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The Big Interview: US theatre critic Ben Brantley

Ben Brantley. Photo: Bruce Glikas/Broadway.com

There’s always been a lot of noise and offstage chatter in the theatre world, possibly more than ever now in the internet age where everyone is a critic. And everyone also has the means to broadcast their opinions, whether on Twitter or a self-created blog, and a means of reaching an audience if they’re interesting, different and/or provocative. A seven-year-old boy called Iain Armitage – whose father Euan Morton was the original London and Broadway star of Boy George’s Taboo – has become a sensation in the US for his quirkily individual reviews of Broadway shows on his YouTube channel Iain Loves Theatre.

But the most important Broadway review of all – at least in terms of influence and impact – has always been that of The New York Times, a title that styles itself as the paper of record. The men (and it has always been men, so far) who have occupied the post of chief theatre critic have included Brooks Atkinson and Walter Kerr (whose influence has been acknowledged by the theatre industry itself with each having a Broadway theatre named after them) and Frank Rich.

Providing that record for the past 19 years has been Ben Brantley. It turns out that the loudest critical voice in New York theatre comes from one of the quietest, mildest and best mannered of men. He is not an effusive presence at Broadway press nights. He invariably slips in quietly (and I’ve noticed he always leaves fast at the end). And he doesn’t exactly engage in small talk: he’s at the theatre to work, and sitting in his prime stalls aisle seat, he clearly takes that responsibility very seriously indeed.

He avoids socialising with theatre professionals as much as possible. “The Times is such a force, you have to be Caesar’s wife,” (meaning entirely above suspicion), he tells me as we talk over coffee at a sunny outdoor cafe in New York’s East Village, four blocks from where he comes to write every day in an apartment he used to live in but now uses as an office.

Simon Russell-Beale – 'perhaps' the best classical actor of his generation. Photo: Tristram Kenton [1]
Simon Russell-Beale – ‘perhaps’ the best classical actor of his generation. Photo: Tristram Kenton

“I don’t even like going to parties where there are people present who I may have reviewed,” he says. However, when this does happen, it doesn’t necessarily go badly: “Once, a friend of mine who gives the most dextrously assembled dinner parties in the world, invited me to one which Simon Russell Beale came to when he was doing Twelfth Night and Uncle Vanya at BAM [Brookyn Academy of Music] a few years ago. I’d given the productions good reviews. Someone saw us talking and said, ‘This isn’t supposed to happen, is it? You’ve called him the best classical actor of his generation!’. And Simon corrected him: ‘You said I was perhaps the best classical actor of my generation.’’

On the other hand, he is keenly aware of the impact his words might have, and tells a very amusing anecdote about Patti LuPone. “When she did Gypsy as part of Encores [the concert series that takes place at City Centre], I said it was an incomplete performance, and when they transferred it to Broadway I groaned inwardly. But I saw it and she was fabulous. In my review I wrote that the quiet munching noise you can hear is of me eating my hat. When I went into the office the next day, a huge hatbox arrived with a chocolate hat inside it for me.”

What about more public reactions to his reviews?

“No one has ever punched me out, but I may have had an icy stare or two.” Occasionally, a “victim” of a negative notice will reply publicly through the press or on Twitter. When James Franco got a negative review from him when he appeared on Broadway last year in Of Mice and Men, Franco tweeted, “SADLY BEN BRANTLEY AND THE NYT HAVE EMBARASSED [sic] THEMSELVES. BRANTLEY IS SUCH A LITTLE BITCH HE SHOULD BE WORKING FOR GAWKER.COM INSTEAD OF THE PAPER OF RECORD. THE THEATER COMMUNITY HATES HIM, and for good reason, HE’s an idiot.”

I don’t think ‘little bitch’ qualifies as libel

Brantley, approached for a response by the New York Observer, said, “I like Franco’s work on film a lot, and he didn’t disgrace himself on stage. I hope he returns to Broadway some day. And of course he’s entitled to say whatever he likes about me, as long as it’s not libellous, and I don’t think ‘little bitch’ qualifies.”

Now, Brantley tells me: “It can defuse hostility if you don’t ignore it but answer it as amiably as you can.”

The year before, Alec Baldwin had also taken offence at Brantley’s review of a production of Orphans he was starring in, and wrote an extended diatribe in The Huffington Post calling Brantley “some odd, shrivelled, bitter Dickensian clerk”, claiming: “No one I know of in the theatre reads Brantley except in the way that a doctor reads an X-ray to determine if you have cancer.” And he actively advocated his dismissal: “I think it’s time for The Times to get rid of Brantley. I don’t know anyone, anyone at all, who will miss him or his writing.”

It’s not exactly water off a duck’s back. He admits: “If I’m in a really masochistic mood, I may read comments about me, but otherwise I stay away from chat rooms”. But Brantley, who once contemplated a job in the theatre itself, adds: “You have to have both a thick and a very thin skin to survive in the theatre. You do to some extent in this job, but it’s not quite as public a display.”

Nevertheless, Brantley’s views have been on public display for a long time now, and his tastes shape New York theatre, consciously or not, directly or indirectly.

“I still love it, it astonishes me how much I do,” he says. So he’s not planning on retiring anytime soon. “Brooks Atkinson was at The Times long enough to see both the original Show Boat and Waiting for Godot,” he says, referring to an illustrious predecessor’s longevity in the post.

Brantley’s career as a New York Times theatre critic began in 1993 as deputy for Frank Rich at the end of his tenure, then also to David Richards and Vincent Canby for a year each before getting the top spot himself in 1996. The first show he reviewed for the paper was Annie Warbucks, a short-lived sequel to Annie, at the now demolished Variety Arts Theatre.

It’s a job he’d set his sights on ever since he first decided to become a journalist. “At my first job interview – for a publisher – after I moved to New York, I was asked: ‘If you could have any job in the world what would it be?’ I replied, ‘Theatre critic of The New York Times’. It took a while to get there.”

So how did he get there? The route was slightly circuitous, if somewhat inevitable. “I come from a family of journalists – both of my parents wrote for newspapers, and my sister, who died a year and a half ago, went to The New Yorker and then The New York Times, and my brother was a photographer, too, for newspapers. So it was the path of least resistance for me to follow, too, and was something I was doing from when I was 10 years old.”

As a family we spent a lot of time reading plays and going to the theatre

He was introduced to theatre early on. “My grandfather taught Shakespeare at university, so I became steeped in it. By the time I was born my father was working for Wake Forest College [now a University] in Winston-Salem, where I grew up, and they had a rather expansive theatre programme. My mother had also studied drama at the Provincetown Playhouse in Massachusetts. So as a family we spent a lot of time reading plays and going to the theatre whenever we could.” He started out by acting in kids’ parts; but found that writing about the theatre would be an ideal way “of combining the passion and the practice”.

But first he got a journalistic grounding reporting on another industry entirely. “My first job out of college was at Women’s Wear Daily, a fashion newspaper that exercised incredible power. It was the best graduate school I could go to, because I was thrown into the world of very powerful people and not just in fashion. It was a fairly influential organ, and in pretty short order I was made chief fashion critic – though I had no background in fashion whatsoever. It accustomed me to pronouncing with authority, but also understanding the responsibility that goes with it. And then I wound up as Paris bureau chief for two years.”

When he came back to New York, he got a job as staff writer at The New Yorker, doing profiles – only a couple of which involved theatre – but he was also writing film reviews for Elle magazine outside of his staff contract. Alex Witchel – a columnist and editor who was Brantley’s first editor there – told her husband Frank Rich about him. “She told him I loved theatre and went all the time, so the New York Times called and had me do audition pieces for them.”

It’s not a million miles from how young writers get noticed today, although these days they self-publish blogs. What does Brantley make of this new wave of self-appointed critics? “To some degree it’s healthy. If you’re willing to put the effort in – and it’s really not much more than a matter of a few clicks – you can sample different points of view to find one that most naturally accords with your own.”

But what of the future? “We are still so much in the early days in the way that the internet works – but eventually there will be a shake-out and a hunger for vetted, authoritative journalism. It’s very much in flux and it is hard to predict at the moment what is going to happen.

“I feel very lucky to actually have a forum and a job. But there have always been critics, since the Athenians, so I assume will be always be some sort of market for it. It’s just that we’re in the twilight of a certain tradition of it.”

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