Two weeks ago, the Critics’ Circle gathered to toast Michael Billington. If you feel like you’ve heard a lot about him recently, fair enough.
Since announcing his retirement last November as chief theatre critic at the Guardian, there’s been an award named after him, a National Theatre event in his honour and reams written about ‘what this means for theatre criticism’.
In this newspaper, Michael Coveney even wrote of theatre criticism being “plunged into darkness”. (I like and admire Coveney, but I did raise my eyebrows when, after praising his fellow Michael as “the end of an era”, he permitted himself to praise two working theatre critics: both called Dominic.)
So why did we need our own Critics’ Circle gathering? In part because of what Billington had to say to us. A cacophony of voices have peddled various narratives about his retirement – the one person who hasn’t is Billington.
Like many retirees, he was keen to remind us that he wasn’t really ‘retiring’. He’s handing his Guardian day job over to Arifa Akbar, but he’ll still be writing a monthly feature for the paper – at the other end of the social divide, he’s writing a theatre column for Country Life. (If only we could all so effortlessly bridge the cultural polarisation of our era.)
But Billington wanted to strike a note of optimism. “I’d like to push back against the idea that I’m the last of some kind of golden era.” It’s true, he acknowledged, that critics get less support from newspapers than they used to, and there are fewer “long-runners”. But for a man caricatured by his critics as the last “great white man” of theatre criticism, the real Billington was scathing, as he usually is, about the lack of diversity among critics when he was building his career. No one who cares about theatre criticism, he suggested, could be pessimistic about a future in which women and critics of colour are finally being recognised.
Most of all, Billington was bullish about the world’s need for theatre critics. Here’s the line that will stay with me from the evening. As critics, we all get angry letters, but for Billington: “I get more angry, offended letters from artists I haven’t been able to review than from artists I have reviewed.” Artists know they need critical engagement from trusted voices.
Criticism is – as I and others keep writing – in trouble. And I worry about the cultural memory that disappears with long-runners such as Billington. Plenty on the radical left have rejected his facility for context as ‘gatekeeping’ or ‘elitism’ – and yes, you can’t build up expertise without privilege – but artists can’t innovate without understanding history.
But Billington is right to remind us to be optimistic. The shift of theatre writing from traditional newspapers to online spaces has opened up opportunities; the increasing diversity of voices is only to the good; and the arts will always need us. And as only Billington himself could have said: the survival of theatre criticism will never depend on a single man.
Kate Maltby is a columnist and critic. She currently writes regularly for the Financial Times and the Guardian, as well as a range of US publications. She sits on the board of Index on Censorship and this year’s judging panel for the David Cohen Prize for Literature. Read more of her columns at thestage.co.uk/author/kate-maltby