International critics get lost outburst

The new president of the Critics’ Circle, Charles Spencer, pours scorn from a low height on the idea that critics should welcome new ideas or practices in the theatre, or that they should respect the dignity of artists.

I suppose coming from someone who thought that Trevor Nunn deserved a good kicking — such witty intemperateness! — or whose heart sinks at the very mention of the name of Katie Mitchell we should not be surprised.

And I’m half in sympathy with his dislike of the suggestion that critics are either part of the theatre commmunity, or should even sign up to a manifesto pledging support to the art form.

But, really, have you ever heard of a football writer who was not totally dedicated to his subject, or a political writer who was not interested in new ideas of political theory, or a gardening correspondent who closed his eyes to the advances in new rose breeding techniques or the untold possibilites of ericaceous compost?”

It’s not a critic’s job to be nice,” harrumphs Spencer in his Telegraph column today, and no-one’s going to disagree with him there, however brave and independent-minded he thinks he sounds.

But I don’t think many people who read theatre reviews want their critics to be immune to the claims on their attention of new ideas and new practices.

That would be akin to expecting your GP not to have read up on the latest properties and side effects of certain vaccines.

Of course, there is another argument which goes – well, these artistic johnnies are a corrupt load of old posers anyway and have been given far too easy a ride for far too long by a bunch of self-serving critical johnnies and jessies in the very circle of which Spencer is president.

So maybe it’s now Spencer’s brief to strip the circle of any serious interest in theatre whatsoever. I don’t think he’d get much support, though, from the dance or music sections. And most of his predecessors in the post must be turning in their untended and forgotten graves.

His remarks are prompted by a code of practice issued by the International Association of Theatre Critics but I can’t imagine this curious body of mostly academic and peripheral people would imagine they would influence journalistic critics anywhere, let alone in Britain, where a defiant, no-nonsense, “we know what the public likes” sort of attitude has prevailed and prospered since time immemorial.

But it is slightly disconcerting to find the overall president of their organisation dissociating himself quite so vehemently from their largely innocent, well-meaning and theoretical musings. Some of these things might be worth having said, for instance, in countries like Bulgaria and South Korea where the opportunity for free speech is regarded with less casual, automatic  assumptions than it is here.

The IATC, too, is not quite as moribund and daft an organisation as Spencer thinks. There are critics in France, Germany and Eastern Europe who know more about the theatre than all the British critics lumped together, though admittedly they don’t have all that much exposure to the farces of Ray Cooney or the delights of Ken Dodd.

But the idea that they are a bunch of blinkered blatherers living off free trips and subsidised hospitality is not quite right, either. Their conferences, Spencer says, are held in the grimmer cities of Eastern Europe; why not Hawaii or Thailand?

This has something to do with the relationship between cultural tradition, critical practice and academic links, and nothing to do with setting the discussions in as grey and cheerless an environment as possible. And who says, anyway, there’s no fun to be had in Warsaw, Belgrade, or Riga? Perhaps Spencer should get out more.

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