I’m part of a dying breed – or part of an elite, it’s hard to tell these days – in that I subscribe to the New Statesman. Save for the ubiquitous adverts for wine and umbrellas it’s a really great publication. It contains some of the best criticism available. Some of the long form essays by critics such as John Gray and Rowan Williams are divine. But I’ve noticed in recent months that Helen Lewis is now doubling as it’s theatre critic. And this is a problem. The reviews are well written, witty, and intelligent; she clearly cares about theatre as an artistic form and as a cultural force. What more could you ask for? Well, how about reviews written by an actual theatre critic?
Anthony Sher’s observation that “too clever by half” is a phrase beloved by the British is accurate because putting people in their place is national hobby. There is no reason why Helen Lewis shouldn’t be a brilliant theatre critic and a political commentator. Yet it is a fact of the market that journalists who do a bit of reviewing on the side are devaluing the skills of the professional critic by pricing them out of a job.
Criticism is more than fandom; it is expertise underpinned by deep appreciation and knowledge of artistic craft. Our culture is all the poorer for it’s burgeoning absence in our media and journalism.
The best criticism reveals facets about a work that remain hidden or inarticulable to the audience. A good review can give a context to an argument or thesis that may appear nebulous on the audience’s first experience of a show. Moreover, a review or essay can give readers access to works they may never experience, and yet can feel some attachment to with the critics acting as a cipher. Readers learn to identify with unseen performances by identifying with writers. Their voice can be more reassuring than the artist’s is in seeking to dig into a performance’s guts without seeking to win an audience over. Readers don’t need to like a performance to appreciate an argument about it.
I subscribe to the New Statesman because it contains argumentation that enables me to engage with the world around me. The critics give me a sense of the cultural landscape I could never hope to experience as a pure consumer.
In the theatre, the critic can have a fundamental impact on a playwright’s career. Whole festivals can go unseen if they are not reviewed. It is not enough to market theatre in order to sell tickets; it must be analysed for it to remain popular. It is especially hard for theatre makers outside of London and the South East to get a national hearing. London-centric theatre – which does not just include theatre produced and performed in London but theatre made for a cosmopolitan audience – is theatre criticism de rigeur these days.
Has Brexit taught us nothing?
There are hundreds of critic-bloggers out there, who aren’t just writing about theatre I haven’t seen but that I don’t even know is possible. If professional criticism is to remain a feature of journalism then we need new models for it to operate within.
Theatre happens everywhere. And criticism should reflect that. Why can’t we have roaming critics who work for a publication remotely, one who remains embedded in their local community? Include reviews that feature amateur productions, theatre in education and prisons, workshops, practice research projects, and student showcases.
And, for god’s sake, PAY them.