AA Gill sticks his fork in ~ theatre notes

Thursday, June 28, 2007

AA Gill sticks his fork in

You have to pity the London crrrritics. Just as the spat over Nicholas Hytner's full-frontal attack reached an uneasy detente, AA Gill reached for the cutlery and did some comprehensive mincing of his own. Gill, the notoriously waspish food critic for the Sunday Times, accused the critics of dressing badly, demanding aisle seats like spoilt children and being "moribund, joyless [and] detached". Worst of all, they write with a "uniform, dank sogginess". Where, asks Mr Gill, "are the voices that ring out as being aesthetically intelligent, passionate, current and, most important, entertaining?"

As the Guardian's Lyn Gardner comments in a spirited defence of her profession, it reads rather as if Mr Gill is suggesting himself as the Man for the Job. And, as she often does, Gardner puts her finger on the real problem that bedevils mainstream theatre criticism: lack of space.

What has happened is that theatre criticism has been squeezed in terms of length. When I first arrived at the Guardian, reviews were around 600 words; now I seldom get to write more than 300. Style doesn't have a great deal of room to swagger in such conditions, although by style I suspect that Gill really means the flip, cynical wit which characterises his own TV and restaurant reviews and which is so beloved by editors. Don't get me wrong, they're a great read, clearly written - like his article on theatre criticism - with provocation in mind. But in my experience only the direst theatre shows with no redeeming qualities lend themselves to that kind of waspish humour.

Quite right: artistic sledging is too often mistaken for discriminating taste, when in fact it's very often just a cop-out that appeals only to the little sadist within us all. (We all love a bit of schadenfreude.) It's very easy to be witty and superior at someone else's expense; much less simple to attempt to engage with a work on its own terms, and then, for good or ill, to write about that. Although I do agree with Gill that reviewing is itself a kind of performance, and has a duty to entertain.

Gardner suggests that Gill widen his field of vision, and look not only beyond the West End, but beyond print media. TN is a little chuffed (ok, very chuffed) to be named, with the reliably funny West End Whingers, as an "intelligently provocative" new voice entering the conversation through the web. And three cheers for Gardner, for at last pointing out that bloggers and mainstream critics can exist together, not in deadly rivalry, but as complementary voices in a wider and increasingly fascinating conversation.


Statler said...

Firstly, congrats on your well deserved praise from Lyn Gardner. You will already have read my own thoughts on AA Gill's poorly considered piece as posted in the comments on the Guardian blog, and I've also commented on my own blog as to what we actually want from a review. But there is a comparison I'd like to raise here given your comment that a review has a duty to entertain. Gill contends that reviewers/critics are journalists with a duty to entertain, but I largely disagree with that sentiment. He seems to translate journalist into what I would describe as a columnist - who does have a primary duty to bring their own persoanlity into their writing. But surely a reviewer is more akin to a news reporter where the subject is the focus story rather than the reporter, and ths duty is to inform rather than entertain? The West End Whingers are a joy to read, but they do fall into the 'columnist' side of things and I wouldn't like to see mainstream media reviews head in that direction (unless it was in addition to 'traditional' reviews).

View From The Stalls

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Statler - it's very much appreciated!

I was trained as a news reporter, and I don't see reviewing in the same light at all. Of course good reviewing informs: but surely it should inform with style? (That is, btw, what I mean by "entertainment", which is a bit of a loaded word, but will do). I think Tennessee Williams's advice to playwright - "Never bore the audience" - should apply equally to reviewers.

Not that any of us are not capable of being boring; but I think it's something to aim for.

Anonymous said...

Apparently it isn't just theatre reviews that find themselves squeezed for space in print dailies, the problem may be much wider, according to this article. And if what happens in America today...http://www.nysun.com/article/56368

Andrew Field said...


I have to say I think you are completely wrong on this one. If you want to make the (somewhat problematic but lets not get into that) distinction between journalists and columnists then reviwers must fall into the latter camp.

Journalism relies on a reporting of facts (and at least an attempt at objectivity) and though there are 'facts' that surround a show (running time, cast size etc) they are not what you read a review for. Art is by its nature subjective and hence reviewing is all about an individual, subjective engagement with a show (plus a sprinkling of background info to give the reader unfamiliar with the show a clue about what it is all about).

I think that those reviewers that mimic the objective 'news-like' tone you seem to admire can actually be rather dangerous as there is a (partly deliberate) confusion between what they believe and what they are 'reporting' (the difference between 'this show is bad don't go and see it' and 'I think this show is bad and I would recomend you don't see it). This is where much of dogmatism and arrogance of which reviwers are frequently accused arises.

A reviewer should have personality, style and an opinion - they should be an informed theatre-goer offering you their encounter with a particular show on a particular night. This is what the best reviewers (from Kenneth Tynan through Pauline Kael (in film) right through to our darling Lyn) do.

Matthew said...

I think the critic has responsibility to three things: to her opinions, to the work, and to the reader. She fulfills the first two by honestly conveying her impressions of the work; she calls a spade a spade when necessary and offers constructive criticism where applicable. She fulfills the third by being entertaining and not wasting the reader's time with a thousand words of prolix sludge. The problem arises, I think, when the fulfilmment of any one of these responsibilities prohibits the critic from fulfilling another; i.e., when in the interest of style, the critic doesn't actually talk about the show or movie she's seen, the restaurant she's eaten at, or the book she's read, but rather invents something, which she then gives the name of a real something in the world, to which it otherwise bears save little resemblance, and then runs wonderfully written circles around it. Conversely, if in the interest of providing fair and accurate comment, the critic's words turn a sickly green colour, and die, then that's a problem, too. A critic isn't a journalist, but she's not a writer of fiction, either; there's a delicate balance that must be struck, and too often, I think, it isn't.

Statler said...

Looks like I'm in a minority on this one, but as Andrew suggests it is largely the objective facts that I read a review for. If it is a revival of a well known piece I want to know if it is staying true to the original or if it has been relocated in geography or time. If it's a new piece of work I want to know what its general tone is - dark/light etc. I want to know if the direction is 'simple' or if it has a definite style. I want to know if the set/score/lighting adds or detracts substantially. I want to know if the vocal performances are clear and audible or mumbled quietly.

Most of these can be commented on fairly objectively and while I do like to see a comment on how the critic was moved by the piece (or not), I'm not going to put a great deal of faith in this. If the subject/cast has interested me, and the boxes have all been ticked that it has been staged well enough then I want to see it myself for my own personal and subjective reaction to the piece. Yes, once I've seen a production I'm interested in the subjective views of others, but I'm more interested in finding the thoughts of paying theatregoers through blogs/forums rather than thoughts of the critics.

Personality, style and opinion can be nice added extras if you like that personality, that style and that opinion.

But as I said at the beginning I appreciate I appear to be in a minority, but that isn't a great surprise - I seem to be the only person on the planet who can't abide Bill Bryson's 'entertaining' writing style.

Anonymous said...

Since Statler believes he is in the minority, I thought I'd point out that he's not a minority of one, at least if I understand the expressed view correctly. I'm a fairly regular theatre (and movie) goer. What I want from a review is some roughly "factual/informative" account of the production/movie, to enable me to decide whether it may the sort of thing that I might be interested in seeing. A fairly brief account along those lines will often suffice, and I prefer not to know *too* much before I go.
I'm not much interested in being entertained by the review, or in finding out the reviewer's views on the meaning of life or on the proper role of theatre/cinema, or in whether the reviewer personally loved it or hated it, or in reviewers showing off their prodigious knowledge of theatre/cinema. Reviewers who want to do that sort of thing can write books, or publish articles in journals, or do feature articles for newspapers' Sunday magazines, or start their own personal blogs. But when I'm reading reviews to decide what I might want to attend, I'm looking for some basic info about the production/movie that will enable me to decide whether it might be the kind of thing that I would be interested in seeing. If it turns out to be something that particularly interested me, I will sometimes try to read more extensive commentary and discussion *after* I've seen it. But that's not what I want when I'm reading reviews to decide what might be worth a try.

Alison Croggon said...

Hi Anon and Statler

It seems to me that it might be useful to make that rough rule of thumb division between "reviews" and "criticism". It's not a division that I necessarily agree with, in that I think I write reviews, whereas under this division I probably write criticism, but bear with me...

There's absolutely a requirement for what you're wanting, ie, something that can guide you in one direction or other when you're thinking, hey, a night at the theatre would be good. And I can see why anyone would want that.

But there is also an equally important place - and I think it's harder to find - for responses to work that that go beyond the consumer guide and which attempt to contextualise work, discuss what ideas might be behind it, what traditions it might be coming from, &c&c, and for the extended subjective and thoughtful response. This can be informative beyond things like ticket prices, genre or whatever else might be useful in the former sense, and it enriches the total experience of theatre going (or so I believe) if there is a discourse around it that illuminates it in these wider ways. And perhaps you might call this criticism.

This is certainly what I seek to do, but to confuse things, I do it mainly by writing reviews, ie, reports of shows I have seen. There aren't any stars here or suchlike because I am not seeking to write a consumer guide; there are plenty of those. And mine are unashamedly subjective responses - if you like the kinds of things I like, you could probably use it as a consumer guide as well. If you don't - and there are plenty of people who don't share my tastes - I hope it's interesting and, in a broad way, informative. (I don't read critics I enjoy, myself, because I necessarily agree with them - sometimes I read them because I enjoy disagreeing with them). The point of this second kind of reviewing/criticism/conversation is that it allows space to articulate and deepen the experience that you might have had, or may have. Anyway, I reckon it's fun, both to read and to write. Obviously.

Statler said...

Thanks Anon - nice to see I'm not entirely on my own here.

Alison - sometimes the distinction between reviewer/critic can be a difficult one to make but it pretty much serves our purpose here. The kind of criticism you have identified is unlikely to be able to obtain sufficient column inches in a newspaper, and given this pressure for space I'd rather see several "reviews" than one piece of "criticism". As Anon says, the place for such pieces these days is largely feature articles. I do enjoy reading criticism (hence my visits here) but I think it is probably unreasonable to expect this in the modern print media.

I'd also point out that I would have had a good deal more support for Gill's article had he been advocating the benefits of taking a more in-depth look at a production, but what I took most from his piece was a drive to entertain with witty barbs and waspish comments, which I can't help but feel would risk tainting a review.

I'm just glad that while it has given us a bit of fun on the blogs, it hasn't had quite the same shock value as the Hynter debate, and that most of the reviewers seem to have largely taken the attitude that Gill's piece isn't worth bothering about.

Alison Croggon said...

I think the truth is that Hytner had, underneath the fuss, some valid points, while Gill was just, well, maybe making a bid for a new job...

George Hunka said...

As much as I'd like to share Lyn's optimism, I can count on the fingers of one hand the number of bloggers who are engaging in the long-form theatre writing (like yours, Alison) that the print media no longer support. In recent months, American theatre bloggers have, to my eyes, been writing about theatre less and less, especially about individual productions, as well as the broader issues that used to engage (to name two American critics) Gilman and Bentley.

Maybe it's just me, but online theatre criticism is becoming just as fragmented and prone to simplistic reductionism as that in the mainstream media. I don't know what to do about this, except to say that I hope it's a temporary condition.

Matthew said...

I think it's important to note as well that objective observations of the type outlined by statler need not be conveyed in dull, lifeless prose. Personal style and subjective opinion are not necessarily joined at the hip, after all, just as personal style and objective observation are not mutually exclusive. I'd like to think my own reviews are evidence of this, as Alison's tend to be. The various oppositions that are being discussed here -- particularly critic vs. reviewer -- have little to do with what Gill was actually advocating in his article, which was essentially the importance of style. I agree with him that a critic's style is important -- as it is for any writer -- but would draw the line when style is pursued at the expense of substance, which it often is. I think that's what statler's worried about -- personal style given precedence over objective observation -- and to the extent that Gill's article implicitly advocates this, I have to agree with him.