Anatomy of a walk out: when the critic leaves the theatre

Anatomy of a walk out: when the critic leaves

In which the theatre editor virtue signals at the expense of a star rating

I would like to apologise to the organisers of the BE Festival and Ivo Dimchev for my melodramatic walk-out towards the end of last night's performance of P Project. Dimchev's solo show is an intriguing reflection on the relationship between the audience and the performer, the power of money to encourage uncharacteristic behaviour, the importance of maintaining moral integrity in the face of social pressure and the potential of art – in this case, Dimchev's beautiful, soaring contralto – to enthuse even mundane activity with poetic meaning. However, I felt that it was necessary to register a protest – by marching ostentatiously out of the auditorium (across the front of the stage) – at the conduct of the audience.

P Project comes on as a playful comment on the cynicism encouraged by the funding of theatre – having been given a grant, and deciding that his idea for 'the Pussy catalogue' is good only for 'tourists', Dimchev decided to offer his sophisticated audience 'dramaturgical freedom' through the chance to collaborate with him, live on stage. In exchange for a set fee taken from Dimchev's funding, audience members are invited, variously, to write poetry (which Dimchev improvises into piano and voice compositions), dance, undress, simulate sex and, most importantly, provide an immediate critique of the event.

Gradually asking for more outrageous behaviour – the audience are paid cash – Dimchev builds P Project on these contributions, presenting a series of scenes that reveal less about the apparent subject matter – poppers, intimacy, sexual display – than the dynamic between the audience and the artist. With the right financial incentive, and the permission of the creator, the audience will write poetry to order, tap dance, kiss and even get naked and pretend to fuck in public. Dimchev's unassuming and ironic persona smooths the increasing intensity of the quests with a mixture of mock Diva tantrums and the beautiful sound of the songs that he improvises from the poetry.

However, the finale invites two people onto the stage to write brief reviews of the show – one negative and one positive. Unfortunately, the negative review compares the performance to the Holocaust for comic effect, a completely unacceptable and lazy bid for laughs at the expense of a genocide. The audience, eased into an open, friendly atmosphere by Dimchev's relaxed presence, applauded and guffawed.

I – and a few other audience members – shouted out that this was not cool, but the laughter and applause drowned out our protests. I made the decision to leave, from the back row and thence across the front of the stage, not just to protest the mention of the Holocaust but in reaction to the audience's willingness to accept anti-Semitic humour, even praise it.

A further concern, which contributed to my decision to disrupt the flow of the event, was that the finale demonstrated a common misconception about criticism. In inviting two members of the public – Dimchev insisted that he did not want professional writers or festival volunteers – the haggard notion that 'criticism is merely opinion' is given another airing. Dimchev himself has every right to present this idea but, as a critic striving towards an ethical practice, I am glad that I was given the opportunity to contest it.

Regardless of the content and quality of the performed 'negative review', it refused to take responsibility for its simile. The writer – undoubtedly believing that he had been given permission to express his opinions by the artist – failed to consider that a weak Holocaust joke had a moral consequence. The cheering audience then failed to consider that their hooting also had the consequence of supporting this unethical conduct. Criticism, contrary to some popular opinion, is not a passive reflection on art but a performative act of writing. It adds to the discussion around performance, politics and society, it presents a view of the world, and has a moral responsibility to the artist and its readership.

The critic has responsibility for the impact of their review: thinking that the artist gave permission is not acceptable: what kind of a critic needs permission from the artist to express their opinion? Nor is any variation on 'only following orders' or vague allusion to 'everything is permitted' in the desperate attempt to justify an offensive tweet (this being the defence by one professional critic recently against accusations that a tweet he had posted encouraged body-shaming).

This might be a pompous, self-serving article that subsumes the experience of P Project beneath my personal need to apologise and demonstrate my personal moral purity, but the ethical dimension of criticism is frequently ignored as the medium descends into a parade of puff-pieces that fail as reflective commentary on theatre but operate as marketing for selected shows that conform to an ill-defined standard of quality. Aesthetic taste is subjective, but an ethical position remains the foundation of a critic's authority.

P Project may deserve a more traditional critique – it certainly reveals Ivo Dimchev's ability to introduce complex ideas through an apparently facile dramaturgy – but those members of the audience who giggled at the Holocaust joke appear not to recognise that a theatrical event is not merely dress-up and pretend: language has consequences, and moral responsibility is not left in the foyer. Having offered the audience 'dramaturgical freedom', Dimchev manipulated that freedom by offering money – and the chance to shine on stage for five minutes – before exposing how, without the right to protest, that freedom is little more than a chance to hide in the darkness of the auditorium. I apologise to Dimchev for interrupting the show, but I am also aware those of us who did leave in response to the negative review made the spectacle all the more powerful.

BE Festival runs until 7 July, Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

BE Festival

A festival of international boundary-pushing theatre, dance, comedy, circus, music, visual and performing arts.