[img]http://hits.guardian.co.uk/b/ss/guardiangu-feeds/1/H.20.3/49511?ns=guardian&pageName=So+your+play+got+bad+reviews%3F+Don%27t+blame+the+critics+%7C+Michael+Simkins%3AArticle%3A1312018&ch=Stage&c3=GU.co.uk&c4=Theatre%2CStage%2CCulture+section&c6=Michael+Simkins&c7=09-Nov-30&c8=1312018&c9=Article&c10=Blogpost&c11=Stage&c13=&c25=Theatre+blog&c30=content&h2=GU%2FStage%2Fblog%2FTheatre+blog[/img]Writer Timberlake Wertenbaker made headlines by claiming that critics were too drunk to review her play. Maybe it's time to change the system
The debate as to whether press nights are a good thing or not is back in the headlines. This old chestnut is to the theatre community what a discussion on capital punishment is to Radio 5 live or the exploits of Katie Price to the red tops – a reliable old standby, always in the bottom drawer. The latest brouhaha was ignited by suspicions that some of the critics reviewing Timberlake Wertenbaker's new play at the Arcola had supped a little too well at an awards junket earlier in the day, and may not have been in a fit state to review.
Even beyond the details of this case – some critics have hit back, accusing Wertenbaker of sour grapes – the wider debate is still worth having. Someone once estimated that the amount of stress suffered by actors on a press night is roughly akin to that of being in a minor car shunt; and indeed, with so much riding on the performance, it becomes an unrepresentative experience for both cast and critics.
Once you've divvied up the seats between critics, producers, backers, relatives, friends, agents and rival actors who've come along to see if they've missed out on something, there's hardly any room for the average punter. Audiences are either friends or foes, desperate for the play to either succeed or fail. Nourished only by forced enthusiasm from one section of the stalls and detachment from the other, a production that went well the night before – and will, no doubt, do so again tomorrow – becomes mangled. Laughs mysteriously disappear, fluency is replaced by force, and the result is often far removed from what it says on the tin.
But, of course, none of that is the fault of reviewers. I recently crossed the line myself, albeit briefly, appearing as a critic on Radio Four's Saturday Review. And at the risk of saying something I might live to regret, I ended up with a good deal more sympathy for critics as a result. Consider: they have to turn up night after night to see endless productions – some good, some bad, many inconsequential – and then try to distil their views. Sometimes, if they're on an overnight deadline, they have just a few precious minutes between curtain down and their deadline for the next day's paper. Often, they have seen a play many times already; just how funny can the sight of a man wearing yellow stockings really be once you've witnessed it more than twice?
Moreover, critics usually go to the theatre alone, and often don't allow themselves the luxury of a glass of something in the interval lest they be accused of being unprofessional. Heads down, pen flicking hopefully across a spiral notepad, they can cut solitary, sorry figures. I once had a friend (and press officer for the production concerned) regretfully request that I leave the foyer immediately, lest I bump into a departing cast member. "I'm afraid criticism is a double-edged sword," she explained. I slunk out like a criminal.
So by all means let's experiment with the custom of Broadway and have our critics view proceedings over a three- or four-day period. But let's also acknowledge that, more often than not, the majority of reviewers get their verdicts correct. Good plays will normally transcend the farrago of press nights, while those that can't are often flawed in some more fundamental regard. Better the pearl-handled revolver than the lingering death.
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Guardian: So your play got bad reviews? Don't blame the critics | Michael Simkins
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