I had a little flippant nibble over on encore about the ‘Hytner vs critics’ debate that is exercising folk. I think that if theatre directors are willing to stick their heads above the parapet then those of us who are anonymous owe it to them to back them up by exercising significantly less courage. Hytner has had lashings, massages, bouquets and backlashes for his own productions from all over since his tenure started, and it’s been pretty clear that they’ve been largely political statements on the part of the critics (who would like to be in favour of or against trends like Tom Hardy, celebrity casting, £10 ticket deals, revivals, new plays or whatever he’s doing) and rarely much to do with what the experience is actually like (frequently poor in my experience, but hats off to the man for his programming). This has certainly extended to productions by other directors at the NT – there have been plenty of reviews aimed at ‘Hytner’s NT’ rather than involving themselves with the specific production.
Susannah Clapp, not someone whose reviews I set my compass by, has written pretty well on this here in the Observer. She thinks the battlefield is to do with Billington and Spencer being left behind by the developing language of our theatre-makers. It’s surely true that stodgy writing, tedious, uninspiring characterisation and lengthy rhetoric is more tolerated by our literary-trained critics than is the odd flash of indulgent spectacle (that kneehigh, de la guarda or frantic assembly might be prone to). I’m interested in who the critics think they are and what they think they’re for. Obviously de Jongh writes with his obituary in mind, hoping to be remembered as the executioner of Shaftesbury Ave. Lyn Gardner writes as the champion of the promising newcomers – she has an amazing (and utterly excellent) capacity to put more and more faith in more and more youngsters, sending them on with glowing notices to the altar where Spencer, Billington and Nightingale will dismiss them as not yet fully formed (and send their overextended producers reaching for the overdraft facility).
And the critics have their own narrative presumably – waiting for productions to live up to the superb one in their head; or hoping to chart a moment of development; or standing guard over the old traditions and values. Someone pointed out that the critics, like your dad with his record collection, are stuck in their generation’s idea of what good theatre is – what they loved when they were 13 or 16 or 21 or whenever they fell in love with it. It’s true, I suppose, and they’d be right to say the same about the practitioners. Is it just me or do both Tom Morris and David Farr keep getting comments about how their work resembles the early-80s theatre-in-education and physical work that may very well have inspired them? Not much wrong with that either – genuine influence is how ideas germinate.
I’m loath to come down on Spencer for being unreconstructed in his attitude to physical theatre (if he is – I don’t read him much) – that’s his perspective and regular readers will know it. He’d be doing his job well if he acknowledged that it wasn’t his cup of tea and he may not be reviewing it well for those who like it. Sometimes critics do this but not nearly enough. I mean he shouldn’t be pretending to like things if he doesn’t. He should just be prepared to accept he’s unable to judge them on their own terms. The debate shouldn’t be about the age of the critics, nor the specifics of their gender bias. It should be about them being open about their bias. “I’m not a fan of Nick Hytner’s NT repertoire but I really liked this production of xxxxxx”, perhaps we should read. They can still build their personality-cults.
The other side of the debate is about the democratisation of criticism – Billington’s response has a rather pompous line about the independence of his voice, as if he was artistically inviolate. I rather liked the Guardian’s scheme of inviting butchers to see plays about butchers and so on – they are always a good read. the london paper and the independent sometimes do ‘you do the reviews’ slots which usually seem to have mates of the production raving about something – it seems very open to abuse. So I suppose the reviewing bloggers, with their own personalities (like West End Whingers), have a real role to play here. Especially if the theatre marketing departments and (perhaps?) the critics themselves start to take them seriously. The best reviewers are the ones about whom you know a bit more, so you can react to their opinions.