A few weeks ago, there was a symposium at Kent University with the title: What Is Theatre Criticism For? No satisfactory answer was found. But one of the issues raised was why today’s critics no longer write about acting, or at least not with any of the zest and descriptive power of their predecessors. This coincided with the arrival of a letter from an actors’ agency asking me to mention actors in reviews more often.
Of course, the agency might be less keen if their clients end up getting more negative coverage. My rule is to gloss over a mediocre performance unless it comes with a star name attached; or, as happened recently when I saw Imogen Stubbs play Rita in Ibsen’s Little Eyolf, the performance impinges so badly on the production that it is impossible to ignore. As I wrote my review, I was acutely aware that actors have to go out and face an audience right after the review has appeared. No wonder so many actors claim never to read them.
The lack of attention paid to acting is a loss. You only have to glance at the great theatre-writing of the past to see how a well-turned phrase can bring a production to life. “To see him act,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge of Edmund Kean, “is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning.” This immediately conjures up a picture, as surely as WA Darlington’s “Last night I saw Richard Briers play Hamlet like a demented typewriter.”
Such brief yet vivid assessments would not be out of place in the age of Twitter. In the past, though, it was the more extended piece that gave the greatest scope for considering acting. The obvious reason for this decline is space, the difficulties of being truly descriptive in just 320 words. The only form of critical writing in print I can think of in which performances are routinely – and often exquisitely and poetically – described is the football match report. But then coverage of even the lowliest match is likely to run to several hundred more words than even the biggest West End opening.
It’s not just space, though. The last 30 years have seen the emphasis move away from the actor to the director and the playwright; we have seen, too, the rise of the more democratic ensemble with fewer star players; and there’s the notion now that any Z-list celebrity can act. We have many brilliant actors – including Derek Jacobi, Simon Russell Beale, Juliet Stevenson and Penelope Wilton – but few, bar Judi Dench, have the stature that such giants as Laurence Olivier or Peggy Ashcroft had.
There is also, perhaps, less consensus today about what constitutes good acting. My horror (and that of some others) at the excesses of Stubbs was matched only by the delight of others, who raved about her performance. Stage acting is, of course, constantly evolving. John Gielgud admitted to squirming when he listened to recordings of his younger, overblown self. But changes in styles have been speeded up by new technology and modern auditoriums, which lessen the need for barnstorming. Lighting is now so subtle that facial expressions can be seen far more clearly, allowing for more internalised performances; and in studio spaces, today’s audiences can get the intimacy of TV on a stage.
Until the start of this century, the review was often the only detailed record of something that, by its nature, is ephemeral. The question now is whether the demise of writing about acting matters, when YouTube and video downloads let you see for yourself. They may make the need less pronounced, but they seldom capture for posterity the magic of a stunning performance in the way that great writing can.