Michael Billington has revealed the shows he hated and those he misjudged, at an event celebrating his 50-year career as a critic.
Billington, who stepped down as the Guardian’s chief theatre critic late last year, told an audience at the National Theatre that among the shows he had seen in recent memory, he had most disliked David Mamet’s Bitter Wheat.
Centred around a Harvey Weinstein-inspired film producer played by John Malkovich, the play opened directly into the West End last year. Billington gave it two stars, in a review titled “Malkovich and Mamet’s monstrous misfire”.
“Since everyone knew what they thought about the subject before they went in, it was a play that actually told one nothing new or nothing fresh,” Billington said at the platform event, at which he was interviewed by NT director Rufus Norris.
He spoke of a “rash of very bad musicals” in the 1970s, including Thomas and the King, about Thomas Becket and Henry II, which had music by John Williams.
“Those haunt me still,” Billington said.
He went on to explain there are some plays that he has seen so many times, “it becomes quite difficult to summon up another reaction”.
“Seeing another Romeo and Juliet I always found quite difficult because I had decided, arrogantly, what I thought is wrong with Romeo and Juliet. I decided that the characters Shakespeare creates are too vibrant for the plot he saddles himself with… but you can’t keep saying that in every review that you write,” he said.
He added: “One of the reasons I decided to semi-retire was, I thought, maybe I have said all I can say about As You Like It, which wasn’t very much in the first place, and now somebody else could have a go.”
Billington also discussed the plays he felt he had “got wrong”, including Sarah Kane’s Blasted and Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, which he said was “pretty high on the list of shows” he had misjudged.
Billington’s later reviews of Betrayal admitted he had “rubbished” it on its first outing in 1978 – he described it a high-class soap opera – but revised his judgement on subsequent viewings.
“That’s just a very healthy indication of how critical judgement is fallible, erratic and subject to revision,” he said.
Billington added: “My theory is that all the great works in post-war British theatre get attacked the first time round, quite simply because they’re too rich or complicated for critics to absorb them. Imagine being a theatre critic on the first night of Waiting for Godot in 1955. You’ve never heard of Samuel Beckett, you come back after the theatre with one hour and you have to sum up what this man is doing. That’s why this play was misunderstood.
“Pinter’s The Birthday Party was absolutely rubbished when it first appeared. Sarah Kane, we all got that collectively wrong. The more the artist is experimenting, or doing something new or breaking new ground, the less likely they are to be understood on the first acquaintance.”