Is a critic’s life worth living?

When is it time to move away from watching mediocre theatre?

 Visitors to this site may have noticed a paucity in the number of my recent blog posts. Although this has been the effect of several causes, laziness has not played any (significant) part. Having recovered from a late-November flurry of shows, I’ve realised that I’m no Mark Shenton: I can’t watch 12 shows in one week and retain my sanity. I’ve also realised that there definitely is such a thing as too much theatre. Combining 5 performances a week with an already busy schedule is tough enough, but when I noticed that the majority of these performances were middling to awful, I began to wonder what I was doing. In haste I also wrote several sub-par blog posts. It became a case in point of quantity over quality.

Although I’ve not been reviewing, I’ve still been watching off and on, but have seen little to inspire me to write. The Box Set at the Etcetera earlier this week is possibly the worst thing I’ve ever seen: bad writing, worse acting and more penis jokes than even a teenage boy could withstand. The Cradle Will Rock at #68 Arcola (yes, I failed to blog about a first time visit to a theatre) was by no means as bad, but still left me uninspired. I know there have been many positive comments about the production, and I don’t think it was at all bad, but it made me neither think nor feel. Similarly Men Should Weep is an appealing staging of a rediscovered play, but it’s essentially Coronation Street on stage. Don’t get me wrong, I’ll happily watch Corrie from time to time, but it’s not the reason I go to the National. Hamlet, too, was aesthetically pleasing, and Kinnear does a fine job. But Ophelia with a ghettoblaster? T-shirts tucked into tracksuit bottoms? An ambiguously contemporary setting with no apparent political agenda? I’m beginning to wonder if I expect too much from theatre.

I can count the number of outstanding shows I’ve seen this year on one hand, but that’s ok: it’s what outstanding means. The number of real disappointments, however, could keep me going all night. Spending five nights a week watching a lot of dross is disheartening, and it’s led me to pursue other interesting new enterprises. (Rest assured, I won’t be starting a blog about them). As Boal said, ‘I don’t want people to use the theatre as a way of not doing real life’. Although we can’t always hope to see theatre that will fundamentally change us as people or cure social problems, we can hope for theatre that clicks with us or makes us think. At the very least we should hold out for something that grips us and entertains us rather than makes us feel like we’ve wasted our time (and possibly money) on something that is average or worse. Any suggestions of theatre that might restore my faith will be gratefully received.

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4 Responses to Is a critic’s life worth living?

  1. James Cormack says:

    Nice article – I was laughing along with your tasteful derision.

    I wish I could rescue you from your personal drought. I would like to ask, though, the question that logically followed for me – have you (a) simply been unlucky in your choice of shows, (b) been enduring a temporary ‘down period’ in theatre quality across the board, or (c) do you find yourself holding wider fears for the quality of theatre on the whole? I.e., have you spotted a light at the end of the tunnel?

    • (a) and (b) may well be true at least in part, but I think (c) is where the crux of the problem lies. I think it would be fairer to say that I’ve seen a tunnel (a long, dark, disappointing one) at the end of the light… 2011 is going to have to work pretty hard to make me think otherwise!

  2. Interesting post. I’m an editor/critic currently away on sabbatical, meaning my usual schedule of 4-5 shows a week has been put on temporary hold. This has given me a chance to experience life without regular theatre, and I can’t say I especially miss those nights in dingy studios watching sub-par productions of sub-par plays (even if I do miss the good ones). One of my big fears before I went away was that I would somehow fall out ‘the loop’, but in truth this loop is imaginary and, although as a critic it’s important to keep up with the latest work, it’s equally important to have a life as well. After all, responses to art of any kind are sharpened by life experience. With this in mind, could it perhaps be said that the nature of your challenge has in some sense stifled your enjoyment of the plays?

    • Hi Theo – hope you’re well!
      I completely agree: it’s easy to feel left out when surrounded by people having an ‘I’ve seen more theatre than you’ conversation. Less would definitely seem to be more – it’s just a question of learning where to look in order to find your ‘less’ but quality theatre. I guess that I’m about half way through my project, and I’m going to do all I can to complete it. It would be easy to think that, having sought out many more remote venues, that that’s where the sub-par theatre abounds. I don’t think that’s the case though. If anything, the smaller venues are often the better ones – and at least you can forgive them if something goes slightly awry. What’s most disappointing is to see a sub-par show at a more established venue. I’m completely out of love with the Royal Court at the moment. It often seems as though a play will be lauded just because it’s playing in that particular theatre. The truth is it’s not as cool as it seems to think it is… Let’s see whether the completion of my project manages to resuscitate my love of theatre, or whether it firmly shuts the lid on the coffin.

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