com/op-ed/522483-woke-indoctrination-theatre-cultural-segregation/

[6] Toby Young, ‘The problem with Equity’s anti-racism guidelines’, The Spectator, 1 May 2021. https://www.spectator.co.uk/article/the-problem-with-equitys-anti-racism-guidelines

A Story of One Show Two Contexts

IATC Hong Kong 18 June 2021

This is the story of one show and two contexts. It is about how theatre can mean different things to different people and how those meanings change in response to politics, place and the daily news.

The first context was my own. It was January 2020 and I had been invited to write about the Santiago a Mil International Festival for The Guardian newspaper. This was my first time in Chile and I had a lot to take in. From the landscape to the language, everything was new. Watching two or three plays a day, I was an interested outsider.

Trewa (Photo: Danilo Espinoza Guerra)

One of the productions I was scheduled to see was called Trewa, staged by KIMVN Teatro, a name that comes from the Mapuche word for “knowledge”. A few hours before it began, I went with another journalist to La Chascona, a house built by the poet Pablo Neruda. By the time we had finished our tour, I had only half an hour to get to the theatre. Luckily, I was able to hail a taxi. Less luckily, the driver had ideas of his own.

Initially, everything went well on the 8km journey. Although he spoke little English and I spoke no Spanish, we managed to have a friendly chat about my family in Scotland and his in Chile. As we drove, he explained to me that because of protests blocking the streets, he would have to take the motorway that cuts through the city, a detail that was of no concern to me. When we arrived at the theatre, however, he had a surprise in store.

Keeping an eye on the meter, I expected a fare of 12,000 pesos (~HK$128), which was reasonable for the journey time. Instead, the driver demanded 59,000 pesos (~HK$631). When I protested at being charged five times too much, he said he’d had to pay a toll on our motorway diversion.

I was pretty sure he was lying and, in any case, I didn’t have that much money with me. But time was tight and I was unable to argue in Spanish. I did have a similar amount of US dollars in my wallet in case of emergencies. Perhaps this was just such an emergency. I handed over the cash and got out.

A few minutes later, I was sitting down to watch Trewa, feeling rattled by my rush to the theatre and angry at being ripped off. I was also hungry, having had no time to eat. So when I became impatient with the play, which seemed to have a meandering structure and several false endings, was I exercising proper critical judgement or was I just an ignorant outsider who was rattled, angry and hungry?

Those doubts were amplified at the end of the show. I had never seen a curtain call like it. The audience were not just applauding, they were up on their feet and chanting. “Libertad,” they shouted in unison, calling out the Spanish word for “liberty”. This was not the knee-jerk ovation you see in western commercial theatre but a genuine expression of engagement.

In the face of such passion, my private thoughts about Trewa seemed to miss the point. Where I was looking for a well-made play, one that made its arguments in a dramaturgically satisfying way, the audience were seeking an expression of their own political reality. The finer points of narrative structure were far less concerning to them than hearing in public something that needed to be said.

And this is the second context—a context I had to work hard to understand. Set in a Mapuche community, Trewa was a response to the suspicious death of environmental activist Macarena Valdés in 2016 and the police shooting of teenager Brandon Hernández Huentecol the same year. They were just the headline cases in a catalogue of injustices suffered by the indigenous people ever since the 16th-century Spanish conquest. With their history of suppression, the Mapuche actors made a political statement simply by being on stage. That they also told the story of a David-and-Goliath struggle only intensified the power of the performance for that audience.

Back in January 2020, there was another dimension. Three months before I arrived, the people of Santiago had taken to the streets in protest at everything from an out-of-touch president to inadequate private pensions and police violence. Having shut down a key metro station and covered the city centre in graffiti, they had continued to protest every weekend.

Protest graffiti in Santiago (Photo: Mark Fisher)

The spirit of a popular revolt was in the air. Trewa gave voice to the oppression people were complaining about on the streets. In a different time or a different place, it would have had a different impact, but watching the audience on that hot January evening, I was left in little doubt about how eloquently the show spoke in the here and now. My bad mood was irrelevant and my theatrical analysis, even if correct, was of little concern.

This is an extreme example—a city in revolt coupled with a polemical drama—but every performance has the potential to capture the public mood. It is the reason I find writing about theatre endlessly interesting. As a critic, I am not just recording the movement of the actors and the thoughts of the playwright. I am also writing about the world we live in. As the world changes, so the meanings on stage change.

These meanings are frequently out of the control of the artists. In the early days of the UK’s lockdown, for example, there was an online reading of A Separate Peace, a 1969 television play by Tom Stoppard. Writing in The Guardian, the critic Mark Lawson described how a 50-year-old script had accidentally became topical because of its parallels to the COVID-19 pandemic. “Themes of isolation, medical bafflement, mental illness and the legacy in England of the Second World War… gain a coronavirus kick,” he wrote.

The Remote Read: A Separate Peace (online photo)

None of that can have been the playwright’s intention, but it was no less resonant for the critic. This raises an interesting question. On one hand, at moments of social upheaval, whether it be Brexit in the UK, Donald Trump in the US or pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, it is impossible for critics not to see their world reflected on stage. Audiences see it too. If theatre told us nothing about how we live today, we would quickly lose interest and do something else. It makes sense, then, for critics to write about those topical echoes.

On the other hand, it is also the job of the critic to focus on “timeless” qualities such as the skills of the actors, the choices of the director, the colour palette of the designer and the deeper themes of the playwright. Indeed, a certain strand of academic criticism would prefer a distant analysis to the partial tone of a critic immersed in the moment.

The ideal is probably somewhere between the two. None of us can extract ourselves from the world we live in. Even if objectivity were possible, it would be misleading to pretend the theatrical event was unaffected by our life and times. Theatre is a present-tense medium and it is logical to write in the same blink-and-you-miss-it spirit.

At the same time, not every play in 2021 has to be about the loneliness of coronavirus lockdown any more than every play in 2011 had to be about the Arab Spring. Some plays are topical, others are not. The critic should not impose connections were none exist, nor should they let their personal preoccupations blind them to what is actually happening before them. They should have the sensitivity to distinguish between the irrelevant and the relevant, to dismiss, in my case, the anger and hunger, and to embrace the special intensity of an audience rising as one.

How to Write About Theatre Online Workshops

First published in Critical Stages/Scènes critiques

The IATC journal/Revue de l’AICT – December/Décembre 2020: Issue No 22

It is October 2016, and I am sharing a stage at Trinity College Dublin with Peter Crawley of the Irish Times. We are talking about theatre criticism, and I want to make a point about the way every critic—and indeed every member of the audience—sees a show in a slightly different way.

To illustrate my argument, I leave my seat, climb the raked auditorium to the back row and sit next to a student. I expect her to cringe in embarrassment and everyone else to laugh. At that point, I plan to point out that this student’s experience is necessarily different from everyone else’s. For her, the performance would be uncomfortable; for everyone else, it would be fun.

Except she does nothing of the kind. She holds my gaze and remains relaxed. If she is uncomfortable, she is not showing it. I stumble on regardless, trusting my return trip down the aisle will demonstrate how a performer’s proximity can change the way we feel.

It is only after the event that Crawley explains my error. The student I had chosen to sit next to is actually an actor, Breffni Holahan. Her work includes VARDO by the brilliant site-specific company ANU. In that show, she played a sex worker in a real apartment in Dublin’s former red-light district. The role required her to get up-close and personal with one audience member at a time. She is not someone to be fazed by a wandering theatre critic with a poor sense of social distance. “I remember the moment well,” says Crawley today, “and seeing you pick the most utterly unflappable target in the room with what seemed like fated precision.”

Ah, the joys of live performance!

It is a memory that has returned to me now as I move my criticism workshops online and think about what I am missing. In the digital world, I can make the same argument as I did then. I can describe the difference between sitting in the stalls and perching in the gods. I can explain how every one of us is a product of so many influences and biases that objectivity is impossible, even if it were desirable. I can say that when someone writes to the editor to ask, “Did Mark Fisher see the same play as me?” the correct answer is, “No, I saw it with my eyes, you saw it with yours.” But what I cannot do is leap from my chair.

I can tell but I cannot show.

Since the publication of my book How to Write About Theatre (2015), I have visited universities, schools and theatres to run two-hour workshops about the craft of reviewing. In the U.K., I’ve talked in lecture halls, rehearsal rooms and theatre foyers. Further afield, I have appeared in a classroom in Valetta, a meeting room in Sao Paulo and a studio in Santiago. No two spaces are alike, and no two arrangements of participants is quite the same. I relish the unpredictability. I love the way, as with live performance itself, the tone and energy of a workshop is influenced by the room we are in and the architecture of the space, just as we are all subject to our moods, the weather and the politics of the day. These moment-by-moment shifts are what makes live theatre—and writing about live theatre—endlessly interesting.

Towards the start of a workshop, I will often prowl round the room or walk up the aisle, just as I did in Dublin, to draw attention to how much the meaning of a performance is locked into our spatial relationships. If the teacher stands in front of a whiteboard with the students sat in rows, it feels orthodox and hierarchical. If we arrange the chairs in a circle, it becomes egalitarian. If I sit behind a desk, I look defensive; if I sit on the desk, I seem open. By extension, a play performed in a proscenium-arch theatre has a different meaning from the same play staged in an abandoned factory. Even before a word is spoken, the setting establishes a distinct atmosphere, perhaps even a value system. We are not always good at articulating how that atmosphere affects us, but every time we go to the theatre, we instinctively adapt, critics and audiences alike.

I did one such workshop in February 2020 at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London, where Dr Joel Anderson runs an MA course in theatre criticism and dramaturgy. I did not know it would be my last real-world session for some time. Within a month, the COVID-19 pandemic was forcing universities and theatres to close. I was out of a job. Like many, I took a while to adjust to the new normal, but as a freelance writer in need of an income, I realised I could take the workshops online.

I would have called them “How to Write About Theatre When There Isn’t Any Theatre to Write About” if it had not been too close to the truth.

For the same reason, I worried nobody would be interested. Wouldn’t they all be rethinking their careers? Being a theatre critic is a precarious business at the best of times and now . . . Who would want to learn more about such an endangered profession?

But, thanks to the reach of social media, I discovered they were interested. Putting a toe in the water, I ran three workshops in close succession at the start of May. They proved successful enough for me to continue more-or-less weekly since then. Some participants have returned for follow-on workshops, others for one-to-one sessions. I have also picked up a few high schools and youth groups.

But successful or not, I can no longer circle the room. Instead, I sit looking at the same arrangement of Zoom faces in their individual spaces, flat and two-dimensional. As with online theatre, you miss the depth of field and the sense of everyone breathing the same air. It works, it is practical, it just lacks that special dynamic of bodies together in a room.

Mark Fisher with Winchester young critics holding his book on criticism. Photo: Carl Woodward

Yet, even though we are not physically together, I quickly realised the workshops do capitalise on the human need to congregate. It almost does not matter that the subject under discussion is criticism; just as important is the opportunity to spend a couple of hours with like-minded people. With COVID-19 ruling out the possibility of theatre­—and, with it, the possibility of earning a living from theatre—the morale of many of the participants has been low. “I’ve been in a slump,” wrote one South African participant on Twitter later, “but after being part of one of his workshops, I’m excited to write about theatre again!” (@Varvara13)

Morale-raising had not been my intention, but she was not alone in expressing that sentiment. “I have been sorely missing theatre of late,” wrote another, “and an afternoon chatting about theatre and criticism was just the tonic” (@E_dayEccentric).

Spending two hours talking about criticism might sound an esoteric pursuit, but talking about criticism means talking about art. And talking about art means talking about yourself, your passions, your tastes, your values, the world at large. That must have been the thought on A.O. Scott’s mind when he called his 2016 book Better Living Through Criticism. In a free-wheeling contemplation of the form, he contended that thinking and judging are what we do as a species, making criticism fundamental. “This book is also, I hope, a celebration of art and imagination, an examination of our inborn drive to cultivate delight and of the various ways we refine that impulse,” he wrote (Scott 16). Maybe writing about theatre when there is not any theatre to write about is not such a crazy idea after all.

Another happy accident is that most of the workshops have become international forums. Free from geographical constraints, online discussions are global. In one session, the conversation bounced back and forth from my spare bedroom in Scotland to living rooms in Ireland, Italy and Canada. Participants have logged on from Bahrein, Singapore and Florida. This has two effects. One is to create a sense of shared experience, of theatre lovers all over the globe dealing with the lockdown in similar ways. That feels nourishing and supportive. The other, just as valuable, is the opposite: to learn about distinct features of local theatre cultures, be it embedded criticism in Manchester, voices of oppression in Cape Town or identity politics in Ottawa.

The conversations have ranged more broadly still. Some of the best workshops have been those attended by theatre professionals curious about the critic’s job. There was the U.K. artistic director who lamented the decline in regional critics and the failure of visiting national critics to understand the local context. Another director wondered whether critics showed enough care towards productions mounted at huge financial risk. Playwrights, press officers and actors have brought equally stimulating outside perspectives. Later in the summer, the workshops took on a tone of political urgency as several people, led by playwright Chinonyerem Odimba, paid for black critics to attend. In the months following the death of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests, the participants asked questions about whose voices were being heard in theatre and in writing about theatre.

Mark Fisher leads a criticism workshop at the Santiago a Mil festival, Chile. Photo: Web

There are technological bonuses too. My real-world workshops are avowedly lo-tech, requiring no more than a pen and paper. But seeing as everyone is sitting in front of a computer, I have found it to too tempting not to make use of the share-screen function and throw pictures, videos and websites into the mix. In the middle of the workshop, I usually ask the participants to spend ten minutes writing a mini-review. Previously, they would have had to read them out loud for me to comment on. That was before an online participant suggested we use Zoom’s chat function to share the reviews, allowing me to make a speedy assessment and keeping everyone else in the loop.

So, yes, I miss the uncertainty of finding myself in a new room in an unfamiliar town, searching for the moment of spontaneity that will give shape to a workshop, but so too will I miss the unintended consequences of the virus, the spirit of resilience, the easy internationalism and the meeting of online minds.

Works Cited

@E_dayEccentric. “Spent a lovely couple of hours at a theatre criticism workshop run by @WriteAboutTheat today. I have been sorely missing theatre of late, and an afternoon chatting about theatre and criticism was just the tonic. Check out Mark’s upcoming workshops at the twitter page above.” Twitter, 5 May 2020, 7:40 p.m.

@Varvara13. “What an amazing #LoveTheatre experience spending 2+ hrs soaking up the insight & knowledge of @guardian theatre critic &  @WriteAboutTheat author, @MarkFFisher. I’ve been in a slump, but after being part of one of his workshops, I’m excited to write about theatre again! Brilliant!” Twitter, 7 May 2020, 8:33 p.m.

Fisher, Mark. How to Write About Theatre. Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, 2015.

Scott, A. O. Better Living Through Criticism. Jonathan Cape, 2016.


*Mark Fisher is a theatre critic for the Guardian, a former editor of the List magazine and a freelance writer. He is the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide (Bloomsbury) and How to Write About Theatre (Bloomsbury). More information about his online criticism workshops can be found here.

Theatre Blogging: The Emergence of a Critical Culture

Mark Fisher

By Megan Vaughan
270 pp. Methuen Drama

Reviewed by Mark Fisher (first published by Critical Stages)

Scan your eyes over the footnotes in this timely survey of online criticism. You’ll spot a pattern. One says: “In 2009, all of JournalSpace’s data, including every single blog hosted on it, was deleted by a disgruntled employee.” Another reads: “This post is now lost,” and another: “No longer online.”

Elsewhere, talking about a provocative London blog called Encore, author Megan Vaughan writes: “Much of these later posts were lost when the hosting lapsed.”

As the tech-savvy Vaughan might have put it herself, the space where so much vital theatrical commentary once sat is now:

via GIPHY

For anyone concerned about the historical record, such disappearances are troubling. The internet is so pervasive we forget things could be deleted as quickly as they arrived. For the future archivist trying to piece together theatrical discussions from the start of the twenty-first century, our ultra-connected world might actually look more like a second dark age. All it takes is a hasty delete key, an unpaid ISP bill or a technological upgrade and the record is wiped.

This is one reason Vaughan’s book is so welcome. Her aim, to borrow her subtitle, is to mark “the emergence of a critical culture,” one made possible by online tools such as Blogger (1999) that allowed even those without coding skills to share their thoughts in online journals. She identifies 2003 as a theatre-blogging year zero. It was then that established blogger Laura Axelrod, a playwright and actor, was drawn into a circle of New York bloggers, including director Isaac Butler and playwright George Hunka, who began linking to each other and having theatre-related discussions in public. They created an online scene. Similar groupings emerged in London and Australia.

Vaughan is alive to the irony of commemorating the interactive internet, with its hyperlinks and embedded videos, in a boring old paper-and-ink book, but she also sees the value in taking a real-world snapshot, fixed in 270 pages, of an online culture that is as ephemeral as it is uncontainable. More than this, she correctly observes that this was a special moment in the history of theatre criticism, one that ushered in a new generation of voices, whose politics, aesthetics and even manner of writing has frequently stood in opposition to what Vaughan calls the “paternalistic and parochial” values of traditional newspaper criticism.

There’s room for debate here. On the one hand, not all mainstream media criticism is paternalistic and parochial. On the other, as Vaughan acknowledges, many of the supposedly radical new generation have come from much the same educated, privileged class as the old guard who were famously characterised by director Nicholas Hytner as “dead white men.” The internet might feel fresher, sharper and more democratic—and Vaughan does an excellent job at highlighting the areas where that is true—but it can be conservative too.

It is also in the nature of theatre to be local. Although the internet is global, the most dynamic blogging has been in response to very particular theatre scenes— especially those in London and New York. Take the example of the 2012 production of Three Kingdoms by Simon Stephens, which animated theatre bloggers even as it left many mainstream critics nonplussed. The online commentary Vaughan quotes makes it sounds like a thrilling occasion, but for me, living 400 miles from London’s Lyric Hammersmith where it was staged, it is just another show I didn’t see. Consequently, the claim made by former blogger Matt Trueman that Three Kingdoms would “change the course of British theatre” sounds as parochial as anything printed in a London-centric newspaper.

He’s not even necessarily wrong (although eight years later, I’m still waiting for the shockwaves to reach me in Scotland), it’s just that theatre blogging is not a mass-participation project. The best commentary has emerged when a small group of intelligent writers have talked among themselves about a shared experience that, by its nature, can only ever have had a limited audience. In theory, anyone can join in the discussion, but in practice most people are outside the charmed circle.

Inclusive or not, what’s important is that this kind of discussion was not possible before the twenty-first century. Two-thirds of Vaughan’s book is a compendium of exemplary blogs written by other people, a reflection of her belief in collaboration and non-hierarchical structures. You can imagine some of those blogs being published in the traditional media, but for the most part, they have a quality of their own. On a surface level, that might mean non-standard spelling, Twitter-friendly abbreviations and emojis, all of which defy the top-down authority of “proper” writing. There is no pretence at objectivity here; it is writing aware of its partiality, happy to be messy, emotional, human.

On a structural level, blogs have a degree of immediacy, responsiveness and reflexivity that old technology does not allow. In the case of Three Kingdoms, Trueman’s bright and breathless response sits alongside the thoughts of bloggers such as Andrew Haydon, Dan Rebellato and Catherine Love, each of them cross-referencing the other and building on a foundation of ideas. When Sarah Punshon joins in, questioning the production’s sexual politics, her perspective shifts the discussion, causing the others to reflect on an aspect they had glossed over. This is criticism as a collegial activity. The writers are no less assertive than their old-school peers, but they can compromise, change their minds and be open to nuance. A theatre blog doesn’t have to be the last word.

In her selection of blogs, Vaughan also shows how dynamic the internet can be. She focuses on the case of My Name is Rachel Corrie, a monologue about a pro-Palestinian activist, which was abruptly dropped from the schedule at New York Theatre Workshop in 2006. Where once you would have expected the city’s arts reporters to expose this apparent act of censorship, here it was the bloggers, spearheaded by Garrett Eisler, who kept up the more-than-daily pressure on the theatre. Within a single month Eisler alone had published over 100 posts on the subject. Even the fast-paced world of daily newspaper journalism could not match that level of scrutiny.

Vaughan highlights too some of the political voices who might have been marginalised were it not for the internet. Anyone who wants to rail against misogyny, racism and institutional bias can set up a blog today, just like the theatremakers who have gone online to discuss their creative practices without recourse to specialist theatre magazines.

As well as speed, interactivity and access, blogging can break free of the conventions of theatre criticism. Although too much online writing simply apes the format of newspaper reviews, the medium allows creative thinkers—Vaughan included—not only to break the rules but to respond to theatre in a more apposite way. She gives examples of critics using Venn diagrams, rhyming verse and her own Kafkaesque venture into bureaucratic form-filling criticism.

That’s a clue to Vaughan’s bigger interest in what she calls “outsider criticism”. Although the bulk of the book is given over to people who would otherwise be regarded as insiders, she is drawn to the voice of the “unedited, the informal, the amateur and the autonomous.” In the DIY spirit of the punk fanzine, the internet upturns the hierarchy of writer and reader and makes space for bottom-up criticism. We should be grateful to Vaughan for being on hand to take such a stimulating snapshot before the bits and bytes melt into techno-oblivion.

How to Write About Theatre in a Small Community

IN DECEMBER 2016, I was invited by Dr James Corby of the University of Malta (working with the Arts Council Malta) to run a mini-course on arts criticism and join a panel discussion with artists and writers at St James Cavallier. Here are some thoughts I had on the pros and cons of working in a small arts community.

Fictional theatre critics: captured!

THEATRE Criticism: Changing Landscapes is an excellent anthology of essays put together by Duska Radosavljevic. It includes lots of illuminating commentaries from around the world on subjects ranging from the unreliability of criticism in the old Soviet Union to the newly emerging history of internet criticism. 

The essays are intelligent, engaging and serious. With one exception. I confess to writing quite the silliest chapter in the book – an overview of fictional theatre critics in films, plays and novels. 

Silly it may be, but I don’t think I’ve enjoyed writing anything more. It was a fantastic excuse to read and watch all kinds of things, ranging from pulp-fiction romances to devastating studies of the critical mindset (everyone should read Wilfrid Sheed’s The Critic).


After consuming more of this than could possibly be healthy, I came up with a bit of a theory about people’s misconceptions of theatre critics. You can read that in the book. The fun part, though, was doing the research, so here for your entertainment are a few examples you can find online.

Odd to find a theatre critic in a video game, but we’ll start with this one from Psychonauts, which typifies the way the job is perceived:

The purple-headed amphibian is a crude caricature who could be a descendent of Frederick Skeates in the 1936 movie Men Are Not Gods, an imperious, pipe-smoking autocrat, who dictates his review to his secretary and refuses to say good evening or even to answer the phone (his high-handed manner makes it easier for his secretary to justify rewriting the review to the benefit of the lead actor):

Here’s a remake of A Piano in the House, a 1962 episode of The Twilight Zone. Fitzgerald Fortune is a ‘theatre critic and cynic at large’ who gains sadomasochistic pleasure in hearing his wife say how much she hates him and his friend confessing to being in love with her. ‘You just need someone to bully and torture when you feel like it,’ says his wife, framing him as a critic with a psychological desire to ‘hurt people’: 

Even songwriters seem to hold a grudge against theatre critics. Here’s Jimmy Webb’s 1970 song Dorothy Chandler Blues. Like many fictional critics, this one is wearing a bow tie, is angry with his wife and appears hell-bent on destruction. ‘Good evening Mr Critic/ How many shows did you close?’ demands Webb, implying that a man who hasn’t written any ‘songs of love’ should not have the right to ‘destroy’ them: 

Lightening the tone, here’s clown Bill Irwin in The Regard of Flight being interrupted by Michael O’Connor, playing a comically pedantic critic, missing the point about what’s going on:

Finally, more laughs here as Alfred Molina stars as a children’s theatre critic:

 

Better Living Through Criticism

AT INTERVALS through Better Living Through Criticism, a free-wheeling meditation on how we talk about art, critic AO Scott changes the pace with a series of imagined interviews. Hold on, says his alter ego every couple of chapters, you’ve been saying this, that and the other, but have you considered this other thing? 

He may be asking his own questions, but the format forces Scott to focus. In a book that can be airy, discursive and tangential, these chapters are the most rooted. (They also have none of the coyness of the imaginary interviews in Michael Billington’s 101 Greatest Plays, but that’s another story.)

In the last of these dialogues, Scott effectively reviews his own book. In the voice of the questioner, he writes: “To be frank I’m still not sure I know what criticism is, unless it is whatever a critic happens to be doing. And in that case what is a critic?”

It’s a pretty fundamental question to be asking after 250 pages. Should it really take this long to get to the point? The answer Scott provides is that “criticism is both paradoxical and tautological. It’s whatever a critic does.” 

And if it’s not too paradoxical and tautological to say so, herein lies the strength and weakness of his book. Reading it is like watching a kite on a blustery day. It dazzles and delights, dips and dives, loops round itself, gets tied in knots, untangles itself and returns to surprise you. Sometimes, though, it disappears from view. Frequently you lose sight of the thin cord connecting it to the ground. At such moments, to paraphrase Scott himself, I’m not sure I know what this book is.

Should I say what it isn’t? Well, it’s not a practical guide to being a critic, nor is it a historical overview of critical thinking, although Scott shows great breath of knowledge and understanding on that subject. Although I love the title, I’m not sure this book actually does offer better living through criticism.

Rather, it is a philosophical meander through the questions and contradictions that criticism presents. How can a review be a subjective expression that also aspires to universal truth? What’s the point of an activity that comes in between the artist and the audience and yet, strictly, is not required by either? Is criticism a creative act that has artistic value in itself or is it tomorrow’s chip paper? 

At its most worthwhile, criticism sets itself above the shallowness and hype of the market, so why is it so often treated as a mere consumer guide? Isn’t it true to say a work of art is itself a piece of criticism in that it reflects and comments on the world around it? Is the critic friend or enemy? Or both?

Scott has no shortage of opinions (he’s a critic; how could he not?) but he is more interested in the questions than the answers. That’s his point. The more you consider the act of criticism, the more conundrums it throws up. They are what make it infinitely interesting. 

This is an activity that not only provokes self-reflection in the critic (why am I doing this?) but also a similar line of questioning from everyone else (why are you doing this – and who gave you the right?) Despite the uncertainty, despite the animosity and despite the multiplicity of answers, criticism keeps on happening – and for as long as people keep thinking, it always will.

And here I am, criticising Scott’s book and here you are, reading about it and now you’ll go away with an opinion of my piece of writing about his piece of writing and maybe you’ll even write down your opinion . . . and the process is never ending. So should you read his book? Of course you should. Only then will I be able to ask you the questions Scott says are the “origin of criticism”: “Did you feel that? Was it good for you? Tell the truth.” (Mark Fisher)

Better Living Through Criticism, AO Scott (Jonathan Cape)