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Playwright Dan Rebellato: Good criticism keeps great theatre alive, so it must be preserved

Kevin Harvey in The Wild Duck at London’s Almeida Theatre in October. Photo: Manuel Harlan Kevin Harvey in The Wild Duck at London’s Almeida Theatre in October. But pictures can only tell us so much, says Dan Rebellato. Photo: Manuel Harlan
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Theatre reviews provide an essential record of this ephemeral art form. So we need to look after them, in print and now online, says playwright Dan Rebellato, or great performances risk being forgotten

We are used to articles worrying about the future of theatre criticism; but I want to spend a little time worrying about its past. The theatre is ephemeral, of course. It leaves its traces on the memory, in a handful of photographs, artefacts and memorabilia. But the performance erases itself, like a Banksy artwork at auction, the very stuff of theatre shredding the performance into air. The theatre review is one of those traces, but it too is ephemeral; unless you were involved in the show yourself, who keeps a theatre review?

Now, as it happens, some do. There are newspaper libraries and most newspapers have at least the last decade of material stored on servers and widely available. But as most readers will know, in the past decade there has been a huge proliferation of theatre reviewing beyond the national newspapers, in blogs and on other websites.

For many of us, these have been a source of enormous vitality for thinking about contemporary theatre, but such sites are even more precarious. As critic-scholars Catherine Love and Megan Vaughan have discovered, the researcher trying to trace the history of all this online activity soon becomes lost in a forest of broken links, dead URLs, and 404 Not Found errors. When the online critic moves on, gets a new job or simply loses interest, their site can disappear in the wink of an unrenewed domain payment.

Does it matter? To anyone who cares about the history as well as the future of theatre, I think it does. We do have other traces of performance: we have the play on the page; there are programmes and photographs; sometimes we even have video recordings. But, as theatremaker Chris Goode once noted, even something as hi-def and panoramic as a National Theatre Live recording only shows you what it looked and sounded like. It does not give you what Kenneth Tynan described as “exactly what it felt like to be in a certain playhouse on a certain distant night”.

That’s what the best criticism does. Sometimes it is the only chance we have of understanding not just what happened or what it meant, but what it felt like.

Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester in Othello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Rory Kinnear and Adrian Lester in Othello at the National Theatre in 2013. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Look at this wonderful passage from Michael Billington about the National’s 2013 Othello, and particularly Rory Kinnear’s performance as Iago. He wrote about “the sudden false smile Kinnear flashes at a colleague to check his inner rage, and the spontaneous flush of anger when Cassio patronisingly says to Desdemona: ‘You may relish him more in the soldier than in the scholar.’ But Kinnear gives us more than the outwardly blunt, inwardly resentful NCO: this Iago burns with a contempt for the human race and for the beauty in other men’s lives, which he knows he can never possess.”

That doesn’t just describe; it tells us what it was like to watch that performance. It does the theatre some service and we know it.

I write this in part as someone who has needed to reconstruct a theatre event of the past and has therefore relied on the vividness of strangers. Writing an introduction to a new edition of Terence Rattigan’s Ross for Nick Hern, I wished I could experience Alec Guinness’ original performance in the title role; and here is Robert Muller in 1960 giving a hugely evocative flavour of this famous portrayal: “Guinness plays Ross with a kind of elegiac compassion that carefully sidesteps self-pity. His walk is inhibited, the hands a little too solicitously held behind him. Painful shadows flicker across his impassive face. His body quivers with spasms of malaria and memory. When a callow young officer asks him, Lawrence of Arabia, to look upon the officer as a Dutch uncle, a ghostly grin haunts his mouth.” Perhaps film might have preserved some of it, but this kind of selection and juxtaposition of key details is a function of the eye, not the camera.

In his incomparably beautiful book about the ecstasies of reading, The Pleasure of the Text, Roland Barthes reflects at one point on the singular joy of the seemingly marginal detail: he notes with annoyance that in a scholarly edition of the (mostly forgotten) 19th-century Swiss philosopher Henri-Frederic Amiel’s diaries, the “well-meaning editor (another person foreclosing pleasure) had seen fit to omit from this journal the everyday details, what the weather was like on the shores of Lake Geneva, and retain only insipid moral musing; yet it is this weather that has not aged, unlike Amiel’s philosophy”.

I find the same in accounts of the theatre. The first night of Andre Antoine’s Theatre Libre in 1887, the moment that finally brought naturalism to fully authentic life on a stage, has been much written about. We know the staging innovations, the running order; most of the scripts have survived.

But how much more evocative is critic Jules Lemaitre’s account of the journey to this still-unknown theatre: “So, last Tuesday, at about eight thirty in the evening, you might have seen ghostly figures sitting along between the street-booths of Montmartre, carefully picking their way among the puddles of water in the road, around the Place Pigalle, scrutinising through their eye-glasses the signs at the street corners. No passage; no theatre. Finally, we have recourse to a lighted wineshop and then we enter a steep, tortuous ill-lighted alleyway. A row of cabs is going up slowly in the same direction. We follow them. On each side, dim hovels and dirty walls; quite at the end a dim stairway.”

Robert Icke’s remarkable Wild Duck at the Almeida has been written about, photographed and may even be filmed, but I wonder if any of that will give a sense of the production as vivid as my friend’s account of the performance a week ago when, as the play ended, a voice cried out from the stalls: “Is that it? Is there no consolation?”

I’m reflecting on this in part because Theatre Record, the magazine that has been preserving British theatre reviews for the past 37 years, and on whose board I sit, is relaunching itself online and making its entire archive available to subscribers. I find myself surfing through those decades of reviews and seeing lost performances sometimes flickering into life through some critic’s choice phrase or even stray remark. But I am also struck that, as word counts shrink, the room for these vivid incidentals is diminishing too.

A review has tremendous value for a production, particularly if it’s a rave, in the first fortnight of its life. But after that a review is a witness to something utterly unretrievable and it would be a terrible loss if not only we stopped collecting reviews, but they also became so short and direct, so trimly geared around explaining the star rating, that there was no time for the review to call out across the decades and give a flavour of that theatre event for future students.

In Theatre Record we’ve been wondering about archiving not just the newspapers, but, with their permission, some selection of the online critics too, because in the broader space of the online, it becomes even more possible to tell not just what happened, but what it was to be there.

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