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Masterclass in Theatre Criticism with Michael Coveney

“Aim for posterity in the context of what happened last night,” began Michael Coveney, a well-respected critic who has covered theatre for the Independent, What’s On Stage and the Daily Mail, to name but a few. He decided to share his wisdom and offer advice on how to break into this niche area of journalism, as part of the Theatre Royal Haymarket’s Masterclass series – a great initiative that’s been reaching out to theatregoers (predominantly the under-30s) for several years.

I attended this session because I wanted to learn more about critical writing. Although I’ve been producing art reviews for some time now (writing for http://www.artface.co.uk), I am conscious that there is always something to be improved on. So far I haven’t really added performances to my review list, though I’ve been to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for three years running, with the plan of achieving a decade of trips there, and I’ve loved seeing musicals and plays since I was seven. Picking up tips from Coveney seemed like a brilliant opportunity, but he also ran a workshop on stage which involved discussing The Playboy of the Western World – currently showing at the Old Vic – with ten wannabe critics. Somehow I was one of the ten chosen, which turned out to be an accidental imbalance of nine women and one man, made more awkward when the man didn’t turn up. I always thought of this type of journalism as being male-dominated, which Coveney admits that it is, though not by design. It felt like a turning point that there were so many women willing to get involved in the analytical side of theatre, rather than proclaiming they wanted to be actresses.

Michael’s tips for any theatre review, in paraphrased form, were these:

  • You need a strong opening, whether that means discussing what happened on the way to see the play, or who you sat next to.
  • The reviewer needs to know more than the average audience member, as they are in a position of authority. They don’t need to be superior about it, or list their intense knowledge of the playwrite, but they should have read the play text if it’s not a brand new work.
  • All types of theatre should be treated the same, from fringe to highbrow. Don’t pre-judge them.
  • Try analysing one character’s whole performance and really getting under the skin of what they’re attempting to do with their acting.
  • Edinburgh is a perfect place to write reviews, and you will find that many of the theatre industry’s websites and publications (including What’s On Stage) are always looking for new critics. As long as you can pay your own way and also work for free, there’s a lot of scope for increasing your portfolio.
  • Your review doesn’t need to be full of pretentious language.
  • Everyone’s entitled to join the blogosphere, but bloggers should be accurate and remember that the quality of writing is key. Spelling a character’s name wrong or not mentioning the author of a play is not going to get you very far.
  • Anger is good in a review, but it should be channeled through exploring the reputation of the play and not just how much you hated it in general. Is it a bad play or just a bad production?
  • Things like lighting are often overlooked, even though they make a massive impact on the performance. Try and pick out why they’re working well or not doing a great job.
  • Are there any parallels between the play you’re watching and other works at the time, or pieces about the same issues?
  • You should be able to put the play in context and not just review it on its own merit. Even a new writer or new work will have roots or links to theatre history. The Playboy was important in terms of Irish theatre and the acceptance of realism as a genre.

When I actually saw the play, I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d hoped, but I thought I was just missing the point or being too harsh. I had never seen something that was so rural and so stereotyped, and I tried to embrace it rather than see it for what it was. Having spoken about the play in the workshop, I now see that I should have just admitted I didn’t like it, rather than trying to see the good side and not really exploring my own reaction. It would have also helped to have read the text, but only two of us had done this as we all thought it was more democratic to approach the play as a normal theatregoer. Now I’ve heard Michael Coveney’s opinion, I will always try to read around a performance before I see it – and not just by looking up reviews online! Personally I wouldn’t recommend The Playboy of the Western World unless you’re really into Irish theatre or historical realism, but from what I’ve gathered then this was a bad production rather than a boring play.



About Polly

I'm a journalist, based near Brighton. This blog, which is separate from my professional life, will document my reaction to current affairs, as well as some personal projects.


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