Discussed in this essay:
Tonight at the Tarragon: A Critic’s Anthology, edited by Kamal Al-Solaylee. Playwrights Canada Press, 2011. The book features work by prominent Canadian playwrights such as Michael Healey, Kristen Thomson and Jason Sherman, and launches, in fact, tonight at the Tarragon Theatre rehearsal hall, 30 Bridgman Avenue at 5:30 p.m.
A funny thing happened with the rise of the blog forum—suddenly everyone became a critic. That proliferation of unfiltered, amateur voices spouting personal opinions online fractured criticism—in the arts world, anyway—into professional (read: employed) and blogger (also: your neighbour) camps, a distinction that Toronto writer and editor Kamal Al-Solaylee, a card-carrying member of the former, insists permanently separates full-time, salaried critics from well, everyone else with a WordPress account (or “reviewer,” his consolatory offer).
His claim to the theatre-critic title, including a four-year tenure in the Globe and Mail’s prime gig, was a graduated, gradual, ascendency that began with a five-year test-run as a freelance theatre and visual arts critic at Eye Weekly in 1998. It could be the Ph.D. in Victorian literature from the University of Nottingham bestowing him with a critical imprimatur, but a canon of meticulously researched, beautifully rendered reviews— literary time capsules of a play’s critical and academic scholarship that predates his viewing of a live production, often delivered in his trademark sass—speak for themselves.
Whatever the basis for the regal distinction amidst what he largely speculates are superfluous mignons to friendly theatre PR reps, Al-Solaylee is a critic if at least because his latest book says so. Tonight at the Tarragon: A Critic’s Anthology is an idiosyncratic collection of six homegrown plays that were originally produced (or received their English-language debuts) by Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre—what Al-Solaylee purports in his intro is Canada’s “de facto national theatre”—between 1998 and 2005, coinciding with his run as a critic.
And he’s since kept the title, even after shifting back into academia in early 2008 as a journalism professor at Ryerson University, and his successor, the Globe’s current theatre critic, J. Kelly Nestruck, was announced. Now removed from the “theatre ghetto”—an incestuous world of actors, publicists, other critics, and yes, bloggers—and nurturing future feature writers and arts critics, Al-Solaylee retained his currency with think pieces and occasionally unflattering profiles of prominent theatre figures appearing in publications like The Walrus and Toronto Life, and a brief return to the critic’s chair at the Toronto Star earlier this year.
Most days, he’s happily downgraded to casual theatergoer—you’re more likely to spot him at the opera—but the anthology is his latest addition to Canada’s literary theatre criticism tradition, one regularly populated by boosters and unforgiving taskmasters, as he pointed out in his first essay upon inheriting the role from his similarly unmalleable Globe predecessor, Kate Taylor. Siding with the latter of the two, he quoted former New York Times theatre critic Jonathan Kalb, where any art “so vulnerable that it needs euphemized reviews to survive ought to be put out of its misery.”
He’ll tell you that he’s since mellowed and with his soft-spoken drawl, it’s easy to believe him. Yet as a former student, who once misspelled the name of a prominent Canadian filmmaker in an assignment—and experienced the unforgiving tongue-lashings he frequently doled out as a critic—I don’t buy it. Like his unwavering standard for ideal Canadian theatre, there’s a similarly low threshold for mediocre criticism, which is probably why he’s so hard on the bloggers.
Critically speaking, he’s still got it, and I never made that mistake twice.