If you’ve got nothing nice to say about theatre, then… um… well…

Back in February, a regional theatre whom I follow on Twitter retweeted a throughly nonplussed 2.5 star review of one of their shows. This seemed not so much ‘odd’ as ‘batshit crazy’ at the time, and I assumed it was just a mistake – born out by the fact that that particular retweet isn’t on the theatre’s timeline any more.

And yet. And yet… the idea that a theatre had implemented a policy of promoting ALL reviews of a show, no matter how negative they were, was very interesting.

A few days later, the Telegraph‘s Tim Walker did this:

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…and the Almeida, to their credit, took him at his word and retweeted it.

The review was (for me) perfectly valid and incisive in some parts and less so in others. It’s an interesting read, albeit that it originally contained the bizarre assertion that Orwell was ‘the Left’s favourite playwright’ (which to their credit, the Telegraph very promptly rectified), and Tim also seems to use ‘thoughtcrime’ in completely the wrong sense to what it actually means: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thoughtcrime.

HOWEVER, I thought his approach was genuinely quite ballsy and brought up a key problem in British theatre – what are you to do if you don’t like something that’s popular?

 

We live in a free, accepting society, right? One of the beautiful things about it is that we can flounce into the public domain whenever we like and let off steam and we won’t get labour-camped or shot or anything. Just look at Twitter – a bewilderingly diverse range of opinions on everything from politics to sport to theatre. Yes, I said ‘theatre’ and ‘bewilderingly diverse range of opinions’ in the same sentence – is that a problem?

Well, yes, basically. Sometimes it really really can be. I’m sure we’ve all felt at times that there’s a suffocatingly supportive orthodoxy, a tyranny of encouragement for average art which says nothing to us, nor can we imagine it saying anything to anyone at all. Pick a Twitter hashtag for a show, any one you like. Tally up positive vs negative comments. I bet negative gets caned mercilessly every single time. Why is that? Is it Twitter’s innate left-wing, arts-friendly bias? I’ve personally witnessed far more polarised discussions about music, film, art and TV than I’ve ever seen about theatre. I suppose Vicky Jones’ The One (of which a bit more later) is a recent ‘kind-of-exception’, and even that tends to be a fairly orthodox ‘is it a 3/5 or 4/5 show?’ – which in terms of greater industry importance is a bit like discussing who’s going to make it to the 2014-2015 Europa League.

Imagine you went to see a show. Let’s assume also you hadn’t made the schoolkid error of broadcasting your excitement in advance (e.g. “On route [sic] to #12YearsASlaveTheNakedMusical 😀 #inspired #lovetheatre” or somesuch). Let’s assume it surprised you by being a pile of shit. How do you react to this? If #12YearsASlaveTheNakedMusical lived up to all your expectations then you’d be all over their unwiedly hashtag (and, most likely, ephemeral and ill-advised @12YrsNudeMusical Twitter account) like an endorphin-fuelled ant-plague. You’d be giving your opinion to support a piece of art that you’re excited about. Why then does it feel ‘different’, ‘weird’ or even outright ‘wrong’ to deliver feedback that is less than wholly positive, that isn’t any less honest and, if done well, can be sufficiently constructive to help the show (which you could still be excited about) develop in the future? Why would we rather strangle ourselves with our own actual lips than risk looking unsupportive?

For my money, it’s because theatre has a bit of a messed-up relationship with power. There seems to be a *very* big gap between the two broad power categories of ‘Limited-to-Nil’ and ‘Upwards of fairly considerable’. Two recent examples:

Firstly, a writer of what I would consider the latter category tweeted ‘DMs scare me. Say it out loud! Why do we have to go to the corner to talk??!’

I’m not saying that Twitter direct messages don’t have their own sub-universe of of bullshit politics, and of course I know nothing of the particular context which gave rise to this, but I might answer: ‘Well, you’re quite a well-known writer who’s had a lot of recent success. You can say a lot closer to ‘anything you like’ and notionally worry less about how it will affect your career. Have you genuinely got to where you are right now by openly speaking your mind ALL of the time? Because lots of us don’t feel like we can afford to do that, or indeed anything remotely like it’.

The second was when a critic I know engaged in a passionate discussion with the Artistic Director of a theatre about a play that they hadn’t enjoyed. It was a lively and informed conversation, with precisely neither side resorting to ‘YO MOMMA’ at any point. Well done, humans. But much as it showed the ADs’ enthusiasm for the project, it seemed more prickly and defensive than it ought to have done, especially since the critic hadn’t by any means hated the show, just seen a lot of scope of improvement. It wasn’t so much a perfectly reasonable defence of the right-to-fail as a refusal to accept that failure might have even occurred. It was troubling.

I mean, it doesn’t matter how skilled we are, we all have a magnificent underlying ability to be completely wrong. I’m a QPR supporter; nobody is more aware of their own laughable folly than I am. I also use post-it notes upside down because I’ve convinced myself that that’s how they’re *supposed* to work: IMAG0312

As you can see, I think I’m a genius for discovering that, but I could just be a total idiot for not realising the rest of the world already does it. I guess I’m about to find out…

I have immense respect for anyone who can come out and say ‘yeah, to be honest, I was totally wrong about that and it didn’t work’. Failure, as Tom Baker’s Fourth Doctor once said, is one of the basic freedoms. It’s how scientific method works. I also believe that it goes hand-in-hand with the freedom to call out failure when you perceive it, provided of course you can back that up on some rational level or other. I’m not going to go on about what’s rational or not-rational when talking about what theatre you like, as that would be insane, but I strongly believe it has virtually nothing to do with how much you know about theatre.

So, you don’t like a show? What do you actually do about it? The way I see it you can:

i) Be enthusiastic regardless and resign yourself to a lifetime of breezy, backstabbing deception or constant professional discomfort, whichever floats your boat.

ii) Maintain TOTAL UNCOMPROMISING SILENCE on the subject, as if by doing so you can erase it from history altogether, like a passive Stalin.

iii) Obfuscate by focusing on some aspects at the expense of others – ‘it had a lovely set’ is a classic.

iv) Just, erm, I dunno, tell the truth?! I might be horribly naive (remember, I’m a QPR supporter), but I’d like to think that even if I disliked a show by someone I knew personally and really liked then we’d have a good enough relationship that I could tell them. Obviously I’m responsible for not being a total dick about exactly when and how I do this, but that ought to be possible, it really ought. I’d also like to think that if you don’t know me and I didn’t enjoy your show that you wouldn’t dismiss all my opinions forever as being lousy and ill-informed, provided of course that I’m not a total dick about it. Naturally, I follow all my own sage advice to the letter ALL of the time, thanks for asking…*

I realise that, by calling for more reflective negativity on Twitter, I might sound like I’ve lost my mind. I don’t think I have. I just think that critique gets stifled by cultures like this, to the extent that when it does come out, it’s more likely to do so in a way that isn’t wrong per se, but is unhelpful and inarticulate enough to defeat what it’s trying to achieve. The same could be said of praise – if it’s ubiquitous it starts to lose the ability to express itself, like a recent review of The One that three times referred to it as a ‘Drywrite show’, and not once as the Verity Bargate Award winner, which was why it had been produced in the first place. An altogether different version of this happened to me once when I asked an open question about why a show had been directed the way it had, which was then retweeted (without comment) by a member of the cast. #Unity.

Assuming I’m not just full of nonsense about this, why does it happen? Well, I don’t think anyone does it because they enjoy it. I think it’s because too much power in the industry is held by too few humans, and like all humans they have egos and get defensive about things they’ve made and loved. Add to this the fact that it’s perceived as a glamourous industry but is actually shockingly ill/un-paid much of the time, meaning that a lot of people are constantly desperate for work and/or frantically trying to move up the ladder – someone I know put it very well when they said of a show I didn’t like: ‘Really? But everyone I know who wants to work with [THE COMPANY THAT PRODUCED IT] seemed to really enjoyed it’. I don’t hold it against anyone who feels like this – it’s an indictment of the industry, not you. And God knows when so many organisations and theatres are losing funding, a ‘siege mentality’ of pep is understandable. Understandable, but not helpful.

* – another semi-nuclear, nipple-gripple-so-hard-their-chest-turns-into-a-tablecloth option is stone-cold passive aggression of the pious ‘if you’ve got nothing nice to say…’ school – something like ‘Well, that was definitely a play that was on/that got produced/that somebody wrote’

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