Feature in Issue 17-3 | Autumn 2005

A question that has come up a lot recently has been the purpose of criticism – in particular, performance reviews in newspapers and in specialist magazines like Total Theatre. This issue was high on the agenda at the National Street Arts Meeting in May 2005, with both a presentation and a break-out session led by Guardian feature writer and critic, Lyn Gardner. It was also raised at the Circus Arts Forum conference, held at the National Theatre in April, at which a panel of critics and producers each presented their views – a rather odd session as one of the companies used this as an opportunity to lay into the critic (sitting on the same panel) who hadn't liked their work! This really does flag up the need to recognise that a review is after all only a personal opinion – and if you ask someone to come and give their opinion, you have to accept they then have an obligation to be true to themselves in their responses. We have on many occasions been made aware of the subjective nature of reviews at Total Theatre when we've come away from shows with very different responses, an example being Teatr Pieśń Kozła's Chronicles – A Lamentation which was a big hit at Aurora Nova 2004 and which I enjoyed greatly, reviewed in this issue at BITE by David Harradine, who didn't like it at all!

For emerging artists and companies, there is a real need for their work to get some sort of attention. There is a further issue in circus, live art and street arts that many established artists and companies working in these fields get no more coverage than absolute beginners as these forms are still not really on the radar of most critics. So here we have a question of criticism needing to exist to raise the profile not only of specific artists, but of the artforms themselves. For many physical and visual theatre companies, this is thankfully no longer the case, as much of the work (at least by established artists) is covered in the national broadsheets and we are a long way from the days when The Scotsman refused to consider mime / physical theatre for Fringe First awards at Edinburgh – it is now a usual occurrence for Total Theatre Award winners to also receive Fringe Firsts!

This leaves a dilemma for specialist magazines like Total Theatre to ask whether there is a purpose in reviewing work that is getting good national newspaper coverage. Or would it be a shame to abandon artists (like Complicite or Kneehigh) that we have supported for two decades just because the rest of the world has cottoned on to them? It's an ongoing dilemma – as always, your thoughts and reflections welcome!

This article in the magazine

Issue 17-3
p. 2