I hate star ratings. But I understand their necessity in a theatre industry that is, at bottom, an industry. Star ratings are handy marketing tools, and go up on posters with the usual adjectives like ‘stunning’ or ‘dazzling’ or, truly one of the worst offenders, ‘important.’ But they can be a negative currency too, and also exist to give reviewers, and their readers, a bit of fun. A one-star review will likely gain more interest than five, because who doesn’t love a trainwreck? Other than those on-board, of course.
I usually know pretty early on how many stars a show is going to get. If it’s good, but not interesting, it gets three. If it’s great, but not perfect, it gets four. If it’s really great, and it does something worthwhile, it gets five. Lower ratings are saved for shows that need improvement, or shows that I think can take the hit. Fringe shows get higher ratings than big budget shows purely on this basis. If all this sounds arbitrary, ambiguous, and possibly unethical, it’s because it is.
The theatre industry is deeply unequal. There are imbalances of power almost everywhere you look, from who runs the buildings, who gets the funding, who gets to do the work, and who gets to see it. Theatre critics are not passive observers in this messy matrix of cultural and economic capital, they are active participants. Like the Romans of old, they can choose who lives or who dies. Thumbs up, thumbs down. Five stars, or one.
I loved reviewing theatre. I would recommend it to anyone, as it’s by far the easiest and cheapest way to see as many shows as possible. If you’re learning your craft as a writer, this gives much-needed exposure to a world that is otherwise prohibitively expensive, and often exclusionary. My decision to leave criticism is not because I don’t think it is valid. It’s because what I’m doing is not criticism.
Full disclosure: I have not been (nor am likely to be seen as) a ‘critic’ in the traditional sense. I have never written for a national, nor have I ever been paid to write reviews. One could argue that this already disqualifies my writing from being serious criticism. But I would argue that, whether my opinions (and those loathsome star ratings) appeared in print or not, a critical response to a piece of art is just that – anyone can do it, for any cost, at any time, and in any way they wish.
We put so much stock into one person’s opinion and the medium in which it is given that our idea of what makes good art is totally skewed, limited, and limiting. Why is a five star review more significant than, say, a conversation with a stranger after the lights come on? Why are the words of a Billington or (perish the thought) a Letts more worthwhile than a laugh, a tear, or quite simply that euphoric, joyous feeling that comes from being with other people, watching and engaging with theatre together, collectively?
We also need to look harder at who is writing the reviews. A 2016 survey found that 94 per cent of British journalism is white, and 86 per cent university-educated. 7 per cent of the British public go to private schools, and yet over half of all journalists and editors received their education in them. A study in the same year found that 92 per cent of arts audience were white.
Looking at these statistics, it’s not hard to see how theatre critics might not be the most representative group of people. This is a problem, because as long as we value theatre criticism, we are valuing an incredibly narrow set of perspectives and interests which, regardless of an increased interest in work from ‘diverse backgrounds’, still get to decide what is good, and what is bad.
The kind of work I am interested in seeing is usually not the work that I am best placed to review. This is not to say that I can only have an opinion on a piece of art in which I am represented, but rather that another perspective can (and usually does) carry more weight. And this goes for everything, not just work that directly represents one person or community. What do benefit claimants make of Hamilton? What do sex workers make of Shakespeare? What do children make of theatre in general? These opinions are likely to be far more interesting, far more worthwhile, than anything you will find on your news stand (or what few of them remain).
This is why social media has become such a contested terrain for contemporary criticism. When Heathers opened last year, the reviews were either mixed or negative, with several reviewers giving the musical three or two stars (there they are again). But Heathers was a huge hit, and much of this was down to the ways in which the producers of the show deliberately used social media to target a younger audience, and featured Twitter reviews in their marketing. And why not? Surely a young girl’s opinion, given on a platform other young girls are likely to use, is far more meaningful, far more insightful, than one given by some gouty middle-aged bloke writing for the Guardian?
But even if we change who writes the reviews, we still need to change the way in which we view criticism. We should see reviews not as judgements, carved into stone and pronounced from on high, but rather part of a dialogue between artist and audience, where both parties create meaning together.
Beyond that, we should advance collectivity, and the emotions and ideas that are generated from witnessing (and participating) in art together. Needless to say, such a response is only as good as its audience, and the people in the seats matter just as much, if not more so, than those on stage. If we view the role of the audience as a critic in its own right, there ought to be no barriers to entry for gender, class, ethnicity, age, or ability.
When it comes to alternative criticism, there are plenty of people doing great work. Question and answer sessions are not new for productions, but under Chris Sonnex’s leadership at the Bunker they have become a standard feature of many of the shows, and there are also other, extra-curricular ways of engaging with the work, such as DJ sets and pub quizzes. In terms of writing itself, I have also really enjoyed how Exeunt have featured dialogues when exploring an issue, such as recently with the Old Vic and its gender-neutral toilets. It would be interesting to see this format expanded to reviews themselves, as this could make for an exciting and illuminating form of critical engagement.
Perhaps these are utopian ideals in a capitalist economy. Theatres need to sell tickets, and very often depend on positive reviews from important people in high places. What I hope is that the above provides some alternative ways of thinking about criticism, and maybe, in a tiny way, we can start to change the discourse altogether.
I’m thankful for the opportunities that reviewing gave me. But maybe it’s time we look for a new star system.