Michael Billington on the practice of theatre criticism

After 48 years and reviewing more than 10,000 shows, Michael Billington has retired as chief theatre critic of The Guardian. At an event at the National Theatre this week with its artistic director Rufus Norris, he talked about the practice of criticism.

Critical practice

Throughout the event in the Lyttelton Theatre, Billington explained his own approach to writing a review. “The first thing you’ve got to do is analyse your own reactions and try to express them as clearly as possible. The key thing for any critic is to be honest to his or her reactions. Because if you start to fake it or pretend, you’re soon in trouble.

“My system was to work out what I thought in some detail, and structure the review in some detail before I actually started putting pen to laptop. I have become more and more convinced that the key to most things in life – writing, acting, composing – is structure and if you structure your review in a reasonably shapely, orderly way, then the words should follow, with luck, logically and naturally.”

Now aged 80, he added: “In the old days, when I was much younger, I used to just sit at the typewriter and improvise and hope it would all work out, and structure it as I went along. With the years, I decided you have to get the scaffolding erected first and then you can write the review.

“But there are no formulas. It varies from one event to another. If you are reviewing, say, a new play that’s opened at the National Theatre, then the readers want to know your response to the text and the writing – it’s fundamental. If you go to see another King Lear, then what the readers want to know is how is King Lear played and how is it being directed, what is different from last time.”

He said that, as a critic, it was his “mission” to put a production in context for the readers. “The one advantage of being an elderly reviewer was that I was able to relate one thing to another, not treat every event as if it was a one-off but try and relate one play to previous work.“

However, he admitted that this made it harder to fit everything into the word count of a review which in The Guardian is generally between 400 and 450 words. “The most difficult thing always is corralling your thoughts into an allotted space. As we get older, you sometimes have more to say but you’re still confined within that limited territory of 400 or 450 words.”

He dispelled the myth that critics huddled together after a first night and decided on their verdicts. “We do not discuss a play with each other on the night. But having written our reviews the morning after, the following night you will then talk about the play you saw last night and say, ‘You gave that four stars?!’, or something like that.” He never reads others critics’ reviews until he has written his own. But afterwards he will see what they had to say “because I value my colleagues’ opinions very highly”.

He admitted it could sometimes be difficult to maintain a distance when reviewing. While he felt confident that plays with star names and big-budget musicals like Les Miserables were “reasonably fireproof” against poor reviews, he recognised there was more at stake for others. “I think it’s more difficult when you’re dealing with, say, a very young company starting out in a very small fringe theatre…. You really don’t want to come in with a heavy roller and squash what they’re doing, so you have to sometimes be fairly gentle and considerate. I think you can vary the tone of the review depending on the context in which you are reviewing.”

He also provided a glimpse of what it was like to work as a full-time critic on a daily newspaper. For his last five years at The Guardian, his deadline for filing copy was normally 9.30am on the morning after the first night. “You need two hours clear, I think, to write. I was getting up at 6.30am in order to be ready at 7.30am. It was one reason that I decided it was time to retire.”

However, he insisted that it was “not arduous” spending four of five nights a week at the theatre for 48 years. “I’m not going down the pits. I’m going out most nights to a nice venue.” It also meant he could work from home during the daytime. “I haven’t had to rush out at 7 o’clock in the morning to catch a bus or train to work. I worked hard in the daytime, I wrote books, but in actual fact you have an extraordinary amount of free time as well as those three hours you have in the evening.“

Critical challenges

At the event, Norris reminded Billington of one or two modern classics he misjudged on first night including Harold Pinter’s Betrayal in 1978 and Sarah Kane’s Blasted in 1995. Billington is not alone: critics disliked shows such as Pinter’s The Birthday Party in 1958 and Les Miserables in 1985. “The problem with being a critic, particularly with new work, is you have no time. You haven’t read the play. You go to the play and you have to judge it on first acquaintance without detailed study of it,” Billington explained. “My theory is that nearly all the great works in post-war British theatre get attacked the first time round quite simply because they’re too rich or complicated for critics to absorb. The more the artist is experimenting or doing something new or breaking new ground, the less likely they are to be understood on the first acquaintance.

“Sometimes it is responding to something that comes with no previous history, comes to you out of nowhere, the work that takes you totally by surprise. That’s why critics historically often fall at the fence when confronted by the revolutionary and the radical. If you see a play second, third or fourth time, you see the things in it you missed the first time.”

Having written the definitive biography on Harold Pinter, first published in 1996, Billington has gained further insights into the playwright’s works, including Betrayal. “The more you study that play, the more it reveals. It’s not just about sexual betrayal as I thought when I wrote that review. It’s about betrayal of yourself, your marriage, your talent. It’s a rich play with multiple levels of betrayal.”

However, he highlighted the risk of not being true to your own first reactions. “The other temptation is, knowing the history of criticism, to over-embrace something that looks revolutionary and radical.”

Billington concluded: “It’s a healthy indication of how critical judgment is always subjective, fallible, erratic, not holy writ, and it’s subject to revision.”

Critical factors

Billington discussed what he personally looks for when critically evaluating a production. Aside from skill in acting and how the production is presented, he said he was hoping for “a new experience” when he went to the theatre. “I want a play to enrich me in some way and add to my stock of understanding about myself or the world around me.” He also looks for a rich theme, with a particular interest in plays that “interweave private relationships with the public world” like David Hare’s 1990 play, Racing Demon.

He likes to hear language that is vibrant, colourful and interesting – one of the reasons he loves Pinter. “One of the great joys of being a critic the last 48 years has been the varieties of idiom and language you hear in the theatre.” It contrasts with what he sees as a “relative blandness” in much of the language in TV drama. “I don’t want to do television an injustice but on the whole you do not hear from the television set that kind of robust rich poetic language that you encounter in theatre.”

When pressed to described his “ideal” theatre, he said he liked mid-sized spaces such as the Donmar Warehouse, Almeida Theatre and Orange Tree Theatre in London which “show the rich possibilities of intimacy, engaging with the audience so they relate to the events much more closely”. But he stressed that there was exciting work coming out of theatres outside of London, such as Sheffield Theatres and Northampton’s Royal & Derngate.

He recalled how he has also been inspired by theatres and companies outside of Britain. He praised Berlin’s Schaubühne theatre company and its productions, such as Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard and Uncle Vanya, under the “meticulous and incredibly methodical” direction of Peter Stein who was artistic director from 1970 to 1985. He also remembered the “aesthetically beautiful” productions of legendary director Giorgio Strehler at Piccolo Teatro in Milan. Productions at Moscow’s Taganka Theatre, under its founder Yuri Lyubimov, showed how theatre could be a “a symbol of resistance to the authorities”, Billington said. “I realised then, in certain cultures, theatre becomes an absolute necessity rather than, as it is with us, something that is a pleasurable addition to our lives.”

In terms of revivals, he looks at how a new production sensitively illuminates an old text. “The great plays are infinitely renewable. You can go back to most of Shakespeare, you can back to Chekhov, you can go back to Ibsen, and you will always finds and discover things that you did not notice before.”

He cited Hamlet as one of the plays he never tires of seeing and reviewing. “Every single production of Hamlet is different: the casting, the director, the climate in which it is being staged, even the country in which it is being staged. If you see Hamlet in London or New York, it’s a different play if you’re seeing Hamlet in Moscow or some country that has lived through some kind of totalitarian regime. It’s a play that is always changing. The majority of Shakespeare’s plays are ever-changing.”

For him, the key to a radical re-staging of a classic is for the director to have a “fundamental respect for the work he or she is reimagining… when the artist rethinks the work without destroying its essence”. Examples include Marianne Elliott’s 2018 production of Sondheim musical Company: “recasting that leading role as a woman without actually destroying the fabric of the musical, without destroying the lyrics or the songs, just rethinking what that musical was about.”

However, he admitted there were some plays which had exhausted his ability to “summon up another reaction” such as Romeo and Juliet – a play that he has long felt has too violent an ending to match the plot. “But you can’t keep saying that in every review you write,” he added. He also admitted he had probably run out of things to say about As You Like It.

He also admitted there were some styles of theatre for which he felt “hopelessly inadequate” to write about: he was always glad for his colleague Lyn Gardner to cover London Mime Festival.

As at his Jocelyn Herbert Lecture at the National Theatre in 2018, Billington reiterated his reservations at overdesigned productions. “Theatre has to be a friend to technology because the world around us is changing rapidly and it would be absurd if theatre ignored the digital revolution and what’s going on with video. The danger sometimes is if particularly designers more than directors become enthralled by technology and allow it to overwhelm a production.” He cites Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Woman in White in 2004 which he considered a good musical but “there was so much movement of the camera going on, so many images behind the action, I felt slightly seasick by the end of the day. The design was disproportionate to the actual event.”

Diplomatically, he resisted calls to name the worst shows he had seen, although he felt that David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat in 2019, inspired by Harvey Weinstein, was a failure despite a fine lead actor in John Malkovich. “Since everyone knew what they thought about the subject before they went in, it was a play that actually told one nothing new or nothing fresh.”

Instead he looked back to when he started out as a critic in the 1970s, encountering “a whole rash of very bad musicals”, which he dubbed “tax-loss musicals” because “no-one would put them on for any other reason”. He recalled Thomas and the King, the 1975 retelling of the story of 12th-century archbishop Thomas Becket with music by John Williams, and a 1971 musical of Tom Brown’s Schooldays (with teenagers Keith Chegwin and Simon Le Bon) which inexplicably inserted a group of flamenco dancers into Rugby School in the mid 19th century.

Critical change

In his book State of the Nation: British Theatre Since 1945, Billington described how he was “fired by curiosity about the extent to which theatre was influenced by the political temper of the times and about the way even it may even have propelled social change”. Talking this week, he explained how he felt theatre could “reflect the times in which we live” but could also “be ahead of the rest of the public or indicate a shift in temper”. He noted how the second of Terence Rattigan’s one-act plays under the banner of Separate Tables in 1954 featured a man forgiven for sexual misdemeanours – a metaphor for homosexuality which was then illegal. “That was a good example to me of Rattigan being ahead of the game and even the West End audience being ahead of the game, or showing which way public opinion was drifting. If a Shaftesbury Avenue audience is ready to stand up and applaud a man who has been guilty of whatever he was perhaps indicated to me that something’s happening.”

He said he believed that today’s theatre, such as productions at the National Theatre, was still “pointing the way in which society needs to move” including the move “towards much greater gender equality and much greater racial diversity. Theatre can be not just a mirror of the times but can be an indicator of which way society is moving.”

Despite cutbacks in theatre reviewing at national newspapers, Billington refused to accept warnings that theatre criticism faced decline or death. “I have lived through many decades where you have heard about the death of the novel, or the death of the cinema, or the death of theatre, and they have all somehow survived. I don’t think criticism is dying or indeed dead. The tradition goes on. What is happening of course is diversification with reviews online as well as in print and I suspect in future those two will co-exist and, who knows, there may be a shift in the balance of power and the website could become as important if not more important than the print critics.”

Billington believes that theatre-makers need critics. Not only would audiences be worse off without criticism, he said, but it met “a hunger” among artists for a response to their work. “The most hostile angry bitter letters I’ve had throughout my life have been from artists whose work I have not reviewed rather than artists whose work I have reviewed. A notice of any kind is better than being ignored. I believe artists as well as audiences need critics. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?”

The talk in the National Theatre’s Lyttelton Theatre featured staged readings from Betrayal, Small Island and Racing Demon by actors Simon Russell Beale, Penelope Wilton, Aisling Loftus and Oliver Ford Davies. The latter prompted memories of Billington’s own early career as an actor and director while at Oxford University, including a production of Ben Jonson’s Bartholomew Fair in which Ford Davies acted alongside Billington as well as future film director Ken Loach. As a member of Oxford University Dramatic Society (OUDS), Billington directed Eugene Ionesco’s The Bald Prima Donna in 1960. It was poorly reviewed by The Sunday Times’s critic, Harold Hobson, but this propelled Billington to a life reviewing theatre rather than creating it.

Click here for details about other National Theatre talks.

Photograph: Daniel Farmer

This article was based on shorthand notes taken at the event on 24 February 2020. Although an accurate representation, they were not 100% verbatim. The article includes some historical detail, such as years, not mentioned as part of the talk.

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