The critic enters the room. They observe the lights, the curtain. They feel the familiar strange anticipation for what is about to come. The coming production has been rehearsed for weeks; in production for months; in planning, perhaps, for years. It all comes down to this. The critic takes their seat and opens up their trusted notebook: a kind of personal bible filled with years and years of writing about time spent in big dark rooms. Good? Bad? It doesn’t always matter. It tells a story of a seemingly never-ending search for the next great thing. The lights go down. The curtain twitches. The critic grabs the remote and turns on the TV.
Much like the theatre industry the critic has endlessly observed, theatre criticism is too staring into the eye of the abyss. The pandemic has devastated an artform. Moreover, it has devastated an ecosystem and community that relies on it. The gathering of hundreds or even thousands of people packed into one auditorium has, for the last year, been unthinkable. How did we come to this? How can we continue?
Of course, ask any critic and they’ll tell you that theatre criticism already looks a shadow of its former glory. Gone are the halcyon days of the ‘Butcher of Broadway’ Frank Rich, whose reviews for The New York Times were so important they could close a show in a night. Gone too is the ‘irreplaceable’ Michael Billington, who after serving dutifully for almost half-a-century as chief theatre critic at The Guardian, has been, well, replaced.
Much has been written about the ‘death’ of theatre criticism, and there’s rhyme and reason behind it too. In a 2018 audience survey by The Stage, 54% of respondents said that they thought critics were less important that they were a decade before. In 2010, 46% said critics were even less important than the decade before that.
From the rise of social media perhaps rendering critics obsolete, to the never-ending freefall of the print newspaper (the primary home of theatre criticism in the last century), theatre criticism is evidently in a parlous state. Exacerbated by the pandemic, has quarantine finally killed the theatre critic for good?
Theatre Criticism in the Modern Age
Before we can get into that, it’s important to decipher what theatre criticism means in the 21st century. Are theatre critics still relevant anyway?
Andrzej Łukowski, theatre editor at Time Out London, says the role does remain relevant simply in its service of telling an audience what is ultimately worth your time and money: “There’s a prosaic bottom line that theatre is expensive and time-consuming to see, so having a bunch of canaries to go down the mine shaft to let the public know if it’s a good idea to follow is not an idea that becomes irrelevant.”
Susannah Clapp, chief theatre critic of The Observer, notes that “some critics, and this isn’t entirely my view, feel that their main responsibility is to the readers, and that you are simply there to tell them what is worth going to, and what is worth avoiding at all costs.” So, in its most default and basic state, theatre criticism exists as a mere consumer guide, telling audiences (before they have to find out themselves) exactly what is worth your hard earned cash.
One consequence of theatre criticism being perceived in this state is the adoption of ‘barometers’ like star ratings. Whilst star ratings can and do serve a purpose – Fergus Morgan, a freelance critic for The Stage and Exeunt, notes that “it has value to producers and marketing because positive star ratings do sell shows” – it also exists as an arena of great contention amongst critics.
As Clapp puts it: “I think you’ll find that most critics don’t actually like the starring of a performance, because it means that people are essentially counting rather than reading.”
Indeed, for some, star ratings can render the whole exercise of criticism pointless even. David Benedict, then arts editor of The Observer, recounts going to war with the paper’s infamous editor Roger Alton (the “legendary shouter” portrayed by Conleth Hill in the film Official Secrets) in the early noughties over the adoption of star ratings within the paper’s theatre pages. So adverse to star ratings was Benedict, he decided to put his occupation on the line.
“I decided that I would resign if star ratings were imposed because I think it makes a mockery of the whole thing. Why write 800 words if you’re just going to say its three stars? I remember citing the David Hare play, Amy’s View starring Judi Dench. I said, ‘she’s utterly brilliant and the play is shit.’”
“Do we give that one star because it’s shit? Or give it five stars because Judi Dench is unmissable? Or three because that’s an average?’ It’s an incredibly blunt instrument.” Ultimately, Benedict and Alton compromised with the inclusion of ‘Three to See’, a short listing of worthy shows that remained a fixture in the paper for the next fifteen years.
Theatre criticism too plays a role in the wider arts ecology. Naomi Obeng, a professional playwright and freelance critic, observes that “objectively, if we were to remove all types of theatre criticism from the industry, there would be a giant hole in the ecosystem. Criticism is hugely valuable and indispensable. A lot of people might not realise just how embedded criticism is in the fabric of how theatre works.”
Indeed, Laura Kressly, the founder of the blog The Play’s the Thing, echoes this sentiment, sharing how she’s “known of companies and artists that have used critical reviews for funding bids.”
Criticism is also of importance as it historically served as a means of archiving and documenting theatre of the past. “I wrote a long-read for The Stage on plays in the 20th century” says Obeng. “Reviews are the lens through which we see those plays now. I’m sure that’s been changing, with archival recordings, and now productions made for screens, but crucially, criticism is always about more than good or bad. It’s about the writing itself; the way it conjures the play for readers; the analysis; the cultural context you’ve seen the play in; the innovation or lack of.”
So, we see that theatre criticism certainly has a service role: for audiences; for artists, for practitioners; and for the industry as whole. But can theatre criticism stand on its own?
There’s a resounding feeling that criticism could (and should) play a greater role than simply putting bums in seats. For Morgan, theatre criticism at its most idealistic can be “a way of thinking about the world, just through the lens of writing about theatre.”
“Sometimes you come across a production, or a particular playwright, who has such a way of looking at the world that it’s inspiring; or it’s new; or it’s essential. It changes things somehow for the better. Great theatre criticism can sometimes function in platforming that person and in contextualising them, celebrating them and bringing them to a wider audience.”
Samuel Sims is the managing director and editor of the site A Younger Theatre, an online publication which champions and nurtures the voice of young critics. For Sims, criticism at its very best “can and should be a form of activism. It’s a way to express oneself as an artist, as a writer, and a community.”
There is certainly a romantic notion to the possibilities of what great criticism can be. Łukowski states, “I think reviews are fundamentally works of literature that should have their own life outside of influencing others. It’s creative writing – just in response to a theatre production.”
Reviewing Theatre in a Pandemic
The arrival of the Coronavirus pandemic signalled a systemic shift in how theatre operates. The forced closure of theatres worldwide by lockdown and distancing requirements both devastated and redefined what theatre – and the ecosystem around it – exactly is.
It should be acknowledged how quickly theatre reacted, moving fast to create and release as much content as possible in a time when many cultural venues have been forgiven for going into hibernation. But the despair of the situation meant a certain question for critics. How do we critique now?
Much theatre was produced online. Clapp remarks that “the actual substance of what one’s watching has changed, so that every theatre critic has been obliged to become a film critic as well.” Clapp continues, “nothing captured on screen as theatre is actually theatre – you’re not in the same space. You’re having to try to develop different skills and put them alongside the ones that you hope you’ve developed as a theatre critic.”
Indeed, in the circumstances, there was questions of whether there should be any reviewing at all. As disseminated by Laura Kressly in the Welsh Arts Review, performance artist Bryony Kimmings, whose digital monologue was being reviewed as part of HOME’s lockdown programme, took to Twitter to vent her frustrations with criticism at the time.
Whilst in theory the notion makes sense; critics don’t necessarily believe so in practise. Whether or not you believe that critics should be kinder to shows produced in the circumstances, as Kressly says, “you’re not going to watch a show that live streams to a laptop and review it the same way you’re reviewing a live show where you’re in the audience. It’s just not going to happen.”
Clapp echoes this sentiment: “You were so grateful and impressed that people were managing to put anything on at all.”
It feels nigh on to impossible to dispute the fact that the circumstances had to have clouded judgement.“I think you’d have to be a bit sociopathic not to have your critical goalposts shifted a bit by the circumstances” says Łukowski.
This shift is shown in practise too. In an analysis carried out by Fergus Morgan for Exeunt, he analysed the last fifty theatre reviews of 2020 by The Stage, and observed that only two out of those fifty reviews received two-star ratings. This was compared with an analysis of the fifty-preceding reviews, where Morgan counted “more than fifteen out of fifty two-star reviews” comparatively.
But not all critics found it easy to adapt to online theatre. Some instead took a conscious back seat from reviewing. “I felt a bit out of my depth reviewing filmed performances,” says Kressly. “Because there’s other element of tech and questions like, ‘should I be writing about camera angles? Or the quality of filming? If I struggle to engage with art on a screen anyway, should I be reviewing it?’”
Łukowski, who was furloughed for much of lockdown, also did not review digital theatre: “My general feeling is that there was no particular need to review a lot of it, but it was quite fun to see The New York Times so hungry for stuff to cover they were publishing 1,100-word reviews of shows at Southwark Playhouse that had already finished their runs.”
Similarly, J.N. Benjamin, a freelance critic with bylines in The Stage and Exeunt says, “I find it difficult to watch on a screen, and that’s all that was available.” She continues, “your craft relies on one set of senses and one set of experiences, and then to change that overnight was a very difficult thing.’
‘I didn’t write much, and part of the reason I didn’t write much, is because there was no live theatre. So did quarantine kill the theatre critic? In lots of ways, yes.”
But other critics found that the emergence and need for digital theatre gave way to a new and exciting form; a form that that should stay post-pandemic. As Morgan says, “the world of NTLive and online theatre has always been kind of underserved by critics for ages. I think it’s holding back things. I think we’ve seen a decade’s worth of development in that area.”
Kerrie Nicholson, freelance critic and founder of the blog Wheelie Stagey, also acknowledges these sentiments: “I’m choosing to watch things that I wouldn’t necessarily choose to see, just because it sounds really inventive and exciting. I think it’s important to hold on to that.”
As theatres briefly reopened their doors to socially distanced audiences between lockdowns in 2020, the strange kind of ‘critical kindness’ continued.
Łukowski references “when Time Out was publishing in the second half of last year, we had a ‘no star ratings, no slagging off’ policy, just because it felt like an insensitive time to put the boot into shows.”
Benedict adds, “you can’t go into a theatre and sit socially distanced, aware of the fact that you hadn’t been to the theatre for the previous six months. You can’t not know that. But at the same time, it’s also my job to go ‘is this worth your money?’”
There’s definitely a question in the circumstances of whether a certain moment of affinity with the artists can obstruct the primal role of criticism, to guide their audiences. Even Samuel Haughton, a London actor states: “I don’t think that critics should just be giving everything five stars and say, ‘go and see it all!’ I think that damages the integrity of them and ultimately the integrity of the industry.”
But perhaps it’s unavoidable. As Morgan says, “criticism is an active form in response. Say I went and saw a student production in some basement at Edinburgh Fringe at 9am in the morning. I will be way more inclined to be sympathetic and more constructive rather than harsh in my criticism because of the context of the show.”
“And the case over the last year has been that the entire industry has been in that basement at 9am in the morning. They deserve as much sympathy.”
Emerging from the Pandemic, there seems a real opportunity to rebuild theatre criticism in a new and better way.
Firstly, there’s a call for better and more in-depth criticism. One answer to that may be the development of long-form criticism through online channels. J.N. Benjamin heralds this format, citing websites like Exeunt, who are championing this form: “It gives you the space to kind of really explore themes and ideas and to experiment and to figure out what kind of writer you want to be.”
This longer-form of criticism can allow the critic to truly delve deeper into the themes of the play in a way that is far less constrained than the limits of print. “How can you open up this Pandora’s Box of themes and ideas and that kind of stuff in a 100-word review, that’s not fair?” says Haughton.
Likewise, criticism escaping from the limits and regulations of traditional print columns may be able to evolve and exercise in new ways. Take J.N. Benjamin’s review of the Branden Jacob-Jenkins play Appropriate, where the framework of her writing alludes to the metaphor of a cicada. Likewise, on the website A Younger Theatre, Samuel Sims and Josephine Balfour-Oatts jointly reviewed the two-hander Lungs at The Old Vic in the format of a script akin to the back-and-forth writing of Duncan Macmillan’s play itself.
One constant referred to by almost all the critics interviewed was a need for a wider range of diverse voices within theatre criticism: “It’s kind of reprehensible the amount of straight white Oxbridge men that are involved in it” says Morgan. “It’s definitely not good.”
J.N. Benjamin cites just one of the benefits of having a more diverse range of voices within criticism: “What often happens is that art is not received in the spirit that it’s intended.” Benjamin exampled the play Nine Night, Natasha Gordon’s 2018 play which portrayed a Jamaican heritage family and celebrated black British life.
“When the play is reviewed by someone who is fluent in the cultural language of the act that’s going on onstage, the art is received in the spirit that it’s intended.”
Benjamin continues: “When people who are well-versed in the life and the culture and the world that is being portrayed on stage, the plays are more likely to get reviews that are just and fair.”
The recently released Equity guidelines for theatre critics on writing about race suggest that, at the very least, the discussion is finally coming to the fore. But in reality, the changes really need to be systemic. A process that will unfortunately take time.
Naomi Obeng, who recently co-edited a special issue of The Stage on race and criticism, states: “On a structural level, we just need a concerted effort to rethink and change how theatre criticism is funded, and how writers are recruited and supported. I think that’s the only way to achieve what I’d really like to see: which is a much wider and more representative range of well-paid theatre critics across the country, not just in London, writing about all kinds of theatre.”
There is some optimism. As Sims says, “hopefully the theatre industry generally has thought about these things and is going take positive steps to make sure that this happens when we emerge from the pandemic.”
Another area wildly underrepresented in theatre criticism is that of those living with disability. For Kerrie Nicholson, a critic and writer who lives with cerebral palsy, she founded the site Wheelie Stagey to champion writers with disabilities: “There are some really great bloggers and writers with disabilities out there. But we don’t get the exposure, because there’s a particular set of critics that people want to have at their shows because of their name or the publication they’re associated with. It would just be nice to have some more diversity in the voices, and people being more welcoming of that.”
Whilst, as Obeng says, people should review theatre “not just on topics that relate to their particular identity”, a range of diverse voices is able to view things with a particular perspective and insight that might be missing in most critics.
Take for example Nicholson’s review of the play A Day in the Death of Joe Egg. Revived in the West End in 2019, the play revolves around a girl living with cerebral palsy, and this production of the 1967 play marked the first time in its long production history that a disabled actress, Storme Toolis, played the title role.
Nicholson’s review is insightful, revealing, and perfectly demonstrates the reason why it’s vital that these voices cannot be missed in the mainstream. There likely isn’t a single paid theatre critic in the UK that could have reviewed that play through the same lens as Nicholson.
“I wish that theatre critics were making people feel that the theatre is something that really belongs to everybody” says Clapp. “Strikingly, within a country which is supposed to be so paralysed with its politeness and rigidity, our great art is theatre. You know that’s a kind of striking paradox, really. People feel excluded from it. And theatre critics have to play a part in making that exclusion stop.”
“These voices have got to have a seat at the table” asserts Benjamin. “There has to be some representation of people.”
So did quarantine kill the theatre critic? Well, that remains to be seen. Whilst the long-term health of the role is currently navigating uncharted territories, there certainly seems a rare opportunity to change, rebuild, and redefine criticism for the better.
Emerging from the pandemic, theatres are getting ready to reopen their doors once more and welcome audiences back to their venues for the first time in over a year. Going forward, critics can ultimately be vital in communicating to audiences what theatre can and should be.
Illustration by Henrietta Kormos. You can see more of Kormos’ work here.