Theatre criticism – how to relish a moving target

I once sat behind a novice reviewer in a tiny theatre during the Edinburgh Fringe. The show had not begun and the stage was empty, but for a chair. I saw the reviewer make a note and wondered what could possibly have caught his attention. Peaking over his shoulder, I saw what he had written. It was the word ‘chair”.

It made me laugh, but I recognised his dilemma. What prompted him to note such a banal detail was the fear of a blank page. It’s a fear that never subsides, because, for the theatre critic, there really is nothing to say until the performance happens.

This is why theatre reviewers are an intrepid sort. Not for them the certainties of the cinema, where the seats are in straight rows, the films look like real life and the actors never forget their lines. Not for them the home comforts of the book reviewer, who can read at leisure and refer endlessly back to the written word. And not for them the predictability of the lone artist whose work changes little from gallery to gallery.

Instead, the theatre reviewer needs to relish a moving target. They must accept that the rules of the game are rewritten every night. They must understand that a first-night West End gala is a different beast to a wet Wednesday matinee; that Macbeth in communist Romania is not the same as Macbeth on Broadway.

It means that however much preparation reviewers do – reading the book of the play, researching the history of the production, boning up on the artistic team – their efforts will be wasted if they are not alive to the moment. It’s a scary thought, but one that makes the job exhilarating and, if you are reviewing overnight, more exhilarating still.

In the face of so much uncertainty, it helps to have a clear idea of your aims.

Irving Wardle’s Theatre Criticism is out of print, but seek out a second-hand copy and it will become your constant friend. He talks about questions a review should seek to answer, broadly summarised as: What is the production trying to do; how well did it do it; and was it worth doing in the first place? Answer the first two and you’re doing the job of a reviewer; address the third and you’re turning into a critic.

Then comes the vexed question of who you’re writing for. Theatre is an intimate artform, playing to small numbers at a time. Unlike the film, pop or TV reviewer, you can’t assume your readers will have the chance to experience the event for themselves. Yet some will have been in the audience with you and are looking for a second opinion. It means you must write for novice and initiate alike, producing copy that is as informative as it is insightful. If you can do that with passion, wit and enthusiasm, conveying a sense of the unique qualities of an artform that is never the same twice, so much the better.

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