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Michael Billington

“David Storey started to hit me”: An Interview with Michael Billington

Michael Billington has been the theatre critic for The Guardian for over 40 years. His new book (101 Plays: From Antiquity to the Present) will be discussed during his appearance at Thame Arts and Literature Festival on 18 October
"All I’m doing as a critic is writing down my responses"

Michael Billington on regretting certain writing, confrontations and extraordinary theatre figures

You just gave For Services Rendered at Minerva theatre, Chichester a five star review. Do you ever know within the first 10 minutes of a production “This is five stars” or does it always take longer than that?

It does take longer but I think you get a gut reaction quite early on in a show. You can sometimes tell that you’re going to be in for one of the worst evenings of your life or sometimes you get a sense of exhilaration.

It’s like a novel; you know quite early on whether you’re in for a good read or whether you want to throw the thing aside.

I think with a play it probably takes a bit longer, there are plays I’ve seen that change in the second act, but I think you get an instinctive feeling that you’re either in for something remarkable or something not.

I rarely give five stars but in For Services Rendered I was just swept away by the quality of the acting and the production, and just the sadness of the situation that the play describes.

Have you ever regretted anything you’ve written?

I think I’ve regretted a lot of what I’ve written!

There’s a play by Harold Pinter called Betrayal which I rubbished when I first saw it and then when I saw it again two or three years later, reread it and thought about it I thought I was hopelessly wrong – and I’ve changed my mind a lot. There’s also Sarah Kane’s Blasted which like most critics I attacked but now think is the work of a serious writer.

There are quite a lot of plays where you think your first reaction was wrong. But I think what you want to change more often is the way you wrote about something; with Sarah Kane I adopted a tone of rather patronising facetiousness which I deeply regret.

You almost never look back on a review and think “I got that totally and absolutely right”; you’re always slightly anxious that you could have done it better.

Has anyone ever confronted you or complained about a review?

Many times! I’ve rarely had physical confrontations; there was a famous one when David Storey started to hit me on the back of the head because of a review I’d written. What you get more often are angry, hurt or wounded letters, more from directors than actors or writers, it’s the directors who seem to have the thinnest skins and seem to resent criticism most. You’d have thought actors would be the ones who’d be most hurt because they’re the ones who, if the play hasn’t worked, have to get up and do it night after night! I think directors feel responsible for the production or the theatre or the company…they feel if you attack the show they’re the ones who have to answer for the troops!

You’re being interviewed at Thame Arts and Literature Festival about your new book. You’ve interviewed people and written about the work of others; but are you comfortable when the focus is on you?

It’s a rare experience; it only happens if I write a book. But I feel comfortable because once you’ve written a book you want to talk about it, express your ideas about it. What I love doing, particularly, and I hope this happens at Thame, is having a dialogue with someone. I don’t really enjoy standing up in front of an audience and lecturing them for 50 minutes. But what I adore is having a public conversation with someone or being interviewed and then taking questions from an audience. That sense of being able to exchange ideas after questions is what I find stimulating.

You’re new book is 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present. You said you’ve seen roughly 9,000 plays; picking 101 must have been tricky!

Well, yes! What I was trying to do, quite simply, was satisfy my own curiosity about the plays that really endure generation after generation, or will endure. And at the same time throw a challenge to the audience or reader. What I’m saying is “this is my choice”. It’s not definitive. I’m not the pope issuing a list of infallible choices. I’m simply offering you a challenge – you come back to me and tell me what you think I have missed out.

So while the book sounds a bit arrogant in the title, what it’s intended to be is the start of a natural debate about what the great plays from the Greeks to the present are.

It was difficult to narrow it down but in the end my choices were dictated very much by what I’d seen. There are very few plays in the book that I’ve read and not seen. They’re mostly plays that I have seen on stage and more than once. It’s trying to find out what it is about them that makes them lasting and exciting one decade after another.

You do look at specific productions which remind you of how great the play is. Could you say a few examples?

I chose Henry IV Parts I & II. These are, for me, the greatest plays Shakespeare ever wrote. One reason I love them is the way you interpret Falstaff. You can see him as a jolly fat knight sitting in the pub telling stories or you can see him as a very complicated character who’s entertaining as well as vain, foolish and heartless. In the book I cite two examples; one is a recent one: Antony Sher played Falstaff in the RSC 2014 production. Before that there was a production with Robert Stephens in the 1980s and I quote that. The memory of those two performances influenced my interpretation of the play.

Almost every single play I choose is linked to a production. Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, for example; I was lucky enough and I’m old enough to have seen a fantastic production at Chichester Festival in the 1960s (directed by Laurence Olivier and starring Michael Redgrave, Olivier himself, Joan Plowright…an all-star cast). That production of that play has stayed with me for the last 50 years.

Do you ever attend your local am-dram panto?

I don’t often! I review about 5 plays a week, 50 weeks a year, so when I have a night off I prefer to go to a movie, or I might go to an opera or ballet.

When you go to those things are you able to take your reviewer’s hat off and relax?

I am but I strongly believe criticism is fun and part of the joy of going to any performance, even if you’re not reviewing it, is talking about it with friends. All I’m doing as a critic is writing down my responses; I’m lucky: I’m paid to write down my reactions. But I think everyone that goes to any event gets more out of it the more they chew it over and think about it.

Maybe some people feel they don’t have the right to do that though?

I think everyone has the right to. It’s a serious point. In the modern age of new technology, everyone is now able to express an opinion if they wish online…and everyone does now! The abundance of voices out there is extraordinary. The days when the newspaper critic was a loan voice have long gone! If you look at any newspaper website you’ll find that every review is now followed by a whole sequence of responses, some positive, some negative.

Coming back to my point about the book; any review is the start of a discussion and a debate; that’s what 101 Greatest Plays is intended to be: the beginnings of some discussion about what makes a great play.

For you who’s the most extraordinary theatre figure?

There are two people. One person who I hardly ever met in my life but who influenced it was Laurence Olivier because he was a great actor. These days I think a young generation who didn’t see him are slightly sceptical about him. But I saw him when I was 15 playing Macbeth and he just filled me with an excitement about the theatre. And he seemed to have this mysterious ability to change his physique and character and look from one performance to another. I was in awe of him as an actor, I still am, and I don’t think we’ll ever see an actor quite as great as him again – or if we do we’ll be very lucky.

The second person whom I did meet a good deal was Harold Pinter. I wrote a biography of him and got to know him very well. His public reputation was that of someone who was slightly alarming. But once you got to know him he was the most gregarious, charming, witty, friendly person and extremely loyal to people he liked and trusted. He had a hunger for life and an involvement in everything from politics to cricket to current affairs to poetry that was very stimulating. You always came away from any encounter with him feeling more alive: that’s one of the qualities that make a person a great human being.


Michael Billington will appear at TAL Festival on 18 October, 2:00pm at Players Theatre.


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