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Tabard: Michael Billington’s alter ego makes a helluva comeback

Michael Billington, the theatre critic. Photo: Daniel Farmer Michael Billington. Photo: Daniel Farmer
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Some things are best left forgotten. Others, it would be a shame to resign to the history books. And when that thing is the Guardian critic Michael Billington’s alter ego Helena, and that history book is Billington’s book of the 101 greatest plays, it would be a downright scandal.

Billington first aired his alter ego, his Sasha Fierce, his Ziggy Stardust if you will, in his 2015 book. “A bright eyed newcomer just down from Oxford”, Helena writes fiercely intelligent critiques for her own website apparently. But it is never quite made clear who Helena is. Does she represent a suppressed side of Billington’s own imagination, wrought from passionate hours spent poring over his theatrical tome? Or does she symbolise those fiercely intelligent female critics writing for their own websites that he dare not spar with in real life?

What’s also not clear is what turns her on, so to speak. She popped up in Billington’s book, but then disappeared. The collective groan of disappointment could be felt across Theatreland. Over time, Helena’s tete a tetes with Billington, where she would fervently stir cappuccinos, were gradually forgotten.

But there was something about Fatherland, Simon Stephens’ new play for Manchester International Festival, that called for something more than a traditional review. Sources say Billington could be heard muttering: “This one’s a job for you Helena,” as he left the theatre last week. And lo, she reappeared, younger and more sharp witted than ever, saying things like “You must have cloth ears!” and “Gotcha!”.

It was a welcome return for something none of us knew we were missing. Thank you Billington, and thank you Helena. See you anon.

Wilde reactions to criticism

Last week Dominic Dromgoole, former artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, announced a year long West End season celebrating the work of Oscar Wilde, a man whose wit has only ever been matched by Tabard’s (and Michael Billington’s Helena, of course).

The less than kind response to the announcement by some in the theatre blogging community reminded Tabard that there’s a Wilde quotation for any occasion. For instance: “Whenever people agree with me, I always know they must be wrong.”

When one person bluntly suggested on Twitter that Dromgoole had “nosedived into 100% pure rubbish territory”, he was met with a swift and terse email response from the director himself requesting an explanation.

He was not the only recipient of a Dromgoole missive. A scathing tweet from another blogger also prompted a sharp email, almost as if Dromgoole has been actively seeking out criticism on the social network.

For Tabard, browsing Twitter for 140 character barbs by minor bloggers doesn’t seem like the best use of time. Dromgoole would do well to follow the advice of Lord Goring in An Ideal Husband: “I don’t at all like knowing what people say of me behind my back. It makes me far too conceited.”

Send stories to tabard@thestage.co.uk

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