This isn’t really about Tim Walker-gate. All I have to say to Timbo is this. In fact I’ve been meaning to write something for months now about my many thoughts and feelings about theatre criticism, being one of a small number of people who possesses such ludicrous things IN PLURAL.
There are two reasons that I love the theatre: the silence, and the noise. When you’re in the room, there’s a strange, eerie feeling, like you’re watching ghosts. If I got on stage and said, ‘Torvald, can you literally stop being a dick to your wife?’, somebody would probably remove me and the actors would keep acting and it would be like I’d never spoken. What I mean is, it’s really happening, right at that moment, and you could speak – but you wouldn’t; it relies on an implicit understanding and trust between a group of strangers and a company of artists, who co-operate in the interests of passing on a story.
When that story has been told, the noise starts. A conversation begins. Even the most disengaged audience member has to say what they think of what has just happened, even if they’re like ‘CHRIST well I hope she suffocates under her giant octopus head‘ etc. That is why I find theatre so fucking incredible. It’s impossible to experience it passively. It provokes questions, thoughts, conversations. It’s maybe a strange thing for me to feel this so strongly, because I generally prefer to go to the theatre by myself, but I suppose it’s because when I watch plays they ignite sparks in my head that I like to walk around with for a while. Anyway, the point is, this is all radical shit. There are opportunities here for dissent, community, experimentation, conversation. For me, these conversations always exist, even if they aren’t necessarily physical ones.
And so, naturally, for someone who fundamentally believes that theatre is about dialogue, writing about theatre is almost a reflex action. You can’t ignore the theatre gauntlet. (Well, you can if you want to. It’s supposed to be fun, not GCSE coursework.)
In the beginning, I wanted to write about theatre in a way that aligned with the way I experienced it. In my mind I had the idea that I could write intellectual text-based analyses whilst still sounding like a human being (reading that sentence back just makes me think I was being a wanker). I had a go, but I was constrained by the more formal examples of reviewing that I was used to. It was bloody boring for me to write and undoubtedly quite distressing to read, although I don’t think anyone actually read it anyway so I won’t have to make any compensation payments to people injured in the process of reading those articles.
I was very fortunate around this point to be able to participate in a few workshops with Maddy Costa and eleven other critics. They were mind-opening and mind-expanding. One of the first things Maddy said to us was that it is extremely difficult to make money from writing about the arts. And then everyone was like, alright well, fuck this then, and all got up and left.
ONLY JOKING, everyone stayed, because strangely, bizarrely, we all bloody bloody love theatre more than we love money (this information correct at time of going to press). One thing that was immediately clear was that no one really saw writing about theatre as anything to do with selling tickets or generating publicity. It was about pushing the boundaries of our own responses. And this is a liberating thing to acknowledge, because once the act of criticism doesn’t feel transactional, you’re free to do whatever you want – so if, at this point, you still care, you have basically reached the equivalent of theatre critic nirvana.
The main point of me saying all of this is that there was a fantastic energy in that room; everyone was united by their desire to explore their responses to theatre in different ways. And to see more theatre, and different theatre. And to talk about it together. Something started, because as a collective we’d been freed of the shackles of 500 years in a room with a thesaurus trying to work out different ways to say ‘it was quite good’.
I’m not knocking professional critics – I think, mostly, they’re good at what they do, and probably equally frustrated by the confines they’re forced to operate within. And I read Michael Billington’s book about post-war theatre and I bloody liked it.
But it made me realise that, for me, personally, clinging to one critical model that is irrelevant to my own experience of watching theatre is pretty much a form of masochism. What’s the point of pretending to be the disembodied voice of a ‘brand’? And I sometimes feel these voices do works a disservice. I don’t mean that they are wrong because their opinion of something doesn’t exactly mirror mine, I mean that they don’t make the effort to understand and portray work in a fair and constructive light. And yes, it would be odd to expect a singular, authoritarian voice of a critic on a newspaper to be in any way democratic, but at least by writing about theatre myself, my voice is being represented.
So partly I want to pick up the gauntlet a play throws down. There’s an energy that theatre imparts in its audience that it feels wrong not to attempt to return in some way. Partly I want to engage with the fantastic online community of theatre writers that I’ve discovered since that workshop. And partly I want to challenge myself and how I respond to theatre.
I’m conscious that sometimes I’m wooed by a play’s politics and end up not really thinking about whether it was a good play. I’m also aware that I have a bias towards writers that means I sometimes prioritise trying to understand what they’re trying to do above whether they’re actually doing it successfully. I also know that I am incapable of thinking objectively about David Hare or Alan Bennett because I think they’re shit. I want to work on these things, I think. But then maybe I won’t stop doing these things, because maybe that is just what I want theatre to be like. I don’t know yet. Theatre for me is first and foremost a very political thing, and apparently Alain Badiou agrees with me but I’m not gona try and quote him because to be honest I still don’t even really understand what dialectics means.
Paid models of criticism might or might not be sustainable; I just know that I will always keep going to the theatre. Basically, for me, theatre isn’t just something you opt in and out of. Some people think you can just go and see a matinee of One Man Two Guv’nors and be done with it, but it’s not like that is it. It’s a life sentence. One of the better ones.
Girl Ignited: Sassy political rants from a very cheerful feminist. Twitter is @jessiecath