Friday, February 15, 2013

On critics

I used to be a critic once.

I was thirty years old and had just discovered I was a playwright.

A useful discovery, as it turned out, but it didn't really seem so at the time. 

The main difficulty was that I knew nothing about the theatre. I had been a nurse and a bus conductor and a yoga teacher and an academic teaching classical Arabic and 17th century Spanish literature. I had read hundreds of 17th century Spanish plays for my PhD thesis but knew nothing about contemporary British ones. 

And because I had no job, no chance of getting one, a partner who was an artist and a wee baby daughter there was no way I could afford to go to the theatre and find out.

A wise friend suggested I become a theatre reviewer for the 1981 Edinburgh festival and showed me how to go about it. I sent a sample review to Allen Wright, the legendary Scotsman arts editor, and he took me on for the Festival. And kept me on once it was over.

So for the next few years I would see one or two or sometimes even three plays a week. And try to be passionately open about the experience. Try to understand what worked and what didn't. Try to note my response and the audience's and then try to express it all in 250 words. Often within two hours of the curtain going down.

It was a fantastic training for me. I learnt to refine my taste, and write about it vividly and economically. And write fast.

Hard to do well. Hard to watch plays, really watch them, and not turn off. Hard to resist the temptation to show off irrelevant knowledge. Hard to remain respectful; especially in the uneasy knowledge that I would be praised for my rudeness but not always appreciated for my praise.

Above all hard not to get resentful at always trying to evaluate the work of others and never having the chance to develop my own.

When that all got too much, I stopped reviewing. And started to have to deal with reviews.

Very early on, when my LOSING VENICE was briefly on in London, I remember getting very deeply hurt by a malicious review that hardly mentioned the play at all, but focused instead on mocking my programme note and sneering at the fact my biog note had mentioned I had a PhD.

It was written by a reviewer notorious for his nastiness, and I really should have known better, but when I saw someone reading the review in their newspaper on the tube I wanted to snatch the paper out of their hand and burn it.

Perhaps I have got a little bit calmer. And I have subsequently learnt that my own review of one paticular Fringe show was so hostile that it put its author off ever writing a play again. So I try to be philosophical about it all.

All these memories come back just now as I try to deal with the reviews for GREAT EXPECTATIONS.

Last autumn, when the show was out on tour, they were better than I've ever known.

Now in the WestEnd, when the show is actually very much stronger, the reviews are...
'mixed' is the correct term I believe.

Very mixed.

I could think of a great many other adjectives, but for the moment these will do.

The positive remarks have all been extracted by the production company and have been put up on the show’s website ( But as for the rest... 

Reading them helps me understand that while praise is always nice to get, what one really wants is a record. One wants an intelligent honest view of what happened when a knowledgeable and hopefully good natured person engaged with the play.

But actually engaging with the play seemed to be the last thing on most of their minds. Instead they seemed unable to resist the temptation to use the title as a pretext for half-baked attempts at witticism. They seemed compelled to show off the fact they had heard of, or possibly even seen, the RSC adaptation of Nicholas Nickelby and the David Lean film. 

And they all had at least to pretend they had read the book.

And so they reproached us for not being seven and a half hours long. For leaving out the novel's descriptive passages. For leaving out its subplots. For moving the story along too fast. For moving the story along too slow. For only having one set. For forcing the audience to use their imagination. For having the actors wear theatrical make-up. For being suspiciously continental. For trotting out Miss Havisham in her wedding gown. 

The consequence of this is that we are left with a written record that mostly does not do justice to the quality of the play, or of the production, or of the audience response. 

An uncomfortable position to be in.

Not for the first time. And almost certainly not for the last.

I am tempted to make elaborate plots for revenge. To prepare exquisite packages of bullshit to be dispatched to their office desks, perhaps, or else publicly denounce the lot of them. Denounce them as narrow-minded, ignorant, parochial, spiteful and mean spirited. Point out the deficiencies in their grammar, the poverty of their imaginations, and the contemptible deficiencies of their style.

But I won't do that.

Better to remind them they really matter. That we all need intelligent feedback. We all need a passionately knowledgeable and well-informed audience unafraid to express their opinions and intelligently engaged in theatricality, and that they, the critics, have a crucial part to play in framing the debate.

Better to remind them that no-one is helped by petty spite. And especially not themselves.

Better to remind them that as well as describing my work their words also portray themselves. And it is not always a pretty sight.

And my dear dad suddenly pops into my head, reciting Kipling:
"If you can meet with triumph and disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same..."

And then there's the pride I feel. And want to affirm: pride in the writing, in the acting, in the production, in everything the show has to give.

And in what the audience give back in return.

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