Theatre critic Michael Billington has criticised the standard of Shakespearean acting and directing in British theatre, claiming current practitioners do not exhibit the same appetite for the genre as in previous decades.
Billington, who has been reviewing for the Guardian for more than 40 years, said he thought contemporary directors approach Shakespeare “as if the audience is going to be bored and they have to find ways to popularise the plays”.
He highlighted directorial choices such as “panto-style” audience interaction, and said: “I just worry now that we are apologising, in a way, for doing Shakespeare.”
He continued: “I just don’t see the level of Shakespearean acting and directing that I grew up with in the 1950s, 60s, 70s and 80s. Maybe it’s age, maybe it’s a generational thing.”
Billington was speaking at a Q&A discussion with Judi Dench earlier this week to mark the reopening of Fairfield Halls in Croydon, where its theatre has been renamed the Ashcroft Playhouse after actor Peggy Ashcroft.
Asked about his feelings on the state of British theatre today, Billington said his biggest concern is “whether we know how to do the classics, whether we relish the classics, whether we have the capacity to relish the language of the classics”.
“I just don’t see the same appetite for those plays or the same relish for those plays that I saw when I was watching Peggy Ashcroft or [Dench]. I just worry a bit about Shakespeare specifically at the moment,” Billington said.
Dench agreed, and said she felt there is an attitude within the industry towards Shakespeare that “we have to do something different to it”, but claimed the debate must take into account the enthusiasm of audiences for Shakespeare.
“It’s entirely to do with the appetite of really wanting to see it. I hope that young people will want to see Shakespeare because that is also my passion. And I hope it’s taught enough [in schools],” she said.
Billington has previously attacked the National Theatre for staging too few classic plays.
In a 2017 column for the Guardian, he said an NT season that included two Shakespeare plays, three revivals and 12 new plays represented “an almost total severance with the past”.