“Politika stavlja kazalište u dosadni položaj neprestane borbe protiv fašizma”
The easiest way to meet Andrew Haydon is simply attending one of the European theatre festivals. Conversing between critics could’ve been anything but tactful – from Brexit to all that -isms. The great irony of being a critic is perhaps best encapsulated in Nina Mitrović’s humorous short radio drama A Mess of a Man where critic nervously, and having a hangover (although Haydon doesn’t drink), writes his review during the performance. Irony aside, Manchester based nomadic theatre critic collaborated few years ago for kulturpunkt.hr in the project A Glance from the Outside. I’ve tried to explore those outside glances in differences and/or similarities between UK, European and Croatian theatre culture. How do we write, what do we see and how the digital technologies change our world and world of theatre.
Some would argue that more people are writing about a theatre than ever, and publish what they write about. What qualities do you need to be a theatre critic, or in your case a freelance theatre critic? Who is committed to arts writing at all?
Well, I’ll say the nice, tactful, English thing; that there are obviously lots of different sorts of reviews and each sort has its own constituency of readers, just as “theatre” itself is really too small a word to really encompass everything that is called theatre. Like “music,” the word itself tells you almost nothing. As such, I don’t think there’s one set of qualities. Being able to write interestingly/engagingly helps; having good taste is also invaluable, but no one agrees what “good taste” is. Similarly, I quite like reading the work of “experts,” but then I also like really honest, fresh, energetic perspectives from people who perhaps have never seen a particular play before.
I’m not really sure what to do with the “Who is…?” question. Psychologically, the news that the Guardian is cutting 150,000-words-worth of Lyn Gardner, has been pretty sobering. From that point outward, you can extrapolate that no one is all that committed, and that once the Guardian collapses, that’s pretty much it for serious print media theatre coverage in the mainstream press at all in England. But then, I’m not sure what the mainstream media even means any more, really. Perhaps a multi-platform constellation of specialist coverage is the future. Perhaps it’ll be mostly amateur (in the positive sense). Who knows?
You wrote in the mainstream Guardian and ten years ago started a blog Postcards from the Gods. In the Guardian I suppose you were limited with words, on your blog you have as many words as you like, but some people even like 140 character limit.
I actually started the blog shortly before I wrote for the Guardian. My “career” is typical of the positives and negatives of England/Britain’s “free-market” (and “amateur”) approach to the arts. When I started the blog, I was already reviewing (unpaid) for a now-defunct website called CultureWars and I edited the magazine Noises Off at the National Student Drama Festival. Starting my blog coincided with the Guardian starting to expand their own online/blog operation, so I was very lucky with the timing, and they asked me to do stuff for them. And when I started, because I was mostly writing blogs for them, they weren’t so fussy about word-counts. That all came later – after the financial crisis, when they started stepping back from their initial level of investment, and started needing every piece to justify its existence in terms of hits, rather than content (is my perception). Obviously the Guardian were also discovering that they had money worries of their own around that time. Back then, I also reviewed for [the London listings magazine] Time Out and even occasionally the Financial Times (!).
Being absolutely independent and free in writing reviews is sort of a myth or?
In theory I’m about as free as I can imagine anyone being, and I definitely still have constraints. I mean, I still depend on the good will of theatres for free tickets; I still observe some fairly subliminal British “rules” about “fair play,” which manifest most in the idea of “reviewing work on its own terms” (or at least acknowledging that those terms exist); and then there’s the fact that if you want anyone else to read your work, you have to somehow make the review fulfil its function in at least *someone* else’s eyes. Beyond that, normally I instinctively stay within the boundaries of “normal” reviewing – any changes are essentially glacial – because you want the thing to be comprehensible and useful to other people, but also because that’s much easier than somehow radically transforming the form every time you write. So, yes, it’s sort of a myth. Or rather, people perhaps expect *everything* to be different if you’re free and independent, but actually you’re still tied to some wider norms, if only to avoid completely alienating any possible readers. (Although, I’m not sure I really have the imagination to do that anymore than I already have done.) People sometimes talk about “completely reinventing the critical vocabulary,” but I’m more interested in using words and concepts that anyone can understand. There’s no point in reinventing language until only you and five friends can speak it.
[Having now said all this, I can already imagine disagreeing with myself in six months.]
Aleks Sierz (2014) in Critical Stages/ Scènes Critiques argued for strong, impartial, informed and fearless criticism based on economic independence. In his opinion, criticism cannot be left to the open market, which just forces down prices and rewards the cheapest instead of possibly the best. What is the future of vaguely funded career critic?
It’s an interesting problem. “What is the future for…?” is one of those questions critics get asked a lot (often in relation to the future of their own careers), and it’s struck me that we’re basically the wrong people to ask. We’re experts on what has happened – on directors’, playwrights’ and actors’ previous work, on what has come before, etc. – we’re not media analysts or clairvoyants. The best idea for society-in-general currently kicking about is the National Living Wage, and projections about “workless societies” – the recognition that there are fewer and fewer jobs that actually require human participation. If this is ever implemented, perhaps the arts and criticism will flourish exponentially. While the unemployed are kept poor, and held as a pool of cheap surplus labour in degrading living conditions with minimal education, this is less likely.
On the mainland we are still into postdramatic theatre. What is specific for British theatre at the moment?
It’s a very good question too. I mean, it’s worth saying a) that there are lots of different sorts of theatre in Britain, but more crucially that b) I don’t think we have anyone who has successfully theorised the main sort of work that we have in [let’s limit it to our] state-subsidised “art”(-ish)-theatre like Lehmann did. Certainly not recently. My colleague Matt Trueman recently wrote an interesting piece where he suggested that British theatre after 2009 was essentially post-van Hove. And although the wilder excesses of that claim can be comprehensively rebutted, I think you could say that we’re at an interesting point where [in some of the more forward-looking work in our state theatres] a kind of Regietheater-lite style is developing. Really, it’s a very English, very pragmatic compromise between the perceived virtues of British naturalism and the psychological realism, which still prevails in our acting schools (of which there are far, far too many), and all those nice sets we see in Europe. At root, I don’t think it’s philosophically any different to what was happening 10, 20, 30, 40 or 50 years ago on the same stages, but it looks a bit different, and it feels “contemporary,” so most people are happy enough to call it “new” and think of it as “progress”.
Which isn’t to say it’s not good. I really did think Robert Icke’s Hamlet really was brilliant, for example. But I think some older critics – when grumbling about this “new” style – wildly oversell the amount that anything’s changed at all. What’s interesting to me, is that rather than becoming “more European” as those critics allege, English theatre is becoming more and more “English”. It’s *more* naturalistic, *more* “truthful”, *more* based on making the *story* as clear and entertaining as possible. It’s *more* about emphasising the writer than ever. But, when it’s at its best, it’s incredibly watchable too. I think we probably could export some of the best work currently being made in British theatres to the mainland without feeling too ashamed. It does feel quite depoliticised as a style, though. We’re living through a period in England where no one really understands politics any more. Certainly not capital-P Politics. And the theories which we all vaguely understood before all suddenly feel very last-century. I think there’s often quite a desire for a consensus (our state theatres have never really been about attacking the audience), and so criticism isn’t very political (at least, not in the traditional, Marxist, class/economic sense), and people are just happy if the play is enjoyable.
When you say “emphasising the writer“, in Croatian theatres is quite the opposite. New writings and plays are exceptions where they should be, in my opinion, common landscape of theatre culture already visible on stages in UK and Germany.
Ok. Sure. But even between UK and Germany there’s a massive gulf, both between the number of new plays staged a year, and how those plays are treated. In Germany, it’s not uncommon for the same new play to open in more than one theatre in a season. In short, this is because of different commissioning models, and different arrangements re: performing rights. (UK theatres typically hold on to the rights of plays they stage for a while afterwards, specifically to stop other productions). As a result of this, each play basically only gets one shot, and the production therefore tries to “do the play exactly as the writer imagined” (there are rare exceptions). In Germany, directors are freer to do what they like with the writer’s script, because their production isn’t expected to be definitive. In England, directors ask writers to change their scripts, in Germany the director makes changes themselves, but leaves the writer’s script alone. And yet England claims to respect the writer more. I find it strange. Also, re: Croatia/England – well, I think we do wildly over commission new plays at the expense of lots of directors who could be remaking older plays. There’s probably a happy medium, but neither country seems to have found it yet.
The 90s changed British theatre, some would say. It changed European theatre as well. Just think of Ostermeier or Nübling. It even influenced some of our playwrights at the time, Šovagović and Špišić. Those were the times where theatre had remote cultural relevance. What about now? Is it relevant and what can theatre do in 00s?
This is fascinating. I mean, I was only 18 when Blasted opened. I didn’t live in London or even care about theatre when I was 18, so I can’t really tell how much it changed anything, because I didn’t know what it was like before that first-hand. My impression is that it possibly didn’t change British theatre all that much. Because of the scandal around Blasted, it was primarily understood in terms of content and not form, so for a while we had more violent plays being written, but hardly anyone took the other hint it offered toward non-linear logic in theatre. And the way it was staged (I saw the Royal Court’s remount of James MacDonald’s original production in 2001) was so literal-minded as to constitute precisely zero disruption of anything, theatrically. When I saw the Ostermeier production in 2006 I was completely thrown by “how different to the play” it felt. I sometimes wonder if Blasted (et al) managed to change European theatre much more than they even touched British theatre, which mostly carried on doing Shakespeare in historical costumes as a default well into the 2000s (and even now, still).
Beyond that, similarly, I’m not sure how much cultural relevance “plays” had then. Part of that is down to not living in London. The plays that were on at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, in the late nineties when I was a student, had precisely zero impact on anyone or anything. I get the impression things were slightly different in London, but compared to television or music (or even films and novels), plays necessarily have such a limited reach because they can only reach a maximum of 2,000 people a night. In a funny/perverse way, I think livestreaming (but not the NT’s cinema broadcasting) might actually be changing that. Sure, you lose the one thing that a lot of people say makes theatre unique (everyone in the same room, blah blah), but if you view theatre as more than the circumstances of reception – like: its subjects, its methods, its aesthetics – then I think we can see livestreaming as a potential liberation of theatre from (certainly in England) a ghetto of perceived elitism.
One of Croatian internationally acclaimed directors Frljić cuts, edits and shapes the historical narratives. Currently there is a lot of the sound and the fury on Festival of Croatian Drama in Split where his Our Violence, Your Violence is staged. His work argues for fighty, left-wing theatre. In what way, in theatre, do politics matter?
This is really difficult. I mean, obviously politics matter. And I’m Frankfurt School enough to believe that idea that everything is political, and things that are “apolitical” essentially endorse whatever status quo we have. Which, at the moment, is an ultra-reactionary, nationalist, right-wing, populist resurgence. Which puts theatre in the boring position of having to be continually fighting fascism. Which – certainly if you come from England – can make for some *really* dull theatre, telling you a load of stuff you already knew in the name of “progress” and “anti-fascism”. So much so, that at the end of some of these lectures – sorry, plays – you feel like going out and getting a swastika tattooed on your face.
On the other hand, I really like Oliver Frljić’s work. And I don’t really know how it differs in kind, I just know that it does. I suppose, because it’s so blunt, and so, so good at locating national scabs and traumas and picking at them. And he doesn’t really preach at the audience, he just puts things in front of them that they’d rather not think about. But, perhaps also because they’re often primarily visual pieces rather than “script-based” ones, which might help. England’s faith in the 3-hour “argument play” – one by the end of which, the audience is [theoretically] “better informed” – has probably been a more effective deterrent to people going to the theatre than a government ban.
Audio-visual devices changed staging stories or narratives or plays – from van Hove to Castellucci. Visual is in a way extension and/or substitution of words. Linearity is lost.
From what I’ve seen on van Hove’s work (which is by no means extensive) I wouldn’t say that his use of audio or visual technologies is such that it actually supplants words, or that he particularly throws out linearity.
Castellucci, on the other hand, seems almost to be working in a different medium (which comes back to what I said about “theatre” being an unhelpful word – in England you could almost as easily programme Castellucci in a festival of contemporary dance – and probably get a better reaction, funnily). In a way, I think Castellucci makes most sense as “a visual artist” whose medium happens to include people and music and text, etc. There’s a comparison that the music writer David Stubbs makes between people looking at a Rothko, and people listening to – say – Stockhausen. People are happy enough with Rothko, they’re less happy with Stockhausen. This applies, I think, to Castellucci (in England) too. If you put it on in a gallery, people might instinctively know how to watch it. Put it in a theatre, and quite a few people believe that it’s failed, because of the baggage they bring in about “theatre”. (Mind you, maybe people felt that way about Rothko’s paintings at the time if they were used to Titian and Caravaggio).
I should say, I don’t think one thing is better than the other. I’ve loved pieces by both and hated pieces by both. (Although I’m tempted to add that with Castellucci, that’s probably down to me, and with van Hove, it *might* be down to him.)
How visuals are redefining theatre and which senses do they arouse?
I read an interesting thing on Wikipedia the other day. I was suddenly curious about what theatre the Persians had in the same period that gave us Aeschylus and Euripides and it seems (bear in mind this is me condensing a Wikipedia article) that Persian theatre was essentially much more like our “off-scene”. Like, there was storytelling, storytelling with music, oral tradition, puppetry, dance, etc. And it’s thought that none of it was written down. It’s too neat to be true, but it does almost feel like what’s now been appropriated as “Western Culture” (which I think is a stupid way of dividing the ancient cultures of Mediterranean basin circa 500BC) is just one fraction of what survived of a total artistic output. But we’ve been refining away at this one element like it was the whole story for the next 2,500 years, and asking it to stand as all theatre. As such, it feels like “the visual” is this obvious, necessary component that’s always going to creep back in from the place it’s been side lined to, perhaps because of this emblematic, puritanical attitude toward text being a completely false binary in the first place. But I quite like the idea that The Visual can reassert its primacy from time to time, and can do so from a place that makes it seem fresh and rebellious (when, of course, inherently it’s nothing of the sort).