Thursday, 15 October 2015


Over the past year or so, I have been very rude about Matt Trueman's criticism. Whether or not I meant what I said, I was trying to engage him in a flame war. I hoped the sight of two critics hurling abuse at each other might encourage public interest in what is, unfortunately, a moribund medium. 

I acknowledge that I probably overdid it, and apologise for a series of blogs that were boorish and played up my repressed, and atavistic, macho tendencies. Besides, Trueman has too much dignity and hasn't risen to my bait. 

It's time to take him seriously, then.

In a recent article, he ponders why a play that didn't grab him when he saw it (Simon Stephens' Song from Far Away) has been lingering around in his mind. He recognises his enthusiasm for feeling and emotions in theatre, and quotes John Lahr

"Part of the theatre's big magic is its ability to exhilarate; it has the power to put us beside ourselves, to banish gravity, to call out of us our most buried feelings, to make the moment unforgettable, to kill Time. That's its joy ride."

Aside from my suspicion of theatre that exhilarates (if I wanted real thrills, I'd take a date to Platinum Lace and see what happens...), I share some of Trueman's passion for theatrical passion. But I wonder whether his conclusion is a little weak.

the best shows - those that really make you feel - might not be the most memorable. They might not be the shows that really stay with you. How does criticism account for that?

The 'best shows' may not be the ones that make me feel, but the ones that make me think. Criticism accounts for this by being stuck in its own narrative...

That is to say: writing a review just after seeing a show encourages a way of responding to theatre that is immediate and impressionistic. Shows with the big bangs, the emotive content, the high drama, are going to come out better than the more reflective shows, which unfold their brilliance over time.

Doesn't Brecht talk about this? The ideal spectator is not, for him, enthusiastic but slightly detached - smoking a cigar, even.

I'm not even sure that 'best' is a valuable way of describing performance. Of course, when critics get together, or reviews are aggregated, there are certain performances that can be called the most successful. But as Trueman points out, different plays operate in different ways and a reflective play isn't easily comparable to a spectacular.

Criticism, when it can't account for something, reveals how it is broken and not fit for task. Because I can't bear to leave an article with a wistful questions, I'll offer a solution.

A critique is not a single event but a process, to be revisited over time, if appropriate.

Rejecting the idea of a rigid star rating would allow a more nuanced response. 


  1. As we've probably discussed countless times (on and offline), the idea of 'best' performance is dangerous enough already. For example, how could we compare the commercial success of a Broadway musical (Dirty Dancing, Priscilla, Cats...) to things like David Hughes or Nederland Dans Theater? Then again, I guess the audience of the former goes in knowing (more or less) what they're going to get - and the point of that kind of thing is to relive a certain experience? The latter two might even be considered extremely successful (in terms of audience and income) for their genre, but pitting them against a more mainstream (or pop?) cultural event is weird. Even if all three got five stars, what would that even mean? Is 'best' supposed to be some indication of cultural significance?

  2. (And yes, I'll stop contaminating your comments section, heheh)