Why theatre is wonderful

Volume 31, Number 1, March 2020

Michael Billington

The veteran theatre critic explains what he has learned about the role in almost 50 years at The Guardian.

Getting a job as a critic is difficult. Giving one up – not that I’ve quite done that – requires a certain mutual understanding. I count myself lucky in both respects. I wrote my first theatre review for The Times – of Saint Joan at Bristol Old Vic – in May 1965. I joined The Guardian in October 1971 as chief theatre critic and relinquished the post in December 2019, during which time I reckon I reviewed around 10,000 productions. I gave up not because I had lost my love of theatre, but because I found the strain of meeting four or five deadlines a week was beginning to tell.

But, happily, I have a new contract at The Guardian which requires me to write a monthly feature article and am still filing a fortnightly theatre column for Country Life. So, with one foot still in the business and another half out of it, I suspect now is a good time to weigh up how criticism has changed over the years.

The most obvious change stems from new technology and altered deadlines. When I began at The Guardian, reviews had to be filed straight after the show by 11pm and there were two ways of transmitting copy. One was to rush back to the office and bang out the review on a typewriter, watched over by an understandably impatient night sub. The other, when one was in outer London or the regions, was to dictate the review over the phone to a copy-taker. Every old hack has stories of the mistakes that could ensue. I once picked up the paper next morning to find that a farce by the French dramatist Feydeau had been consistently attributed to someone called ‘Seydeau’ (presumably a Seydeau-masochist).

Some of my colleagues had worse experiences. The great music critic Philip Hope-Wallace was horrified to discover he had reviewed an opera called Doris Godunov and Edward Greenfield was similarly appalled to find that Britten’s Les Illuminations had mysteriously transmogrified into Lazy Luminations.

Filing copy via a laptop has at least eliminated those errors: one now owns one’s own mistakes. But the joy of the laptop, apart from the speed of transmission, is that one can tinker with one’s copy and seek to find the right adjective for the right noun. Equally important is the fact that reviews are now rarely written on the night. (The exception is for what editors see as a major news event: when, say, a big star such as Benedict Cumberbatch or Maxine Peake plays Hamlet, or when a heavily touted new musical is unleashed).

In putting the case for overnight reviews, the Manchester Guardian’s CE Montague wrote in 1910 that the heat and dust of the playhouse is in your ears and that ‘below yourself in certain ways, you hope you are above yourself in others’. That’s fine in theory. In practice, it meant that innovative, ground-breaking plays were often slaughtered by overnight critics: Beckett’s Waiting For Godot, Pinter’s The Birthday Party, and (in my own case) Sarah Kane’s Blasted were all ruinously misunderstood. How can you judge a work that changes the theatrical landscape in under an hour?


A radical shift in critics and playwrights

I’m not claiming that the current practice of filing the morning after – and 9.30am is the Guardian deadline – eliminates mistakes. What it does mean is that you’ve had time to think about what you’ve seen. I’ve often said, half- jokingly, that many of my reviews were written in my sleep. But I genuinely believe that, during the night hours, a play penetrates one’s subconscious and allows one, with luck, to wake up with a refreshed awareness.

Not only has the process of reviewing radically changed in my lifetime – so too have the people who do the job. When I started in 1971, I enjoyed the company of some distinguished colleagues: Harold Hobson on The Sunday Times, Irving Wardle on The Times, Bernard Levin and Peter Lewis on the Daily Mail, Herbie Kretzmer on the Daily Express, Milton Shulman on the Evening Standard. But almost all, with the exception of Rosemary Say, who wrote occasionally for The Sunday Telegraph, were men. Slowly – very slowly – the situation began to change with the arrival of Jane Edwardes and Ros Asquith on the new listings magazines and Georgina Brown, first on The Independent and then on the Mail on Sunday. But go to any first night today and you will find as many women critics as men. I can’t list them all, but Susannah Clapp and Clare Brennan on The Observer, Sam Marlowe on The Times, Claire Allfree on The Daily Telegraph, Holly Williams on The Independent, Sarah Crompton on What’sOnStage, Natasha Tripney on The Stage, and numerous young website critics ensure there is something like gender parity. Happily, my successor at The Guardian, Arifa Akbar, is also backed up by Kate Wyver and Miriam Gillinson. Theatre criticism – thank God – is no longer a middle-aged gentlemen’s club.

The changes in criticism reflect radical shifts in theatre and in society at large. The gender issue is a major topic in theatre. One of the first features I wrote for The Guardian, early in 1972, was a piece asking why there were no women playwrights. Today, writers such as Lucy Kirkwood, Laura Wade, Lucy Prebble, Ella Hickson, debbie tucker green (she of the lower case), Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti, April De Angelis and, of course, the ever- experimenting Caryl Churchill are leaders of a very large pack. More women – though still not enough – are running theatres, ranging from Shakespeare’s Globe, Hampstead, the Bush and the Kiln in London to Liverpool Playhouse and, in tandem with a male, the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Casting in classic plays – certainly at Shakespeare’s Globe and the Royal Shakespeare Company – strives to achieve gender parity. The increasing feminisation of British theatre is now reflected in the composition of the critics.

In one area, however, the theatre is way ahead of the game. Anyone who regularly reviews plays will be aware of theatre’s diversity. It’s scarcely been noticed that in 2019 a minor revolution occurred. On three different occasions at the National Theatre – for Helen Edmundson’s Small Island, Athol Fugard’s Master Harold and the Boys, Inua Ellams’s Three Sisters – there were as many black as white faces in the audience. And not just on first nights. I was told this pattern was repeated during the run. The same story is true of the Young Vic, where Kwame Kwei-Armah has built on David Lan’s success in appealing to a diverse audience. It would also now be unthinkable to cast a classic play from exclusively white actors. Criticism, however, has not even begun to catch up with the theatre’s multiculturalism. Aside from Arifa Akbar, who is British-Pakistani by birth, there is no critic of colour occupying a major post. A shocking state of affairs which surely has to alter.

But, in general, the changes I have seen in my half-century have been positive. What of the negatives? Star-ratings on reviews are now a reality that we have to accept. They still, however, make me uneasy. Plays are often ambivalent, elusive affairs that escape easy categorisation. A good play can also be indifferently presented and a first-rate production can cover deficiencies in the writing. But the moment you slap a star-rating on a review, you give it an automatic grading. I also know of one deputy arts editor on a national paper who urges her critics to resist three-star reviews on the grounds that they deter readers. Yet much of what a critic sees is neither sensationally good nor disastrously bad, but occupies that important middle ground for which three stars seems appropriate.

In a busy world where we are faced with multiple leisure choices, reviews have become more utilitarian: a way of informing the reader whether shows are worth their time and money. Consumer guidance is a necessary part of criticism, but it is not its only function. What I hanker for is the more leisurely essay that looks at the hour-hand, as well as the minute-hand, of history, that steps back from the daily cascade of new productions to examine the state of theatre generally.


Why critics are now more important than ever

Kenneth Tynan, one of my heroes, was a past master at this and would periodically write columns that looked at what was not happening, as well as at what actually was. One of the first, and most influential, pieces he wrote for The Observer in 1954 was an attack on what he called the country- house ‘Loamshire’ play. ‘Loamshire,’ he wrote, ‘is a glibly codified fairy- tale world of no more use to the student of life than a doll’s house would be to a student of town-planning.’

Tynan’s assault on the social irrelevance of West End drama had a profound impact and helped to usher in a new age of theatrical realism. This leads me to the question I have so far carefully ducked as to the function of theatre criticism. It is obviously there to inform readers and to describe, interpret and evaluate the work on offer. Any critic has to fulfil that basic journalistic function in order to survive.

But, while I applaud that, I also cherish an idealistic notion of the critic. Oscar Wilde in 1890 wrote a brilliantly witty dialogue, The Critic As Artist, in which he claimed that ‘criticism is a creation within a creation’ and ‘a record of one’s own soul’. AB Walkley, then the drama critic of The Times, expanded on the theme in a lecture in 1903 where he argued that ‘criticism is literature, an art intended to interest, to give pleasure in itself ‘. James Agate, a legendary Sunday Times figure, went further in 1922 when he posed a basic question: ‘Have not they, the actor and the dramatist, the right to demand that the critic matched against them shall be of their fellows, a craftsman at his own trade, a conscious as well as a conscientious artist?’

All this, including Agate’s assumptions about gender, may seem a long way from the world we now inhabit: a world of rationed space, of star- ratings, of blogs and website critics.

Yet, although new technology means that everyone is now a potential critic, I still think the Wilde-Walkley-Agate vision is relevant. The critic is palpably there to offer a service to readers, but he or she should have a concept of the ideal theatre which they should outline in the most luminous, lucid and entertaining prose possible. Gloom-mongers would argue that this is pie in the sky at a time when we are supposedly witnessing the slow decay of criticism. I don’t believe this for a moment. Indeed, it is my conviction that criticism is more than ever a continuing necessity; that the more we are assailed by the white noise of hype, puffery and online commentary, the more we need the informed judgment of the professional critic who has been exposed to a wider range of work than that of the part- time playgoer, moviegoer, music or art aficionado.

But, in the end, criticism is not just about opinions. It is about the way they are expressed, and the nearer the reviewer of the future aspires to the idealistic vision of the critic as artist, the more potent and effective they will be.

Michael Billington has written about theatre for The Guardian since 1971. His books include The 101 Greatest Plays and State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945.


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