The many who braved the foul weather to get to Richmond’s Orange Tree Theatre on the afternoon of Sunday February 9th were amply rewarded with 90 minutes of amusing and enlightening discussion with the leading theatre critic Michael Billington.
Proving as eloquent in person as he is in print, Billington was skilfully and affectionately questioned across the theatrical gamut by the theatre’s Artistic Director Paul Miller, the event being a fundraiser for the brave and highly successful in-the-round venue which Michael himself has championed on many occasions. He was rightly complimentary about Miller’s part in keeping Bernard Shaw’s work in the public eye.
With subjects ranging from his start in journalism to how the business of being a critic has changed across the decades, there was also time for his view on how the emphasis has grown more on new work to the detriment of the older repertoire of plays. He enjoyed talking about two of his favourites, Harold Pinter and Ken Dodd, and about the evolution of his signature puns which sometimes punctuate his work. Sharing that he was wisely advised to “let the joke come to you”, when they do pop up in his writings, they are a pleasure.
It was interesting to hear about his preparation for seeing a show, and what certainly distinguishes his writing from others is that he always brings his love of theatre to the fore, never in a snide or patronising way, but one which tries to see the positive; even when he illuminates a lack of success or achievement, it comes from a position of experience, knowledge and diligence which gives his work the credibility that has earned such respect by colleagues, theatre-makers and readers alike.
He talked about cultural shifts and their impact upon the theatre we see, designers who have moved away from the pictorial style of his earlier theatrical experience, and of directors who have become known for their own work, stepping out of the shadows of the writers. Opining that today, acting is de-romanticised, he also highlighted the difference across his fifty plus years of experience that acting today is rarely heroic and predominantly ironic. Citing a handful of actors and directors who came to mind, he was able to illustrate his points from a position of authority which hit home with the appreciative audience.
Questions from the audience included the star rating system for reviews (he doesn’t like it but has had to live with it), translations and their faithfulness to their original text, and actors being mic’d. He also discussed musicals, his love of Sondheim, and his lack of patience with the “jukebox musical”. The future of criticism was also raised, and with the good news that he is only semi-retiring, the enthusiastic applause from the audience demonstrated that we are all looking forward to much more Billington writing in the years ahead.