Skating on thin ice…

Written originally for The Public Reviews Blog

“You’re probably in the wrong job if you want artists to like you. Get some real friends” cinematizer – Jonathan Jones On Art Blog: 19thDecember 2009

It is a fact universally acknowledged that a critic and an artist cannot be friends.  So why did I believe that I would be able to skate along such thin ice gracefully?

Maybe it’s been out of necessity. If the theatre world is small, the fringe theatre world could fit on the head of a pin. In December, whilst feeling it a tad harsh, I had to agree with cinematizer’s rather caustic dressing down of Jonathan Jones.  But I was also pushed to query whether I was therefore supposed to throw all my creative friends out with the bath water?

Whilst I continue to relish the many bar stool conversations I have with these artists, recent events have starkly brought home to me the dangers inherent in such seemingly harmless conversations.

I want it to be as intrinsic to my role as a writer to support theatre makers through a process of constructive discussion, as it is to critique their finalised pieces. But it appears that the objectivity required for both prohibits such chummy camaraderie.

If I was to have made one, my recent mistake seems to have come from this on-stage/off-stage mix up with a company; an encouraging and hopeful discussion at a workshop level leading to a genuine disappointment in final performance with a less than glowing write up.  I woke up the next day to a reactionary and blisteringly personal attack with an accusation that my motives were spurious and my review a betrayal of some previous commitment to the cause.

It was no such thing.  But I thank the emotional instigator of these claims for helping me to realise that I can no longer review work that I have spoken to friends about.  However objective they claim to be, they see their art as they would their child and turn into angry mothers when their offspring is challenged.

So can a critic ever be an active part of the world that they document?

At the recent Devoted and DisgruntledMatt Trueman hosted a discussion on the role of the critic.  It was decided that the crusty stereotype of a reviewer as a gatekeeper of ‘great art’ was crumbling, but what was to take its place? We speculated hopefully about a more integrated role within the world we document, with Maddy Costa commenting that she now found it more fulfilling to write articles and interviews on artists, than simply reviews that rated them.

This rang true with my continued interest in this position of an outside eye within a creative process, of being more of a central part of the theatrical world.  But I’m beginning to believe that it may not be as easy as I had hoped.

The pull to try and so so is a strong one that has drawn some notable names into its path; Nicholas de Jongh’s playwriting (he left the Evening Standard but it has always been questioned if his peer’s praise was genuine), Mark Shenton’s foray into producing, even Michael Billington’s attempts at direction (albeit in a workshop environment) are only a few recent examples, although the infamous Kenneth Tynan also fell for this trap.  However, it seems to me that after this scarring experience the lines between critics and theatrical creatives must be clearly drawn.

And so it seems that sadly my opportunities for bar stool discussion are about to dry up. In a world full of close-knit clans, however initially welcoming they are, it appears the critic will always be the cuckoo in the nest.

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