Many interviews begin with a bit of history and finish by looking forward to the future. When chatting to critic Jeremy Kingston, however, we decided to start by looking ahead and work our way back. Kingston, who has amassed almost four decades of work in theatre criticism and finished writing for The Times last year after 25 years in the job, isn’t sure about what the future will bring: “I don’t know what the future for print criticism is at all; I’m not quite sure what the future is for newsprint, even. My guess is that weeklies will survive and that listings magazines will carry on. Newspapers will survive, but they’ll do so online.”
We’re chatting over a coffee in The Actor’s Centre, next door to the Tristan Bates Theatre where his new double-bill Oedipus Retold opened this week. In recent years, Kingston has turned his hands to playwriting, and when I ask what caused him to make this decision, he informs me that in fact “It never occurred to me to be a theatre critic. One doesn’t want to befriend a theatre critic; he’ll get you into terrible trouble.” Instead, he had written sketches and playlets at school and university, and seemed to be going down the route of becoming an artist rather than a critic when the arts editor of Punch asked him to take on the job, relatively out of the blue.
In fact, the two plays that make up Oedipus Retold – an adaptation of the Oedipus story and a alternative version of it– are a sort of criticism, written because of Kingston’s feeling that “we haven’t been told the whole story”. In the alternative version, for example, “Oedipus and his father meet one another, find out who they are and don’t kill one another.” Indeed, working as a theatre critic has allowed him “some insight into whether other authors had usefully done something different.” Being a part of the making process has, he tells me, been a bit of a learning curve, coming to terms with how a note from a director can change the whole feeling of a scene. “Of course, one knows that sort of thing happens, but it’s easy to forget when you’re sitting in the play, scribbling away something. In a way I was straddling two camps.”
Theatre criticism has changed a lot since Kingston started out. At Punch, the weekly copy would have to be typed up in the office, whilst overnight reviews at The Times had to be dictated down the phone, whereupon errors would invariably creep in. Since the dawn of the internet, however, things have moved on very swiftly, as everything can be done at home and sent in via email.
I briefly describe how online criticism has meant a greater and more varied discourse, with many reviews referencing other online writing, a development which, as Kingston points out, would be impossible with overnight reviews in broadsheets. “I would say ‘praised by my colleague in the opening scene’, but that’s about the extent of it. I think that’s very healthy, that’s a very healthy development.”
Whilst Kingston freely admits that he knows “fuck all” about blogs, we chat at length about the way the critical ecology has shifted over the past decade. We discuss limitless word counts (his would often depend on the layout of the newspaper on that particular day, but would rarely exceed 800 words to cover four shows) and how the unwritten rule that critics shouldn’t speak about the play they’re currently watching has slowly eroded. “That feels really quite healthy and almost natural. I mean it’s absurd – there you are, a group of people having some experience which is exciting or awful or midway, and the one thing you don’t talk about in all the world is that.”
Inevitably, star ratings soon come up. “They’re a pest,” Kingston exclaims, without a moment’s hesitation. “The trouble is with people only looking at the star ratings and not reading below; I don’t know what persuades people to go to see a play. In writing a review I always felt I had to make the opening paragraph more interesting so that people would read the second paragraph. So, no, I don’t like star ratings – I don’t think critics generally do. The editors might, and the theatres might, but not artists and critics.”
So what is the job of the critic, in Kingston’s view? “Fundamentally, it’s to tell the people who are reading or listening to them: ‘Yes, I suggest you go and see this’ or ‘No, I suggest you keep away from this’. Of course, one of the interesting things if you’ve been doing it a long time is to show how one production of a play has differed from other ones that you’ve seen in the past. Someone like Michael Billington has been doing it since the birth of Christ (well since the 60s anyway) and it does make him a useful fount of knowledge. And that’s useful for writing books and it can be helpful in your review of a play, but it’s by no means essential.”
Billington was one of a number of critics who got riled up when Nicholas Hytner accused the general critical body of being “dead white males” in 2007. I cheekily ask what Kingston makes of this opinion. “Well they were, and they still are. You’re alive, but you’re white and male. And there are certainly more women critics than there were, but there’s still truth to it. He might have been smarting from some tart review, but people did get terribly hot about it, didn’t they? Some critics allow their own concerns to take precedent over wise judgement.” Is this the cardinal sin of criticism, then, caring more about oneself than the piece in question? “Well, maybe. But no one dies as a result of it.”
Oedipus Retold is at Tristan Bates Theatre until 8 Feb. For more information and tickets, visit the Tristan Bates website.