This was commissioned by Simon Bowes to be presented at the symposium Hold Everything Dear: Performance, Politics and John Berger happening later today, as part of a trio of responses to that title by Something Other, the website I co-make with Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin. So really this belongs there, but my lovely friend David pointed out that I haven't posted on here in aeons, also this week is the seventh anniversary of Deliq and this writing reflects on how and why it started, so it makes sense to cross-post. Anyway: another polish of the pebble on which I think about how I do theatre criticism. Thank you for reading.
Before I read any Berger – and I was late coming to him – I read an interview with him by Nicholas Wroe, published in the Guardian in April 2011, in which he talked about his “decision to abandon painting to write full time”. Wroe quotes him as saying: “Painting is something that you need to do if not every day, then certainly most days. It is almost like being a pianist, if you stop you lose something. The phrase 'Sunday painter' is not often a compliment. I was attracted to the novel form because I was attracted to the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour, their destinies and choices. The things that can't be schematised. The challenge is to try not just to explain the mystery, but to ensure the mystery is shared and doesn't remain isolated.”
In April 2011 I felt a shift or a seep or a click in my brain, perhaps all three motions at once: my second child had recently turned two, the first was now four, and this movement inside – a synaptic jolt, the electricity surging, or simply turning back on – meant I could think clearly again.
And so I started thinking out loud, otherwise called blogging. I wanted to write about theatre in untrammelled ways not afforded to me by my day job in journalism. At the time – in many ways still – bloggers were looked down on by professional critics: you couldn't, for instance, become a member of the Critics' Circle Drama Section as someone who self-published. Bloggers were criticism's Sunday painters. Becoming one created, for me, a new possibility: in unprofessionalism there was space to think about criticism as art.
I have a difficult relationship with the word art because in my early 20s I knew I'd never have the audacity or tenacity to be an artist – specifically painter – and that's partly how I ended up writing about theatre. And perhaps I still wouldn't be using the word now but for two things: working with Mary Paterson, and a passage Berger wrote in The Shape of a Pocket, describing the relationship between the painter and the object of their gaze:
“The impulse to paint comes neither from observation nor from the soul (which is probably blind) but from an encounter... When a painting is lifeless it is the result of the painter not having the nerve to get close enough for a collaboration to start. … The modern illusion concerning painting … is that the artist is a creator. Rather he is a receiver. What seems like creation is the act of giving form to what he has received.”
What a beautiful way of thinking about writing about theatre: a collaboration, with the critic coming close enough to receive, and giving form to that received.
Blogging shaped a pocket in which I could give different forms to writing about performance, not only treating the form of the “review” as plastic, malleable, open to invention, but through that attempting a different kind of collaboration with its makers. I'm still finding the words for how to describe that relationship: for a while I talked of writing that honours the form of the work, by seeking to match it or mirror it or converse with it somehow. More recently I've started thinking about voice: the ways in which I'm trying to speak back to the work in something like the voice with which it spoke to me, listening so closely for its register and cadence that my writing corresponds to it but at a remove: harmony to its melody. The impulse to write comes from an encounter with that voice.
I choose to write and to think about criticism this way not because I want to resist being judgemental (although often I do), but because more and more I think the challenge of writing about theatre is to try not just to explain the mystery, but to ensure the mystery is shared and doesn't remain isolated. Because theatre is isolated: in place and time. Very few people see it. I want its voice to be heard beyond that very few. I'm interested in the question of how to stop my voice getting in the way.
That challenge has changed my reading of another passage by Berger, later in The Shape of a Pocket, that again describes the act of painting but speaks to me about criticism. He's distilled painting to two words, face and place:
Whatever the painter is looking for, he's looking for its face. … And 'its face' means what? He's looking for its return gaze and he's looking for its expression – a slight sign of its inner life. ...
A place is more than an area. A place surrounds something. A place is the extension of a presence or the consequence of an action.
How does a painting become a place? … When a place is found it is found somewhere on the frontier between nature and art. It is like a hollow in the sand within which the frontier has been wiped out. The place of the painting begins in this hollow.
What preoccupied me six years ago when I read this was that hollow in the sand where the frontier between nature and art, between critic and theatre-maker, between you and me, has been wiped out. But what preoccupies me now is the place that extends from that hollow, created from the encounter of the work's voice with mine. What are the parameters of that place, what are the politics, and who feels invited or permitted to inhabit it too?
Berger stopped painting because he “was attracted to the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour, their destinies and choices”. I have a difficult relationship with writing because in my early 20s I knew I'd never have the audacity or tenacity to be a writer – specifically novellist – and that's partly how I ended up becoming a theatre critic. As a blogger I've had more space in which to acknowledge the ways in which my background, education, tastes, desires, loves, secrets, frets and hurts affect the way in which I receive theatre. Often the return gaze that I see looking for the face in a performance is my own reflected: I might try to escape into theatre but I'll meet myself coming back, with all the discomfort that brings. I'm interested in how others might meet their own gaze.
When I say others what I mean is people who don't make or write about theatre, who might have all sorts of complicated thoughts about the work they see, but not a place in which to articulate them. The brilliant theatre-maker Tanuja Amarasuriya wrote about this in a provocation delivered at a festival I co-curated in 2014:
There’s an awful phrase that theatre professionals use a lot in reference to casual theatregoers: real people. “I really want to know what real people think of my work.” ... It’s a horrible term that demeans everyone; it dismisses theatre-makers as phoneys and patronises non-professionals as less informed.
Her provocation was that more people should feel part of the conversation about theatre: in the bar afterwards, in blogs, in reviews. She continued:
We need to encourage everyone to own their individual responses to art. If you’ve never talked about the way something makes you feel, and the only expressions you hear about how a piece of art makes you feel, don’t align with what you actually feel… then you might very well either keep quiet or believe you’re wrong. I don’t think it’s about hearing from real people, I think it’s about hearing from more people.
To make this concrete, Tanuja went on to describe how “talking about the work and hearing other people talk about the work” changed her father's relationship to art, encouraging him to attend, pay attention, and “influencing the way he thought about ideas and people”. This mattered, she wrote:
because my Dad comes from Sri Lanka, a country that has been riven by a brutally divisive civil war that I don’t think anyone inside, never mind outside the country has any objective perspective on. It’s a country where people I know as liberally-minded, progressive individuals suddenly become fearfully defensive and defined in opposition. It’s a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people.
In the years since Tanuja wrote this, the UK has experienced a conservative upswing triggered by the EU referendum and now I don't think it's too fanciful to describe ourselves as “a community that needs more people who can appreciate that their own thinking about a particular theme can change rapidly over the space of a conversation; and more people who respect different interpretations of the same subject by different people”. I'm thinking not just about leave vs remain, but about the toxic conversation happening now about anti-semitism, the fire burning between some cis- and trans-women. In the days that I've been writing this, Quentin Letts has been pouring tar over the RSC for casting a black actor in what he considers a white role and it's really easy, as a theatre critic writing towards social revolution, or at the very least a Labour government brave enough to redistribute wealth, restore the welfare state and redefine the narrative around immigration, to say: there's a world of difference between me and Letts. He's racist, homophobic, misogynist, classist, boorish, priggish, and writes, to quote Berger in Hold Everything Dear, by spraying “ethicides – agents that kill ethics and therefore any notion of history and justice”, in doing so destroying or making extinct “set after set of our human priorities”. I try very hard not to.
But those ethicides reach into the hollow in the sand where the frontier between nature and art, between critic and theatre-maker, between you and me, has been wiped out. How could they not? They affect the place that extends from our presence, that is the consequence of our actions. I'm thinking about the work I choose to see, the voices I choose to attend to, the voices I hear, and which I support. I'm thinking about unconscious or assumed notions of excellence, and who gets to paint or play piano every day, and of something the performance-maker Selina Thompson said in an interview with Sarah Gorman in 2017, summarising a discussion she has often with other performance-makers who are women of colour:
We talk about how lots and lots of white people, especially men, especially middle class white men, make very mediocre work. And it’s okay, it’s all right. And we talk about how I actually don’t want to make exceptional work anymore. I want to make mediocre work, and it be okay. To resist that call to ‘excel’ all the time.
I'm thinking about the phrase 'Sunday painter', and why it's not often a compliment. Who is responsible for ensuring it's not a compliment. And who has the power to change that.
The times I feel most privileged to do the work I do aren't when I get free tickets to sold-out shows, although that's a bonus, or when something I've written is praised, although that's a boost to the ego, but when I host a theatre club. I've been doing these for five years now – a very simple discussion event modelled on the book group, sometimes happening post-show, sometimes at a late point in a performance run so people can see the show in their own time then come and talk about it – and it feels symptomatic of theatre's failure – as an industry – to demonstrate any genuine interest in dialogue that the work it stages might inspire that there isn't a space like this for every work ever put on. The people who come are bus drivers, social workers, architects, administrators; they've experienced addiction, abuse, homelessness; they are young, old, religious, agnostic, of every possible background. All of them bring to theatre all the mystery of a person's subjectivity and behaviour. They look for theatre's return gaze and often they are startled by the gaze other people have seen; they come having hated the work, and leave wanting to see it again. The place of theatre criticism, for me, begins in this hollow, within which the frontier between professional and quotidian critique has been wiped out.
I came late to Berger and now I'm slowly working my way through his books; most recently, Bento's Sketchbook. At the end, Berger offers a brief biographical sketch of Benedict Spinoza, for whom it was made, admiring “his calm, his frugality, his cheerful humour, his pertinence, and his manner of being adequate”.
I wonder what happens to theatre, to criticism, to social dialogue, if we resist the imposing voice of excellence, and celebrate instead the everyday, the Sunday painters, this manner of being adequate. I have a difficult relationship with the word expert because lack of audacity and tenacity has me most days feeling like a fraud, but then the EU referendum made that relationship more difficult still, because the word expert was sprayed – asphyxiated – with ethicides by the leave campaign and I want to distance myself from that. But there's no qualification in theatre criticism: only long years of watching and writing, by which token even Quentin Letts, who began reviewing for the Daily Mail in 2004, might rank among the experts. I wonder what happens to criticism if we describe the expertise needed to understand it differently: as an expertise in being human, alive and surviving this world, sharing its mysteries with each other.
|The last painting I was working on, still unfinished when I gave up|