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On criticism …

I’ve been reading a lot lately about professional theatre criticism.  The articles have been by critics themselves, artists who are the subject of said critics’ writings, and audience members. I’ve been greatly moved by a couple of pieces, one from an obituary on the respected and, from what you read, greatly liked API drama critic Michael Kuchwara who died recently, aged 63 after a professional lifetime of play reviewing.  The other was from Mark Mordue, this year’s winner of Australia’s Pascall Prize for critical writing.

It’s an understatement to say that critics aren’t particularly well regarded by those they criticise; they never have been since their inception 200 or so years ago.  Nowadays, however, it’s often for a reason you might not at first appreciate.

Recently I was in conversation with several professional theatre colleagues who were more upset by the lack of  ‘good reviewers’ than by the ignorance, dismissal, or the brickbats that come their way.  As one said to me, ‘As much as I don’t like a bad notice, if it’s from a reviewer I respect, it’s not half as bad as when it’s one from someone who doesn’t have a clue about the theatre, or who uses his or her position to show off.’  Respecting the enemy is perfectly possible, of course, and if we must think of critics in this way, then let them be the best enemies around.

One of Kuchwara’s colleagues said this about him

He was candid about stunners and stinkers he saw, but never gushy or mean. And his affection for the theater and for audiences infused every review.

He could also write well, and he knew his theatre. I like very much the phrase about being candid but never gushy or mean. Coming hot on the heels of that absolute must – knowing how theatre works – these other qualities make up a ‘good reviewer,’ are what garner respect from arts colleagues, and are finally, what constitute the ‘good enemy.’

The second quote is from a blog The Basement Tapes which I discovered this week, courtesy of Melbourne theatre critic Alison Croggon.  The blog is written and curated by Mark Mordue, the 2010 Pascall prize for Australian critical writing.  Mordue puts it this way in a post Pioneers in the Digital Snow

… it’s always been my contention that great criticism is about love more than hate, construction more than destruction. That in many ways what a good critic does is nearer to the task of a translator who has found a way of channeling one form of language into another. And in some cases even improving on the original source, sacrilegious as that might sound.

In that regard I’d be so bold as to claim a great critic can, and should be a responsive poet, balancing judgment and empathy in an art of evocation.

Mordue’s call for responsive poets – not the way most of us think of theatre critics and play reviewers – is one I empathise with.  It’s given me cause to consider afresh some of the writing on theatre in the press and online in media publications, and written by those paid to fulfill the role of theatre critic.  I see far too little affection infusing the writing of some critics, too little understanding of theatre and how it works, and not much of the art of evocation.  Bring on the poets …

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