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Shenton's View

What’s the point of professional critics?….

It’s a recurring theme, of course, nowadays: everyone has an opinion, and there are more and more places to express them, so what’s the point of professional critics? In Edinburgh, it will shortly be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff, and that goes for the reviews too, where there are now so many outlets - from established local and national newspapers and magazine titles to freesheets and others that spring up overnight just for the festival - that the audience for some shows seems to be comprised only of reviewers.

But maybe it is precisely because of this onslaught of opinion that reliable, trusted, professional guides are more necessary than ever.

And the thought occurs to me again because the Independent (whose chief executive is Ivan Fallon) has today run a two-page feature by one Ivan Fallon on his experiences of seeing the entirety of Wagner’s Ring Cycle for the first time, in the Mariinsky production that has just visited Covent Garden. (This isn’t, incidentally, the first time that he has exercised his executive power to write about the arts: as I previously pointed out here, he previously reviewed both the Stratford opening of the David Tennant Hamlet for the paper, and its subsequent transfer - with understudy Edward Bennett - to London).

Yes, he admits, “I had seen various parts of the Ring of course”, and he proceeds to list them: “Die Walkure a couple of times, once at the ENO in English, and a bad Götterdämmerung many years ago.” He tells us, too, “I had seen other Wagners too - Tristan at Glyndebourne, Tännhauser at the Met, Die Meistersinger in Covent Garden. But to be frank, I had never quite got Wagner.”

Yet his musical friends, he says, “have always said that Wagner is the nearest equivalent opera has to Shakespeare, a giant who dwarfs everyone else with the possible exception of Mozart.” For many years he insists that “like most moderate opera lovers, I have always wanted to see a complete Ring cycle.”

And now he has, what insight does he have to share with us? That he disagrees with the critics. “Outside the Opera House, the critics are already in full swing. The Telegraph carries a piece asking is it ‘the worst Ring in history?’ The Times says it is ‘slapdash’, justified by a few minor hitches such as Fafner’s apron falling down, and a technician slipping on with a drill to fix the lights. The Standard finds it ‘mundane’ while our own Independent critic mutters about the tiredness of both the orchestra and its conductor.”

But Mr Fallon goes on to say, “I am no critic, and see it all very differently, as does the little group of us who have bonded in our admiration for Gergiev and the orchestra over these four days. We thought Gergiev superb, and the orchestra sublime. After the first night, the set and the glitches were buried by an avalanche of majestic music, played by one of the best orchestras I have heard, under a conductor who never flagged for a second, making it an experience I will forever treasure.”

Not to undermine the evident pleasure he took in experiencing the Ring for the first time, but that’s exactly the point: he has no yardstick against which to compare it. I’d rather read his critic, Michael Church - who reviewed it here and also wrote a compelling, complementary [blog] on the production’s shortcomings here — and knows something of the history of which he writes.

And I think it’s also revealing that while Fallon claims to have long wanted to see the complete Ring, it’s taken him so long to do so. (Covent Garden, as Church pointed out, did its own cycle just two years ago, with Bryn Terfel and John Tomlinson alternating as Wotan). Fallon is no youngster, either: he’s 65. So he’s had plenty of opportunities before now to see it.

Of course, there are gaps in all of our cultural knowledge. I envy anyone the joy of discovering, for the first time, a great work of art. (Seeing my umpteenth production of Sondheim’s Company a few months ago at the Union Theatre, I thought how lucky my partner was to be seeing it for the first time). But you would never expect a critic who has never experienced the Ring Cycle before to review it; nor would you want to read what he has to say.

The same thing goes for theatre critics. We all have to start somewhere, I know, but it takes time to build up the knowledge and experience of seeing multiple productions of the great plays and musicals.

And yes, we can all blunder, too - we’re all human and therefore fallible - but how is it possible to take a critic seriously who can claim, as one Sunday reviewer did on the weekend, of the Donmar Warehouse’s production of A Streecar Named Desire, that “The production, essentially faithful to Tennessee Williams’ original play, has some visual intelligent twists which give the story an even greater resonance: Stella is, for instance, haunted by the ghost of her first husband who committed suicide. In a scene of raw intensity, she sees him kissing another man and looks away in despair. It is a short scene that explains a great deal, and certainly fits in comfortably with Williams’ psyche.”

Unfortunately, of course, it is Blanche, not Stella, who is haunted by the ghost of her husband (and although it’s her first husband, it’s also her only husband, so the distinction isn’t necessary). The same critic once speculated on whether Laurence Olivier would, nowadays, be allowed to black up to play Iago. And it’s that kind of clumsy writing and editing that also continues to put the nail in the coffin of professional criticism, too: if critics can’t get the basic facts right, what’s the point of them at all?


Just to nitpick, Ivan Fallon reviewed Ed Bennett as Hamlet early December 2008, and David Tennant when he returned in the role in January 2009, both in London, but not David Tennant in Stratford, that review was by Paul Taylor.

By the way, Paul Taylor disappeared from the Independent very suddenly beginning of the year, and I never found out what happened. On the other hand, I am just a theatregoer, no professional relationship with the theatre, and I did notice when a professional critic stopped writing for a newspaper. Is that the answer to your question? A professional critic brings experience, commitment and a point of view that can be followed from one review to another and it definitely pays off in plays like Hamlet or Streetcar.

Poly -- Very well spotted there, re: HAMLET reviews -- I guess I have just proved my own point about the fallibility of journalists when it comes to the facts sometimes! (The original blog entry I link to does, however, have the correct information about which performances he was reviewing).

But yes, you have constructively answered to the point about the fact that critics *do* matter, when some readers follow the bylines as astutely as you do!!

No one wrestles more with the issue of a critic's purpose more than the critics themselves, I find, and then none more than struggling not-yet-paid-professional critics like me. It's a case of "I enjoy doing what I'm doing, but it's an unsustainable lifestyle right now, so is it, in a more widely socially applicable sense, worth it?"

Like Mark, the point I continually return to is the one about experience: professional critics have x thousand more hours of expertise than their readers, and are therefore better qualified to judge what is worthwhile and what isn't.

The problem with this conclusion is, how do you get your x thousand hours of theatre experience, if you can't be considered professional (and therefore worth paying) until you've got it? Some (not all) venues are helpful with comp tickets, but becoming 'qualified' to review theatre still requires a major outlay of time and travel expenses for little material reward. The opportunity to see loads of theatre, my name in print and the hope that all this writing for free will one day pay off is enough for me at the moment, or I wouldn't still be doing it, but I wish there were some kind of training or apprenticeship scheme available.

I believe that every critic when they are starting out does so because they have a passion for the theatre. They happily put in thousands upon thousands of hours seeing shows good and bad and reading everything they can get their hands on so as to build up their knoweldge of what they are writing about. But that is the point of all of that passion when what they are forced to review is "Daddy Cool" or " Dirty Dancing" or even "Carrie's War"? Our culture is giving way to the dominance of pop culture which is culture without context. Critics bring context to their view of the theatre but our cultural climate doesn't give a hoot about that. Everything is given equal weight and we are the worse for it. One critics ignorance of the basics of "A Streetcar Named Desire" can be looked upon as a fresh perspective. It's not, it's stupidity on the part of the critic and contempt for the audience on the part of the newspaper for which he writes.

This is very timely.

The Milwaukee (Wisconsin, USA - 1.5 hours north of Chicago) Journal-Sentinel has just given early retirement 'buy outs' to two of its long-term reviewers - those for music and theatre/tv. They are not being replaced.

The JS is the only daily paper in Milwaukee, a city of over 500,000 people and we now have no regular music and theatre reviews in our local paper.

The final blog entries for the 2 are available

Cuprisin, the theatre/tv reviewer
Tom Strini, the music reviewer

The company claims that it is part of a financial decision based on diminishing advertising dollars, and I'm sure that's partially true - but they aren't buying out the sports writers.

Part of society's view seems to be that anyone can review the arts because everyone goes to concerts and plays and everyone's opinion is equally valid.

I'm not saying that everyone's opinion is not valid at some level, but my next door neighbour's opinion of The Ring does not tell me if it's something that I might want to see if I've been a professional musician for 40 years.

We (artists, I'm a singer and bassoonist) have always fought against the perception that we do it for the love of it. That it's not *real* work and we don't need to be properly compensated. The idea that the owner of the newspaper is as capable of writing a valuable review of Wagner as someone who has studied music and theatre as a practictioner and scholar is absolutely ridiculous and you make that point very well.

I don't know that I'm making a particular point here, just that reviewers have a role to play and they can't be replaced with just anybody. To bring this a little closer to home... I've not always agreed with reviews of concerts I've played in or attended as an audience member - in fact on occasion I've wondered if Tom Strini and I were even in attendance at the same concert - but he has always written thoroughly researched, thoughtful, reviews and that is what makes a reviewer a professional, as opposed to an amateur.

Thanks again for bringing this topic up at such an apropos time for me.

I can indeed confirm that Paul Taylor reviewed HAMLET at its opening in Stratford for The Independent, and Ivan Fallon saw Edward Bennett as Hamlet in December 2008 in London, and then Ivan saw David Tennant in early 2009, again in London.

Matt - assuming you are 'young' (whatever that means!), have you heard of the International Association of Theatre Critics' training seminars for young critics? Might be of interest

I read Ivan's piece and not for one moment did I consider it a review. It is a good atmospheric article on what seeing The Ring was like - no more no less. Would a newspaper like The Independent (which has been run on a shoestring since its founding and has suffered along with all other print media recently) send two people to review one event? No.

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