Death of the Critic


Posted by in September's Magazine

Vikki Jones investigates… How the National Theatre of Scotland’s Caledonia, a play derided by audiences as “embarrassingly awful” and “absurd and poorly thought out”, managed to rack up a catalogue of decent reviews in the Scottish press…

On paper, this year’s flagship Edinburgh International Festival production was sure to be a hit. A new script by renowned political satirist Alistair Beaton; directed by the pioneering and inventive Anthony Neilson and starring The Thick of It’s Paul Higgins in the leading role, it was looking pretty promising.

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Not only that, the subject matter was the kind of self-referential display of Scottish-ness us theatregoers love. In recounting the tale of Scotland’s ill-fated and expensive attempt to colonise the Isthmus of Panama in the 1690s, the play draws parallels with our recent financial and political history with all the subtlety of a ton of bricks.

I for one was disappointed, baffled and, as other online comments from audiences have mentioned, rather embarrassed. The script is informative, but often wordy rather than sharp, yet it feels as though the actors have been instructed to play for laughs no matter what, and if that is at the expense of the story then so be it. The stilted, melodramatic and mostly pantomimic performances come across as uncomfortable for both the actors and the audience, and this is not helped by the lack of personality and humanity provided by the script. The characters lack both colour and depth and so, when the true horror of the losses of life caused by the scheme is revealed, an ending which was intended to be moving and dramatic, feels unnecessary and ineffectual.

That, ladies and gentleman, is my fancy pants way of telling you I thought it were crap. Friends and colleagues have agreed and there has been much mutual rolling of eyes and shaking of heads in our shared dismay. But not so Scotland’s theatre critics who, if you take their star ratings to mean anything at all, seemed to rather like it. Four stars from the List and the Scotsman, three from the Herald and a rather glowing report from Scotland on Sunday – has the world gone mad? Or do those in the know regarding Scottish theatricals know something we don’t?

Difficult relationship
The star ratings seem all the more incongruous, however, on reading the reviews themselves. In the List, Steve Cramer is willing to forgive the play’s “few rough edges” (only a few?) in praise of NTS’ choice of subject which, apparently, “many other companies have shown a want of courage in avoiding”. I’m sorry to whinge on like a journalism student about the – Who? What? When? Where? Why? – here, but many other companies – who? As for the courageous subject matter, is this really the first time we’ve heard about the power politics of the banking crisis, or have you spent the last three years with your head in a bucket? It all seems to come down to finding a way to justify those stars.

But at least an attempt to justify the award was made. According to Joyce McMillan of the Scotsman, only some of the play’s supposedly comedic moments are “effective”, with others being branded “over-pitched and cack-handed”. And, we are told, the production’s “uncertainties of tone reflect a deep ambivalence within the play itself about the story it tells”. Great! Not even the show itself gives a monkey’s, but I like my ambivalence pretty deep-rooted, so four stars seems fair, doesn’t it?

The Herald manages to provide a little more genuine ambivalence, with Neil Cooper criticising the pairing of a lavish production with pared down theatrical techniques and the badly handled balance of the sentimental and the scathing. But despite resolving that “the play is tugged in too many different directions to ever fully arrive home intact”, there are still three, what seem like rather generous, little stars to go with it.

A couple of the more London-centric papers panned it. The Telegraph’s Charles Spencer was pulling no punches, calling the production a “mixture of sanctimony and incompetence [that] proves well nigh unendurable” and awarding a single, solitary star. The Sunday Times’ Alistair McKay is also unmoved by all this self-referential and self-involved hunting for a Scottish identity. Before opening night, playwright Alistair Beaton, whose difficult relationship with director Anthony Neilson had already been documented in the press, distanced himself by returning to his home in London and stating his intention to make no further comment on Caledonia. Even before the reviews arrived, the mood surrounding the piece from within the ranks seems abundantly clear.

So why are the Scottish critics so unwilling to say what the public and their London-based colleagues are not? It could be something to do with the way in which the production has been funded – £200,000 came from the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, which, over three years, will provide £6million of grants to “showcase Scotland’s creative talent”. With the City of Edinburgh Council and the Scottish Government increasingly strapped for cash and calls for arts funding to be scrapped in favour of spending on health and education, Caledonia is probably not the flagship of Scottish creative endeavour the government had in mind.

Could this praise for mediocrity also perhaps be down to the Scottish theatre community’s desire to protect its newest national institution? The National Theatre of Scotland has now been on the go for four years and has undoubtedly provided the support and finances necessary to take Scottish theatre outside its national borders. However, despite numerous big budget productions, the company has not yet managed to replicate the success of 2006’s outstanding site-specific production, Black Watch. And judging by the online reception to Caledonia, some audience members are beginning to wonder if NTS is ever going to. A guardian.co.uk user hit the nail on the head when they questioned “how long the National Theatre of Scotland can continue making work that doesn’t meet the mark”.

But what, in fact, is the ‘mark’ if our critics will lavish stellar praise on a production even when their choice of words contradicts it? Perhaps the rise of online commentary and reviews about, by and for the general public has given theatre critics the heebie-jeebies. Traditionally, the critic was an academic, regarded universally as an expert, whose views were seldom questioned. If their readers disagreed they might receive the odd strongly worded letter, but largely their judgement would be considered sacrosanct by artists, by the general public and, of course, by themselves.

Nowadays those pesky citizen journalists are everywhere, spoiling the fun by simply writing down what they really think, regardless of whether it upsets those fragile arty types or not. Are the critics taking pity on their subjects? Pandering to a closed community of theatrical bigwigs? Protecting arts funding? Or are they simply trying to distance themselves from the inarticulate mutterings of the riff raff? Whatever their reasons, all these unnecessary sparkles just don’t cut it. Tell us what you really think, because we’re certainly going to tell you .

Pic: Manuel Harlan

63 responses to “Death of the Critic”

  1. leithtonight says:

    Wow, Vikki, great piece. Beautifully argued n well scripted.

  2. Leith actor says:

    This is a interesting article, vikki. Its also worth pointing out the role leading scottish critics had in setting up the NTS, educating our future theatre professionals, and handing out awards. They are also the leading consultants when it comes to handing out the dwindling amount of funding. It could be argued that they no longer have objectivity, and would certainly explain the disparagy between reviews up here and down south.

  3. Theatre lover says:

    Thank you for having the courage to say what many of us felt. The money that is thrown at NTS productions is scandalous in this financial climate. For sure you can see where is is spent, but when you take away the sets, the screens, the revolving stages, what is left? Featherweight, patronising scripts and scant regard for intelligent, hungry audiences who frankly deserve better. And you're right to question the motivation of theatre critics who continue to turn a blind eye to an 'emperor' who is undoubtedly in a sorry state of undress.

  4. joycemcmillan says:

    Hi Everyone! Joyce McMillan of The Scotsman here. I know that I've been lucky to make a career out of "writing down exactly what I think", but that's what I do. Your theories about why I and other paid critics liked the NTS are interesting, but they are wrong. My review of Caledonia said what I thought of it, end of. And since it appeared, many peple have approached me to say that they agreed, and that they didn't think the show was as bad as some critics made out. Clearly it divided audiences; why do you need a corruption theory to account for the fact that some critics liked it, and some didn't? And I'd like an apology for the implication that my judgment has been corrupted by the Scottish Government. How? I didn't even vote for them.

  5. joycemcmillan says:

    Me again – here's a link to my review, so that people can see what I actually wrote. http://joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/cal… I thought the show perfectly captured Scotland's own ambivalence about this episode in its history, although that may have been accidental. In my best judgment, it was a borderline 3/4 star show, and I leaned in the direction of generosity because I found it so interesting. Factual point re one of the posts above. It's true that theatre critics tend to be supportive of theatre as an art-form, which may sometimes encourage generosity, and that in 2003 we decided, on a shoestring, to start doing our own awards for what we genuinely think is the best work of the year, in order to give good work more recognition. We thought that was a good idea; what do others think?

    And on the funding front, we are absolutely not involved in the allocation of funding, except indirectly through companies' own use of good reviews. We are specifically excluded – unlike other groups with far more specific vested interests – from sitting on funding bodies. J McM.

  6. joycemcmillan says:

    Me again – here's a link to my review, so that people can see what I actually wrote. http://joycemcmillan.wordpress.com/2010/08/23/cal… I thought the show perfectly captured Scotland's own ambivalence about this episode in its history, although that may have been accidental. In my best judgment, it was a borderline 3/4 star show, and I leaned in the direction of generosity because I found it so interesting. Factual point re one of the posts above. It's true that theatre critics tend to be supportive of theatre as an art-form, which may sometimes encourage generosity, and that in 2003 we decided, on a shoestring, to start doing our own awards for what we genuinely think is the best work of the year, in order to give good work more recognition. We thought that was a good idea…

  7. Neil Cooper says:

    Neil Cooper from the Herald here. I think this is a great article by Vikki, only undermined slightly by Billy's editorial that dsuggests that Caledonia was terrible apart from his mate Tam Dean Burn.

    Like Joyce, I wrote what I thought and stand by it, no conspiracy theories required.

    For the record, I argued against the setting up of a national theatre for several years, and now it's here I certainly don't give it any preferential treatment.

    As for teaching in academic institutions, why not? Once upon a time criticism was the sole preserve of academics, so why not reverse the trend?

    As for the presumption that critics are the 'leading consultants' when it comes to funding bodies, I'd be interested to hear any concrete evidence of this, as I've certainly never been approached by a funding body, nor would I expect to be.

    I'm all for a debate on this, and it's great Vikki's opened this up, but if other commentators here are going to have a pop from behind the safety of a pseudonym, you really should do your homework.

    Best

    N

  8. Denise says:

    As a theatre-goer and with erstwhile experience of producing shows and being hands-on in many guises backstage I have never understood the star rating system. Often the stars awarded bear little relevance to the tone of the review. Who awards the stars and are they worth the paper they are written on?

  9. Vikki Jones says:

    Wow! This is Vikki. Real person, not pseudonym.

    First of all, thank you all for your comments. Maybe a dignified silence would have been more appropriate, but you can probably tell that's not my style…

    The money issue was not included to imply that critics have any sort of input into funding. My point was that critics, and audiences, naturally have an interest in protecting our cultural output. No conspiracy theories intended.

    The academic title of this piece was chosen in the hope that it would open up a wider debate about how the critic and the citizen journalist interact. If folk like me can publish stuff like this and engage with established critics directly, what will the impact of that discussion be?

    Postmodern as the concept may be, I can't be the first person to review a review – we all do it verbally with friends and colleagues. Perhaps the difficulty comes when you write it down. Critics give opinions just as I have done here, but I find the suggestion that my opinion is that of impassioned and misguided poor thing who just doesn't get it more than a little patronising.

    My intention was to open up a debate and it looks like I've succeeded. I entirely agree that Vanishing Point were right to acknowledge diverse responses to their work and I'd like to think I can do the same. Thanks!

  10. London Critic says:

    Bravo Vicki – 5 stars for you. As a London-based theatre critic who wishes to remain anonymous, I had the misfortune to work with and among the 'elite' set of Scottish theatre critics. Ill informed, gutless and a ticket-hugging clique. You are correct in your article in that these supposed guardians of the public tend to pander to the very organisations and theatre houses they are meant to make accountable. Their waspish, defensive backlash to your article is only tribute to the can of worms you've uncanned. (Don't be expecting too many more free tickets to the theatre though. Joyce et al will put paid to that!)

  11. A very nice piece. Too many points – too many angles on which to comment! On the NTS front – I would agree that after Black Watch, there has been nothing to merit the gradual dismantling of many other Scottish companies – not that anything would 'merit' that; especially given the early assurances that a national theatre would in no way affect extant theatre's grants. Anyhoo – not the point.

    Critics: nice to see the guys themselves react rather poorly to criticism. Johnny is half right – inasmuch as he uses the word "critique" – the rest is off. Same with Joyce – you don't say "what I thought of it, end of." There used to be skill, reasoning, STYLE. A real critic is able to give a reasonably detached critique, which is NOT an opinion. Anyone can give an opinion. As for influencing funding: I'm not sure whether it's sophistry or genuine ignorance that leads both critics commenting to dance around the exact wording of being 'approached' or being 'specifically excluded' – but everyone is well aware that the SAC refer to critics' reviews over audience reaction when deciding funding (unless the reverse serves the purpose).

    I'm not sure of Mr Cooper's point where he says "…academic institutions, why not?" If he is saying there should be some academic slant to being a paid critic – I agree. I think that is one of the problems: there is a growing amount of online, public comment and opinion, which is grand. If that really is giving critics those jeebies Vikki mentions, then that's a problem, because (as I said above) there should be no contest: opinion should sit happily alongside skilled critique. The problem is – we are not getting skilled critique: we're getting opinions.

    In terms of Johnny's reply – again some of it is OK, but why the intro? "as someone who makes theatre that is reviewed I find your article lacking journalistic depth" – what has being "someone who makes theatre that is reviewed" got to do with an understanding of journalism (aside from hee-haw)? Perhaps Johnny DOES have an in-depth knowledge of journalism, but I've missed the relevance 'theatre-maker' bit. Another assumption that Vikki "never thoroughly investigated the idea of critical review further" – presumptuous much? Like much of the 'reasoned' counter-comments, accusing the article of being somehow under-researched – this comment is plucked out of thin air with no reference, and no evidence, other than a vague waving in a general direction.

    Nice one Vikki for opening a wee argument. All good fun.

    Apologies and triple gins all round

  12. Mark Fisher says:

    Lots of interesting discussion here. I wrote the review of Caledonia in Scotland on Sunday that Vikki describes as "rather glowing" – I'd have said "rather mixed" or "rather sitting on the fence", but you can see for yourselves here: http://tinyurl.com/2g824t4

    If you read to the comments at the end, you can see what the real problem is: this was a show that genuinely split people. One person says it was "embarrassingly awful" the next says it was "brilliant". Vikki chooses to gloss over the enthusiastic ones, which makes her article more dramatic and her argument stronger, but it's not the full picture.

    Far from being defensive, however, I think Vikki's aim to "review the reviewers" is great. If you want good critics then the critics have to be kept on their toes. I'm not sure what a "citizen reviewer" is, but the internet (in particular) is opening up fascinating opportunities for a wider range of voices to be heard and I'm all for that as well. My only suggestion if you want to criticise the critics is that you focus on the weaknesses in their writing instead of trying to explain the failures away with a conspiracy theory. You really won't find one.

    For instance, like Neil and Joyce, my "ill-informed, gutless and ticket-hugging" colleagues, I am not consulted on handing out money. Even if David Goodall is right and "everyone [who?] is well aware that the SAC refer to critics' reviews over audience reaction when deciding funding", in what way would that affect my objectivity? You can hold me responsible for my writing, but not for who reads it.

    Likewise, although I think all of the critics wrote about the establishment of the NTS, I'm pretty sure none of us was involved in setting it up. And, anyway, we've all given good and bad reviews to NTS productions, so nothing suspicious going on there. You can see my own NTS reviews here: http://tinyurl.com/2bcemt7

  13. @tomwfreeman says:

    I'm thrilled that people have opened up this debate, which is why I brought the article to the community's attention. Well done Vikki, there's far too many heads in the sand in Scottish theatre – mainly from those who are desperately struggling to make ends meet. Despite some rather broad generalisations I think the piece vocalises a genuine concern within Scotland and the scottish theatre community about the way in which the theatre critics appear to have an ever increasing interest and power in the actual creation and practice of work. This may seem like a conspiracy theory – certainly to the critics themselves it seems, but in actuality its merely a sad indication of how little public money there is, and how little work is produced. Its not the fault of the critics that more and more emphasis is placed on their opinion – and as Mark quite rightly points out, it can't make them accountable – but in the current terminal climate the sad fact is that companies live and (more commonly) die on the strength of their reviews, rather than their practice or audience reactions. Look at Pitlochry Festival.

    As for critics handing out awards and educating theatre practicioners, I've made my opinions known about that before, but safe to say that its becoming harder to tell whether a show is worth going to see based on its reviews anymore.

  14. Mark Fisher says:

    The thing is, you could actually argue that funding bodies should pay more attention to critics' opinions. After all, who else gets round to as many theatre companies in Scotland and who else is as well informed about what's going on?

    I don't believe any of the critics actually want to influence funding decisions (it's one thing giving a bad review, quite another saying a company should be axed), but I can't see what's so bad about taking note of their opinions.

    Of course, if you could demonstrate that the critics either had "an ever increasing interest and power in the actual creation and practice of work" (to quote Tom Freeman) or had an unhealthy bias towards one kind of theatre or another, then there would be a problem. But I genuinely believe there is no evidence on either count.

    As someone has already pointed out, Vanishing Point's Beggar's Opera got one, two, three, four and five-star reviews. Which one of those critics is supposed to have all the power?

    And Tom, I don't understand your reference to Pitlochry. This year, with its Christmas show, it is expected to become the best attended producing theatre in Scotland. Doesn't sound like a company dying to me.

  15. callum says:

    who was it that said "no one ever built a statue in memory of a critic"… i don't know but it certainly was bono that said "let's start a magazine that reviews critics, rock and roll should be the sound of revenge"

    and with that, and my remaining dignity (there's not a lot of that after quoting bono i know) i'm off.

  16. Mike Daviot says:

    David, it's ALL just opinions, whether it be Derrida wittering on abstrusely about Artaud, or Joyce McMillan giving her view of 'Caledonia' – which I personally thought was inchoate, witless drivel, and made me yearn for the glory days of 7:84 – BUT, there is a vast gulf in respect of value between any old opinion and an INFORMED opinion; that, surely is the critics job? To make live for you on the page what thay saw on the stage and tell you why – in their opinion – some bits were good and some not. Objectivity is the curse not only of journalism today, but our frightened-to-offend society generally, breeding blandness and complacency. Where's Hunter S Thompson when you need him?!

  17. Mark Fisher says:

    Mike's dead right about objectivity (in my subjective opinion).

  18. Josie says:

    For Vikki, Caledonia was "Crap", for me it was a thought provoking, insight into a part of my history i knew nothing about. Isn't that the wonderful thing about theatre! So Vikki can be Charles Spencer and I'll be Ms McMillan, neither is wrong, they just have informed differing opinions. To me though, it's not surprising that theatre critics within the Scottish community reviewed Caledonia differently to their London counterparts, as i felt it was an inherently Scottish piece that gave nods, in it's style, to the traditions of Scottish music hall theatre, perhaps a critic living and working within our community got more from the production and viewed it's "melodramatic and Pantomimic performances" differently as they connected with the convention??That of course, again, is just my opinion, i have no idea if that was the directors intention but it was what i took from it!
    The idea that the critics wish to protect our "newest, national institution" i feel is unfair, i've been involved in a number of NTS productions which received reviews from both ends of the spectrum, and if you look to the Peter Pan reviews you'll see that the London critics reviewed that particular production more positively than our Scottish critics. Some shows seem to unite our critics north and south of the border, (Black Watch, Beautiful Burnout) others divide and that's exciting because that's where you get debate and the desire to create.
    I don't believe that the critics are out to influence funding, they are paid to review and cannot control who reads their work, yes theatre companies may use past positive reviews to gain funding for future productions, but they also use audience feedback forms and online bloggers, if someone says something good you are going use it no matter if it's your Gran or Lyn Gardner!
    Anyway Vikki, thanks for opening up the debate, you have made me comment on an internet site for the first time and defend critics for the first time and for an actress that's a big thing!

  19. Mark Fisher says:

    I had similar thoughts to Josie over the different reception of the pantomime elements – and I still think there might be something in it – but when you look closely, it isn't that easy to make a clear English/Scottish divide. If you check out acrossthearts at:
    http://www.acrossthearts.co.uk/review/theatre/73-

    you'll see that, although the two most favourable reviews were from The Scotsman and The List, the show was as negatively reviewed by the Edinburgh-based Thom Dibdin in the Stage and the Glasgow-based Shona Craven in onstagescotland as it was by some of the London-based reviewers.

    Having said that, I did think it was a shame few people engaged with the question of why Neilson directed it in that style – it clearly wasn't accidental. I made an attempt at it in another review here:
    http://www.hi-arts.co.uk/default.aspx.locid-hiane

  20. Tam Dean Burn says:

    Ah proof once more of Leith as the cradle of civilisation – a burning debate about theatre in The Leither! And I certainly don't say that because the editor is my mate ( watch it Mr Cooper! ). I wrote an article in The Herald years back in response to what I thought was a silly one by Mark Fisher where I prayed for the day when audiences would start to prise open the deathly grip of the critics in theatre. Just maybe that day is dawning though probably in tandem with the death of newspapers generally…

    But it really is interesting that such an article here has probably provoked more response in comments than the entire output of all the scabby CATS o' Scottish theatre critics ever! And it's hilarious how so many of them have rushed to have a go at someone daring to criticise them. ( and please don't take this personally, darlings, I'm just revelling in the opportunity to have a go at you collectively )

    Denise quite rightly asks if the star system is worth the paper it's written on and and Joyce's defence of it is utterly lame. She cowardly doesn't admit that it is something foisted on her by The Scotsman. It is gross dumbing-down demanded by editors these days and it is a disgrace that the critics have not only gone along with it but now lap it up like the scaredy CATS they are. Unfortunately the theatre-makers all go along with it, giving it credence by pissing stars all over their publicity material ( and aye, in desperation I've done it myself )

    The other main vain attempt by the Scottish theatre critics to give themselves credence and a bit o glamour is of course their yearly CATS awards ceremony. O how they love to strut their stuff on the stage for once and claim that after a whole day of fierce debate, they can announce who and what are the best things in Scottish theatre over the previous year. How dare they! It's bad enough we have to see our work condemned, trivialised or misunderstood in print and online for eternity without having to put up with an ego-fest every year laying claim to an even more squalid version of the star system and celebrity culture ( and aye, again, I have taken part in the pathetic pompous ceremony – when I was nominated for Best Actor for Venus As A Boy, I went along, mainly to show gratitude to NTS Workshop for the fantastic support I'd had in making the show happen. I was 'beaten' by the two actors playing Peer Gynt (possibly unfair competition?) and what clinched it for me that I would never accept such an award was the arrogant tub thumping behaviour of the winners bounding onto the stage. I saw how it brings out the worst in people – Gerry and Keith are genuinely nice guys but as Paddy Cuneen said to me later that night, it's not about celebrating what's best in Scottish theatre, it's much more about the "You're Fired" culture. BTW I admit I had spent an unhealthy amount of time since then imagining my non-acceptance speech if I ever was offered a scabby CAT so I am glad it's out of the bag now. And while I'm at it, I am also happy to admit that when my performance as Davies in The Caretaker, the biggest role in English speaking drama, at the Citizens' a couple of years back did not merit a nomination when a performance in a lightweight Play, Pie & Pint did, I was only sorry that I didn't get the chance to tell them where to stick it that year).

    O what joy to get that off my chest and find there's more than one way to skin a CAT!

  21. Tam Dean Burn says:

    Anyway, Caledonia…I really wish folk wouldn't just use it as another means to put the boot into NTS ( something many of the Scottish critics have been revelling in for a while now so Vicky is way off the mark in that particular conspiracy theory ). Like it or lump it, NTS has been at least attempting to move beyond the miserable mediocrity passing itself off as theatre that has made up the Scottish scene for decades as far as I have seen. And to start on about NTS getting "scandalous amounts of money" is nonsense. Yes, Caledonia was a big show but it was done on an incredibly tight budget. If you are referring to the other NTS festival show Beautiful Burnout, with "screens, etc", it sold out, but obviously not to "hungry Intelligent" theatre lovers like yourself. Interestingly you praise Vicky for her "courage to say what many of us have felt" but don't have the courage to put your own name to it…tosser.
    As for the show itself…there's lots i could say..if any newspaper is willing to sling me a few bob hee hee! All I'll say is that the rehearsal script ( as anyone can read )and every subsequent rewrite was awful but the one person who refused to recognise that in any way was the writer. Things could perhaps have been very different if he had allowed, as is usually the case in theatre, reworking in the rehearsal room but the writer ultimately calls the shots in British theatre at the moment, for good or for bad…
    I have to say that alarm bells should have rung very loudly that on his website Beaton claims categorically in the first line of his biog that he is "regarded as Britain's leading political satirist " ( sit down and shut up at the back, Iannucci and Morris!! And not a word from you, Bremner! ) And as for his press statement announcing his 'rat leaving a sinking ship' moment – "the world may make of it ( his return to London before opening night ) what it will" – we imagined the poor Pakistani family clinging to the wreckage of their life at least consoled by the fact that Beaton's not beaten…

    So to paraphrase his opening number in the show ( and I did love love feeling like some-sorty musical theatre performer ) and to round off this contribution – History is written by the winners and the critics but the future is written by the plebs!

    LONG LIVE THE LEITHER!

  22. Mark Fisher says:

    Good to see new fatherhood hasn't mellowed you, Tam. Congratulations, by the way.

    Yes, that article you wrote in the Herald was the one where you said "the only way forward for theatre now is to keep the critics out" and then proceeded to slag off a show you hadn't even seen. The problem is that even if you managed to keep the critics out of the theatre, you couldn't keep opinions out of the theatre, not least your own. People will always have them and, as long as there are opportunities to discuss them and challenge them, that's healthy – which is why Vikki's article is important: people should be able to disagree with the critics. It's a problem if they don't. It's also why it's important that you, Tam, are prepared to stand up for your opinions, which very few actors are, at least in public, presumably for fear of reprisal.

    Genuinely sorry you feel so disenfranchised by the Critics' Awards which, of course, are a celebration of all that's great about theatre in Scotland and nothing to do with self-aggrandisement. Your position, I suppose, is similar to that of Stewart Lee in relation to the Edinburgh Comedy Awards. I guess this must be an unfortunate side-effect, but these things are not set up to make the arts look like a competition – and I really hope the CATS don't, because they are designed to be positive, a way of saying thanks for all this good stuff, not of condemning anything. Of course, they're not definitive, of course, The Caretaker was a great show too, of course, other people would have other opinions, but to dwell on that is certainly not in the spirit of what CATS is trying to do. Come along as a guest to the next ceremony in June at the Edinburgh Festival Theatre and enjoy it for the positive thing it is.

  23. Brian says:

    Some points of information referencing the original article and comments:
    Mark Fisher said:
    'The thing is, you could actually argue that funding bodies should pay more attention to critics' opinions. After all, who else gets round to as many theatre companies in Scotland and who else is as well informed about what's going on?'
    The answer to that is the body of Drama Specialist Advisors who were employed by the old SAC. Their reports were written without the demands of being entertaining editorial and were immensely more valuable than journalistic reviews. Thankfully those reports considered when funding decisions were being made. And if reviews were considered I hope they were considered with large pinches of salt.

    Mark Fisher said:
    'although I think all of the critics wrote about the establishment of the NTS, I'm pretty sure none of us was involved in setting it up'
    Joyce McMillan was a member of the establishing Working Group for the NTS.

    Several comments have been made about critics taking part in funding decisions. Joyce McMillan was on the panel that decided the grants and participation of companies/artist in Made in Scotland 2009. I believe it was Keith Bruce for 2010.

  24. Albatross says:

    I'd like to put in a word in defence of the critics in Scotland. I'm a theatre maker. I would prefer to stay anonymous here because I don't want it to seem like I'm sooking up. There are critics I'd cheerfully strangle. I've had my fair share of terrible reviews. Often deeply unfair. I harbour many grudges and I shall continue to nurse some wounds until I sink into the grave. However, I think that critics as a group have come in for some unfair and sometimes quite personal attack in this discussion and I would like to counterbalance that.

    The critics traipse out to see shows most nights of the week. They see much more theatre than I do, and more than most other practitioners I know. I don't think they do this for the money. Theatre criticism is not the gig to go for if you want to get rich. I think they do it because they like theatre and they like to engage with it night after night. That's probably why many of them teach as well.

    Critics don't write reviews to annoy theatre makers any more than audiences go to the theatre in order to cheer theatre makers up. It's understandable but a tad solipsistic for a practitioner to think a critic's agenda is anything other than a subjective response. If you don't like reviews don't read them.

    Many theatre makers get their first break being reviewed in a fringe show in a church somewhere, or in some showcase in the Arches or spotted in a TIE show somewhere. Those discoveries rely on the Scotsman and The List and The Herald sending people out to seek out new work and cover it. There is a limited readership for this stuff. The reasons most editors allow it room is because the critics themselves push and demand and ask for space.

    Theatre makers would be the first to complain if newspapers stopped covering theatre. So what do we want? Only puff pieces? As a punter, I read the film reviews and it helps me choose how to spend my cash on a night out – why should theatre be exempt from comment?

    Our critics are pretty diligent and uncorrupt as far as I can see. I have experience of critics in a number of theatre cultures and there is no golden land far away where only perfect people become newspaper reviewers. If you think London is better I suggest you go there and try it out. There's a lot of shite on stage in London that gets good reviews and some brilliant stuff gets totally misunderstood. Beckett and Pinter were slammed in London. It's part of the process.

    As for Caledonia. I didn't see it but I do know that every year for the last 20 or so the Scottish production at EIF is trashed by the London critics and gently praised by the Scottish ones. Remember Variety? It goes as far back as Lanark by TAG and maybe further. (The clear exception is Anthony Nielson's 'Dissocia' which is probably why everyone had high hopes for Caledonia). But as a general rule, do a Scottish show in EIF and expect to get spanked.

    Different shows get different responses. Sometimes it's a bit territorial. It's not a conspiracy.

    And please – people – stop going on about Black Watch! NTS hasn't matched that success for a while because Black watch was a once in a generation piece of theatre. NO ONE is likely to match it's success for years to come. The last show to have anything like Blackwatch's impact in Scotland was The Cheviot The Stag. We're lucky it got made. Lucky to have seen it. Now can we let it go and talk about what's new?

    What lurks at the back of my agitation here is that some of the comment in these threads seems to imply critics have power. They don't. None of us in theatre have any real power, not even artistic directors. Real power is in the hands of politicians and the beaurocracies they create and those people are currently hell bent on cuts. Right now letters are out to all English theatres suggesting they prepare for cuts of between 10% and 40%. We in Scotland will be next.

    Cuts on that scale would utterly decimate Scottish theatre. The Citz, The Traverse and The Tron are all extremely vulnerable as producing venues. There is virtually no touring sector left as it is. The sector has very little fat to trim and when you add in the fact that such things as TIE and Prison Workshops may well be the first 'fat' trimmed from Education and Criminal Justice budgets you begin to see a picture in which the very existence of indigenous professional theatre making in Scotland at all is under threat.

    Critics are part of a theatre ecology. Give them a break.

  25. Passport says:

    Easier solution. Let's just keep doing Blackwatch until the end of time, don't bother with any new stuff, just keep trotting out the same old show…

  26. jackie says:

    Interesting thread. My favourite review was in the Observer which said something like it was the Scottish seven dwarves – boozy, pernickety and holy. It is very well written and you don't need to have seen the show to want to read it and that is what criticism in newspapers has to achieve. http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/aug/29/cal

  27. Walter Buchan says:

    The central lesson of Darien was that the taking of a very good idea and trying to execute it with the 'help' of self serving, venal fuckwits (who would not even leave the boats to consult with others), results in cold hard reality.

    You get what you give.

    Tam Dean Burn, oppresssed man of the people – give me a fucking break – the cunt treats me like i'm about to mug him every time I see him, have YOU ever seen him in LIDL ?

    Insert token Working class person here.

    Now I must remain silent – lest his visceral dangerousness rend me asunder or whatever it is.

  28. Tam Dean Burn says:

    Ooo Walter ( surely no Wattie Buchan fae The Exploited??!!), there was me trying to play up my luvvyness too! Please introduce yourself next time and far from mugging you, I'll give you a big mmmwah on each cheek, darling. Tis true you'll no have seen me in the Lidl in the Kirkgate for a while but I use the one on Maryhill Road all the time…aye, I confess I've become a west coaster, a weeji. They swapped me for Billy Gould, you see. A rerr terr o a ferr swap, naw?
    I also must confess I'm more partial to seeking out the knocked doon bargains in the Byres Road Waitrose…aw c'mon, us poor west end thesps need something to fill our days between playing, pieing and pinting!
    Anyway, enough about me,me,me…what were we on about? Ah yes, Darien. Well far be it from me to contradict Walt's words o wisdom… "you get what you give"…( uh huh? Tell that to Mick Jagger, mate ) but may I suggest that attempting something that only became achievable around 225 years later, ie the building of the Panama Canal by the might of the good ol' US of A was perhaps doomed to failure, albeit glorious, no matter how many Wallace Mercers they had on board. Let's just hope Caledonia is not the last as well as the first theatrical word on it…
    As for Albatross's argument, I agree with quite a lot of what the lonely bird says, but as for the critics not doing it for the money ( and chance to spraff off in print ) but hey – none of us are making much of a buck in theatre are we? I fully agree that folk should stop making Black Watch into an albatross around NTS's neck ( especially the critics ) but I'd go further than it being the biggest thing in Scottish theatre since The Cheviot – BW has become a global phenomenon and I bet folks around the world would be absolutely gobsmacked at the sniping that's gone on here about it.
    And aye, Albatross, enjoyable as this slagging the critics is, we are going to have to unite and fight to defend our theatre.
    So see you on the barricades, comrade Buchan.

  29. Tam Dean Burn says:

    Meant to say in my first comment that the second half of Caledonia in the rehearsal script was awful ( as anyone can read in the published text )…

  30. Brian says:

    A couple of points for accuracy:

    Mark Fisher said that no critic was part in setting up the NTS. In fact Joyce McMillan was on the establishing Working Group.

    Several contributors have said that critics do not take part in funding decisions. There is at least one exception to that. The panel for the Made in Scotland grants included Joyce McMillan in 2009 and, I believe, Keith Bruce in 2010.

  31. Ian Shuttleworth says:

    Who reviews the reviews? Theatre Record, the magazine I edit, has been doing so since 1981. In fact, I spent yesterday proofreading the pages of our next issue which collect and reprint the reviews of Caledonia. I'd characterise them as follows, with regard to style as well as their verdicts (we don't bother with star ratings):

  32. Neil Cooper says:

    If we could get back to Vicki's original point, that the star ratings for Caledonia were too kind and anomolous tob what was actually wtritten, I would agree.

    The star ratings are far from an accurate science, and i don't know of any critic who likes them.

    We resisted them at the Herald for a long time, but they were eventually imposed on the arts page without any consultation with the writers.

    This is far from ideal, but some people in the marketing world prefer them, as it saves them reading what is often far more complex and ambiguous than just something being great or terrible.

  33. Neil Cooper says:

    And for the record, I've sat, as has Joyce and Robert Dawson Scott, on the panel for the Edinburgh International Festival awards implemented a few years back.

    I don't see any conflict of interest here, and can only presume that bodies like EIF and Made In Scotland make such appointments because they recognise some angle of informed judgement that can be brought to the table.

  34. EmbraTheatreFan says:

    Credit where credit is due, wasn't The Beggars Opera a co-prodcution with The Royal Lyceum? Therefore surely credit for that audacious piece of marketing must lie with the RLT marketing team?

  35. Mark Brown says:

    Yes, 'London critic's' hiding behind a pseudonym is highly ironic, given her/his denunciation of critics in Scotland as "gutless". In fact, in my experience, the breadth of opinion amongst our diverse group of critics in Scotland is generally greater than in the London critical village (whose Party line dictating hostility towards Howard Barker, for instance, is nothing short of a scandal).

    For what it's worth my far from sycophantic review of Caledonia (written, as deadline dictated, in less than an hour on the night, hence the contextualising material at the outset) follows in another message.

    Mark Brown,
    Theatre critic,
    Sunday Herald

  36. Mark Brown says:

    Colony drama gets lost in Darien

    FIRST NIGHT
    CALEDONIA
    KING’S THEATRE, EDINBURGH
    ENDS THURSDAY

    REVIEWED BY MARK BROWN

    On July 18, 1698 five ships, containing 1,200 people, departed the Port of Leith for Darien in Panama. When they arrived, on October 31, they set about establishing a colony which would – in the words of its founder, the banker William Paterson – enable famine weakened Scotland to “give laws to both oceans and become arbitrators of the commercial world.”
    In less than two years – after three unsuccessful expeditions, and at the cost of 2,000 lives and at least a quarter of Scotland’s national capital – the colonial dream of a glittering ‘Caledonia’ in Central America came to an end. Having faced the hostility of Spain, the opposition of England and, perhaps most importantly, failed to provide themselves with the necessary infrastructure for a colony (the expeditions’ bread was often mouldy, their water unclean, their beef rotten), the remaining colonists submitted to Spain and limped home to a Scotland which was now even poorer than before.

  37. Mark Brown says:

    The “Darien venture” was, according to taste, a heart-breaking example of failed Scottish adventurism (like the 1978 World Cup in Argentina, only more so) or a pathetic episode of colonial hubris. Either way, it is a story which resonates through Scottish history and carries many implications for Scotland today.
    All of which – in these days of a bank-induced crisis and colonial misadventure in Afghanistan – makes the play Caledonia, by dramatist and satirist extraordinaire Alistair Beaton (of Not the Nine O’Clock News and Spitting Image fame) , undeniably relevant. More important than its political and historical relevance, however, is the question of whether it turns a national disaster into an artistic success for the National Theatre of Scotland.

  38. Mark Brown says:

    Presented by the NTS as Scotland’s offering at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival, and directed by acclaimed dramatist Anthony Neilson, Caledonia came to the King’s Theatre stage carrying barely less expectations than the Darien scheme itself. In the first half, it certainly seems destined to deliver on the hopes placed upon it. The play opens like a Monty Pythonesque satire, complete with a neat riff about what Scotland had, by the late 17th-century, given, or not given, to the world.
    Paterson’s position as the founder of the Bank of England gives Beaton ample scope for tremendously timely gags about the reliability of bankers. The energetic enthusiasm of the rich and, subsequently, the not-so-rich of Scotland for Paterson’s colonial scheme is captured brilliantly in a first act which rolls along nicely, aided by some fine songs and designer Peter McKintosh’s smartly impressionistic set.

  39. Mark Brown says:

    However, if the first act is tight and witty, the second – which is set in Darien itself – loses momentum, humour and any real sense of structure. Ironically, like Paterson’s dream, it unravels in Panama. The play simply loses it identity, not knowing whether it wants to be a comedy, a history play or a Brechtian satire.
    Paul Higgins gives a strong performance as the self-regarding and committed Paterson. Paul Blair offers tremendous comic moments as the killjoy Presbyterian Reverend Francis Borland. However, neither they, nor any other actor in this fine cast, can save act two from its dramaturgical meltdown.
    Not since the premiere of David Harrower’s Blackbird, back in 2005, has the Scottish contribution to the theatre programme of the EIF been an unalloyed success. Neilson’s own play The Wonderful World of Dissocia (EIF 2004) was stunning, but he has not repeated that success here as director.
    Given Beaton’s reputation and the subject matter of his play, this year should have been different. Sadly, like the colonial venture it takes as its subject, it founders in Darien.

  40. coconutbadger says:

    Really enjoyed your article Vickki (and the critics responses) fair play to everyone, I reckon there should be lots more of this. Off at a bit of a tangent here but it's NTS related and as I said I'm liking the tone of this open/fair debate.

    £30 a ticket for Blackwatch seemed to me to squeeze under the radar somehow. I posted on twitter (@markmacnicol – I don't give a toss about anonymity) my frustraion that the people of Scotland (the S in NTS remember?) on low incomes were being creatively excluded.

    NTS then messaged me a reprimand explaining they had put 30x tickets per day on the door at £10 on a first come first serve basis. So people on low incomes have to enter into a lottery to get in.. WTF! Have they got half a clue how patronising that is? Well if you're 31st in the queue, unlucky. SECC isn't exactly the easiest of places to get to. Why not throw some barbed wire fencing about while your at it.

    How can it even be £30 a brief when NTS is part funded by tax payers money? Lower the income the higher proportion of tax you pay right? (Continued>)

  41. coconutbadger says:

    …Black Watch was a perfect opportunity for the 'national' theatre of Scotland to Re-engage with the working class audience who once had theatres in this country bursting at the seams. They blew it, in the absence of a credible explanation I can only draw my own conclusions. They decided to milk the bourgeoise audience for every penny instead. Bit of a shame if you ask me.

    By the way these debates are light on directors/writers/actors, many of whom have said they agreed with me but wouldn't go public for obvious reasons. They live and work in a climate of fear, afraid to be tarnished with the troublesome/opinonated brush. Expressing personal opinion v paying opportunities. Easy call for me, it's not like there is enough work about for 'established' playwrights never mind 'emerging' ones like yer auld da. So if I'm going to be extracting my sustenance from super noodles. I plan to be doing it with my integrity intact. Fight the power!

  42. Kevin Stonebanks says:

    Classic stuff across the board here.
    "…Beaton……distanced himself…no further comment on Caledonia".
    Is that because he gave birth to a lemon or allowed Neilson to citric-ise(sic) it?
    Ha! I wish I could see itlf, I truly do.
    Tam: without critics, we ordinary mortals wouldn't know who to be grumpy at, stop spoiling our fun. The NTS, like any bunch of relatively ("relatively") normal humans, has an average mix of bollocks and bravado; this one may turn out to be a "hairy brain" event. Maybe.
    Mark: to mark such a commentary as potentially "an unfortunate side-effect" is disingenuous at worst or a snarky comment to your mate at best (benefit of doubt here). Awards — nay, any kind of singling out — breed competition!
    Are you apologising for that?
    Don't! Hallelujah for first prize, quoth I.
    I'm still disappointed that this possible utopian joy-giver turned out to be a divisive albatross, mind. Alas, that we cannot please all of the people all of the time!
    Keep the heid ya bunch ae dafties. ;-)

  43. RDS says:

    I can't speak for others (and, honestly, anyone who thinks we act as some sort of conspiratorial cabal should see our attempts to agree about anything to do with CATS – not the awards themselves but even where to meet to discuss them) but I always hope that I write is the start of a conversation rather than the end of one. In that spirit, the original piece which started this is welcome.

    Couple of points to add/amplify on what's already been said in a lively feedback: you (Vikki) overlooked in your analysis that The (London)Times (which I usually write for but where I was supplanted in this case by the new No 1 critic, Libby Purves), enjoyed "Caledonia" and gave it four stars and Alistair McKay, who wrote the Sunday Times review you quote, is as Scottish as I am not (for many years a columnist and feature writer on The Scotsman).

    Many attempts have been made to suggest there is a different agenda/sensibility between London theatre practitioners and critics and those in Scotland. The most notorious was probably over John McGrath's Four Estates in 1996. But very few of them have stood up to close examination. The London theatre world's entrenched objections to the work of Howard Barker may be one; productions of Victory and Scenes from an Execution at the Royal Lyceum and Dundee Rep respectively still linger vividly in the mind. And I personally think there still are vestiges of an acting style here, available to the likes of Gerard Kelly or Jimmy Chisholm, who can do an out front, direct address style (derived from variety and panto and kept alive longer by 7:84 and Wildcat) more naturally than the more drama schooled techniques in England (though it would not be hard to find exceptions even to such a modest proposal.)

    But I honestly think that's about it. After all, of those wriitng regularly here, Neil Cooper, Mark Fisher and I were born in England, Michael Cox comes from North America and Steve Cramer from Australia so we're not exactly homogeneous before we even begin.

    Genuinely sorry that Tam, one of the first people I ever met when I came to Scotland 26 years ago and an actor I have admired ever since, feels so alienated by CATS though not so naive as to imagine he is alone in those views. As the person who dreamt up the awards in the first place, I can only reiterate the original intention which was to have at least one day in the year when all of us who love the theatre and all its power and beauty can set aside our differenced and celebrate all the good work that does get done.

    And on Black Watch – whoever made the point (think it was Alabatross) that it's tough on the NTS to compare everything they do to a piece of work the like of which comes along once in a decade is spot on. We can all live in hope though!

  44. Tam Dean Burn says:

    If anyone's still remotely or virtually interested, here's my piece in the Herald on critics and shit fae 1999… http://tinyurl.com/2uabm5y
    Thanks to the Fish for the link. Hopefully, he'll post his but also hope he might find the original article cos it's still pertinent methinks.

  45. Walter Buchan says:

    Thanks Tam for an insightful contribution to this discussion.I'd like to point out that although I am Jonathan Mill's hairdresser, this in no way affects my judgement. All of the funding applications that I have approved while a member of various boards have been entirely free of any sort of bias.I think it would be a great loss to scottish theatre to merely expect me to cut hair, rather than offer my expert opinion, borne of millenia of experience.

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