What is Theatre Criticism?

What is Theatre Criticism?

Whether it’s a Brechtian verbatim piece with clunkily-integrated physical theatre sequences, an ‘edgy’ comedy which uses so-called-satire as a vessel for unbridled hate speech, or yet another bland and loosely misogynistic two-hander written by a straight white man in his forties, there are many plays I have watched and not enjoyed.

This will come as no surprise to any of my culturally-inclined friends, who often get the privilege (read: misfortune) of receiving rants about said plays messaged to them on my walk back home from the theatre. What is important here is that I am aware that this is not ‘criticism’ - or rather, not criticism-as-critical-practice, and not something I would ever put in a public forum as a response to a piece of work.

Around ninety-percent of arguments in the arts industries, I would suggest, boil down to individuals speaking at cross-purposes with regards to the meaning of ‘criticism’. Here, I’m thinking of how the word ‘criticism’ has two definitions. First, “the expression of disapproval of someone or something on the basis of perceived faults or mistakes” ("he received a lot of criticism"). Second, “the analysis and judgement of the merits and faults of a literary or artistic work” ("alternative methods of criticism supported by well-developed literary theories"). Theatre criticism, as I see it, is about the latter. It is about engaging analytically with a piece of work - unpacking and interrogating the directorial, dramaturgical and scenographic choices that were made, and putting them in dialogue with the broader socio-political context. Theatre criticism is not about the former: it is not giving an objective judgement on whether a play is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ (though star-reviews might encourage otherwise). The issues arise when these two definitions become conflated: where arts writers claim to write the first, but in fact write the second, or where theatre makers dispute the second as though it was the first.

A brand of criticism which is geared around writing vicious pull-quotes and nitpicking flaws is not only outright cruel, but also brings into question why we write criticism to begin with. Though not to claim some sort of universal, singular remit for the theatre critic, criticism is - as I understand it - not only to give a sense of the production to outside audiences, but also to enter into a productive dialogue with the work: to hold it accountable, to interrogate how meaning is made within it, to facilitate conversations about it. If the death of the arts industry comes when the work is the end of the conversation, criticism is the metaphorical NHS. Criticism is vital and dialogic and, fundamentally, not a good/bad decision but a critical discussion. Criticism cannot be simplified to a judgement of quality, and to attempt to do so is an insult to what criticism sets out to do.

When I write criticism, I always try to do so kindly and constructively (and I will be the first to admit that I do not always get this right). I also try to do so with an awareness that criticism is always subjective and partial and positional, and - fundamentally - contingent on the context is it being made in. If I’m watching a piece of community theatre, who am I to say that I have the final word on whether or not it is ‘good’? What does ‘good’ even mean in this context? Though I might find it dull, the same is likely untrue for the friends of the lead, who may have never stepped foot in a theatre before: why does my experience (tarnished by subconscious, Western-centric expectations of what theatre ‘should’ look like) hold more water than theirs? Good criticism acknowledges this positionality, and what the work means in the context of both the reviewer and the reviewed.

Of course, this all raises its own problematics of value judgements: who am I to say what ‘good’ criticism is? Absolutely, I cannot claim to be any sort of arbiter of ‘correct’ critical practice, nor do I wish to be seen as such. Instead, I write as a provocation to practice criticism more equitably and ethically, and in ways that - I believe - make for a happier industry which makes better work. Equally, I write with the full awareness that marketisation of arts journalism means that click-counts and snatch quotes sometimes take priority over ethics - crucially, in ways that individual arts writers might not have control over.

Fundamentally, I write in defence of every theatre-maker who has woken up the morning after press night to find themselves unduly slated. I write in defence of every woman, LGBTQ+ person, disabled person and person of colour who has been targeted in a review - lauding itself as objective judgement of quality - in light of their identity. I write in defence of hoping for a fairer industry, and of taking positive steps toward creating it. I write because I am tired of my colleagues seeing reviews as an objective statement on their abilities, and of others writing criticism which attempts to be so. I write as a gentle call-in to those others, and as a reminder to myself.

Clodagh Chapman