Lyn Gardner’s Diary: West End tickets go for £250, while those touring outside London struggle

We’re still in thrall to the romantic notion of starving artists.

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John Osborne once said that “asking a working writer what he feels about critics is like asking a lamp-post what it feels about dogs”. He was being quite polite. The English conductor Thomas Beecham christened critics “drooling, drivelling, doleful, depressing, dropsical drips”.

That was over 60 years ago. The internet has changed the relationship between artists and critics. Reviews are no longer the last word; they are merely part of a conversation that is started by artists, continued by critics, and then taken up by readers and other artists and bloggers. It is a lively babble in which responses and opinions bounce off each other. When I first started covering theatre for the Guardian 23 years ago, there was a gulf between artists and critics. Now there is genuine dialogue, one that’s not always polite but which is always passionate.

That dialogue has been good for me this week since the news about the Guardian’s abrupt termination of my contract became widely known. There has been little talk of lamp-posts. Even artists to whom I have never given a glowing review have been generous and supportive. Theatre has rallied around to express its disquiet about the way that broadsheet coverage is being chipped away, leaving only the mainstream to be covered. What is reviewed is what becomes valued in a culture. But the job of the critic is not just to chart the present but also to support the future.

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I am used to writing about theatre, not having theatre and journalists writing about me. I’ve found it discombobulating, even if an unintended consequence has been that my cool quotient has risen steeply, according to my youngest daughter, when one journalist improbably wrote about me in the same sentence as Childish Gambino. There have been moments during the past week when it has felt like I am present at my own funeral, hearing the eulogies. My fear is that from now on in I can only disappoint. Because I’m not dead, and I have no intention of abandoning writing about an art form that is so generously refusing to abandon me. All week, Beckett’s The Unnameable has been rattling around my head: “You must go on. I can’t go on. I’ll go on.”

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I have been lucky enough to work as a theatre critic during a time of rapid change. British theatre has transformed more in the past 25 years than it probably did during the previous century, and it has been a pleasure to have had the opportunity to chart the way it has become less text-bound, more collaborative and fluid. Less insular and more outward-looking too. It means the old labels are defunct, and the artists know it. But newspapers and blogs, and even the Arts Council, keep on using them, trying to neatly pigeonhole, and building walls between theatre, dance, visual art, sound art, circus, music and installation.

This week I have seen RashDash – theatre-makers and performers Abbi Greenland, Becky Wilkie and Helen Goalen – artfully destroy Chekhov’s Three Sisters, and watched choreographer and performer Julie Cunningham and her company meld the text of Sarah Kane’s Crave with dance at the Barbican. In both cases it was like entering a room you thought you knew well and finding the furniture completely rearranged and the walls painted a different colour.

Frequently after I have reviewed such work somebody – sometimes even newspaper arts editors – will ask: “But is that really theatre?” Wrong question. The question that theatre-makers are posing is: what is it that theatre might be? Far more interesting.

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Was it the internet that killed the critic? I think not. The theatre blogosphere is in rude health, with hundreds of writers up and down the country. But the internet is challenging newspapers that find their financial models stretched. Who could disagree with Muriel Gray (@ArtyBagger) when she drily observed on Twitter: “Wearying of people complaining about journalism being ‘behind the paywall’ as though it’s a new evil elitism. Papers used to be in a shop called a ‘newsagent’ and if you wanted to read the news you bought one. Radical.”  Good journalism costs money to produce.

As does good theatre. We are still far too in thrall to the romantic notion of artists starving in garrets. Just because you do something that you love, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be paid for it. That’s getting harder as cuts to local authority funding and a steep decline in lottery sales – with a knock-on effect on the numbers of small grants available – all take effect. Many of those who tour report that they are being offered the same fees as 20 years ago.

London remains largely unaffected. The West End is buoyant even as ticket prices inexorably rise. There are plenty of takers for top-price £250 tickets to Hamilton. But outside London, theatres face more testing times with local authority cuts and tightened family budgets that make a trip to the theatre a luxury. The work is still vivid and bold, but for how much longer?

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In London, everybody now exists in their own bubble on public transport. Eyes are downcast, fixed to phones. Last week on a Tube, a man began a quiet, threatening rant at another man, while nobody in the carriage except myself and a woman with a small child and baby looked up. We were the only people not wearing headphones.

Long-distance trains are another matter. The enforced intimacies of table seats make instant communities of us all. This week I discovered from a travel agent the best hotels in Mexico (where I have no plans to holiday), met a professor who studies snails (slow work), and heard about the intricacies of a phenomenon, of which I was unaware, in which people pay to watch other people playing video games. Maybe there is a living to be made getting people to pay to watch me watching theatre. 

Lyn Gardner tweets: @lyngardner

This article first appeared in the 18 May 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Israel and the impossible war