Since I first seriously reviewed an album about 36 years ago (the George Harrison triple set All Things Must Pass) I guess I have written about somewhere in excess of maybe 6000 records/CDs/tapes etc -- and of course I have heard many, many more than that. Some people are well-read, I am well . . . There must be a word for it.
In that time I have also reviewed hundreds of books, maybe a few hundred or so movies and DVDs, written about quite a number of restaurants and bars, and even done a few theatre reviews.
In short, I have become pretty aware of the role of the critic.
Which is why I read with interest the article in last Saturday’s Weekend Herald (an excellent edition incidentally) about the Royal Shakespeare Company’s banning of critics from a production.
The production in question is their King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen in theatre’s most challenging role. It is the one coming here soon.
What the Observer article was saying was this: here was a much anticipated production by a great company and with a real crowd-pulling star in the ranks -- and yet there had been no reviews. The director Trevor Nunn had “imposed a complete ban on critics attending the play until May 31, when it will have only three weeks left to run,” according to the article.
The RSC’s argument was that one of the leading ladies had dropped out of the production because of a hurt knee and her role was being taken by an understudy. This is every director’s nightmare -- the actress was to have played Goneril and was injured on the eve of press night -- and so you can have every sympathy. But banning critics?
The rationale was the RSC would now only be able to give “a limited account of the production”. Some critics complained -- but they also complied. No reviews have appeared in the major dailies.
It is here you start to wonder, just what the role of the critics is: are critics responsible to the theatre company or to their own readers? Whose interests are they there to serve? I’ve always argued the latter.
As a critic my first and perhaps only responsibility is to the reading public, not to the musicians who make an album, a theatre company or the artist.
Because of that I don’t have much time for obscure writing as I think it masks honest opinion. At a panel discussion at Elam once the Herald’s art writer Terry McNamara and I spoke about the need to communicate clearly with the reader, another writer said she felt she had no responsibility to communicate with readers. Weird. I looked at her stuff and found it wilfully polysyllabic, drowned in coded language and absurd art-speak. It was arrogant and exclusive writing designed -- I thought -- to promote the writer’s career and profile rather than being there to illuminate or critique. It is also bloody easy to parody.
So, the role of the critic?
Let us get rid of a few shibboleths here. “But it is just one person’s opinion.” I agree. But it is one person’s informed opinion, and that is the difference. Critics, by virtue of having heard/seen/eaten/etc more have wider frames of reference and bring that to bear, mostly intuitively, in what they write.
Artists often wail that they don’t mind criticism but it should be “constructive criticism” whatever they mean by that. But a critic isn’t there to tell an artist what to do, that way madness lies. I used to have to point to many young musicians that if they wanted critical comment about their musical direction or whatever that this was something which should be done by themselves, their manager, record company and so forth. The reviewer who gets the album in the post can only deal with the artefact in hand. You critique what you hear or see, not what you would have liked to have heard or seen.
Can critics be wrong? Of course. I have been “wrong” many times -- and by that I mean I have perhaps been unduly praiseworthy or unduly harsh. But when people have complained that I was too harsh I generally mention that never once in my very long career had any musician called me and say that I was wrong because I had been too generous towards them. I always found that interesting.
Musicians would sometimes send me albums asking me to comment on them, but only review them if I liked them. Huh?
Which bring us to the case of the RSC and the banning of critics: I have no idea how things work in Britain but I would have thought that if any theatre company here tried to impose a critical silence because they thought their production need a bit of break they would be told with absolute certainty what the critics thought about that.
It has been tried a few times but here’s my two-cents worth: the second some paying customer walks in the door to see a show it is fair game.
At the Herald we would sometimes hear that a theatre company -- and it was always theatre companies -- didn’t want reviewers there on the first night to give them a chance to bed in the performance. Well sorry, but for me when the curtain goes up on the first night and people have forked over their entrance fee then the production deserves to be reviewed.
As one who always reads reviews, even when they are about arts which I have little interest in, I admire many New Zealand critics. They do a difficult and often thankless job in a small community where backbiting and personal attacks are endemic (Yep, I’ve had the drunken abuse in bars, comes with the turf).
Speaking to some journalism students recently I posed this question: let us say you are lucky enough to get a job at the Herald and you get a call from a small theatre company putting on a show at Silo. They want some publicity and your editor says, “Yeah, go for it”.
You go there and you meet the director and it turns out one of the cast is someone you knew from school. You do a nice interview during the course of which the director tells you how they took out a mortgage on their house to get the show on stage -- so they really need full houses for the season. They are appreciative of you taking the time to come and speak with them. You leave on good terms, write your piece and they ring and thank you for it later.
The day before they open however your editor says, “Hey, we should review that show. You know all about, why don’t you go along?”
And so you do. And it is bloody awful.
What are you going to do?
Are you going to be true to yourself and your readers knowing that you might kneecap their season, and piss off people you actually liked?
No, it’s not easy being a critic. But someone has to do it -- unless of course the Royal Shakespeare Company says you can’t.
Oh, and apropos of nothing: there is a swag of new music posted at Music From Elsewhere. Enjoy.