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The different lives of television and theatre critics

 Tuesday, 16th January, 2018

Part of the magic of theatre is watching something in the moment, live and raw; once it’s gone, it’s gone. In a consumption hungry society, theatre critic Mark Shenton compares the different lives of TV and theatre critics.

As a theatre critic, I'm literally never at home to watch television. Yet I'm constantly told its the art form that's defining our age, in every sense, and that the centre of creative gravity has shifted from cinema to TV. And the thing that I'm always delighted by is the fact that I can catch up with it after the event if I have to: unlike in the theatre, where you miss something and it's gone forever, TV is -- thanks to box sets and now Netflix - always available at the touch of a button.

I duly binge-watched the entire seven series of The Good Wife late last year, followed by the two series so far of its spin-off, The Good Fight; and right now I'm just catching up on Breaking Bad, ten years after it began being transmitted.

A few years ago I was also caught in Florida during a polar vortex, which meant that instead of spending time on the beach I was stuck indoors for the entire week; I duly watched the entirety of Downton Abbey.

Of course television isn't made to be consumed this way: its supposed to work in incremental weeks of revelation and tension.

But then I don't watch theatre in conventional ways either: most 'normal' people go once a week or a month, not (as I often do) seven or eight times a week.

Yet I also found myself suddenly longing to be able to swap my usual theatre pitch for television when I saw Camilla Long had swapped hers from film to TV in the Sunday Times recently. "I’ve officially left my wife for the mistress," she said, but it's also practically speaking a much easier beat, no doubt, as it doesn't mean having to go to early morning screenings in the West End, but something she could do from the comfort of her own sofa.

She also championed her new pitch:"Nothing matches television’s insanity, its intensity, its wit, its self-deprecation, its tireless obsession with bettering itself. The sheer volume of overmatter, lost ideas, culled scripts, abandoned pilots, shelved miniseries, ruthlessly tried-and-tested formulas, marks it out as the most creative and vital medium of our age. No other art form can afford this wastage. No other art form spends this much time tailoring itself to the tastes and desires of so many people. It’s pure anthropology; it’s transformed our sex lives, revolutionised our politics."

In fact, we live in a world of excess in every area of our cultural lives (except possibly new operas).  There's "overmatter", as she calls it, everywhere.

Even when I see eight shows a week, I only scratch the surface of what British theatre has to offer, never mind trying to expand my cultural diet to also include dance, opera and cinema.

Trying to cover it all is like trying to catch a rainbow: ever out of reach. And I also need to make room in my life for living, not just vicariously watching other lives being lived.

It's why this summer I will be taking not the customary two weeks off but will be taking two months off to spend in Provincetown on Cape Cod, a self-imposed break from my personal critical rat-race.

Yes, I'll miss a show or two (or 64, if I keep up my usual pace). But critics also need time to refresh themselves and keep our own passions running high.

Long also wrote of her new pitch: "It feels like diving into a digital Limpopo: endless possibilities, with some interestingly mucky bits."

And that's also absolutely true of the theatre. We may mostly swim around in the same river -- for London's national critics, that in and around the Thames, which I live less than a mile from -- but there are other rivers to explore. (And I don't just mean the Hudson in New York, which is the one I otherwise spend the most time near, also being less than a mile from that too).  I'll be soon alongside the River Aire, as I head to Leeds for a couple of shows.

Getting out of London is an important critical duty. So is stretching our own critical palettes -- there's no point just seeing stuff in our own comfort zones all the time, which are also comfortably close to Zones 1 and 2 in London.

But Camilla Long won't even have to stir from her sofa, by contrast. The world she'll be reviewing arrives on her phone, laptop and in the corner of her living room. Theatre critics at least have to leave the house!

Words by Mark Shenton