Theatre criticism now

An expert panel of critics chaired by Libby Purves (recently departed from The Times) made up of Kate Bassett (until recently of the Independent on Sunday), Dominic Cavendish (Daily Telegraph), freelance Mark Fisher and Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard) asked “What’s the point of criticism now?".

Libby Purves suggested that the critic owed it to posterity to describe a performance in as much detail as one can so that a future reader feels, “Gosh! Is that how they did it!” and record the audience response. Did it connect with the audience if not with you? Capture how it was live, make it as vivid as you can for those who can’t be there and celebrate what’s good. She thought the dumbing down of arts coverage deeply irresponsible but welcomed more voices entering the debate through non-print media.

Discussion ranged widely from the reduction in space and importance given to theatre reviews in a sound-bite world to the need to sell advertising and the encroachment of show biz journalism and red carpet fashion. There’s been a 25% cut in space while Fiona has been on the Standard.

Criticism was seen as a bridge between the public and the production; directors were quoted as valuing honesty in a review, the need for an independent voice. Critics are also talent spotters; a good one should be open to all genres (though Fiona admitted she can’t stand farce).

Are critics there as recorders or to push the form forward? What is the effect of a journalist being embedded with a theatre company? What is the effect of company hospitality or paying a fare to get an out-of-town review? What is the effect of star ratings? No one really seems to like giving them and there is a feeling that many people just don’t bother to read a *** or lower review.

Inevitably tweeting, Facebook and online reviewing came into the discussion. Can you really say anything in a tweet? In our fast moving culture, it was suggest that if you are interested you will read anything—though one criterion for a good review must be readability. Fiona declared that if you can’t say it in 220 words then is it worth saying?