Theatre in Wales

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Criticism's Shrinking, Culture's Loss

On Criticism & Critics

Michael Billington , Theatre Criticism , December 17, 2019
On Criticism & Critics by Michael Billington The Internet has cut a swathe through seven industries. More are to follow. The winnowing of theatre critics across the print press has been slow but steady. Around a half-dozen remain in London, a couple in Scotland. But there will not be another Michael Billington, able to sustain a living across decades through seeing theatre several nights a week.

The loss of critics is a loss to culture. It is the right time for the 80-year old to hand on to a younger eye and ear. But too often critics are not being replaced by critics. Parliamentary sketch-writers have an open eye and a deft descriptive pen. But they lack depth. Hindsight is connected to insight. No art- like no human being- is born bereft of context. “Always connect” indeed, and connection is crucial to criticism.

I reported earlier this year from the Hay Festival on Simon Schama. “Great critics move across four levels”, ran the article, “They home in on the detail. They know their aesthetics intimately, confident in their judgements on form, content, meaning, expression. They have facts at their finger-tips: the life, love, money, or the lack of both, the context of history, the critical climate.”

“And they yoke the first three to personal response” the article continued. Criticism needs the courage of conviction. Robert Icke has delivered theatre of greatness. But when it came to Icke rewriting Ibsen in 2018 Billington was alone in saying “No”. And he said why. “This parasitic rewrite treats a masterpiece as a lecture and totally overlooks Ibsen’s elusive comedy”. He added an aphoristic “Everything that is latent in Ibsen is blatant in Icke.”

Critics are writers and writing is animated by the words that fit. On the arrival of “Company”in Britain, Billington saw “Its surface exuberance seems to conceal a great sadness, partly because it has the whiplash precision of the best Broadway shows plus a good deal of intellectual resonance.” “Alpha Beta” was an unleashed two-hander performed by Rachel Roberts and Albert Finney. “The sheer desperation that comes from feeling one has bankrupted the vocabulary of insult”, observed the critic, “I thought it a fine play precisely because it related private anguish to public issues.”

At “the Old Country” he looked into its depths: “the English never shake off a love of books and countryside, a deadly detachment and a sense of being emotionally wounded. Home, in short, is where the hurt is.”

And it is unlikely a new generation will possess his own depth with the classics. At a Propellor production he wrote: “Like all the best Twelfth Nights, Hall's production captures the play's opal-like shifts of mood: the sadness within the comedy, and the absurdity within the love story.”

Lastly the books. “The 101 Greatest Plays” is a provocation but all lists are there to be argued over. The history of Britain's theatre since 1945 in the aggregate simply is his “the State of the Nation.” The book is not a polemic but it has an aesthetic conviction coursing through. Its roots are equally admiration, understanding, and also love for the art. When big money and big tech invade the stage he responds that theatre “has nothing to do with hardware, hydraulic stages, scenic decoration or conspicuous displays of expenditure; but everything to do with narrative, language, ideas and physical skill.”

His view of the directocracy cuts deep and sharp. “I would gamble on the dramatist outlasting the auteur-like director” he writes. He pinpoints the truth of the theatre of display. “To create a separate area of theatre that is primarily “visual”, and to endow it with a sanctified purity as many as its apologists do, is simply to create a meaningless ghetto. And it is essentially conservative.” The strand of theatre that delivers palliatives to flatter the status quo goes against the historical record. In his retrospective he looks as to why the stage matters. “It is a vehicle of moral enquiry. It has questioned structures, scrutinised attitudes, satirised individuals.”

Its motor is the play, the link that threads theatre across the generations. From his list of 101 he concludes “a great play is both an expression of its time and open to multiple reinterpretations”. At a “Master Builder” that enthralls him he sees “the greatness of the production is that it probes the play’s mystery without imposing a single meaning.” And plays have just one origin. “The single most important factor that had made British theatre the envy of the world”, declared “the State of the Nation”, was its continuing ability to produce new writers.”

Great critics too are aware of their place in the cycle of time. Billington looked to Tynan who himself looked to Shaw. Critics are not there to be right or wrong; they are there to add a small richness to an art of complexity. He confessed his own personal leaning, in a line characteristically both dense yet succinct, as being “instinctively drawn to plays which display moral ambivalence, are rooted in close observation, blend the tragic and the comic and exude the life and energy that Baudelaire thought were the preconditions of any work of art”.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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