LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BOYS AND GIRLS... welcome to the big top blog of Douglas McPherson, author of CIRCUS MANIA, the book described by Gerry Cottle as "A passionate and up-to-date look at the circus and its people."

Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Criticism as poetry

Katherine Kavanagh
Bard of the Big Top?

What do critics really think about the shows they review? In an ideal world, you'd like to think their review reflected their reactions exactly. But in our less than perfect world a myriad of compromises can take place between watching a show and writing about it.

How many times have you read a review and thought he or she is just saying that because everyone else is saying the same thing because it's fashionable to do so. It happens - sometimes out of insecurity on the critic's part. "If everyone else thinks Cirque du Soleil is brilliant," the insecure hack thinks, "dare I say I hated it? Or could I possibly be wrong? Perhaps I'll look like I don't know what I'm talking about, so I'd better go with the flow."

Then there are the magazines that give good reviews because the show in question is buying an expensive advert in the same mag. Or the mag is running a big feature on the show, so running a bad review in the same issue would look stupid. Especially if the critic is the same person who wrote the feature - so perhaps it would be better to accentuate the positive?

Then there are a writer's internal pressures. Critics should be impartial, but in a small world critics get to know people who appear in productions they review - they may have interviewed them; or just met up over interval drinks at a previous production. It's hard to be harsh with people you know, easier to be 'diplomatic.'

Telling the blunt truth can make you unpopular, and even critics paid to judge other people can find it hard to be judged.

There's also the question of 'balance.' "Okay, I hated it," the writer thinks, "But I can see why some people would like it. Maybe I should point out those aspects."

All of the above means that a review may sometimes be a long way from a writer's reaction on the night.

Circus critic Katherine Kavanagh found herself struggling to be both honest and fair in a review of Puffball she was writing for So on her blog, she's provided a fascinating glimpse into the work of a critic by presenting her review as it appeared, plus the unedited notes she wrote during the show. Which is the most honest or evocative, she asks?

Well, what struck me was that her unedited notes read like free form poetry! Check out these 'stanzas':

Making lipstick and dress from discarded plastic sheet.
Tenderness as Chrysalis wraps Evans and carries off.
Is this a prologue and a beat is going to kick in?

Hard to be damning about such a personal piece of work, whose roots were in issues that I care about and believe in.
It’s also hard to find positives to write about this show!
25 mins to go and I’m checking the time and my neighbours are talking about when they can get out.

Poet as critic!
Check out the whole thing, here. And Katherine, can we have more in that style, please?

Circus Mania author
Douglas McPherson
- his comments have made him
unwelcome in some big tops.
Click here to read more on the pressures on critics.


  1. Douglas,

    Thanks for putting out this most insightful and knowing post. You honestly acknowledge many of the reasons that can cause a "critic" to compromise his-her genuine reactions. And when that happens, the critic in my opinion has fundamentally failed. The beauty and depth of a review should lie in its guarded individual voice. Otherwise, it blurs into group think. I believe the only answer, not always possible, is to avoid all of those potential distractions, from ad revenue to reviewing the work of a friend, which goes against the very idea of "friend." Perhaps the greatest challenge is to publish an opinion that goes against the majority thinking, but that is what can make a review even more authentic and valuable. So many pressures.
    I could go on -- a fascinating topic!

  2. Glad you enjoyed the experiment Douglas! Maybe I'll play with some more like that and see what develops ;)
    This also reminds me that I keep meaning to write some thoughts on David's 'Judging the Judges' posts from Monte Carlo…subjectivity and all that! Must get onto it!