20 Questions With...Michael Billington
Date: 29 December 2003
The Guardian's Michael Billington, voted the UK's top critic by theatregoers, names his favourite productions & artists from 30+ years of reviewing, sets a challenge for the West End & defines the two-fold role of today's critic.
After early forays in directing and public relations, including two years at Lincoln's Theatre Royal in the early 1960s, Michael Billington settled into his life as a professional theatre critic.
Billington was a regular contributor to the Times from 1965 to 1971, and then joined the reviewing team at the Guardian, where he remains to this day and is now the country's longest serving theatre critic still writing.
In a recent Big Debate survey on Whatsonstage.com, Billington was voted the UK's top critic, with 39% of theatregoers saying he was the one whose opinions they most trusted.
Apart from reviewing, Billington has written books on Harold Pinter, Peggy Ashcroft, Alan Ayckbourn, Tom Stoppard and Ken Dodd, and has also published a collection of reviews and essays, under the title One Night Stands.
When not at the theatre, he enjoys cricket and music. He is also a Visiting Professor at King's College, London, where he teaches students from the University of Pennsylvania.
Date & place of birth
I was born in Leamington Spa in Warwickshire on 10 November 1939, two months after the outbreak of war.
Lives now in...
Chiswick in W4, west London.
I read English at St Catherine's College, Oxford. There's no proper training to become a critic. You train yourself by seeing every variety of play, musical, revue - everything. I grew up near Stratford so went to everything I could there, as well as Coventry and Birmingham. I deluded myself at one point that I might be a director because I liked working with actors. But I had no grasp of the choreography of the stage - I was not confident and not very good. I did, however, discipline myself to write about theatre and started reviewing for the Oxford student newspaper, The Cherwell. One day, I realised I felt much more comfortable behind a desk.
First big break
Journalistically, getting into print is always a big break. Back in 1965, I badgered Peter Roberts (who was then editor of Plays and Players and now edits Plays International) and finally he allowed me to review something. Later, the arts editor of The Times asked if I'd be kind enough to see Saint Joan at Bristol Old Vic and submit an overnight review. I did and continued to write regularly for them for six years. So I suppose the break is having an enlightened patron - that's what we all need, whatever the job.
Career highlights to date
The achievements in this job are what the artists do. The main thing as a critic is that you must have tenacity, stamina, a love for theatre and a limitless capacity for enthusiasm. You just have to keep on going.
Laurence Olivier. I remember, when I was a schoolboy, he played Macbeth, Titus Andronicus and Malvolio (Twelfth Night), all in one season. It was hair-raising stuff. There was something animalistic about Olivier, a sense of danger, and, something many don't acknowledge, a creative intelligence that truly made you understand the character better.
In later years, the actors one remembers are those who are good to write about. Leonard Rossiter was one. In Arturo Ui for instance, he presented a bold, sharp, clear outline that lent itself to graphic description. Peggy Ashcroft was more elusive, but she had an extraordinary imaginative sympathy that allowed her to tackle a huge range of characters. It's been very exciting to witness Ian McKellen's extraordinary ascent. I've been watching his growth as an actor from studenthood to stardom.
I've also loved writing about Simon Russell Beale. He always offers a new perspective on a character. His Konstantin (The Seagull) was unforgettable, one of the truly great performances of that role. And Janie Dee just gets better and better every year. She's made an amazing transformation from musical actress to comedy, drama and more. There's no such thing as a bad play with Janie Dee in it.
A figure from the past who I was lucky enough to catch near the end of his career was Tyrone Guthrie. His All's Well That Ends Well with Zoe Caldwell in 1959 sticks in the memory. Guthrie had a genius for choreographing stage spaces. Sadly, he's now almost forgotten. Another who's often forgotten, though he's still alive, is John Barton who was responsible for some of the best Shakespeare productions anywhere, particularly the comedies. Barton showed an exquisite sense of the author's melancholy in his humour - no one has ever expressed it better.
Of those directors working today, there are some obvious choices. I'll just mention Sam Mendes, who has a great ability to get inside a play, and someone I think is still too underrated, Howard Davies. Over the past 15 years Davies' work has been consistently exemplary, and he has an uncanny understanding of American drama, as his current production of Mourning Becomes Electra demonstrates. He also directed the production of Les Liaisons Dangereuses - such crumpled and decadent sensuality - which will be difficult to ever match.
Leaving Shakespeare aside, of all the great 'dead white males', I'm most sympathetic towards Henrik Ibsen. Others feel that way about Chekhov, but I never cease to be astonished by Ibsen's genius - his understanding of people and social issues along with his watertight structure. It's not just what a playwright says that counts but how he says it. Ibsen says it all right. His plays are like perfectly oiled machines.
Of modern playwrights, I'll just name four: Harold Pinter, Alan Ayckbourn (who's still underrated because he makes us laugh so hard), David Hare (who has extraordinary antennae) and Michael Frayn. Frayn's work gets better with the years. His two most recent plays, Democracy and Copenhagen, are his best. That's quite unusual for a playwright to hit his peak in his 60s.
Historically, there really haven't been many women playwrights, but I'm encouraged to see that so many of the rising talents are female - look at Lucy Prebble, who's just debuted with The Sugar Syndrome, and she's only 23 - so I'm sure the gender imbalance will change.
Favourite play & musical of all time
Twelfth Night is the most perfect play ever written because of the infinite sadness in the comedy. It's the nearest thing in drama to Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. You can't help but want both to cry and laugh at Andrew Aguecheek's line "I was adored once". My favourite musical is probably Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. Sondheim demonstrates a great understanding of the form. I've seen Sweeney work at every kind of level - performed as a chamber piece, a vast musical or an operatic epic.
Favourite production of all time
That's easy. The Uncle Vanya, directed by Olivier, that was at Chichester in 1962 then came to the Old Vic to open the National Theatre there in 1963. It had an incredible cast. Michael Redgrave played Vanya with Olivier as Astrov -the most amazing combination - along with Joan Plowright, Sybil Thorndike ... you name it, even the tiniest parts were played by great actors. They were all individually perfect and, together, created the most harmonious whole.
Favourite productions of the past year
That's more difficult to decide. The most extraordinary production was Complicite's The Elephant Vanishes at the Barbican. Simon McBurney's mixing of very human content and technical sophistication, all at the service of story and character, put that in a league of its own. Gregory Doran's RSC production of The Taming of the Shrew at Stratford was wonderful, too - it received a rare 'five stars' from me. Also, more recently Mourning Becomes Electra at the National and After Miss Julie at the Donmar were both very very good.
Why do you think theatre is important?
It's important partly because it offers a reflection of our own individual dilemmas and psychological disturbances, but also because it helps to define and analyse the world we live in. I look for plays that do both of those things simultaneously - plays that examine individual needs within the context of the wider society. In a world where we're bombarded more and more by electronic entertainments, theatre is increasingly important and can only become more so as people become further seduced and bored by those entertainments. Theatre is now one of the few places people can go out to assemble, hear ideas discussed and debated, and have their perceptions challenged. So, as a medium, it will survive and thrive. However, there will be a weeding out of the mediocre. Theatre has to be special to justify itself.
How would you rate the current state of the West End?
The commercial West End is in a good deal of visible trouble. The middlebrow genres - farces, comedies, thrillers - have all but disappeared, and most of our best writers now instinctively offer their new work to the National or another subsidised house. I sometimes detect from commercial producers a kind of desperation about what to put on. You can see that simply in the growing number of catalogue and anthology musicals and the programming of stand-up comedians, as if the West End were an extension of the Edinburgh Fringe. By comparison, the National is now experiencing a golden period, as are a lot of the other theatres in and around London. That's where the future lies.
What advice would you give to the government - or the industry - to secure the future of British theatre?
To the government, I'd say, even more money please. Whatever their sins, it's clear that the extra £25 million New Labour has put in has made a difference and that should be acknowledged. The fact is, some problems can be solved by throwing money at them, and theatre is one of those. To the industry, I'd say, be as imaginative, daring and forward-thinking as your public. I feel sometimes the professionals lag behind the audience, who crave the extraordinary and the epic.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I'd like to be an actor in the first production of Hamlet at the Globe. Not Richard Burbage, but perhaps the guy who played Laertes or Fortinbras. I'd love to see how the play was put together, how much was improvised in rehearsals and how often Shakespeare was called in for rewrites.
Balzac's Lost Illusions is a great, panoramic novel. It touches close to home, too - the hero ekes out a living as a theatre critic who sells his second free ticket (I've never done that by the way!). In terms of non theatre-related books, Australia 55, Alan Ross' account of an English cricket tour in 1950s Australia, is a favourite because it combines two passions: cricket and Australia. I also re-read Jane Eyre recently and enjoyed it very much - so mad and demonic.
Favourite holiday destinations
I hate holidays - they distract one from one's work. I do like working holidays. I think the best way to experience a place is when writing about it. Australia is top of my list, and Adelaide is my favourite city in the world outside London. It's verdant but with all the facilities of a modern city and a quite amazing annual festival.
If you hadn't become a critic, what would you have done professionally?
As I mentioned, I would have liked to have been a director if I'd had the imagination and flair, but I probably would have been a postman. I come from a family of postmen and did the job myself as a student. I liked the mix of sorting and delivering - getting out in the open air and gaining an insight into other people's lives.
How would you describe the role of the critic?
Two-fold: first, as a journalist, your job is to report your reactions to a specific event and what it was like to be there; second, you should be painting a picture of ideal theatre and encouraging it into existence.
Has the role of the critic changed in recent years?
Yes, it has changed a lot. Now a critic is not only someone who reviews plays, but who is also expected to be a feature and profile writer, a compiler of ratings and listings, a commentator on the economics of theatre and so on. The tasks have multiplied. And I welcome that. It's a good thing because we critics are now much more involved in the whole theatre industry. We see it from a wider social perspective.
Have you ever received any backlash from a review you've written?
It happens much more frequently with email. For instance, recently, I seemed to be the only person who liked Tales from the Vienna Woods, and boy did I hear about it from Guardian readers, many of whom suggested I'd taken leave of my senses. The most considered responses come from directors (often of national institutions) and playwrights who believe I have failed to appreciate the radical nature of their genius. I'll leave you to guess who I mean.
What advice would you give to actors/directors/playwrights reading your reviews?
I don't write reviews for actors, directors or playwrights. I write for the public. If the artists find something that makes sense of what they're doing, that's fantastic, but it's not meant to be advice for practitioners. Reviews are a source of information, and occasionally delight, for readers.
What advice would you give to an aspiring critic?
Go to the theatre, read about the theatrical past and get into print.
What are your plans for the future?
Survival. I've been doing what I'm doing at the Guardian for 32 years now. Both I and the paper have to consider whether and for how long I should continue. I feel there's still juice in the tank and would like to go on, and so far they've indicated that they're happy for me to do so. I'm also writing a new book about post-war British theatre and trying to relate it to the politics of each decade. It's an enormously rich subject, which is why it's taking me so long. I have another year's research at least.
Michael Billington was speaking to Terri Paddock.