Saturday, 27 April 2013

Oh Please, Just Stop: Critical Process Pondered. Again.

In a recent article in The Metro, when asked to respond to the increased importance of social media in the critical process, Barry Norman claimed that "the biggest obligation is to the readers, viewers and listeners," and defines honesty as the criteria for a "good reviewer." While it is a clear and solid piece of advice for critics, it doesn't really address the article's core issue - that the internet has allowed everyone to think that they are a critic. His subsequent comment ("the professional critic should have seen a hell of a lot more films than the amateur") gets closer to the point, although whether my obsessive viewing of Pasolini really helps me to judge  Iron Man 3 is a moot point.

Being prone to introspection, Norman has set me off thinking about the purpose of criticism. Since The Metro article ends with the opinions of a film PR, there's the underlying assumption that a review's main purpose is either attracting or warning off potential audiences. That works for film (and albums), which might explain why movies and music get more space in traditional press. Unfortunately, there's a fair proportion of theatre that won't get long enough runs to need a glowing press commendation.

It is a pretty esoteric question - why do I think theatre criticism is worth spending my life on? - but it might answer some of the questions about my own subjectivity. Sure, my enthusiasms for Jesuit spirituality, scientific method and classical Greek theatre are bound to inform my opinions - as are the relative tightness of my belt and the comfort of my seat. But in the last few weeks, I have noticed that my opinions on certain performances, which aren't necessarily in accord with either audience reaction or the other critics (whom I respect), can be related to my belief in the nature of criticism.

Admittedly, I probably took my faith a little far when I shouted that the job of the critic is to be a witness ("in both a legal and religious sense," I hollered, much to the bemusement of my fellow passengers on the train into Glasgow). And it does go back to my undergraduate study of ancient tragedy: I regard art as the place where ideas get discussed, and the critical process is the further discussion of those ideas.

So, something like Poke or Wuthering Heights (both winners of The Arches Platform 18 Award) are both "my kind of theatre." It's not even that I agree with the politics in the pieces - Poke's representation of masculinity frightens me, because it might be true and the penis might be mightier than the mind. But against Scottish Ballet's revival of Highland Fling, they are all about forwarding conversations. I've been deliberately mentioning them in fragments across the blog, never making any real aesthetic judgments but alighting on ideas, letting them sit. Highland Fling, meanwhile, is a bit of a laugh, but I am not sure it has that much to say about Scottish identity or the nature of erotic fixation - a more aesthetic analysis would be closer to the choreographer's intentions.

I have also been left feeling uncomfortable about plays that inhibit the conversation around a subject. Quiz Show is full of fantastic facts - yet to discuss its core issue is to give away the twist in the tale. At risk of invoking Plato (and revealing my relative idiocy), I have a moral problem with this - not an aesthetic one.

But this is my problem - not theatre's. It might help to explain why I prefer certain productions, or excuse my frequent failure to include those essential features of the review ("this actor was good, that director was imaginative"). I am throwing out a few questions - the joy of a blog is never concluding, never conforming to the format of beginning, middle and end...

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