Reviewing Shakespearian Theatre

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I read theatre reviews for all sorts of reasons. Often I want to know what a show is like which I know I won’t be able to see. Sometimes I like to know whether my own thoughts about a particular production are shared more widely. There is a certain feeling of justice being done (isn’t there?) when you open the newspaper or log on to the website and find your own opinions shared by a notable critic. Likewise, there might sometimes be a feeling of ‘Well, I can’t see how that deserved four stars!’

The publication of this special edition of The British Shakespeare Association’s journal Shakespeare contains the proceedings (around 80,000 words) of an international conference held at The Shakespeare Centre in September 2009: ‘Reviewing Shakespearian Theatre: The State of the Art.’ The event was co-hosted by The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust, Nottingham Trent University, and The CAPITAL Centre, University of Warwick. The Society for Renaissance Studies awarded some bursaries to visiting speakers.

My co-editors, Paul Prescott and Peter J. Smith, and I acknowledge that theatre reviewing is a ‘Protean genre which includes different kinds of writing for a variety of purposes.’ A reviewer’s tone of voice will in part be determined by the context. A critic writing in a monthly magazine will write differently in a daily paper. Space, too, is an important factor. An account of a production in a Shakespeare journal is bound to be different from one found in a newspaper.

Do critics self-censor their reviews? Some theatre companies are so strict about ‘the press night’ that they would frown severely upon any critic who disobeyed such an embargo. But they can only frown. In truth, there is nothing to stop anyone going along to an early preview and reviewing it either in print or on-line. That’s what freedom of speech is all about.

And so one arrives at the tension between the idea of a specialist theatre critic and a plurality of voices, some specialist and some amateur. Whilst it really does matter who is reviewing (their cultural background, their political agenda), the specialist’s position seems to be under threat in the age of social media. Also, how do actors and directors use reviews (‘I don’t read them’ is the standard and perhaps unbelievable reply)? These were some of the issues debated, most memorably during a panel discussion chaired by Stanley Wells and comprising Michael Coveney, Andrew Dickson, Carol Rutter, Janet Suzman, and Tim Supple. There were key-note addresses from Michael Billington (on fifty years of reviewing) and Peter Holland (on reviews, productions, and audiences). Other papers explored: the case for greater plurality and diversity among reviewers, what theatre designers want from reviews, and the kinds of cultural and national influences that help to shape reviews.

The volume of proceedings finds unity around three productions of As You Like It: The Leicester Haymarket, The Royal Shakespeare Company, and Shakespeare’s Globe. There are interviews with the directors of those productions: Tim Supple, Michael Boyd and Thea Sharrock. The conference (and the volume) closed with a collective review of the R.S.C.’s As You Like It, in which all participants were encouraged to share their thoughts.

You can purchase this special edition of Shakespeare from the Routledge (that’s the expensive route), or (much more cheaply) through being a member of The British Shakespeare Association

Whether you purchase a copy or not, this conference and its volume of proceedings are palpable reminders that we must always strive to ‘speak what we feel not what we ought to say’ (The Tragedy of King Lear 5.3.300), especially when it comes to something as passionate and (hopefully) life-giving as theatre itself.

But what do you expect of theatre reviews?

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Author:Paul Edmondson

Head of Research and Knowledge and Director of the Stratford-upon-Avon Poetry Festival for The Shakespeare Birthplace Trust. Follow Paul on Twitter @paul_edmondson
  • Wayne Myers

    This sounds like an important and very timely work. Too much of what is written–thanks largely to the wholesale gutting of arts and entertainment staffs of large and small media outlets alike by enemies of the arts–today about Shakespeare productions in the United States contributes little to the idea that a review is the journalistic record of a performing arts event. What has filled the void in the reviewing of Shakespeare productions is sorely wanting. What one often sees nowadays stuffing many reviews are meaningless and colorless performance generalizations (e.g., “so-and-so as Sir Andrew was hilarious”) and plot regurgitation. How can both the legitimate and seasoned critic and the “critic” with the self-bestowed title review a Shakespeare production such as “Richard III” if they have no idea what lines and scenes (and characters) were cut or rearranged and the effect of that on the production? Some critics don’t even realize that the body in the outrageous funeral scene is King Henry’s and not Prince Edward’s, Anne’s murdered husband. In April 2010 I saw a Columbia University production of “Romeo and Juliet” at Riverside Church in New York City. The director chopped the sexual dialogue between Sampson and Gregory (e.g., “Me [the Montague women] they shall feel while I am able to stand”) in the opening scene and plunged right into the brawl. Why did she do this? To speed the action? Or did she find the dialogue about raping women and erections personally offensive? What is more disturbing is how many critics would not even notice that 40 or so lines had been cut from the production. As for “Richard III,” the best production of that play I’ve seen was at Summer Shakespeare at Villanova in July 1979. But the line “And Anne my wife hath bid this world good night” was cut. I asked the director about that and he told me why the line unfortunately had to go, a casualty of some otherwise sharp restructuring.

  • Noelle

    Interesting. I will definitely check that out.

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