Charles Spencer’s review of Snookered

Charles Spencer, theatre critic at the Telegraph began his review of Snookered with this: “When one thinks of young male Muslims in Britain today, I suspect the first image that comes to mind is of indoctrinated fanatics heading to London from the North with explosives in their rucksacks.”

On his blog, Nimer Rashed takes issue with that sentence and writes: “My problem with these words is not only that they rehearse a dangerous cliché, encouraging and perpetuating a misguided consensus, but also that they’re part of a response to piece of theatre. When our brains start to process an idea, as any writer knows, the first words and images drawn from our imagination are likely to be the least trustworthy, the least original, and the most prone to generalisation. They’re facsimiles of experience: photocopies, counterfeits.”

And yet how many people act on those initial responses?

Nimer goes on to make a fair point when he writes: “The problem with Mr. Spencer’s paragraph is that it takes the complex strands of experience, the connective tissue that links us together, and ties it into a tiny knot of hate. It acknowledges the divisiveness of “us and them” and, in its assumption that this is the de facto consensus, enshrines this oppositional position as absolute.

And it does all this with three little words. “When one thinks” is a pernicious phrase – it encourages prejudice without accountability. The inclusion of “one” (not “I”) carries an entitled assumption that this is the way we think: the common view, the status quo, shirking complexity in favour of cliché. “One” claims to speak for the many, but instead speaks for no-one in particular, and is wholly unaccountable. It is groupthink, and it is extremely dangerous.”

Here’s my take on it. Spencer is a critic. Critics write about “the audience” or “viewers” or “listeners” or indeed “one”, they generalise. They try to tap in to the zeitgeist they perceive and give us an idea of what they like, so that in relation to them we can decide if might like it too. But the only really useful way to do this is for them to be honest and to engage with the art they’re criticising and Spencer has done both of those in his first sentence.

He follows “when one thinks” with “I suspect”. Suspect, not know. He’s taking a risk, talking to his readership as well as making a real effort to understand the play and give his opinions of it a place in the world beyond theatre. In doing this, he has tapped into the theatre zeitgeist and dared to suggest that we might not be as over our prejudices as we like to think – a brave, necessary comment to make in an industry that can be very introspective and stagnant with a muddled view of what progress means.

He proves my point about stagnation when he writes “one longs to learn more about his (Billy’s) affair with a white girl and its consequences.” Now, this theme has been done to death. How much more sensation can be squeezed out of conservative parents and their take on interracial relationships? But Spencer suggests that actually, theatre audiences (along with himself) might like a bit more please. I would hope that’s not true but nonetheless, we need more mainstream critics to be as honest and engaged as Charles is with the first line of his review even if they’re rehashing old clichés we wish were over.

Here’s my review of Snookered.

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