A Guardian blog last week asked: “How could technology change theatre criticism for good?” The web, of course, has already allowed a lot more voices to take part in the critical conversation, whether via blogs, bulletin boards or Twitter, but the Guardian blog suggested that this new expanded template has resulted in “recurring, sometimes ugly debates between mainstream critics and the blogging community.”
I found myself in the eye of this particular storm myself earlier this week after my own blog drew attention to the different responses to the production Three Kingdoms between the traditional, dead-tree media and its online-only counterparts.
Jake Orr, who set up and runs the Younger Theatre website which bills itself as “theatre through the eyes of the younger generations”, wrote a good response on my entry, pointing out that the outlets need not be in opposition to each other but complementary.
But I never said they were: in fact I was citing Maddy Costa, who like me straddles both camps, who pointed out in a Guardian blog that critical reactions reaction to Three Kingdoms was polarised “between newspaper critics who - you guessed it - are resistant to the work, and online writers who embrace it fervently.” But, she went on to say, “Such is the prevailing hierarchy of criticism, however, online writing is still essentially classed as word-of-mouth, while only the reviews published in mainstream media carry real weight.”
Those were Maddy’s words, not mine; and like it or not, that hierarchy exists. But I have always said that I welcome the debate, and the opportunities the web presents to allow other voices to be heard is great, too. I have also always said that conventional reviews are the beginning of a conversation, not the end of it; the old model has already been changed by the arrival of newer methods of delivery, both shorter (I tweet my own necessarily abbreviated reviews immediately after I see a show) and much longer, of the sort that bloggers can indulge in, unlimited as they are by word count and space restrictions.
I’m a beneficiary myself of this freedom here on this blog; though I’m also always keenly aware that long entries may be an indulgence, especially in the age of smart phones where many people access the web on tiny screens nowadays, which are hardly conducive to long reads. Of course it’s very seductive to be able to hold forth at great, uninterrupted length; and I notice that Maddy was not alone in her extended musings on this particular play. Her 4,115 words were nearly matched by Andrew Haydon, who admitted in a standfirst to his blog posting that ” this piece is more of very long failure to do justice to something I loved than a review”, and proceeded to do so for nearly 3,000 words.
Of course that allows for potentially much deeper analysis and personal comment than a review does; but it is also written in very different circumstances. Print reviews are often published overnight (written and submitted within an hour or so of the curtain coming down), so they could hardly run to the same kind of detail. It’s a striking fact that in New York, where critics never overnight but are always invited in to see a series of prior previews, the New York Times review typically runs to around 1,200 words, not the usual 400-500 we get here.
Another commentator Jon Bradfield made the good point in a posting to my blog, too, that notices that I didn’t see the play. “So what he wants professionally and personally is some quick overviews. That’s common sense. The long stuff - at least the way it has been written on this show - is for those who have seen it. It is exclusive. And that’s fine.”
Most theatrical journalism will be read by people who don’t see the work we’re writing about: I’ve sometimes heard it said that reviewing is about seeing the shows so you don’t have to. It’s a canary-down-the-mine exercise: if they come back alive, it’s safe to proceed. And Jon goes on to say, “Only a modest handful of people will read many long, woolly pieces like Maddy’s and certainly won’t for most shows. Most individual productions don’t merit it (not to devalue them). That said, occasionally a show like this will come along that long-form criticism is made for: not definitive but questioning, almost chairing a discussion for its reader. This was one of them. I think one of the joys of the net is that I’ve been able to read all sorts of views on the play, even though I went last minute on my own and have spoken directly to just one person who also saw it.”
So it’s about different horses for different courses; and that kind of critical vitality is to be welcomed. I’m sorry if my blog earlier this week sounded as if I was dismissing it out of hand. But there’s still a long way to go in using the web in all its possibilities. According to that Guardian blog I quoted at the front of this entry, perhaps we need to go beyond the conflict that the web is all too adept at promoting. As Catherine Love points out, “While words alone can create a rich tapestry of critical response, imagine how much richer this might be with the addition of images, video, audio, geotagging, experimental forms such as Pinterest.”
And yet, despite those infinite possibilities, “the majority of those writing theatre criticism for the web remain trapped in the conventional print review format: a block of text that often tries to avoid spoilers.” In effect, the bloggers at the moment are therefore just doing more of the same that the dinosaurs of print are doing - only at greater (and sometimes verbose) length. Size, as they say, isn’t everything; it’s what you do with it. And that applies to theatre criticism wherever and in whatever format it appears in.