Theatre critics and critical theatre

The right to critique and engage in a polemic is part and parcel of the fundamental democratic right to freedom of expression. How much use are theatre makers making of this at a time when the mood of society oscillates between indifferent conformism and unthinking radicalism? Do theatre makers see themselves as natural commentators on social issues?

What issues have Slovak theatre makers focused on in recent years? Have they managed to respond effectively to what really makes Slovak society tick? Whom have they dared to criticize on stage and in what context?

Like all post-communist countries, Slovakia has a long tradition of censorship, which has lately been hidden behind a veil claiming to protect morality and national pride. It turns out that even today it takes a great deal of civic courage for dramaturgs and directors to present unpopular issues on stage.

However, as theatres rely on subsidies provided by national or regional governments, can they, by definition, be sufficiently free to overtly tackle current political scandals involving politicians in power? How can civil society support theatres and, conversely, what support can theatres provide for civil society? Shouldn’t we regard being critical not only as our constitutional right but also as our duty, in order to prevent our societies from collapsing under the strain of long-term unresolved problems?

Although Slovakia has a strong tradition of criticism, this has been mostly unspecific or indeed anonymous. Ours is a country of friends, both in the best and worst sense of the word. Friends do not criticize each other. Those who judge their own community are regarded as snitches. And theatre critics are often despised as whistleblowers.

Further undermined by problems experienced by all print media, critics have been raising many questions. What is the point of reviewing purely commercial productions whose sole ambition from the outset is to provide undemanding entertainment and nothing more? Or is it the critic’s duty to take into account the broader political context and not apply solely narrow aesthetic criteria? Can critics exercise positive discrimination, favouring socially beneficial productions that may not be innovative in artistic terms? These and related issues will be covered in a discussion between Slovak and Belgian theatre critics, theorists and managers.