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Lyn Gardner: Spoiler alert – sometimes theatre reviews need to give the game away

Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys at Royal Court, London. Photo: Mark Brenner Carey Mulligan in Girls and Boys at Royal Court, London. Photo: Marc Brenner
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Attending the first preview of Dennis Kelly’s gut-wrenching Girls and Boys at London’s Royal Court Theatre was hugely enjoyable, especially as I was sitting in an audience where none of us knew what would happen next.

Most of the time, theatre’s publicity machine and preview pieces, combined with tweets, mean the narrative beans are spilled long before you step foot in the theatre. But with Girls and Boys we were completely unprepared for how the story unfolded, and it left us shell-shocked.

But knowing the narrative twists and turns of the play, which starred the astonishing Carey Mulligan, would not stop me wanting to see it again. And I’m pretty confident I would be left just as shaken even though I know the outcome. One of the things that defines all good art is that it bears repeated viewing.

There is an undoubted pleasure in watching a classic play unfold to an unknowing audience. I once saw Hedda Gabler in a regional theatre where it was clear from the gasps that most of the audience had no idea that she – spoiler alert – kills herself.

But very few people would decide against seeing Three Sisters again because they already know they never get to Moscow – or feel no desire to watch Medea because they are aware she kills her kids.

Television shows such as Game of Thrones may owe some of their success to narrative surprise, and you will find some of the greatest contemporary storytellers working on TV or Netflix. But plot is often only one component of a play, sometimes the least important one.

As Vivian Mercier observed about Waiting for Godot, it’s a play in which “nothing happens, twice”. You don’t watch Godot for the plot. In any case, you would only have to glance at the programme before the show begins to notice that Godot is a no-show. With many Greek tragedies, knowing what happens only adds to the growing unease as the play hurtles towards its conclusion. We are already privy to what Oedipus is too blind to see.

But increasing sensitivity around spoilers, and a feeling that critics shouldn’t give the game away, can affect theatre reviews, and not always to the good. It would be a heartless reviewer who gave away the plot twists in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, particularly after being asked (rather politely) to “keep the secret”.

Equally, The Mousetrap is not about metaphor, theme or character or form. It is a whodunnit. It would be wilfully cruel to spoil that for audiences – just as it would to give away the pivotal family secret in Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Elephant, which is currently running at Birmingham Rep.

Elephant review at Birmingham Repertory Theatre – ‘a volatile family drama’

But I notice that reviewers are increasingly tight-lipped about plot points when writing about shows, even those that are not pivotal. While this could be applauded for good manners and sensitivity to the growing – in some cases quite militant – concerns some people have about spoilers, it can also be the enemy of good criticism.

In an effort not to include spoilers, it’s perfectly possible to end up tying yourself up in knots and writing so generally that what you say is meaningless. One thing a review can do is provide analysis and point to themes and layering that may well enhance the audience experience. It’s up to theatregoers to decide whether they read a particular review before they see the show or afterwards.

Girls and Boys presents a particular challenge. Not to mention the central act means a failure to discuss all the things that Kelly is highlighting, from masculinity to the human capacity for violence, and how that may be negated. I did an interview with Kelly for the Guardian, which it was agreed would not appear until after the show’s press night, but Kelly was eager to talk openly about the play including the plot and said I should too in the piece. So, clearly, he’s not that fussed about spoilers.

This is vastly different from Metro splashing the gory details of Game of Thrones’ Red Wedding all over page 3 when it had aired on TV just two days earlier. This is especially true in an era when people’s viewing is seldom on the night itself but via catch-up services. Interestingly, Metro’s review of Girls and Boys is the only one I’ve seen that gives away the essential plotting in the opening few lines. Most critics have been far more subtle, which is an art in itself.

One crucial difference between stage and screen is that theatre is a live medium playing to a limited-capacity audience and many people reading that review will never get a chance to see the show. The weekend after Girls and Boys opened, a friend who had been unable to get a ticket said she had read several reviews but still felt none the wiser. I handed her the published text. The fact the author thanks Euripides might well be a clue. Or perhaps it’s only a red herring.

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