I love theatre, and I love writing. So when I came to the startlingly logical conclusion that I should combine the two and write reviews for A Younger Theatre, I wondered why I hadn’t thought of it before. It seemed simple – if you have an opinion on what makes good theatre and the ability to express this view eloquently, surely you are in the perfect position to review theatre?
This idealised belief held out until I was en route to review my first piece of theatre and my mother asked me if I had a notebook. A notebook? The usual questions that are fired at me as we leave the house revolve around theatre tickets and train times; never before had the necessity of a possessing a notebook surfaced. Quite honestly, I thought that attempting to enjoy a performance whilst scribbling down suitably profound notes would spoil the unique experience of becoming immersed in the atmosphere of the piece. With this view in mind, I left the house without a notebook, but with the puzzling question of exactly how I should review theatre, and if I was still up to the job after neglecting to consider the possibility of needing a pen and paper.
I am aware of the stereotype – theatre critics rush out of the theatre before the lights are up, without gracing the actors with a few miserable claps to show their appreciation for the performance they have just witnessed. As one who has a limited reviewing experience, I am unaware of how accurate this stereotype is, but I suspect that it is exactly what it sounds like – a caricature. This suspicion derives from the reasoning that if someone loves theatre, then not staying to applaud is not only bizarre, but insulting to the actors, directors, stage managers, costume and lighting designers, and numerous other behind-the-scenes people who have spent months perfecting the fine details of the show. Are the critic’s insightful thoughts likely to fall out of their head in the few minutes that it takes to wait and leave with the rest of the audience? This being said, I wondered if I was skirting an unwritten rule of reviewing etiquette by assuming that it involved nothing more than taking a seat, watching the performance, and articulating my thoughts.
My hesitancy towards overanalysis stems from the fear that labelling reviewing as actual work eliminates the potential of gaining any pleasure from the experience. As a literature student, I spent my first year of university ploughing through novels in a frenzied attempt to finish them before the deadline, constantly wondering if I could think of anything remotely profound to say about them. As a consequence, I often didn’t enjoy the books, and discovered that the best method of learning is to just read, and not worry about analysing the words until after I had absorbed them. Shouldn’t this lesson also apply to reviewing theatre?
Evidently, the pressure to draw something meaningful out of theatre is contagious. When sifting through the pile of out-of-date newspapers on our kitchen table, a housemate and I came across a review of a piece of student theatre that we had both recently seen and enjoyed. However, we had no idea what the writer’s opinion was from the muddle of highbrow, syllable-heavy words that constituted the review. It is a condition that we labelled the ‘shift F7 syndrome’: the act of using a thesaurus to replace every word with a more intellectual-sounding synonym, resulting in a jumble of words that were indecipherable without the aid of a dictionary. This is perhaps the only time that I have been thankful for the clear-cut, non-negotiable opinion presented by the star rating. Whilst I expect reviews to be well written, thought provoking and perhaps even witty, all I really want to know is if the show is worth seeing. I definitely do not want proof of the writer’s immense vocabulary.
Ultimately, I believe that going to the theatre with the intention of reviewing should not alter the way you approach the performance. Clearly, a certain level of attentiveness is necessary so that you have an informed opinion to offer at the end, but attempting to analyse something too intently will inevitably result in not understanding it at all. Theatre is meant to be evocative, challenging, and even subversive; but it is not meant to confuse the audience to such an extent that they cannot find meaning in it unless they have been scribbling constant notes. I have been to many theatre performances oblivious to the context of the play, the other work of the writer, and without understanding the technicalities of the music, stage direction, and lighting – yet I have still left understanding the meaning that was conveyed. I am not disputing the unquestionable benefit that comes with possessing knowledge of these things; I simply think that it is not about ‘getting’ every little element of the work. It is about appreciating the whole, which can be achieved with an open mind and a passion for the arts.
In light of this, disregarding my mother’s notebook suggestion was a sensible one. Whilst my youth renders me unable to present a hugely knowledgeable insight into the matter of how best to review a show, the facts remain: theatre is meant to be enjoyed; it can be enjoyed without the extensive knowledge that comes with years in the business; and this enjoyment can be expressed in a review without reaching for a thesaurus. Any anxiety I felt at being unable to write an informative review without scrutinising the performance in minute detail proved to be futile. My mother and I discussed our thoughts on the piece during the train ride home, and the physical act of writing came as naturally as this conversation. Simply loving theatre, I believe, is an indication that somebody can make a valuable contribution to the world of theatre reviewing.