Every written review, comment, opinion and statement should come with the headline, ‘This is one person’s subjective opinion, trust in it at your peril.’ Recent discoveries in metaphysics and aesthetics have made it clear that there is no right or wrong, a person’s opinion is solely their own and every reaction is valid (the malleability and ambiguity of metaphysics means that it pwns physics when it comes to making an unfounded argument). So, safe in the knowledge that it’s all an illusion and you’ll never know unless you see it yourself, can we all take a step back and look at what we’ve done to ourselves?
Probably not straight away so let’s back up a bit. I thoroughly enjoyed Normal the other night. Of course I did, the director is one of my best friends, as are two out of three of the cast, the third being my girlfriend. This might be the Festival equivalent of name-dropping and if it is I want to be hung like an elephant. Regardless, it was obvious that any remote sense of objectivity I might have had lay tattered and bloodied at the feet of my desire to maintain a social life. More than that though, I simply had no idea how to differentiate between what I already knew about the people involved, the process, the truth behind Paddy’s moustache, and seeing the play as an outsider (or normals as you were ironically referred to).
Unfortunately this opened up a whole inner can of worms (the cliché is valid here because I say so) about whether I’d ever written anything with any remote sense of objectivity. After 23 seconds of pondering I concluded that no, I haven’t, but then again no one in the history of literature ever has so it’s fine. Unless you believe some holy text is the literal word of God but if this is the case then you’ve probably had difficulty following a coherent argument this far so I can call you all nincompoops with no fear of repercussions.
It’s impossible to write anything objective because that would imply that it is entirely untainted by bias and our biases (or experiences if you prefer) are what give shape to our opinions. Try and write something coherent that isn’t sourced from an opinion of some kind, I dare you. Answers on a tattoo. And science is the product of human assumptions and inductions so no help there.
All of this means that our reactions to theatre are already pre-determined by everything else in our lives and that the next show you see will directly effect your subsequent opinions of every other play and every other thought you ever have pending a lobotomy. Which might or might not be reassuring, but it does lead to two interesting conclusions.
Firstly, as no two people can ever lead exactly the same life, no two sets of opinions will ever be exactly the same. If you’re doubtful think of an opinion you have and then spend the necessary 48 seconds on the internet looking for a counter-opinion. A counter-opinion that will probably be badly punctuated and possibly in the minority, but an opinion nonetheless. And it’s valid because, secondly, no one person’s opinion can ever be said to be more right than another’s because then you’d be discriminating based on accident of birth and you’re a right bastard if you do that (my abusive step-father was a racist).
But wait Richard! If all these things are subjective then why are we constrained by morality and law? Throw off the shackles of humanity! Anarchy reigns! Bring cake! As much as I’d love to see ideologically confused drama students charging across Scarborough beach with flaming torches screaming this at the top of their lungs, it’s not quite right (oops!). It’s highly practical, us being the raging socialites that we are, to agree on some social contract where wrongs against persons are matched with compensation of some sort. So we have courts, juries, judges and so forth to decide what rights should be restricted and wrongs punished. It’s not perfect, it’s not objective and it doesn’t always work but it’s necessary.
There is no such necessity in the arts. Critics are not needed to pass or condemn shows because of social obligations to protect against wrongs. I’ve seen some eye-meltingly bad shows, but I’ve never felt morally wronged by one. The critic’s opinions are no more valid than anyone else’s. They might be well-read, learned, have years of theatrical knowledge, but the reaction and expression, ‘Fucking ace!’ is as valid a response as an eloquent thesis on the matter. That’s not to say that one won’t be infinitely more satisfying and interesting to read than the other, but that doesn’t make it any more true. Grasshopper.
All of this might seem obvious to everyone, so why do people care so much about what one person writes in a review? It does my fucking head in every Fringe when people in shows go batshit mental over reviews. Especially when they claim they don’t care and then lock themselves away weeping, smashing mirrors and wondering why everyone hates them because one person took issue with a part of their performance. It doesn’t matter that this one person’s opinion may be totally at odds with every other audience member, or that they’re naturally biased against physical theatre because they were raped by a monkey in a leotard, if it’s in print it must be more right than spoken word.
Then there are the critics. Opinionated, egotistical freaks who can’t and therefore teach, who believe that, just because they have a style of communicating their feelings that their editor likes, they are therefore the High Judges of contemporary art (the bad ones anyway).
Noises Off! is a great place to see these things taking effect. Every day there are a plethora of reviews, comments and opinions, no two ever being precisely the same. Some are well-written, some are offensive, all of them are valid and none of them are right. There are two NOFF elements that make it unique. Firstly the editorial control is set at minimum so every expression and thought can be shared and secondly there is no star system because any idiot who thinks that a theatrical experience can be distilled into a rating from one to five is a producer desperate to sell a show.
If the review serves any purpose for the performer it is as a mirror to their own insecurities. They should know intuitively if a comment is accurate about their feelings towards their performance, for them a review may raise questions but never provide answers. For the reader a review is at best enjoyable to read and a possible barometer of whether they might enjoy something. And personally as a critic writing a review is about the joy of the literary exercise.
Sometimes I wake up, look back on something I’ve written and think, ‘Maybe that was a bit harsh’. Then I argue myself to thinking that it’s OK because it doesn’t matter and anyone who takes what I mean to be anything but senseless expression of my own personal bias is mistaken and possibly in favour of censorship, the Nazis. Then I forget about it and move on to the next show. I’ve got a job to do here.