Klout doesn’t think I am influential in Theatre. It must be because the one magazine I started to write reviews for basically died and I haven’t had many chances to show off my talent in reviewing. However, few hours of sleep after I’ve been to one of the last performances of Henry V at the Globe Theathre, I got caught in a Twitter debate about Guy Masterson’s article on the Scotsman in which he criticizes the use of stars in reviews.
As a critic, I would rather not use them (I suppose Mr Masterson’s will grant me access to his productions as press from now on?!) but if I have to stick with the editorial guidelines faced up to now I find myself in the uncomfortable position of having to pick a star. There are moments in which, as objective as you might be, you will be undecided about a half, and maybe a half star is not allowed to you. Or maybe you are conscious about the nature of theatre, which is mutable and one performance is never like another one, and you don’t feel like giving a 5 stars review to one show you really liked. Or maybe it’s not to create exaggerated expectations or sound like you gave them a good review just because they let you in for free, or you are easy to please. My main one, as someone who is an incarnation of Dorian Gray who learnt from his mistakes, is the fear that the beyond brilliant performance will not reflect the whole run.
So far I have seen the performances on the stage of people raging from Dario Fo to Gianrico Tedeschi in Milan, to the Oliviers nominee Lee Ross and the overall amazing cast of Birdsong, a naked Craig Gazey and I seriously go to the theatre too little, because the remaining ones were the West End Kids and already mentioned Henry V. I have seen productions directed by Luca Ronconi and Trevor Nunn. While young talents often deserve recognition, considering the critical appraisal of said people I can safely say that if I see an astonishing play I can recognise it without it dancing naked with a neon light saying “Amazing play”. I can’t recognise a 5 stars play, though. Have you ever read the posters up the staircases in the tube at Piccadilly Circus?
All those long-run musicals in the West End are 5 stars, Award Winning, Best Night Out and so on. Of course, having been around for longer than I’ve been alive (most of them) they had all the time to win one each year. At the same time, though, it looks like every producer picks the best reviews and uses them as an advertising tool. I have been criticised for suggesting reviewers agree to that, but I am not suggesting reviewers agree to it at all. Not even subconsciously. However, this is what producers do, and the evidence is pretty clear. Of course they do it, they have to sell tickets. Nothing wrong with that. But as objective as a review may be, it’s still the opinion of a person, as educated or passionate about theatre they may be. It’s rare to please everybody. Star reviews give a reductive idea of what someone should expect from a play, and are good only for publicity. Stars are a mere addiction to a proper review that just kills the curiosity of people about a play, because they represent a statement.
What people seem to miss in all this is that potential audience members are only half of the people who are addressed in reviews. The other half are the people working behind each play. It is feedback on what they have done so far, and (should be) constructive criticism of whatever might need to be improved. A bad review, or an average one, should not kill the possibilities of the show to be seen because the play should improve as a result of what critics highlight. Also, as I said, as objective as you may be, it’s still an opinion and you can go and see a play everybody criticised and find it amazing. I don’t want to have on my conscience the commercial flop of any show just because, to me, 5 stars are by default too much for every show. Marks are always reductive, as artistic judgment comes always in shades. Art is not and will never be like a maths test where you can give 10/10 if all the exercises are correct.