April 19, 2007, by Peter Kirwan

Critics vs. Audience

The reviews are in, and Conall O’Morrison’s ‘Macbeth’ got a thorough critical lashing. Chief in the complaints were Patrick O’Kane’s unsubtle and shouty title performance (agree), the multicultural cast and setting (disagree), the concept of the witches (completely disagree) and the ultraviolent beginning (which I liked, but one critic made an excellent case for this spoiling much of which came later, and I definitely see his point). Two star reviews all round.

That’s fine, and I don’t think I would have given it any more than that. A lot of fantastic ideas, which I really believe in, but a troubled execution and a poor title performance.

What intrigues me, though, is the overwhelming reaction to the performance I saw, with a standing ovation throughout the Swan. I’ve seen mixed reactions a lot over the last year, but few as pronounced as this. The critics were in complete agreement with me, but the audience appeared to have seen an entirely different production, one which they utterly loved.

Who’s right? The answer, of course, is no-one. One of the beauties of theatre is that everyone can have their own reaction, see something entirely different and come away talking about entirely unique experiences. The difference between critics and audience, of course, is that the critics’ reactions then go on to be published and influence a far wider range of people.

I believe that the standing ovation on the night was down to a largely inexperienced audience. There were a lot of first-time visitors, including a great many tourists (primarily American students). My evening was spoiled in some part by the constant whispering all around me as people tried to tell their companions what was going on. The ovation itself was started by the main group of student immediately leaping to their feet and whooping, and the rest of the audience followed suit.

While this may have been an overreaction to the performance or, worse, an ovation caused by people thinking that this is what they are “meant to do”, that doesn’t make it invalid. Clearly, a lot of people saw a production that they thorougly enjoyed. Isn’t that a big part of what theatre is all about? People go to the RSC’s latest ‘Macbeth’ in order to see a good rendering of a famous play, and however bogged down we get in artistic snobbery, there is an aspect of the theatre that has to come down to simple entertainment- you shouldn’t need a degree to appreciate a play.

Critics get very bound up in their own cleverness. The older Shakespearean critics constantly refer to their long experience of performances, referencing productions going back over the last fifty years and talking in great detail about how a performance “should” be- the age-old adage being, of course, that critics are actors who didn’t make it and spend their time thinking about how they would have done it better. Experience is important, however. The views of the critics are the ones that stick, however much an audience enjoys it. A critic also has to sell papers, however. Charles Spencer’s review of the play for the Telegraph had the exciting headline, “How to massacre a tragedy”, yet was probably the most favourable review the play received. Big confident statements are the order of the day.

What does all this mean for the company, then? How are they meant to judge all of this? If the critics are slamming a play while it is receiving standing ovations, what does the director do? Cater for the audience, or pander to the critics? And perhaps more importantly, how are we meant to respond? Should our own reactions match those with the infinite experience? Or do we stick to our guns in the face of being told we shouldn’t have enjoyed this production?

The simple answer, of course, is that you should judge a production according to your own values and your own experience. I didn’t give this production a standing ovation, nor did I hate it. My particular values are fairly unique. I appreciate innovation and idea, and would far rather see a production try something different and fall down than churn out something I could do in my sleep. I appreciate good performances, but I do not judge a production on how good its lead actors are. I’m very interested in design, in the handling of small moments and background characters and in the overall theme of the play- what has the director found in this? I fall somewhere between critic and audience- I am unusually kind to productions and often judge them as much on what they are aspiring to be as what they are, but I also approach plays in the context of what has come before and bring something of my academic experience to it.

Finally, though, I think there is an element of taking on board the reactions of those around you. Theatre is a communal experience as well as a personal one- and while I believe that your own reaction is the most important thing, and that you shouldn’t be coloured by others, I love observing what else is happening in the theatre. If there is a popular positive reaction, such as a standing ovation, then it seems clear to me that, in at least one sense, the production must have succeeded. The audience is the most important part of the theatre, and if a production wins over its audience on the night then it has surely done the most important part of its job. The critics will ultimately decide where it stands in the canon of productions; their experience gives them some entitlement to that responsibility, and I will always appreciate their thoughts, even if I don’t agree with them. The live reaction, though, is equally important to me, and I don’t care if the audience is ‘inexperienced’- a play needs to play to whoever is before it, and all that matters is that it succeeds. ‘Macbeth’ is an excellent example, therefore, of a production that has both failed and succeeded spectacularly, and I only hope it uses its experiences so far to develop.

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