Critics seldom speak with one mind: just look at the reviews last week for Katie Mitchell’s new production of Pains of Youth, which spanned the gamut from five stars (Paul Taylor in the Independent, in which he offers to take a lie detector test against those who think “that my recurrent four- and five-star ravings about Mitchell is the career-conscious gambit of a dead white male critic who wants to blarney his way into being granted a clean bill of health”), to two (Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph, which actually reads like a one star review, ending with the declaration that “Frankly the only remotely enjoyable thing about this show is the moment when it stops”; and Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard, who writes that “Although the erotic charge has been extravagantly talked up, it is about as sexy as a cold hip bath.”)
Yet somehow people outside the critical business often speak as if critics routinely speak with one voice.
Just today Brian Viner writes a column in The Independent in which he describes how Pixar’s latest animated film Up “has ben lauded to the skies as one of the greatest achievements in animated film-making since Walt Disney doodled his first mouse”, but is disappointed when he and his family go to see it. This may, as ever, be a question of expectation - I sometimes fear that critical opinion loads an audience’s expectations, in one direction or another, unduly in ways that the actual event can’t deliver.
I found that this worked in the show’s favour, as I wrote here when I saw a universally critically-derided production of Bye Bye Birdie on Broadway the week before last, to which Adam Feldman, one of the critics I quoted. then replied with a blog of his own, in which he said that he would not disagree “that, in hitting the show so hard, critics have probably lowered expectations so drastically that even this production can meet them.”
I was happy to break ranks with my New York counterparts and say that I honestly enjoyed the show. But Viner worries that to go against the supposedly-prevailing opinion is to amount to “cultural treason”, and he goes on to say, “There are certain films, books, plays, songs, paintings, television programmes, and indeed writers, singers, artists, actors and for that matter newspaper columnists, that we are not merely expected to admire, but almost arm-locked into admiring at first by critics and commentators, and in due course by public opinion. Do you find Citizen Kane tedious, or think Laurence Olivier a ham, or Frank Sinatra average, or Dad’s Army unfunny? Did The Catcher In The Rye leave even your teenage self cold? Then you’re out of step with the critical mass, which is never a comfortable predicament.”
It may make a reader uncomfortable if he or she falls out of step with what some of us are writing, but it isn’t a critic’s job to occupy a comfort zone. As Michael Coveney wrote a few months ago in a blog, “I was once accused by the late Ned Sherrin of getting a production hopelessy wrong. I replied, pleased with myself, that I was paid to be interesting, not to be right. Oh dear, a failure on two counts, Ned shot back.”
Michael went to declare, “So, like any critic, I’m perfectly capable of getting it wrong without any help from anyone else”. And so am I. Michael’s blog entry went on to point out the error of my ways in responding to his unfavourable review of the National’s Phedre: “My old friend Mark Shenton seems to be policing our copy to point out its flaws when he might be better occupied trying to improve his own critical writing and judgements. He seems to think there’s a general consensus of approval for Helen Mirren’s Phedre at the National, when there isn’t, and that because I disagreee with him I must have somehow seen a different show, which I didn’t. The idea anyway that there’s a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ opinion of anything in the theatre is palpably absurd. It’s nearly as absurd as supposing that because a few critics agree with each other that they are therefore in some way ‘right’.”
As the old saying goes, “There’s no right or wrong, only thinking makes it so”.But I realise now that Michael was right that I was wrong to dispute his view of the production. Just the other day I mentioned here Michael Billington’s defence of one of his recent reviews, ” Criticism is meant to offer more than a simple consumer guide or straw-poll of audience reactions. The critic, ideally, is there to describe and evaluate the show and put it in some kind of context: in the case of Little Voice, the context of the original production and similar plays about female empowerment. The bottom line is that a review is only an expression of one person’s opinion: one with which the reader is perfectly entitled to disagree.”
Coveney adeptly puts his own views of Mirren’s Phedre in the context of previous productions that starred Diana Rigg and Glenda Jackson, calling the latter “the best British Phedre in my experience”. And that’s a voice of experience that counts for a lot. Even, or especially when, we disagree with it.