Learning to drive
28 March 2018
Mark Shenton ponders what part critics play in the discussion
One of the things I love most about NSDF is how critics and conversations are put at the centre of the audience and performer experience here.
The daily publication of this magazine provides a permanent record of an event that will quickly pass into history; but perhaps more importantly than that, the conversations that are ignited will feed into the theatre practice of those who participate and read this for years to come.
What is also refreshing is how critics are only part of the dialogue here: those who choose to write in these pages -- and everyone is welcome -- are a self-selecting group, but there isn't a hierarchy of opinion. Audiences are invited to interact daily with the people who actually make the shows in the formal context of the daily discussions, and to give their own feedback and ask their own questions too.
Critics are, in other words, not just the first (or even the last) word in how a production is received; but part of a wider conversation around it. We have no special claim to providing a more authoritative voice; some of us may have been doing this is a bit longer than others (Michael Billington has been theatre critic of The Guardian since 1972, the longest-serving of any critic in Britain), but it is the job of each of us to come in fresh to every show, and take it on its own terms. Some critics may have a wider frame of reference than others, which is useful for providing context; but the good news nowadays is that there are opportunities for many more people to contribute to the discussion, whether on independent theatre websites, their own blogs, or even just micro-reviews on Twitter.
With the ascendancy of the internet, blogs, bulletin boards, chatrooms and Twitter offer a voice to the people that really matter: the public. And everyone, now, is a critic.But I think that with all the noise out there now, critics are becoming more, not less important, to rise above the din. Kenneth Tynan, the outstanding theatre critic of his (or any) generation once said, "A critic is someone who knows the way but can't drive the car."
Though people may disagree on just how useful they are, good critics are not merely necessary but essential to giving direction and context to what they write about: they survey their art from a place of knowledge, passion and integrity. And that sometimes involves throwing down the gauntlet to those they perceive to be heading in the wrong direction. Somerset Maugham once said, "People ask for criticism, but they only want praise." Critics are not just cheerleaders; sometimes they need to be critical too.