Masterclass: Critical acclaim

29th August 1997 at 01:00
The first theatre notice I wrote got me hauled before my editor for a ticking-off. It was 1957. I was 18 and doing two years on the Kent and Sussex Courier in lieu of military service. I was an avid theatre-goer and a regular at the Royal Court, where the kitchen-sink revolution was in full, mucky flow.

So when I was asked to review a production by the Hawkenbury Players in a school hall on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells, the outcome was inevitable. The piece was not about the frustrations of the young or the travails of the workers. Therefore I hated it, and said so in the dazz-lingly succinct style that Kenneth Tynan was pioneering on The Observer. "This play is a pudding, " I opined.

"A pudding?" asked Kay Clemetson in her best Lady Bracknell tones. She was well respected in the area for her uplifting editorials, and didn't like getting complaints about very junior reporters from outraged thespians. "What do you mean, a pudding?"

"Well, you know, doughy and irrelevant."

"I have never eaten an irrelevant pudding or, as far as I know, a relevant one. Really, Benedict, you should explain what you mean. What sort of pudding and why a pudding. Those are the questions you must answer."

As I flounced out of her office in my suede shoes, I recall thinking that my editor was an out-of-touch reactionary who probably thought the Royal Court was an annexe of St James's Palace. But time heals. My 57-year-old self salutes Mrs Clemetson' s memory. If there is one big fault in contemporary theatre criticism, it is that it fails to analyse its puddings. It spits out the stuff or swallows it with cries of yum-yum. It emits ughs or hurrahs. It does not try to work out why the cook chose a particular recipe. It does not anatomise the flour, sugar, currants and the nature of the taste. It leaps to judgment without bothering to comprehend.

I think I had better abandon the metaphor before I get clogged up with starch and treacle; but the point is worth labouring. Many young reviewers and some older ones think criticism is primarily about giving opinions, the fiercer the better. In the post-post-Clemetson era there are, I fear, a lot of editors encouraging them in that view. Sometimes you feel that the more like tabloid columnists Richard Littlejohn or Gary Bushell you are, the more successful you'll be.

But I believe there are alternatives or, if you like, compromises. The challenge is to worm your way into the minds of the playwright, director, actor and designer; to descry what they're aiming to achieve; and, if you're satisfied you've done so, to give or withhold what must finally be a personal imprimatur. The challenge is also to make this process lively and entertaining, to integrate analysis, interpretation and judgment into a compulsively readable whole.

This isn't easy. The older I get, and the more notices I write, the harder it seems. And I speak here not just as a reviewer, but as a teacher of reviewing.

When I was at the University of Michigan in the later 1980s, we started a degree in theatre criticism. It was the first and, I suspect, will prove to have been the last of its kind in America. The problems were many, starting with the fact that in Ann Arbor there's virtually no theatre to review. But we discovered that, while we might teach an aspiring critic theatre history and offer him courses in acting and directing that I dearly wish I myself had taken, there were other talents we couldn't easily bestow.

One was the ear to pick out an author's attitudes to his characters and their society, an eye for the tilt that directors give plays in performance, a feel for the nuances of a text and a production. The other was, of course, journalistic skill. As we should have foreseen, we couldn't finally teach the most knowledgea ble and responsive theatre person how to write an arresting review. We could only deepen gifted writers' knowledge of the theatre. Our one success, Ed Karam, came from journalism and now writes reviews for The Times from New York.

British newspapers being what they are, the implications for an aspiring reviewer are obvious. Immerse yourself in the theatre. Go as often as I did in the old days, when it was possible to see three shows on a Saturday and still get home to west Kent by midnight. Read a lot of plays. Act if you wish. Direct if anyone will let you. By all means take a degree in the theatre or, if that is unavailable at your chosen university, make sure that your English or language degree includes a strong dramatic quotient. But if you don't possess the art, the knack, the sheer trickery of the journalist, don't expect to make a living out of criticism.

If you're still unsure, a course or courses in journalism may confirm whether you have this knack and help you develop it. A degree in the subject might ensure that, even if you don't make it as a reviewer, you can still earn a living as a sub-editor or in some other journalistic capacity. My advice to an aspiring critic, though, is simply to get going. But how? There are no rules, no set paths.

Reviewing for a university newspaper gives you practice and allows you to build up cuttings that may impress an employer. Or wangle yourself a job on a regional paper and hone your teeth on the local counterparts of the Hawkenbury Players while you pen obits and do the other things expected of cub reporters. Myself, I left the Kent and Sussex Courier knowing how newspapers functioned, did a lot of student journalism at Cambridge, landed a job on what was still the Manchester Guardian, and, because I had a special interest in

drama, found myself its de facto northern theatre critic as well as one of its general reporters.

When I moved to London, and joined New Society as feature writer and books editor, I had cuttings to offer. If it had been 1997, I would certainly have pestered a listings magazine for a chance. Time Out in particular continues to create theatre critics. As it was, I went freelance, wrote notices for the theatre magazine Plays and Players, cadged what broadcasting I could, and managed to persuade the literary editor of The Observer to let me review first science fiction, then general fiction. One day in 1968 Anthony Thwaite, then arts and literary editor of the New Statesman, rang to ask if I was interested in becoming its theatre critic. Yes, I was - and remained in the post, with a hiatus on the New York Times,for 18 years.

Aspiring reviewers need luck and cunning, then. Perhaps they also require a certain kind of temperament. After all, the British theatre critic is expected to review King Lear on Monday, a naff musical on Tuesday, an earnest new left-wing play on Wednesday, an avant-garde piece from Amsterdam on Thursday, and a jolly sex farce on Friday. That doesn't just require catholicity of taste. It demands a weird omnivore psyche, part shark, part rat, part mechanical grinder and smelter. It also helps to have a Speedy Gonzalez mind. Indeed, if you write for a daily paper, you should give your inner Gonzalez a shot of extra adrenalin.

The situation in London isn't as challenging as it was when I reviewed in the north, where first nights usually began at 8pm, not a soft, southern 7.I can recall penning notices of King Lear in the stalls before the King had been reconciled with Cordelia, let alone carried her corpse on stage.

Once a fight broke out in the waiting room at Liverpool Lime Street station: young men pounding each other, old ladies screaming from the sidelines, the police piling in, and me trying to finish my review before the 11pm deadline. And since The Guardian then went out of its way to employ dopey copytakers, my problems were not over, though unlike my London counterpart, I never ended up with my name above a notice of The Merchant of Venice in which the leading character had become Skylark.

Nowadays the word processor and modem usually, though not always, substitute for scribbles and copytakers. But you may find yourself trying to ensure that a review of Tom Stoppard's latest play is in the system by 11. When that sort of thing is demanded, first nights rapidly lose their glamour. Often I itch for a megaphone through which to yell at all the beautiful people idling in the foyer or the aisles: "get to your seats, you poseurs!" Since the curtain usually rises very late and (thanks to the glitzy tomfoolery of the interval) falls very, very late, reviewing means dashing out, getting back to your office and somehow forcing your brain and your fingers to compose something coherent in the 40, 50, 60 minutes before a sub-editor puts his head reproachfully through the door. How is it possible to be measured, analytic and entertaining under such circumstances? Don't ask me.

Yet I wouldn't happily do another job. I tried academia, and itched to get back to the place where reputations are actually born. I missed the challenge and risk of being one of the human sieves that seek to separate the good and the potentially great from the inept, the second-hand and the ordinary. I missed the chance of spotting and celebrating the next Antony Sher or Caryl Churchill.I missed the exhilaration of watching talents emerge and evolve. God help me and my aging arteries, I even missed the front-line stress of it all. If you can't identify with that, the theatre critic's life is probably not for you.

Benedict Nightingale is chief theatre critic of The Times

The Arvon Foundation runs creative writing courses at centres in Devon, Yorkshire and Scotland. The first 10 readers to send a TES masthead together with their address to David Pease at the Arvon Foundation, Lumb Bank Heptonstall, West Yorkshire HX7 6DF will receive the new Arvon brochure in January and 20 per cent off the course of their choice.

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