Theatre critics: cut the crap

One of the main reasons I wanted to start this site was because I often find that theatre reviews bore me. There, I’ve said it. The theatre should and can be a place of both cerebral and sensual stimulation yet, to my mind, the typical theatre review does not reflect the cogitative process behind the critic’s conclusion.

Surely the point of a review (or what is potentially interesting about it) is the critic’s opinion. Whilst every review one reads is ostensibly opinion, it seems to me that it is more often than not a piece of description masquerading as opinion. Perhaps I’m missing the point: should there be two categories, one for ‘theatre description’ and one for ‘theatre opinion’? So often I find myself frustrated by phrases I read (and even find myself penning) e.g. ‘innovative direction’, ‘subtle and effective lighting design’, ‘deftly staged’. Descriptions such as these avoid interaction with the real subject matter of a play; they hope that vaguely poetic waffle will disguise the fact that they have either had no strong engagement with the piece, or that they are unwilling or unable to honestly articulate what that engagement was.

The truth is that few people read theatre reviews. I have a strong interest in the theatre, yet I usually only read reviews of shows I’ve seen or am thinking of seeing. I assume (I don’t know how correctly) that the process is similar with other people: if someone wants to read a description of a play, they will read its publicity material. What I want to read in a review is the critic’s reaction to a show and what it made them think. This is where the relationship between critics and other audience members can become interesting: one can compare one’s own view with that of the critic.

My intention in writing this is not to try and tar all theatre critics with the same condemnatory brush, but to point out the disparities evident in the way different critics use the medium of the theatre review. There are some critics who do not conform to the school of descriptive drivel and who do not attempt to create their own quasi-poetry by leaching off someone else’s subject matter. I’m thinking of Henry Hitchings in particular, whose reviews I remember, because they have a distinctive style and are full of original opinion. The thoughts of those who subscribe to fluffy prose I rarely recalle after putting the paper down.

As a result of all this, I want this site to allow me to air all three of the strands I have identified the occurrence of when evaluating a show:

1. thought about the effectiveness of a production (staging, acting, design and so on)

2. thoughts about the show as the product of a creative mind

3. thoughts about the expereience and atmosphere of a particular theatre, how it compares to others, and how this affects an audience member’s ability to appreciate a show.

The place of these three strands in the traditional theatre review may not be usual, but I intend to express my opinion as fully and as thought-provokingly as possible

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