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Mark Shenton: How much theatrical baggage should a critic leave in the cloakroom?

The Red Lion at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton The Red Lion at the Dorfman, National Theatre, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton
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We can only ever live in the present, not the past nor the future. That’s true of theatre, too: it only exists in the present moment of its creation and performance. No two performances are ever the same. It’s a one-off. And, as a critic, you can only ever review what you see.

So when people read a review they disagree with and wonder whether the critic saw the same show they did, the truth is that, no, they didn’t, unless they went on the same night. I experienced this for myself when I watched the current West End revival of Hay Fever with a kind of polite indifference. Yet my Times colleague Sam Marlowe raved. She saw it a few days ahead of the press night. She saw a different show to me, in every sense, it seems.

Theatre inevitably comes with baggage

But critics also (hopefully) have a wide frame of reference (theatrically speaking, as well as of the world), so we seek, too, to set a performance in context, and are therefore ever-mindful of the past and the experiences that led to the particular theatrical alchemy we’re bearing witness to now. Theatre, in other words, inevitably comes with baggage.

I was struck by this most forcefully while seeing The Red Lion last week, Patrick Marber’s new play and his first original work in the theatre for nine years. The play is all about the baggage being carried by three men, and it’s impossible to separate that from my own baggage about Marber’s distinctive theatrical voice that first emerged in the same theatre (then the Cottesloe, now the Dorfman) in 1995, soon followed by Closer in 1997 at the same address, recently so memorably revived at the Donmar Warehouse.

There’s still the stinging observational eye – but this is an altogether more reflective, less showy work than either of those brilliantly drawn and provocative works. Marber is the master craftsman, adept at creating mood and menace alongside characterisation. Lately, however, he has admitted to a case of writer’s block, and retreated to a world of (presumably lucrative) movie scripting which led to an Oscar nomination for his screenplay of Zoe Heller’s Notes on a Scandal. His recent plays, too, have drawn on existing sources, from Moliere (Don Juan in Soho, his most recent play at the Donmar in 2006) to Strindberg (After Miss Julie, again at the Donmar in 2003), with a Turgenev next (Three Days in the Country, based on A Month in the Country, due at the National next month, produced in association with Sonia Friedman Productions).

The suddenly prolific Marber — who already looks like he is going to be to Rufus Norris’ National regime what David Hare was to Richard Eyre and Alan Bennett was to Nick Hytner — has also “doctored” the theatre’s current production of Farquhar’s The Beaux’ Stratagem.

Dedicated theatregoers may make these links, too, of course, but critics will inevitably start drawing patterns and parallels. It’s a nice place to be: how lucky are we, for instance, to be able to currently see Simon Russell Beale’s masterful performance in the Donmar’s Temple, knowing that we won’t have to wait long for the next Beale performance, either, as he’s already lined up to appear in Mr Foote’s Other leg at Hampstead in September? Or Janie Dee, recently in Ah, Wilderness! at the Young Vic, about to open in The Seagull this week at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and then in August to star in the new stage musical version of Mrs Henderson’s Presents at Bath’s Theatre Royal?

Each performance, of course, will have to be considered on its own merits. But if theatre is an art of the here and now, we don’t live in a bubble where it is all that matters. Theatre, like life itself, is a long game and it’s good to be able to to take a longer-range view.

For some theatregoers, seeing Benedict Cumberbatch’s Hamlet at the Barbican this summer will be their first experience of the play, but for critics it may be the second or third of the year. (The Barbican has itself hosted one this year already, with Yukio Ninagawa’s Japanese version.) Seeing the Tooting Pie Shop production of Sweeney Todd recently in its transfer to Shaftesbury Avenue, I sat with people who were seeing Sondheim’s show for the first time, whereas it was my third production in less than a year. I’m jealous of their innocence and the fact that they came to it completely fresh, especially in such an exciting production. My experience of past productions certainly informed my view of this one, but I was able to enjoy it as if for the first time because I myself had never seen it done this way before.

It’s maintaining that sense of freshness that is my biggest task when I go to the theatre. And also my biggest reward.

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