Last night, I went to see Kurt Weill’s Street Scene at the Young Vic, its first UK staging in 20 years which drew chief theatre critics from almost every national daily.
This morning, I addressed a dozen students, year 10-11, at corporate HQ on the prospects for arts careers in the media. Which would you think was the more excitable audience?
The students were terrific, sharp as buttons and receptive to early-morning stimulation (they laughed at my jokes). They were also media savvy, fully informed about the impact of internet usage on the print and record industries. They were not going to be fobbed off with bromides. What they wanted to hear was a range of fresh solutions to a familiar crisis. I did my best to give them hope.
The critics were in Thursday-night mood, worn out after too many late nights filing reviews for the last editions. But by the interval, the ones I chatted to were hopping and popping with the impact of the work. And by the end they (and I) were on a Weill high, totally blown away by the sensational mutations of ‘Lonely House’ leitmotiv with which the composer drives the piece.
Someone said this sort of excitement reminded him why he became a critic in the first place. I was struck more by the vital social function that performing arts critics perform, wading night after night through dullness and mire in the hope that something will light their fire, as Weill did ours last night.
That is why newspapers need critics – to protect readers from the routinely awful and the meretricious rubbish that masquerades as novelty, and to excite them with the blood-rush of the real thing. This is also why people read newspapers – to find a voice they can trust to lead them through the barren wilderness to a kind of promised land. Kurt Weill knew that, even as old man Kaplan ranted about ‘the capitalist press’.
Every newspaper that sheds its critics, as so many are doing, loses a powerful reader magnet.