On horror and criticism: a review of reviews.

My careful reader by now knows that a moment of great opinionatedness is coming right after the word 'Anglo', paired with this or that. However, Anglo theatre criticism has again genuinely disappointed, via Londoners' professional reactions to Relocated by Anthony Nielson.

Giulia Merlo, the future star of London's criticism, offers a swift explanation of why it is so, in a beautiful sequence of appreciation for works of art which, just like Relocated, draw their excellence from a fine, delicate portrayal of a state, an emotion. Relocated, staged in a tiny, dark space, with an immensely ugly set that is all black walls and low ceilings, draws us into the state of mind of a person so frightened as to be way beyond hysterical, a person for whom traumas ooze from every crack in her world. It is almost unbearably scary: I have spent entire three quarters of this play waiting to be let out. And of course this is magnificent. At the end, we know exactly how soul-crushing it would be to be locked up in a basement, what anguish one needs to live with after being unwittingly involved in a murder, and to which extent it never leaves you, never. We know things that cannot be explained in words: we have experienced pure feeling.

And yet, review after review, Londoners are giving dry thumbs up. Commendable, but insufficient. And a theme is emerging: I’m not sure if that is what Anthony Neilson had in mind for his latest devised/written-up piece, writes Ian Shuttleworth in Financial Times, adding: I’m not sure about much of its 80 minutes. I’m not sure if I’d claim that there was a theme to Anthony Neilson’s work, continues London Theatre Goer. Karen Fricker judges for Variety: More time was required to sort out what comes across as an egregiously provocative conceit. The jewel in this crown is probably Michael Billington’s one-out-of-five-stars’ review:

…I kept asking myself to what end we were being scared other than to give us a morbidly indecent thrill and to tickle our jaded theatrical appetites. …if Neilson's play offers any general thesis, it is that, confronted by cases of the maltreatment of children, society resorts to facile condemnation without examining the causes. Coming from a writer who has played on our own voyeuristic curiosity, that strikes me as a bit rich.

Of course the production, designed by Miriam Buether and sepulchrally lit by Chahine Yavroyan, is effectively staged. But that is beside the point. In the end, the evening appeals to the same debased instinct that leads tourists to stand outside Josef Fritzl's Austrian home and take photographs. I emerged both shaken and spiritually diminished.

With due respect, what theatrical sensibility (ie, the ability to enjoy a piece of theatre for being a piece of theatre) Michael Billington may possess is a mystery to me. To be fair, other reviewers generally praise Neilson’s oeuvre with purposeful conviction. Caroline McGinn, in TimeOut, concedes: What this play does most effectively is grab you by the pulse and keep you there, quaking, for every one of its 80 minutes. Sam Marlowe, in Times Online, praises: This is work that disturbingly demands its audience's complicity, and leaves an indelible stain on the memory. And the most felt response probably comes from Paul Taylor in The Independent, who concludes his review stating: As well as offering a weird perspective on the idea of loyalty and fatherly protectiveness, this brilliantly directed piece takes us to a place that's inaccessible to news reports and editorials. Once seen, never forgotten.

But still, commendable, yet inadequate. For here we have all the usual ails: the need to assess as good or bad, the need to decipher the theme, the meaning, the purpose of the exercise, and an idea of art as a polemic, rather than what Susan Sontag called a thing in the world, something to sensually experience, appreciate for its own sake.

Giulia rightly points out the piece that Anthony Nielson wrote for The Guardian Theatre blog over a year ago, which pre-empts Billington’s review:

“Many critics still believe theatre has a quasi-educational/political role; that a play posits an argument that the playwright then proves or disproves. It is in a critic's interest to propagate this idea because it makes criticism easier; one can agree or disagree with what they perceive to be the author's conclusion. It is not that a play cannot be quasi-educational, or even overtly political – just that debate should organically arise out of narrative. But this reductive notion persists and has infected playwriting root and branch.”

Instead of further discussing Anthony Nielson or Relocated (bare with me for now when I say only that it magnificently filed and polished the production to take full advantage of the cast, the space, the time and the audience: it was theatre at its most realised), I would like to jump to a piece Andrew Haydon wrote in his blog, Postcards from the Gods, on the discussion he had with some Western theatre critics.

In his beautiful text, Andrew discusses a thoughtful analysis of an abysmal piece of theatre given by a Slovenian critic, which he considered “startingly eloquent”, yet probably more interesting than the piece itself. He gives thought to the schism between Anglo critics, mostly newspaper-, dedicated to hailing a masterpiece or burying a turd at as short a notice as possible, and Western critics, more interested in interpreting and explaining and discussing. Esslin has written on the same before, linking it to different programming logic between these two theatre cultures. However, Haydon poignantly concludes:

“In many ways, partly because of this lack of a serious intellectual culture in British public life, having a more creative, interpretative critical culture wouldn’t make much sense as there simply aren’t that many plays being produced that would benefit from such rigours being applied to them. While say Martin Crimp and Howard Barker might enjoy such a regime change, current critical favourites from Alan Bennett to Roy Williams would find themselves left a bit out in the cold. The fact of the matter is, not much British theatre is actually very arty. It wears its messages and meanings plastered all over its sleeves and generally prefers to offer stories that anyone can readily understand with messages that it would take serious concentration to overlook. I generalise, but not by much. At the same time, this divergence of critical thought does explain why both Crimp and Barker, not to mention Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill, receive so much warmer receptions on mainland Europe than in Britain. It also provides the answer as to why so many normally intelligent, thoughtful British critics treat work by some of Europe’s more successful but idiosyncratic directors as if it is something to be debunked and dismissed.”

The ultimate crime is that Billington appears completely unfazed by the sheer terrifying joy and beauty of Relocated, preferring to ignore it for its lack of clear motto, a statement of intent. The fact that Neilson manages to combine interpretable depth with clear sensual pleasure somehow isn’t enough, because , firstly, sensual pleasure is in this case visual, tactile, emotional, and not merely witty dialogue, and Anglos are rather unaccustomed to treat visual stimuli seriously; and second, because muddy semantics lack clarity, that ultimate quality praised in an essay. Or a review, for that matter.

As of myself, I am still trying to talk with the play, rather than about it (oh I know you couldn't tell, not now!; but give me a minute). That, to me, is a respectful response. I am glad to be back in Europe, to have access to different traditions of theatre writing, and to finally escape that Anglo need to justify any intellectual effort in tangible terms: monetary profit, benefit to the reader, informing the audience.

The best thing a European critic does to the audience is teaching it how to see.