Friday Briefing: Why giving credit where credit's due can be tricky, and preserving theatre's records
Giving credit where credit is due
I've previously written here about the controversy that engulfed the opening earlier this month of Tree at Manchester International Festival, en route to a run at London's Young Vic, where it runs from 29th July. This involved claims that the originally-commissioned writers - two young female artists, Sarah Henley and Tori Allen-Martin - were sidelined and then not credited for their work, which is now billed as "created by Idris Elba and Kwame Kwei-Armah", who are considerably more famous and powerful than they are.
This has been endlessly litigated in the court of public opinion, most notably on Twitter, rather than an actual court (the original writers said they couldn't afford to go down a legal route).
But another important issue was raised by Susannah Clapp in her review for The Observer of the show itself: "Whatever the ins and outs here, the importance of asking who gets acclaimed – and how – in theatre is considerable. There is a side issue, too, for critics, which is not to do with historical input. I often wonder if, in attributing praise or blame to a director, I have actually got the right person. It’s not always easy to detect who is responsible for a particular effect in a production."
It's true. Given that we are not privy to the creative process and were not in the rehearsal room, we cannot know for certain who should get the credit for a particular moment we admire and may draw attention to.
One of the greatest moments I have ever seen in any theatre production occurred during the 2003 Broadway revival of the musical Nine, which revolves around a philandering middle-aged film director called Guido Contini trying to make sense of his unravelling life.
At the end of the first act, he meets his younger, boyhood self on a beach. In David Leveaux's production, as young Guido scoops up some sand in his hand and it falls through his fingers, the adult Guido runs up to catch it as it falls. And then there's a blackout to the interval. It is the absolutely perfect visual representation of what the character is trying to do: to catch the falling sands of his own life. I remember feeling profoundly moved as I watched it, and bursting into tears.
A critic's natural instinct would be to credit the director. But years later, I was interviewing the show's choreographer Jonathan Butterell and he told me that moment was his!
But then theatre is a uniquely organic, collaborative process; and many other moments may have been suggested by the designer or an actor. In the same production, I wonder who came up with the idea of Guido's mistress Carla making an aerial entrance wrapped in a sheet?
Critics can make educated guesses sometimes. But short of actually asking who did what, we will never know for sure.
Theatre's permanent record
One of the things often said for theatre reviews is that they provide a permanent record of an ephemeral art form: certainly, in a pre-digital age, they are literally a memory bank of impressions left behind by a show by those who actually saw it.
Nowadays, of course, many shows are filmed, whether in an NT Live version or equivalent, with multiple cameras providing different viewpoints. Some of these, like Kinky Boots, even end up getting released in cinemas. YouTube is a treasure trove of historical video content, too, with extracts from shows that might have been filmed for promotional use, or at awards ceremonies, and assorted TV chat shows.
But reviews still matter, because a good critic can tell you something more: what it felt like to be there.
Since 1981, Theatre Record (first under founding editor Ian Herbert, then by his successors Ian Shuttleworth and Julian Oddy) has provided an invaluable aggregation service in compiling and reprinting the major national reviews in one place, published together in a subscription magazine.
However, Theatre Record has now just gone fully digital itself and will no longer offer the print version. It's a sign of the times, of course, but given that the publishers of the reviews own this content, often behind their own paywalls, I'm not sure how sustainable it is for them to continue being licensed for use on another archival platform.
Of course, Theatre Record is not exactly a commercial proposition; its appeal is only ever going to be to true theatre geeks and researchers, so I hope that the publishers don't rescind those rights.
And websites, as we know, can be unreliable preservers of their own content, so it's vital that Theatre Record continues to make sure that historic theatre reviews don't disappear into the ether.
But hard decisions still need to be made about what history is being preserved. Hundreds of online reviews are now being written, which has expanded the critical discourse far beyond the print outlets that Theatre Record began by recording.
In a final column, Ian Herbert wrote of the changes to both the reduced physical print space given to criticism and the infinitely expanded online space now available. What is worrying, he said, "is the way review space has decreased, in terms of both wordage and sheer number of printed outlets.
To balance this, respected critics such as Libby Purves and Mark Shenton are writing as often as they like – and as much as they like - online, something that the digital Record has begun to recognise. The problem today for the theatregoer seeking expert critical advice is the enormous number of would-be critics, many of them products of the po-faced courses in criticism that have mushroomed in our Universities, ready to offer their views at sometimes inordinate length in an ever-expanding number of social outlets."
I am proud that the principal home for my reviews now is here on London Theatre, providing a direct channel to theatregoers interested in buying tickets to the theatre. It allows me to continue practising a craft I've been engaged in professionally for two decades now; but it's disciplining, too. I can't indulge in the "inordinate length" that Ian referred to (or I'd lose my readers); I also have a responsibility to those I'm writing about to be as fair as I can.