The theatre critic in the 21st century – an end to the special, symbiotic, exclusive relationship?

Trog on John Osborne's battle with critics 1966: British Cartoon Archive






Trog on John Osborne's battle with critics 1966: British Cartoon Archive

British Cartoon Archive

The symbiotic relationship between theatre artists and producers and critics has been a rich seam for discourse and drama for decades.  Full of skirmishes, fawnings, cries of foul play, there have also been the celebrities, none of whom have ever equalled Kenneth Tynan this side of the Atlantic. 

A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.

A good drama critic is one who perceives what is happening in the theatre of his time. A great drama critic also perceives what is not happening

And the most influential 

I doubt if I could love anyone who did not wish to see Look Back in Anger

I spent several years in theatre PR when critics really mattered not only to the box office success (in London’s West End, where they still do) but to international reputation (at the Glasgow Citizens in the 70s/80s when it was an international star).  I wined, dined, ferried, fed intelligence to, and generally smoothed the way for national and international critics who came to Glasgow. In London I made sure that starry critics got the best seats and dealt with quite a few tantrums from some of those who abused their importance.  That was all because it mattered to cultural and economic success.

Now in London and New York it still does, and the influence of the main critics has a direct commercial impact.

But what about  outside of the West End and Broadway? At a time when the newspaper industry is in decline or crisis, and when critics abound in the blogosphere,do critics matter?

Fiach Mac Conghail, Director of the Abbey Theatre stated last week in the Irish Times 

  the relevance of the theatre critic to Irish theatre has been minimised. The days of an Irish Times review improving (or reducing) ticket sales at the Abbey Theatre are diminishing as the reader loses any sense of a continuous relationship with its theatre critics  

Mac Conghail argues that this is because the business is not taken seriously enough, with insufficient preparation by critics and insufficient space given in newspapers.  No matter how significant the play, there will only ever be 500 words, not enough, he argues, for a fullsome critique.

An intensified preparation and more print space might make for more informed reviews, but would these reviews be more intelligent and would they be more influential?

Irish Times writers have responded and Deirdre Falvey  makes a fair point that the play and production should be legible when they are presented to the critics. Peter Crawley agrees that 500 words is not enough. 

Mac Conghail’s point about the loss of a continuing relationship between an audience and a critic is more fundamental. 

The social revolution which is going on now because of the changes in the way we communicate must change the relationship between theatres and critics.  As we can all get involved, the exclusive relationship no longer holds the power.  A challenge not only for critics but for the whole PR machine.  

In the 21st century, we will see both increased collaboration in criticism and increased specialism.

As audiences buy and read less newspapers and as they refer more to other sources of media including  blogs and through social networking, we will probably see real time collaborative audience reviews using Twitter and the like. We will need the specialist theatre writer to provide a very intelligent and informed view on the play, the production and why it is important.

Neither of these two threads can be held in a 500 word review in a newspaper.

  1. The idea of “real time collaborative audience reviews” is an interesting one, but if such a thing develops, I’d see it as an addition to the existing form of the review rather than a replacement of it. I think this is the point you’re making too.

    Anyone can come out of a show and say whether or not they liked it, but the thumbs-up/thumbs-down approach to reviewing is useful only as a consumer guide. If people want a more considered response (and the level of engagement on all sides of the Irish discussion suggests some people still do), then Twitter is unlikely to be up to the task.

    What I find potentially exciting about the interactivity of the internet is that a review can now be the start of a debate instead of having to be the end of one. It need not be the definitive word from the almighty expert – as in the old days of the gentleman critic – but could instead be a laying out of some areas for further discussion.

    That’s the theory; in practice, such discussions of individual productions are rare online. I’m not quite sure why that should be, but it could be because audiences and theatre practitioners are uncomfortable expressing their opinions in such a public way. Now we have the medium, what is the message going to be?

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