A key tenet of The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron’s much-loved 1993 handbook on creativity, concerns the importance of “restocking the trout pond” of ideas, of not letting the wells of inspiration run dry. This is, of course, imperative for theatremakers but is also, I would contest, vital for critics too. I should know, when I left the Evening Standard this summer because of necessary cost-cutting measures, after 17 years as their theatre critic, I was more than somewhat lacking in trout.
I hope this didn’t show in my writing. Yet the awkward fact was this: 17 years of doing three or four overnight reviews a week for a 6am deadline – and thus getting to bed at 2am plus, or 4am plus if a 240-mile round trip by car to the likes of Chichester or Stratford-upon-Avon was involved – had taken their toll, both physically and emotionally. I took ever longer to bounce back from long and late nights.
I had begun to wonder if I might, at some point, simply run out of words or, worse, start to repeat myself in ever decreasing circles of dreary prose. Three-star reviews of desperately average shows about which no one would conceivably be bothered either way became ever harder to pump out.
Since the summer I have continued to go to the theatre regularly – my new working life remains absolutely theatre-focused – but with a crucial difference: overwhelmingly now, I go to see what takes my fancy, rather than what must be seen in any given week. It feels incredibly liberating to take a step back from the weekly grind of press nights and to go a little free-range.
‘I feel far less weary and surprisingly excited’
It’s revitalising not to be professionally obliged to care about certain things any longer and I have watched with interest where my instinctive tastes, preferences and allegiances have taken me.
One of the many rewards of this approach is that I have had the chance to remind myself what I love, and indeed don’t love, about theatre; to reconnect with the bright-eyed teenage Fiona who considered that neon pylon on the South Bank next to the National Theatre a signpost pointing the way to her future.
Without the relentless pressure of daily deadlines, I have had more time to let thoughts about plays shift, settle and mature. The Antipodes by Annie Baker at the National is a recent case in point: I went to the press night, but as it was the only play I saw that week I had the mental space to reflect on it at length, in a way that would have been impossible previously. I have also had more time to spend in the nourishing company of other art forms: at the cinema, watching high-quality television drama, at concerts. My all-round artistic health is restored.
The upshot of all this is that I feel far less weary and surprisingly excited about the end-of-year bonanza of openings that we have coming up over the next few weeks. Whether such enthusiasm extends to panto season, however, remains to be seen.
Fiona Mountford was theatre critic at the Evening Standard from 2002-2019