I talk about theatre. I’m not paid to talk about theatre, I don’t get given comp tickets, and I don’t even consider myself a critic. I’m a paying audience member who has set up a blog as a way to log and share thoughts on shows. I attend as often as I can, time and money allowing. And I’m currently taking time out of writing an essay because of being riled up after reading several articles and tweets about theatre criticism today.
Yes, I’m pale, I’m male, and probably would be regarded as lower-middle class. I don’t live in London and although I thoroughly enjoy a vast array of regional theatre, I do try to get down to London as often as I can. I’m in adherence to Tim Walker’s preferences as I’m young and spotty. I’m also aware that most bloggers (like myself) are not paid apart from a few.
Tim Walker (formerly of The Sunday Telegraph) has lamented in The Guardian today over the apparent demise of professional theatre critics. He then questions whether that exclusive ilk of writers with their expert knowledge of the canon could ever be replaced by the growing community of online bloggers.
Of course they can! Although Walker’s article has a point, I don’t think it’s as insightful as he thinks it is. I also think there’s a difference between bloggers who are paid/ freelance, or given comp tickets, and those who are theatre-goers who want to talk about the theatre that they’ve paid to see. A little difference maybe, but still.
The blogosphere offers a wide range of exciting, differing theatre reviews, contributing to the democratisation of criticism. Hooray! But I believe all conversations about theatre (whether from Billington, Letts, or a theatre-goer's tweet) are worthy of discussion.
Blog reviews have certain advantages. In my case, I’m not constricted by a deadline or an editorial word limit. That allows me to go deeper with my thoughts on a show than perhaps a print review can. I like to go to preview performances or those around press night but often, I simply go whenever I can, even if that’s near to the end of the run. With recent examples, I attended performances of The Crucible (Old Vic) and A Streetcar Named Desire (Young Vic) well into their runs. Yet I still read press and blog (but mainly press) reviews before I went, setting up certain expectations and allowing me to develop discussions in my own reviews. Not that blogs can’t start their own discussions. Take my review for The Audience (Gielgud) for instance, in which I was delighted by the show’s theatricality which I didn't see mentioned in other reviews. Furthermore, there’s nothing wrong with reading press reviews before you write one as, after all, they are consumer guides. And one of the more refreshing reviews of the year, in my opinion, was Matt Trueman’s review for the Beckett Trilogy (Royal Court) in which he responded to critics and his own expectations, asking himself why he didn’t like it.
In what I do, I often find myself feeling apologetic to people with a creative hand in theatre. I’m aware that many playwrights (such as Jez Butterworth) refer to their process as a natural one, as if unpicking their work to find answers out of it is somehow unnatural. In the introduction to Simon Stephens’ Plays: One, he says that he studied History rather than English Lit because he didn’t want to ruin his love of literature. On the contrary, seeing and reading something with a critical eye like Butterworth’s Jerusalem (time and time again) has enhanced the play for me rather than ruined it, bringing out new meanings each time.
Some bloggers, it seems, often like to go early on in the run. It’s understandable why, as their reviews will act as a consumer guide. But going to see a production for the first time 10 weeks into its 12 week run doesn’t undermine its review. And agreeing with the critics doesn’t either.
Embrace blog reviews, and by all means, embrace print reviews (even Quentin Letts’). There’s room for both to contribute. But blogs do have an advantage for developing discussions started earlier if they choose to go later in the run. Overall, Tim Walker is right when saying there is a decline in print critics. He’s also right to wonder if online reviews will have the same prestige as the reviews of Tynan, Hobson, Nightingale, Billington, and Gardner etc.. But I think Catherine Love has it on the nose when she argues that criticism is not to just to fill column inches or preserving the memory of a show, but is for now: ‘there are loads of brilliant critics out there writing about theatre as if it