Listeners to BBC Radio 3’s episode of Free Thinking entitled Who Needs Critics? last night were given an opportunity to ponder the art of criticism and consider whether and why it still matters.
Matthew Sweet led the discussion, assisted by Suzi Feay, President of the Critics Circle—of which a large number of BTG critics are members—The Guardian’s theatre critic Arifa Akbar and art critic Charlotte Mullins. A “New Generation Thinker”, Vid Simoniti, also contributed a provocative essay suggesting that critics could be replaced by algorithms, perish the thought.
For years now, there has been an ongoing debate about the future of theatre criticism and its prospective demise at the hands of bloggers. As the panel members explained, the position now has further worsened, since the mental space that was formerly occupied by experts and more recently bloggers has now been overrun by the untrained but opinionated occasional theatregoer utilising social media.
It hasn’t helped that so many editors, constrained by space and finance, have cut reviews completely or reduced the volume in terms of both numbers and words. It is also worth observing with a degree of irony that, while cutting arts coverage, many publications are increasingly keen to major on what one might describe as football criticism. This is almost certainly a mistake, since good critics provide a number of different services that go way beyond the provision of stars.
The argument has sometimes been clouded by the replacement of seasoned critics steeped in their special subject by what one might describe as generalist beginners, who have a reputation for their work in other fields but are obviously learning on the job. One fears that it can only be a matter of time before a newspaper combines these factors and appoints a current or recently retired footballer as a theatre critic to boost sales.
The best reviews have much to offer. To begin with, whether it is the stars used by other publications or the words that BTG champions, most people who want to see a show would like a steer to determine how best to exchange what can be a vast amount of hard-earned cash for the best chance of a good night out.
While increasing numbers enjoy pandering to the 'I know what I like' brigade on social media, unless you have an understanding of their tastes, this could lead to very expensive disaster. It might be even worse, since influencers are often paid to have the right opinion.
Ignoring that for a moment, would you trust your teenage son to recommend a night out at the theatre or, if you are that teenage son, how would you feel about sitting through great Gran’s favourite show?
Experience is worth a great deal. Pandemics permitting, this critic typically reviews more shows in a year than even many relatively keen theatregoers watch in a lifetime. That is meaningless unless you trust a particular critic’s judgement. That is one of the pleasures of this arcane and fast dying form.
Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson were before my time but clearly knew what they were talking about, while I avidly followed the wisdom of Michael Billington and Charles Spencer, to name a couple of leaders of the profession from more recent times.
That is only part of the experience though. In addition, the best theatre criticism is a form of literature that both entertains and informs. Top critics are able to analyse a play, place it into context and also paint a detailed portrait of the overall experience in vibrant language. This means that even if you are unable to see some of the shows that they are reviewing, reading their work can still be very enjoyable.
It is hard to believe that expert criticism really is elitist and on its last legs. As long as theatres continue to open new shows, prospective patrons will need a steer from people that they trust while others might merely enjoy a good read. That is why British Theatre Guide exists and is here to stay.