Saturday, November 26, 2011


I've been thinking about critics lately.

The first two assignments my students have to hand in on the course I am teaching this term are book reviews. This might sound easy: it is not. The work they need to produce should be well written, well argued and succinct - the word limit is a very strict five hundred words maximum. Only a very few of them asked before they began their work what the role of the critic in a review is. This is a question which attracts different answers, and over the last few years there have been discussions - in theatre and literature - about who should review work, how, and for what purpose.

On Wednesday evening some friends and I went to see the new production of Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin at English National Opera directed by Deborah Warner, whose production of School for Scandal at the Barbican in early summer was badly reviewed by some (not all) critics - to which Warner responded, and a low key, short lived - but media inflated - 'spat' occurred when two critics took this response very poorly and then themselves responded... are you bored already? What always seems to come out of things is an air of critics in one camp and writers, artists, actors, theatre directors - or whatever other artists I have left out - in another, with no real dialogue occurring between them: critics - and the newspapers they write for - do not want to change the way they do things, which leaves everybody feeling frustrated. Warner - I should declare now that I have great respect for her work and have yet to see anything directed by her in the theatre or opera house which I have disliked - seems to have been attempting (I may be entirely wrong about this of course) to get some sort of discussion going for a while, at least since late 2009 when I heard her on BBC Radio 4's current affairs programme PM talking about critics and criticism and role/responsibility of the critic - but consistently the response to this from senior theatre critics has been patronising and condescending if nothing else. Which, for me, is disappointing, because I feel very strongly that this is a discussion which should be had - there must be a way of properly jump-starting this conversation and preventing it from becoming some sort of pathetic newspaper argument. Before my students hand in their next review I will be encouraging them to think about the role of the critic, or rather think about what the responsibility of the critic is, and what they - as writers, critics, readers, and audience members - want from a review. 

The production of Onegin is stunningly beautiful (the lighting alone was worth the price of the ticket) and without a doubt the best thing I've seen all year - I would go again every night before the run ends if I could, but I can't so I hope it returns to the Coliseum in the future. There were six of us, each enjoyed it, but from different points of view - at the first interval we had a great discussion about the date the production had settled upon - the story is an 1820s one, but this production was firmly rooted in 1890, and our discussion ranged from Jane Austen to Chekhov via wars, revolutions, 'The New Woman' and Powell and Pressburger's The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (one of my favorite films, but it entered our discussion because of the duel in both that film and Onegin) . If you want you can listen to a live recording of it via the BBC Radio 3 iPlayer, but I really do urge you to go an see it if you can.  

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