Critiquing The Critics

One of the things that confounds many theatre teachers is how to teach written theatre criticism. You can give your students all the tools to deconstruct what they see, but to then write it down in a way that communicates the truth of what has been seen without ladening it down with subjectivity is difficult.

theatre-criticsOf course theatre criticism is ultimately subjective – it is an individual’s viewpoint. But there is an art to it and in some instances the professional critic can make or break a show (New York theatre critics are particularly renowned for this as this  article shows). However, in the internet age, things have changed. Very often a blogger critic can get their reviews out to the world before traditional print critics can.

CriticThis is particularly so when shows are in preview and the bloggers get there first. This means that theatres are having to change the way they promote their work and social media is playing a greater and greater role in creating audiences for a show.  But I digress…..what I wanted to write about today was that notion of subjectivity. Sometimes plays are universally panned because they are simply bad. A show that opened in London this summer was utterly trashed by everyone that saw it, one critic going as far as saying:

It’s the kind of dreary experience……that makes you want to gnaw your fingers to the bone and ring the Samaritans.

Not good then, but the reverse can happen of course. However what intrigues me is what one critic praises another decries. Two of the plays I have written about recently, Hamlet, by The Wooster Group and Leaving Planet Earth by Grid Iron have both been reviewed The-Shepherds-Chamaleon1and were bound to divide the critics given their unconventional staging. Having had the luxury of time that my summer vacation affords me, I have been able to read all the mainstream reviews for both plays (as well as some of the more ‘unofficial’ ones) and it struck me just how subjective they are. There are of course similarities, both in terms of praise and criticism, but the overall ‘feel’ of the reviews is markedly different. So today I am going to offer you four reviews for each play, from the same sources, and see what you make of them.

Firstly, The Wooster Group and Hamlet:

The Guardian by Andrew Dickson, The ghosts of great Danes past haunt the Wooster Group’s intellectually satisfying but distant and forensic Hamlet 

The Telegraph by Dominic Cavendish , The Wooster Group’s production of Hamlet… in part a tribute to Richard Burton – doesn’t impress Dominic Cavendish 

The Independent by Anna Burnside, Hamlet – The Wooster Group’s efforts are like an elaborate parlour game 

The Stage by Natasha Tripney, The production can feel clinical in places, but there’s something mesmerising about it as a piece. It has a strange magic. (The Stage does not have a star rating system)

Secondly, Leaving Planet Earth, Grid Iron

The Guardian by Lyn Gardner. The show needs rather more of these small, intense and knotty human encounters, and rather less shuffling the audience around different spaces 

The Telegraph by Mark Brown, This thought-provoking science-fiction vision of a future Earth is all too believable 

The Independent by Anna Burnside, It looked good but added up to nothing much at all 

The Stage by Lauren Paxman, Have the site-specific experts….stretched themselves too far? (The Stage does not have a star rating system)

There’s much debate to be had here I think!


I will leave you with one further article, written by Lyn Gardner, theatre critic herself, discussing the role of the theatre critic. Sadly the article she is responding to is behind a pay-wall, but it doesn’t diminish what she has to say.



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