In the first of a new series of articles exploring the current role of arts criticism in Wales, Gary Raymond explores the real connection between artist and critic; and asks, isn’t it time criticism was given the same funding opportunities as all the other art forms?
What is the value of theatre criticism if it is always an immediate response to a single viewing of a work? Critics should ask themselves this question every now and again. A critic is not an audience member, after all, but is – or should be – an expert evaluator who creates stylish and poised reports on the depth and ambitions (whether realised or not) of a production. But forget the practicalities of any alternative for a moment, and just ask if one single viewing is the best way to judge a show.
The great contemporary literature critic James Wood says that when writing a book review he reads the work three or four times before writing his essay; he has a system that involves a building of his own thoughts, redrafting his notes until they construct a reasoned evaluation. Similarly, a writer on the static visual arts has the opportunity to stare at a painting or sculpture, absorb its intricacies for as long as it takes – nowadays, with kind permission, the critic can even take a photo of a work home with them on their phone for further contemplation. But the theatre critic must fire fast, and almost always from one viewing.
They must be neutrally in attendance, with all their tools at the ready. This has an effect on the strike rate, of course; theatre criticism, when judged in hindsight, gets it wrong more than any other field – more than the art critic, the film critic, or the book critic, for example. Theatre criticism even has a distinguished tradition of bloopers – Billington slamming The Birthday Party springs to mind; everyone apart from Tynan and Hobson slating …Godot in 1955. That is why intellectual honesty is the baseline of what we expect from our critics – it makes up for the deficit, in place of the time allowed to critics of other mediums.
We also require from our critics an identifiable authorial personality. We gauge our own responses by our relationships as defined by the foibles, eccentricities and predilections of the critics we trust. Our faith in a particular writer is rarely absolute. In Critic A we may identifiy a political leaning that aligns with our own; we believe they understand authenticity. Critic B may well be known as a traditionalist. Critic C, we know, admires innovation and respects above all else honest ambitious failures. Critic D we largely ignore because they write for the Daily Mail. And so it goes on.
But criticism is not just about “reviewing” – reviews should be just one format through which ideas can be given air. Over the last few years I have been given the privileged opportunity to work alongside some productions, see them develop, to work with the creatives on board, to see the show night after night. And I can say that the necessity for a critic to be embedded in a production – or rather have a critic sewn into the outerwear of a show – is just as important as the year-round job of evaluating single performances in the form of a review. I have done this with National Theatre Wales in Tokyo a few years back, and have also had similar opportunities with National Dance Company Wales, Ballet Cymru, and most recently I have toured India with Living Pictures’ production of Diary of a Madman. With Madman I was able to see the show 4 or 5 times in different theatres in different regions with very different audiences over a short period of time. When I first saw the show in 2015, I responded to it very positively – the acting, the writing, the directing are very strong. But now I see Diary of a Madman as a work of significant depth, a piece of real import to the times in which we live; it is one of the brightest moments of modern Welsh theatre, a true intellectually ambitious – and successfully so – theatrical endeavour.
But I also saw the changes night after night. I saw what resonated with one audience might not resonate with another. And here’s the thing: I also learned that criticism, like acting, is not a science; I learned that my review of one performance is just as reactive and fragile as one performance might be on one night. I came to realise that criticism, indeed, moves creatively along a similar path to the work being critiqued. As the actor discovers new depths in new surroundings, so do I.
I have always believed, because it is demonstrably true, that criticism is an art form like any other. You only need to read the masters to know this. But perhaps I have always been unsure as to the true relationship between critic and subject. Now I understand. The critic is Peter Pan’s shadow, indelibly linked, not by reactive aping, but by creative nature, to the work they write about. The visual art critic stands and ponders, unpicks the static image, a mirror to the artist who compiles it in intense isolation. The book critic, like the author, drafts and redrafts, builds narrative, goes deep into the dust of the archive. And the theatre critic, like the theatre-maker, depends on a great deal of gut instinct, depends on “knowing” what is right in the moment, and depends on honesty carrying them through with the audience where they have been unable to wait for dust to settle. Theatre critics get it wrong sometimes, just like theatre-makers do; when you’re rotten it hurts, but when you fly, we fly with you.
Wales’s problem – (you knew I’d come to it) – is that many do not understand (or at least do not display any belief in) the fact that arts criticism is itself art. And so generations of great critics are not encouraged to step up, because they are not welcomed. I have long argued that there should be just as many opportunities to secure funding for critics of art as there are for other artistic endeavours in Wales. Belief in the original meaning of the word amateur – to do something for the love of it, rather than do something short of “professional standards” – is a quaint “get-out” for those who do not wish to invest in the culture of public debate around the arts in Wales. But a thriving culture of art criticism is the ultimate symbol of a confident and mature nation, and there is no escaping that. That should be carved into the stone tablets of the Arts Council dictum.