What has happened to theatre criticism?
It has been onn a downward spiral for years, anyway. It used to have its own special place in the newspapers, and the critic had the power to destroy (or to ensure a blockbuster success), but that probably only ever happened on Broadway or in the West End. Isn’t it the case that there isn’t any serious theatre left to review: anything that lasts more than a fortnight is probably a musical? There are runs at the National, and the many theatres that prepare for a Fringe run. But it doesn’t matter. The films on Netflix are more immediate, more successful. Just review them. It might have a shelf-life longer than a one-night stand trailing around the commercial theatres.
It’s probably something to do with the internet making comment free. It is probably something to do with the economy, and the space available in magazines for anything that isn’t advertising. It is about the way that science has a monopoly on truth, which leaves little space for the poetry of performance to enhance any cultural debate. It is probably because theatre is largely irrelevant.
It is probably because theatre is irrelevant.
It is because criticism has become part of the marketing industry, as critics write for the poster and hope that their star-rating gets on the billboard. And how the Scottish critic is mounting a defence of Scottish theatre (remember to deduct a star at least from anything published in The Scotsman, if the work is Scottish).
Theatre is irrelevant because it no longer has any criticism to hold it responsible for its actions. I mean, how often do reviews even mention the intrinsic racism of colour-blind casting to the RSC?
Holding theatre to account
How would the review look different if it held theatre to some kind of standard? Not the quality of a performance, or the brilliance of a particular actor, but to a political or moral standard: how would the recent NTS production of Jekyll and Hyde appear beneath the withering attention of a critic who had an agenda that wasn’t simply to make sure that the NTS appears in a good light?
Because Jekyll was an ill-conceived production that wanted to be cinema and performance at the same time, and achieved neither. It wanted to give the old novel a political resonance – a commentary on how nineteenth century capitalism was really bad, man. So the good doctor’s physiological dualism became a metaphor for the contradictory impulses of the late Victorian era. The capitalist blows up the homes of the workers, and builds that cod-Athenian folly on Carlton Hill. It’s like, the philanthropy of the Victorians depended on the oppression of the poor, or something.
The politics just don’t wash.The knowledge that Victorian capitalists built ‘fire escapes’ with their ill-gotten gains is commonplace. Half the swimming pools being closed by local government were the bequest of some wealthy bastard: housing estates, libraries, gifts of a stately home to the nation when the ancestors can’t afford to heat it anymore. All of them desperate attempts by industrials to hide their guilty exploitation of poor bodies, last ditch attempts to prove they don’t belong in Hell. But at this stage, it is even worth mentioning, when the British government won’t even obey its own rules (this was written on the day that Prime Minister Boris Johnson received a fine for going to a party when the country was supposed to be in lockdown). Sure, those industrialists, those dual identity Edinburgh gentry might be the same as Jeff and Bill and those other internet millionaires (and Gates is certainly building his fire escape with that institute which bought the rights to the vaccines), but is it necessary to have to wade through multiple layers of metaphor?
I don’t think this kind of criticism exists at the moment. But what is this, really?