Criticism? “Darling, you must be joking, you’re not here to ‘criticise’…”
In theatre, the relationship between the reviewer and the reviewed has always been an interesting one. Writing for other culture sections, you know you’re safe. After all, when was the last time anybody made a snide comment about the latest Hollywood blockbuster, only to have to explain themselves to Tom Cruise at the Bridge smoking area? If that ever happened, you’d probably count yourself lucky…
But you probably wouldn’t count yourself so lucky if, having slated an aspiring masterpiece at the BT, you were to run into that same cast to whom you smiled so sweetly as you were handed the complementary ticket last Friday. It is this that distinguishes the relationship between the press and the stage at Oxford: sooner or later everybody knows everybody else. So how do the bitchy critics and the self-indulgent thesps coexist?
I’ve worked on the two sides of the divide and it seems to me this coexistence can lead to one of two extremes. In the first extreme there is no tension because the reviewer is complicit with the cast regardless of his/her real opinion. So, it’s all wonderful and inspired darling. In the other extreme this tension is a state of war: thesps are seen as the sort of people who look in the mirror and imagine Tom Hiddleston or Emma Watson looking back, whilst reviewers are seen as sad, lonely, English students, too talentless and too spineless to get on the stage. You need only see the fury vented in the private Facebook group of a production after a bitchy review to see what I mean.
So why the two relationship extremes? To put it bluntly, the images the thesp and the critic have of each other are themselves extreme: from the view of the exhaustingly self-obsessed thesp to the either totally ignorant or totally self-important critic. In reality of course, not all thesps wear shirts that look like adverts for a garden center and not all reviewers spend their time decoding Ulysses in search of a friend. But the potential clash of these caricatures creates the tension that polarizes their relationship into one of either perfect harmony or mutual resentment. It’s as if both groups share the motto ‘either you love me or you don’t and given we see each other all the time, it had better be the former’. But perhaps both groups have some grounds for their view of the other.
Consider the scene that greets the reviewer moments after arriving at a preview. The marketing manager is having severe palpitations whilst the director is trying to give a philosophical justification for why the third dancer from the right was half a quaver out of time. The leading man/lady despairs over not bringing along Camus in this time of existential doubt; “am I good enough…”. All the while, the reviewer probably misses most of this and looks on impassively waiting for something intentionally theatrical to happen. A gesture suggesting anything less than total understanding by the reviewer is then felt to be a malicious affront. The truth is, the reviewer doesn’t have a clue one way or another about the cast’s hypersensitive deliberations. Maybe, there is some truth in the thesp stereotype…
Then again, maybe there is also some truth in that of the critic. Next time you settle into your seat at the theatre, look out for the one in the blazer seated in the front row. Observe the profound self-satisfaction as he/she eases themselves into their chair and languorously produces the Moleskine notebook. Fountain pen at the ready, the slightest stab of a smile betrays the poker face as the dagger hovers over the matted paper. The arguments of insidious intent course through their veins and a writhe of pleasure unsettles the cool before the knife plunges. That putdown, transcribed from the depths of his/her self-satisfaction and into the hands of the Oxford readership will have bled the hearts of many an aspiring star.
In reality perhaps the drama world isn’t a Mexican standoff between the egos either side of the curtain. And what few shots are fired, resound only within the stage world. Understandably most people just don’t care. Which is why the stage section exists mostly as a sort of agony aunt column for actors “yes darling you really were a dream in Macbeth” (and with the miracle that is CTRL f, the actors don’t even have to read the whole review anymore). Yet a tension does exist and its existence and how we deal with it says a lot about Oxford’s aspiring (and potentially wild) West End.
The result, is a sort of implicit pact: the critics get to use all the big words from their critical theory textbook to write essays that have nothing to do with the plays they watch. In return the thesps get to stage whatever they like, however they like, while taking lots of black and white pictures of themselves doing it. It’s a pact that keeps both sets of egos happy but never brings them into conflict. Thesps can be ridiculous and critics snide, but by contriving mutually assured admiration they avoid mutually assured destruction. Is this peace worth the price? Perhaps a better solution is that we all stop taking ourselves so seriously. However, having suggested this to Tom Cruise at Bridge, his reaction suggests this might be mission impossible.