More critical amusings ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

More critical amusings

Every now and then my brain seems to dissolve in my skull and turn into something resembling fish paste. At such times language deserts me, which I'm sure you'll agree is a problem for a blogger and sometime crrritic. I console myself with the sage advice of St John of the Cross: "Stody thou not for no wordes, for so schuldest thou never come to thi purpose ne to this werk, for it is never getyn by stody, bot al only by grace."

While I float in my cloud of unknowing waiting for grace to fall about me, let me direct you to some interesting discussions occurring elsewhere in the blogosphere. There's the on-going debate about George Hunka's alleged indiscretions in writing a flaming review of a new play at Playwright's Horizons (I've had my say here). But there's meatier stuff in the UK blogosphere, where Chris Goode, fresh back from the Edinburgh Festival, has deposited another long and unmissable post at Thompson's Bank, although you might be advised to follow a fellow Goode fan and print it out to read on the bus. Meanwhile, Andrew Haydon at Postcards from the Gods is conducting a fascinating self-interrogation on the practice of theatre criticism.

He questions the convention of "critical distance" in a thoughtful post that asks whether fraternising with artists will lead inevitably to compromised criticism (I don't believe so, myself - in fact, if the critic cares at all about the art itself, I think the opposite - but then, before I picked up the critical baton again, I was on the "other side" for 15 years). In a follow-up post, Andrew points to Lyn Gardner's views on this question (which leads to Michael Billington's very different take, part of a fascinating debate between the Guardian's arts critics). My personal view is very close to visual arts critic Adrian Searle's.

"Strange though it may appear," writes Searle, "some artists even invite truthful criticism. Antony Gormley once asked me round to his studio "to give me a hard time", as he put it, not long after I had dissed a group of his sculptures in a review. As soon as I got home from grilling him he called me back - "You weren't hard enough. Come back tomorrow", he said. Candour is good." And he goes on to say: "I prefer the company of artists to that of most critics. Artists can more cruel about each other than any critic I have ever met, and just as hungry and insightful when it comes to looking at art. They know more about how art gets made, are sharper when comes to detecting when someone is faking it, and more generous about genuine failure."

That certainly dovetails with my own experience. My friends can attest that friendship has never stopped me from negatively criticising their work (it is, in fact, an excellent test of the strength of a friendship, although perhaps not to be recommended). As Michael Billington wisely comments: "If a critic can't write honestly about friends or acquaintances, he or she should change jobs: I'd even suggest that the imperative of writing to a deadline forces one to shed old loyalties. It's not 'what do you do about friends?' that's the big issue. It's 'what do you do about enemies?'."

Billington is dead right. The only time I have felt seriously compromised in doing my job was when I recently had to review Hannie Rayson's The Glass Soldier, which featured a particularly nasty character called Alan Croggon (who was mercifully shot in the head halfway through the first act).

In my critical response to that I felt fettered: the play sorely tried my patience, but I felt that whatever I wrote would inevitably be construed as being motivated purely by personal spite. My only recourse was a retreat into a pose of chilly objectivity. My review for the Australian prompted a 40 year MTC subscriber to write me an email in which he said: "As a consequence of reading your beautifully written review, the term 'damning with faint praise' has been elevated to a new level of eloquence."

A sweet response, but the experience still leaves me with a sour taste in my mouth: if the aim was to get me to shut up, it was half successful. The fact that I keep mentioning the incident indicates my unease, I suppose.

Well, this has ended up a lot longer than I intended. In other news, my review of the brilliant production of Philip Ridley's Mercury Fur now on at Theatreworks was published in yesterday's Australian, and perhaps grace has emerged from the mists and will allow me to think about it a little further... and also, I'm pleased to see that Jane Bodie's elegant play A Single Act, which was produced at the MTC last year, last night won the Premier's Prize for Drama. A worthy winner.

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