You're doing it all wrong! A guide to better arts criticism from Theatre Editor Gareth K Vile
The crisis of criticism is the crisis of civilisation. Without dynamic critiques from a variety of perspectives, politics becomes an isolated exercise in the self-interested application of power: without informed and bold criticism, theatre becomes a bland restatement of familiar and fashionable themes and forms.
The overwhelming presence of Shakespeare, revivals of classical scripts and gestures towards contemporary issues do not provide evidence that the Fringe is a lively celebration of inclusivity and experimentation, but reveals that performance is absorbed in its history, preening in front of a mirror and disappearing into its own vanity and sense of prestige.
It's possible to find artists and shows that speak of excluded lives, reconsider the power of performance to challenge complacency and art that reimagines both its own structure and the society surrounding it, but this is rare and difficult. The failure of criticism to distinguish between tick-box liberal inclusivity and a thorough, meaningful engagement with the failures of 21st century culture, however, ensures that the dismal parade of meaningless star ratings and empty slogans of praise hides the work that matters and the profound malaise of theatrical imagination and verve. There are plenty of reviewers in Edinburgh during August, but not enough critiques. This simple guide provides signs that betray the hacks' facile styles.
One might think… Unless Queen Elizabeth is the author, the pronoun 'one' is a weasel word designed to convince the reader that the writer has access to magic powers of objectivity. It usually means that the writer is about to express a personal opinion, pretending that it represents a major body of thought. If it did represent an established opinion, the writer would be able to say who thought it and not have to claim amazing mind-reading abilities.
A description of the seating arrangements Usually placed at the start of the review, the writer decided to describe the circumstances at the beginning of a production: the audience are welcomed into the auditorium… we are seated in rows facing a stage… there is music playing as the audience take their seats. Most readers don't need to be told what a theatre looks like. This is throat clearing, dull writing and expressing the anxiety of the reviewer that there might be nothing to say about this production. The most notorious example of this was a review of a Glasgow festival that kicked off with the reviewer's complaint that the bus station didn't serve flat white coffee. This comes under the broader categories of irrelevant information and the writer's complete inability to distinguish between their own interests and what might be intriguing to a reader.
An appeal to tradition A critique is an expression of generosity, of assessing the production on its own intentions and terms. Complaining that a piece of new writing doesn't conform to Aristotle's description of tragedy or moaning that Shakespeare did it better introduces a model of reviewing that believes in a perfect, Platonic playwriting process. It's very helpful to Daily Telegraph readers who don't understand why it's necessary to discuss LGBTQI issues or put the occasional person of colour in a position of authority.
It needs to cut the last 20 minutes This goes along with any sentences that include the word 'should'. The job of the critic is to describe what they experienced, not provide dramaturgical hints for the company. That is the job of a dramaturge, who does that before the audience are allowed to watch. It exposes the writer who wants to be a director, who is comparing the show not against its intentions but against the version that they would produce, if only the arts council didn't hate them personally. The correct critical phrasing here would be something like 'the play is longer than its ability to explore its ideas require'. A statement of experience trumps a demand on the director's process.
500 words on a 20-minute solo show Historically, the rigours of print publication encouraged writing of a particular length: long enough to take up space but allowing room for the adverts that pay for the publication. The internet allows a more fluid style, but this has encouraged waffle. All those trite phrases, the throat-clearing, the intrusion of rhetorical explanations of the nature of theatre, come from this freedom. Concise responses have been replaced by exercises in self-aggrandisement. Some short shows deserve a lengthy reply – Sam Beckett's Breathe lasts 30 seconds but explores existential dread, a topic worth at least an entire book – but some three-hour epics can be condensed into a pithy synopsis.
Twitter reviews Conversely, the single tweet is not a critique. Well-established directors have thrown sulky tirades against audience members who have dared to have a public opinion – not critics, but punters who have paid to sit through their masterpiece that, in their opinion, felt like a radio play. In volume, tweets can build a picture of the experiences of an audience: individually, and posted by so-called professional critics, a tweet is a tiny fragment and is used to test the writer's ability to make a pun about the title of the show.
I was bored Bored, of course, is a word that year seven English teachers condemn in student book reports, but that's the minor problem here. The first person (this includes 'we') can be used, but very very rarely. I throw it in for impact when it is necessary, when a performance pulls me out of my detachment in a surprising and forceful manner (see Wild Bore, Fringe 2017). Writers who habitually use 'I' are mistaking the review for one of those tedious celebrity columns that fill the gaps between adverts and state propaganda in the daily newspapers.
Star Ratings The star rating system is no guide to the quality of a play. As noted elsewhere, Scottish reviewers add an extra star to local work, and companies cover their posters with the latest five star rave from a publication that only exists during the Edinburgh Fringe as a way to assert their cultural dominance over other companies. It's the equivalent of a dog pissing on the pavement to mark territory. Nobody cares that this show has a collection of ratings that make the Bible seem like the work of a student editing collective. If critics were responsible for paying back the ticket price every time a punter was bored by a supposedly five star show, they would all be setting up crowdfunding websites to pay their rent by the day after the announcement of the first round of Fringe Firsts. (Download The List logo and stars here.)
One to watch Inevitably appearing on flyers, this is another lazy phrase to encourage emerging or young theatre-makers that rarely justifies itself but is code for either 'this is okay and has some potential' or 'this is terrible but I don't want to be a hostage to my opinion when this company becomes internationally famous'.
Must See Apparently, there is a universal law that insists certain shows are so good that to miss them would be an offense against God. There is no such thing as a 'must see' show. Tastes vary: one writer likes experimental Belgian feminist theatre, another likes late night erotic cabaret, but most of them just want attention for their opinions. The value and meaning of a show exists not in the abstract but in the lived experience of the emotional connection between production and the audience member.
The mark of criticism is the measured recognition of the subjectivity of the writer, and their ability to efface their personality for the benefit of passing on clear and intelligent opinion. A review that is merely a consumer report – in itself valuable – does not attain criticism. Criticism demonstrates the process of critical thinking (the clue is in the name) and encourages an informed and reflective engagement with art and life, a recognition that writing itself is an action.
Of course, there are problems in making these claims: this article wants a backlash, it wants attention, and the use of 'is' suggests a set of absolutes that don't exist. All criticism wants a conversation, it wants to entertain, it wants to be educational. And yes, this is 'just' my personal opinion.
The presence of trolling beneath this line, or some flame-war about how I have got too personal, is welcomed.
The List Part of the Fringe Central Events Programme for Fringe participants. Reviewing can be a powerful tool at the Fringe, but a controversial one too. Is a review from a critic with decades of experience worth more than one from a student journalist? Or are all reviews valid? And when anyone can write their own review…