Theatre reviewing is a responsible job – and it requires care

Theatre critics are a vital point of mediation between the stage and the audience – and they must do their job with care and discernment. Tom E. Lewis onstage at the Malthouse in 2014. AAP Image/Jeff Busby

Is there any job other than theatre critic where so little knowledge can carry so much weight? If you are a bad artist, the evidence is there in the bad art you create. Everyone who sees your work will have a view and, unless they’re your mum, tell you about it. There’s nowhere to hide, especially in theatre. Our worst nightmares have us naked on stage. No wonder. It’s the ultimate test. Either you’ve got it, or you haven’t.

By contrast, it can take years to realise that a theatre critic has no idea what they are talking about. The opinion game, as Socrates discerned, is different from the knowledge game, and the mark of the fool is not ignorance but blustering self-confidence. “At least I am greater than he to this small extent,” he threw back at his Athenian prosecutor, “that I do not think I know what I do not know”.

The first bona fide theatre reviewers were Leigh Hunt and William Hazlitt, writing for the Examiner and the Morning Chronicle in the early 19th century. No doubt there was plenty of opinion before this time, but these two men established a vein of reflection that in integrity, scope and passion for the medium constituted the beginning of modern theatre criticism.

Hazlitt’s combination of expansiveness of spirit and acute intelligence is particularly compelling. He observed:

The stage is an arduous profession, requiring so many essential excellences and accidental advantages that though it is an honour and a happiness to succeed in it, it is only a misfortune and not a disgrace to fail in it.

Hazlitt saw that theatre is more than a form of animated literature. Through his reviews we can retrospectively appreciate the genius of actors such as Edmund Kean, Mary Siddons and the Kembles.

The critics of note who came after Hunt and Hazlitt – George Bernard Shaw, Max Beerbom and Kenneth Tynan in the UK; George Nathan, Stark Young and Eric Bentley in the US – took theatre criticism further away from the crude assignment of praise and blame, in effect creating a new mode of public consciousness.

But the danger of theatre reviews lapsing back into product endorsement – what American critic Robert Brustein dubbed “Himalaya criticism” after Danny Kaye’s famous rejoinder about the eponymous mountain range (“loved him, hated her”) – is a constant one.

In a situation of cultural surplus, with media outlets only a click of a finger away, opinion can trump knowledge by making the critic’s personality, not the art form, the centre of attention.

It’s a delicate balance. Critics have tastes, and tastes are what theatre caters for. Yet good criticism also embodies deeply-considered values, and it is these which can erode in an age of garish self-display and disposable everything.

Peter Craven’s cruel attack last month on Marion Potts, the departing director of the Malthouse Theatre, Melbourne, is an example of criticism going off the rails. Craven accused Potts of turning the Malthouse into an “eclectic circus tent for showing every variety of progressivist, avant-garde, meta theatre of the kind that tilts in the direction of post-modern song and dance.”

I offer my judgement of his judgement based on two qualifications. First, as I have been publicly critical of the Malthouse program myself, I can hardly be regarded as a company claquer. Second, as a theatre historian I have to read hundreds of old reviews – including many by Peter Craven.

Behind the cranky Anglophone we get today was once a younger, finer mind. Always culturally conservative, but intelligent and sharp-eyed. The 1980s are some time ago, however, and over the last few years Craven has been a wayward figure, obeisant in front of overseas stars (his 2005 review of Kevin Spacey’s Richard III was so over-the-top at first I thought it was a joke), while kicking the talent closer to home like a horse with a gammy leg.

But why should we care what Peter Craven writes? It’s a free country, a free press. Don’t read his column if you don’t like what he’s got to say. Or read it and forget about it. Either way, stop complaining. He’s entitled to his opinion just like anyone else etc.

What crap. Theatre reviewing is a responsible job. It is not simply a view among views. It is a public judgement pronounced with discernment and care. That’s the Hunt-Hazlitt tradition.

For what happens when this power is misused you can watch Burt Lancaster in The Sweet Smell of Success where, as New York columnist JJ Hunsecker, he demolishes hopes and careers like a Greek deity sinking boats in the Aegean. It is appropriate we hold critics to account, that we ask what social benefit they are supposed to provide and whether, individually, they actually provide it.

Craven’s description of Pott’s regime at the Malthouse was neither fair nor illuminating. It was a serve of prejudice and peeve, reflecting the confusion of someone faced with a theatrical sensibility he neither likes nor understands.

Anyone can pick out individual productions, as Craven does, to create a discrediting impression. It’s like recording your bad days and screening them as a film of your whole life. More than 70 shows were presented during the four years Potts was Artistic Director. Many won awards and/ or attracted audiences.

Furthermore, the Malthouse is a company committed to staging new work. It isn’t supposed to succeed the whole time. It is supposed to take risks and, dare I say it, piss off people like Craven who cleave to a conventional vision of the art form.

It is ten years since Michael Kantor rebranded Playbox Theatre as the Malthouse, moving away from a programming style that Craven clearly misses but which sent the company broke. Different kinds of artists appear in its program than formerly.

Is that a problem? Not really. It can cause problems, but that’s another matter. The playwrights Craven identifies with his signature chalky flourish as excluded from the Malthouse’s seasons are important. But they are a sin of omission, not commission. They demand proper critical consideration, insight into both what the company is trying to do, and what it should be trying to do.

What is not required, and Marion Potts does not merit, is a reduction of the company’s promise and problems down to a single personality who is then verbally flogged. This is a failed response to a complex situation, insulting both to the artist in question and to artists in general.

Does it make the situation worse that Potts is one of the few female artistic directors of a major performing arts organisation? As an equal opportunity vituperator no doubt Craven would find the question sexist. So let’s just say it doesn’t make it any better.

Australian theatre, Australian audiences and Australian theatre criticism deserve more.