The temporary transfer of live to online theatre has changed the way many theatre critics like Matt Barton approach and write about it. Here, he considers whether we should be more lenient in reviews but risk losing our intergrity in the process.

Reviewing theatre — or any art form — is an inherently nebulous activity. You draw upon your linguistic faculties to concretise with words something that’s abstract, ephemeral and impressionistic. It’s an enjoyably slippery game that’s become more cryptic since theatre went digital.

The usual questions we might ask and unpack in a review have shifted. New criteria have taken precedence in deciding what’s most important or relevant. One of the most noticeable has been the opportunity to really admire design and style — often undervalued and lacking prominent credit. Susannah Clapp’s Hymn review, for example, relished the symbolism of costume choices, effectively as a character of their own. Likewise, reviews fawned over the sumptuous aesthetic, texture and beauty of the National’s Romeo and Juliet. While this has recognised and reaffirmed neglected arms of the industry, prioritising appraisal of visual detail steers criticism away from the primacy of the text as the play’s core.

However, it’s been a refreshing, beneficial recalibration, having to suspend what we think we know about theatre and interpretation. Less about putting the critic on the back foot and more about a new challenge to diversify their remit, comprehending and interacting with art in new ways. We’ve been wrestled into a new relationship with the play, just how critics were initially dubious about radical reinventions of the form like Sarah Kane’s provocative stage images or Ivo van Hove interpolating cameras and televisual projection.

What’s also been destabilising is the sense of solitary viewing and more isolated engagement — just you and a screen — unable to gauge audience moods, impressions and energy to inform your experience. Are jokes landing? Is there collective sympathy? Are we being swept up? Instead, there’s been an emphasis on being more lenient in reviews. We should, of course, respect the achievement of producing something in challenging circumstances and repurposing platforms like Zoom. However, it’s always remarkable that a production manages to get from a concept to a series of live performances — it’s just not the function of criticism to commend this alone.

This also brings a moderate censorship with the implication that you must ignore a production’s shortcomings and only appreciate its success. This pressure to appease theatre makers restricts reviews to getting it ‘right’, rather than balanced subjectivity. A review’s natural honesty and authenticity becomes buried beneath the concern with getting as close as possible to the ideal a production could be. You feel your writing becoming more self-conscious and mannered, while trying to resist a review by numbers in which verdicts are tempered or rehashed. Consequently, this effort has stifled your voice as well as more exploratory, interesting, and incisive discussion of the piece and its effects.

It’s also less involving when you’re watching a recording of a performance — it signals to the past rather than how it’s engaging with the now in our present moment. Productions often make you reminisce about others you’ve seen, but your biggest question isn’t usually: I wonder what this would be like if I was there watching it live. It introduces self-doubt into your judgement when you presume something might’ve been more effective had it been experienced live, as an automatic excuse. These are questions and complications you don’t normally contend with.

While staging choices are always a primary consideration, the discussion has been wrapped up in logistics and broadcasting. Especially in shows like The Barn in which the camera remains static throughout, I’ve struggled to infer what’s deliberate: do I acknowledge the role of the camera or try to let it seem as though we’re spectating (as in a theatre)? Your review must overcome these questions about its relationship to theatre and what this new form really is: am I watching a recording of theatre, a TV drama, a film? Not that the reviewer’s job should be simple and easy, but it’s a distraction and challenge in access rather than in untangling knotty content or themes.

I’ve therefore accepted it’s not theatre and considered instead how it compares and diverges — what works better and what it lacks. It’s provided close, intricate studies of some of our greatest acting talents. The Old Vic’s In Camera monologues allowed us to forensically scrutinise their dexterity in utilising the smallest gesture or facial twitch to evoke depths of feeling. It’s the power of this detail and complexity which can be dissected and lingered upon in a review, capturing the subtlest of moments like Tom Hiddleston’s tears in the recent Betrayal production.

This is what’s often been lost to zoomed-in spectacle and high production values; it’s less interesting to write about a glossiness, polish and sheen which brushes over the rawness of the performance. The shape of the piece has been centred upon cinematography. But we’re not TV or film critics — they’re different disciplines, even if you can admire hybrids like the National’s Romeo and Juliet with its cinematic sweeping visuals, montage edits and swelling score. You navigate this new territory by finding the familiar in the unfamiliar, substituting editing for pacing, montages for the juxtaposition of scenes.

After all, your writing is constantly evolving. So, what will I take from the experience? Greater resilience against new invention and ability to grapple with less immediately accessible pieces. A willing expectation to be thrown off, disarmed and confounded. New, different questions and less interest in straightforward answers. But above all? An even keener hunger to get back inside the spaces where these questions, writing and art collide.