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I‘ve been a theatre critic for most of my working life but I’m reluctant to lay down rules. Every review should be an expression of the writer’s personality. A new play demands a different approach from a standard classic. It is even possible to play around with the form of the review: I encourage the American students I teach to experiment with a dialogue-format as a means of exploring their contradictory responses to a particular play.

But, having said there are no rules, I’d suggest a few basic precepts for the aspiring critic. The most essential is to set the play reviewed in some kind of context. No theatre event exists in isolation. as a reader, I want the critic to see the play under review in perspective.

That can mean many things: the track-record of the writer, director or even the venue itself; the social and political context in which the play is seen; the context of one’s own reading or experience of life. Totake an obvious example, Tom Stoppard’s new play, The Hard Problem, needs to be examined in the light of his previous work and his capacity for dramatising ideas.

Equally when Benedict Cumberbatch plays Hamlet later this year, it will be important to relate it to his career to date and to the trends in recent productions of Shakespeare’s most famous play.

I’d also suggest any review needs to mix the subjective and the objective. One cannot say too often that a review is based on a deeply personal response: one that has to be recorded with total, uncensored honesty. “Speak what you feel, not what you ought to say,” as someone points out in King Lear. But there’s also room for the statement of certain objective facts: the title, the venue, the actors’ names, for instance, need to be got right.

Perhaps the most important point is the one we rarely talk about: the need to write well. Every one has an opinion: the art of the critic lies in expressing it with all the elegance, clarity and wit at his or her command. Easily said.

But how is this achieved? One answer is to read the great critics of the past: you’ll find the reviews of people like Bernard Shaw, Kenneth Tynan and Eric Bentley in book form if you burrow around. I’d also suggest you try reading your review aloud to yourself once you’ve written it. You’ll soon find if there are clumsy, awkward phrases or passages that don’t make sense.

Oscar Wilde wrote a wonderful dialogue on The Critic as Artist (do read it). A great writer on music, Neville Cardus, also said that the critic should aim to achieve the same kind of artistry as the performers he or she is describing.

Of course, it’s vital to have strong, clear opinions. But the true test of any critic lies in whether or not their reviews offer aesthetic pleasure. If they do, criticism transcends mere commentary and becomes a seductive art-form in its own right.

Further reading on Michael Billington’s famous work – “The Life and Work of Harold Pinter”.

About The Author

Profile photo of Michael Billington

Michael Billington has been drama critic of The Guardian since 1971 and of Country Life since 1986. He has also written on film and television and is the author of several books, including biographies of Harold Pinter and Peggy Ashcroft and a prize-winning study of post-war British theatre, State of the Nation. He is currently working on a book on The 101 Greatest Plays for Faber. He broadcasts frequently on the arts and for many years has taught a course on theatre to University of Pennsylvania students at King's College, London.

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