Private Viewing: This week’s big question is: “Do we really need critics?”

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in a production at the Barbican centre, London. The theatre industry

Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in a production at the Barbican centre, London. The theatre industry has roundly criticised theatre critics who reviewed Benedict Cumberbatch's performance before the opening night. Photo credit: Johan Persson/PA - Credit: PA

In a week when the role of the critic has come under fire, arts editor Andrew Clarke defends a much-maligned role.

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude and Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in the production of Hamlet at the Ba

Anastasia Hille as Gertrude and Benedict Cumberbatch as Hamlet in the production of Hamlet at the Barbican centre, London. The theatre industry has criticised theatre critics for reviewing the play before the opening night. Photo credit should read: Johan Persson/PA - Credit: PA

It’s not been a great week for critics. I can’t remember a time when critics have been under such a sustained attack. Theatre critics from The Daily Mail and The Times have been roundly savaged by fans and the theatre business for reviewing previews of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet two weeks ahead of the official first night while, coincidentally, the whole notion of restaurant reviews has been questioned when four critics assessed the same restaurant in the same week and came up with four radically different opinions.

The question on everybody’s lips seems to be: “So, why do we need critics anyway?” Certainly, in this age of social media, it seems that the traditional role of the critic is redundant. After all, surely, these days everyone is a critic. Everyone has an opinion and thanks to smartphones and websites the means to transmit it.

So, does this make the critic something of a dinosaur? Is there a role in the 21st Century for a reviewer? Is there a need for events to be formally assessed and discussed? I would say yes – more so now than ever.

The first question we have to ask is: “What is a critic?” This may seem a daft question but the term critic means different things to different people.


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To some the term critic means someone who will deliver a scholarly assessment of a creative work, giving it a precise place in contemporary society and within the history of its art form. Usually this means producing screeds of impenetrable text which leaves the casual reader absolutely no wiser.

Another form of critic touts themselves as the source of all wisdom. Their work revolves around themselves and their opinion. They write in a very entertaining fashion. Clever, catchy phrases fly off the keyboard. Acidic put-downs make you gasp and then laugh at the writer’s audacity but when you have finished the piece you don’t really have much idea about the play, concert or the restaurant under review because the writing has all been about the author. The focus of the piece is invariably on the writer and his views on the world. The work frequently comes a poor second.

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When I was a young journalist, just setting out on my critical journey, my mentor and legendary theatre critic Carol Carver gave me some sage advice which still holds true. “There’s no place for a critic in a proper newspaper. What people need is a reviewer. They need to know is it any good, is it worth the price of a ticket and is it worth their time?”

These were the three criteria that Carol concerned herself with and it’s something that I too have taken to heart. With money still being tight and time starvation an increasing issue, theatre audiences, film fans, concert-goers and book-lovers need a handy guide to point them in the right direction.

I would argue that the best people to do that are reviewers.

Yes, all reviews and criticism is subjective but reviewers by the very nature of their occupation should see more work than the average member of the public. They have more work to compare each new performance or each new book with. They can say not only if a show is good but they can say: “Well it wasn’t my cup of tea, but it is good of its type.”

This is the sort of information which is useful to a potential audience rather than some self-glorifying prose. The more work a critic sees the more he can compare and contrast, giving the reader some tangible indication of what to expect.

A review can’t just be an exercise in conjuring up some pithy put-downs. It has got to be entertaining but it also has to be informative.

Reviews are a service to the reader – this is why reviewing theatre previews is not a good idea. A lot can change before the opening night.

Reviews also have to be honest. If something is bad then you have to say why it is bad. It’s not enough to mock its shortcomings.

Most social media comments are instant assessments. They are series of gut reactions. These have their place and are useful up to a point but the beauty of a traditional critic’s review is that they have time to consider what they have seen. Even if it is just the time it takes to walk back to the office.

The 15-minute walk from The New Wolsey to Lower Brook Street are some of the most creative moments of my day.

Also the reader can get to know a reviewer, learn their likes and dislikes and, providing the critic is consistent, this relationship can actually be reliably informative even if the reader violently disagrees with the review.

The day of the critic has not yet passed into history.

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