The methodology and approach to theatre criticism is changing, and changing rapidly. It’s a truism to claim that the rise of digital technology and online media has massively shifted the landscape. Nevertheless, our views on how best to accommodate these developments are ongoing. It is an issue I wish to consider in light of something that has been niggling away at the back of my mind for some time…

There is no escaping the mutability of performance. But, it is theatre’s tendency towards fluctuation that provides a unique challenge to its critics. It is now commonplace to observe that no single performance is ever entirely the same as the one before or after it. However, I believe that theatre critics have acknowledged this fact far less. Audiences and theatre-makers have accepted that performance – by its very nature – is a largely unstable and unpredictable beast. We’ve all heard comments such as, “he/she was a bit off tonight” or “a couple of those lighting states need work”. Indeed, if you’re a director, the very act of giving notes after an evening’s performance underlines the way in which a production evolves over the course of a run. Now, it’s important not to view this state of things as a detriment to theatre. The reality is, performances must necessarily change from one evening to the next. Directors and actors are always seeking to confront the demands of a continuously changing audience, and this goes double for productions that are fortunate enough to enjoy a tour on a national or international scale.

The question, then, is to what extent do these conditions impinge on the work of the theatre critic? Well, on the one hand, theatre itself has sought to control the mercurial quality of its art. The press night, situated at the start of a run, attempts to ensure a uniformity of experience for those reporting on the relative success or failure of a production. Already though, we can see how imperfect this is as a solution. Like the maths teacher suddenly forced into a blind panic by the arrival of Ofsted, the actor’s response to the knowledge that they are being assessed is bound to affect the evening’s proceedings. The situation in which reviewers are piled into an auditorium on a single evening, and told to concentrate their eyes and ears on the expectant players in front of them, often carries the nauseous air of the examination hall.

When reviewers alter their verdict, or admit they were wrong about a particular play, how are we supposed to feel about this? Detractors are fond of pointing out that so-called ‘professional’ criticism essentially boils down to the partial opinion of one fallible person. The implication being that anyone and everyone is a critic, since all it apparently requires is the ability to state whether or not you liked or disliked something. “Everyone is entitled to their opinion”, they (quite rightly) say, “so why on earth do we even need critics at all?” It would be arrogant and misleading to suggest a critic’s viewpoint is inherently more valid than a regular audience member’s. Nevertheless, the notion that criticism is simply unfiltered opinion promoted as fact is an equally crude misrepresentation. The critic is not an arbiter, contrary to what a few bad eggs both inside and outside the critical ‘establishment’ might like to think. The critic should aspire to the level of an aficionado, a connoisseur, and expert in his or her field. It is perfectly reasonable for a critic who is all of these things to get it wrong several times throughout their theatergoing career. Indeed, I would go so far as to say fallibility, in all its disconcerting glory, is an essential and valuable component of criticism. Of course, I’m not attempting to suggest that critics can afford to avoid nurturing and developing their own individual faculties. But when it comes to reporting on a particular theatrical event, it is essential for the critic to acknowledge the unavoidable partiality of his or her own spectatorship.

Our continued reliance on the star-system is partly, but not wholly, to blame for the confusion. When a critic awards something four stars, any subsequent rebuttal or alteration to that verdict is made a lot more difficult as a result. Today’s generation of young and emerging theatre critics are engaging with an appetite for more information, packaged small and delivered fast, and this coexists with a growing skepticism towards the ‘authorised’ wisdom of old. The proliferation of theatre bloggers demonstrates a need to move away from the economic pressures of the star system – burdened as it is by the reductive strictures of word counts, etc. – and unfold a complex multiplicity of responses that seek to avoid the pragmatic categories of ‘good’, ‘bad’, ‘right’, ‘wrong’. Theatre as an art form works best when it attunes itself to the possibility of failure. It is this awareness, this risk-taking, this acknowledgement that theatre-makers can sometimes get it wrong, and be allowed to get it wrong, that allows theatre to evolve. It’s about time we extended the same generosity to its critics. Then again, I might be wrong…

Photo: The Rosehill Theatre by Flickr user Alan Cleaver under a Creative Commons Licence.