This Twitter conversation happened on 12th August 2013 (I can’t work out how to embed the whole thing, so this is a link to it): https://twitter.com/MarcusRomer/status/367028584818671616
Now, I didn’t directly take part in this conversation, but seeing as the brilliant Eleanor Turney was my editor for my time in Edinburgh and I was pounding out reviews for A Younger Theatre, Romer’s thoughts certainly hit a bit of a nerve.
The tweet which really rankled me was this one:
@ayoungertheatre agreed – & think you need to and nail your ideas to the mast and give more 5 star reviews – otherwise looks like timidity
— Marcus Romer (@MarcusRomer) August 12, 2013
Now, I didn’t give any show five stars when writing for A Younger Theatre this Fringe. This wasn’t due to timidity or being scared to nail my ideas to the mast – Christ knows I do that often enough anyway. No, the reason for not giving five stars was because I didn’t see any five star shows. Not according to my criteria, anyway. In my book, a five star show is technically brilliant, intelligently conceived, asks me to think about the world, does something different successfully and – most importantly – gives me those goosebumps you get when witnessing something extraordinary. Naturally different people are going to have different ways of judging their star ratings, but those of us writing for A Younger Theatre had a long chat early on before deciding that if a show did all these things for us (because, you know, criticism is subjective), then we would give it five stars.
The fact is that I didn’t see any shows for A Younger Theatre (I was also writing for Culture Wars – more on that in a bit) which I believed warranted five stars. I wasn’t quite willing to stick my neck out and give them that level of praise which should mean so much.
And this is the problem with Edinburgh, with its curse of inflated star ratings. In an ordinary sphere, a five star rating means a lot. The mainstream critics only really give two or three star ratings a year, so that when they do, you know they love it. As @VampireSoup said, “If I see a 5 star review by a critic I respect, I go into ‘sell my grandmother’ mode”. Five stars should be a recognition of something extraordinary (again, according to that particular critic). And a four stars should be given to something really damn good.
I was also particularly baffled by Romer’s suggestion that, if AYT had only given one five star review by the 12th August (two have now been given, with a couple more on the way as far as I’m aware), then our “metric was wrong”. Which is, quite clearly, complete crap. Because what he’s suggesting, I think, is that there ought to be a fairly even spread of stars across any particular August in Edinburgh. As far as I’m concerned, however, Edinburgh shows shouldn’t be judged against other Edinburgh shows – they don’t exist in a vacuum – and should instead be judged simply as pieces of theatre in the context of everything else that particular critic has seen. Otherwise, we’re doing them a disservice.
There’s also a rather fundamental flaw in this argument, as to give a fairly even spread of star ratings you’d have to do so retrospectively, dividing them roughly into fifths and then handing out ratings. But criticism isn’t – and shouldn’t be – like school exam results, which on the whole are adjusted to take in to account how everyone did (and even that poses many problems). There is far more room for nuance and, unlike many school exams, you can’t just get things right or wrong in theatre.
And let’s face it, most shows are, by definition, average. That’s no bad thing. Three stars demonstrates a good piece of theatre well executed, and it’s no coincidence that this is the most-used star rating for most critics. It’s a recognition that the company has made an interesting piece well.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying that star ratings are bullshit. I have no problem whatsoever in saying that they are, in my opinion, reductive, cynical, damaging and – perhaps worst of all – adding to the commercialisation of theatre. They only really began to take root in the UK during the 90s, and have been on the rise every since. Pretty much every critic I know despises them. Theatre-makers wish their work wasn’t boiled down to a semi-arbitrary number. Marketing departments groan when a glowing three-star review comes in and they realise they have to post a quote without a rating. And, though no wide-scale report has been done that I know of (maybe it’s time to invest in one), I’d be surprised if they have that big an impact on audience sizes.
Which takes me back to Culture Wars. Perhaps it’s not quite fair to say that “I didn’t see any five star shows”. I saw a load of brilliant theatre for the website, including Grounded, Missing, Ballad of the Burning Star and Long Live the Little Knife. But CW doesn’t give star ratings. Instead, all we write is a review of the thing we’ve seen, explaining broadly what they were doing and how they were doing it. I may have given one or two of these shows five stars, but I can’t really say for certain. When I entered the theatre for those pieces, I was going in having shifted mindset ever-so-slightly. All I was doing was experiencing the show, and didn’t have to worry about passing such reductive judgement on them.
There’s undoubtedly something wrong with my own practice here – I probably shouldn’t be thinking about stars when watching it – but once you become subsumed by that system, it’s kind of impossible to not think about shows in that way. Even for those of us that hate it, we use it as a shorthand when discussing theatre. It takes you over in a horrible, demented way, as if that’s all there is to say on any particular piece. It’s terrifying.
But it happens. And I found I was writing and – more importantly – thinking very differently when watching and penning something for Culture Wars. I never felt I had to justify a number or explain my love for something. Instead, my reviews – on the most part – came from a slightly different place, could be more considered and delve into slightly different places. That, of course, isn’t impossible when using star ratings, but the shock to my system of star ratings meant I inhabited a certain sphere from which it was liberating to break free.
So, where do we go from here? It’s all well and good complaining but how do we get rid of the damn things? I think I’ve seen the seeds of a rebellion in this year’s Fringe, and I have an idea.
All over venues in Edinburgh, you see rave (i.e. 4 and 5 stars) reviews plastered over boards and posters, both in full and in sound-bite form. At Summerhall and Northern Stage, however, there’s a small departure from this. I don’t think I’m wrong in saying that there are three-star reviews on the press boards alongside the four and five star ratings at each venue. (I’m pretty sure there were a few two stars too, but can’t say this for certain. Can someone check?) What this does is twofold. Firstly, it undermines the idea of star ratings and reviews being used to sell tickets. Secondly, and as a result of that, it reminds us that criticism is a starting point for discussion. Posting all reviews means that they merely act as a demonstration of the broad range of opinion any shows elicits rather than fodder for PR companies.
So maybe this is where we start – with companies and theatres publicising bad reviews as well as good ones. I know it sounds fucking stupid, but if we all agree that star ratings don’t do that much to drive sales unless there’s a consensus, then what harm can it do? Everyone is aware that marketing managers are only retweeting praise and that there’ll be some dud reviews out there, so why pretend otherwise? It may not work, but all it takes is one company to stick their necks on the line and give it a go. I know, I know it sounds moronic, but that’s only because current systems are built on growth and sales. We must, collectively, do our best to undermine them.
One reason publications give for continuing the use of star ratings is that they drive traffic to websites and are expected in certain contexts (Edinburgh, for example). The next stage, therefore, would be to have publications and makers come together to agree that particular shows won’t get reviewed with star ratings. Exeunt – for example – may agree with Northern Stage – for example – that whenever one of their critics goes to see a show at St Stephens, the review that gets written about any particular show won’t be accompanied by a star rating. This way, the risk of not using this system is smaller for both company and publication as neither is giving it a go alone. I have no idea what impact it would have, and I acknowledge there are many problems with that idea, but if we’re ever going to push forward, it’s worth a try.
At the very least, we need to talk about this. It’s already been the subject of many debates and has many feel it’s not a discussion worth having, but having used them extensively this festival I feel angry about them all over again. Star ratings have been a shock to the system and have, I reckon, actually made me into a worse critic at times. We all know that better reviews are written without those glinting shapes at the top. We all know that theatre companies are more likely to take note of a more considered unpicking of a show when it’s not presented in numerical terms. We all know the theatre would be a better place without them. So why are we still accepting them as the norm? Romer suggested that more of us needed to “nail [our] ideas to the mast”. I think we should do that too, but not with individual show ratings. If we are to avoid ridiculous arguments like this in the future, we need to make our thoughts clear about the whole sodding system.