Tracing the history of drama, from Ancient Greece to the works of contemporary playwrights such as Yorkshire-born Mike Bartlett, is no mean feat.
But it’s one for which Britain’s longest-serving theatre critic Michael Billington is particularly well equipped.
In a career spanning more than five decades Michael, 76, has seen an estimated 9,000 plays in theatres all over the country. On Sunday, March 13, he’ll be at Huddersfield’s Lawrence Batley Theatre to talk about his work and his new book, The 101 Greatest Plays: From Antiquity to the Present.
He expects the audience to pull him up on one or two details from the book, which covers everyone from Aeschylus to Bartlett. He explained: “What has annoyed people are the plays I left out. I have included seven plays by Shakespeare but I get asked: Where is King Lear? And why is Waiting for Godot not in the book?” But, just like his theatre reviews, The 101 Greatest Plays is a work of personal opinion. And he’s familiar with criticism of his opinions.
“Particularly today,” added Michael, who has been theatre critic for The Guardian since 1971 and still makes weekly forays to see productions. “People aren’t necessarily going to agree with you and, because of the internet, criticism of what I say has got fiercer. Any time a review appears on the website - on which people are invited to comment - I get abuse. But I have got used to it. As a critic you deal it out so you should be able to take it.”
In fact, Michael says his approach to reviewing is to be cautious rather than caustic. “I don’t abuse actors,” he adds, “I’m gentle with performers because if something goes wrong then you can usually lay the blame on directors or writers. A critic’s job is subjective, there is no right or wrong. It’s all about how we express our opinions - the style and how well or otherwise we write is the most important thing.”
As a fellow journalist, and one who has done her fair share of theatre reviews over the years (I was once a critic for a North East newspaper), I’m interested in how Michael found such a niche role. He explained that after graduating from Oxford with a degree in English he was offered a trainee journalist position with the Liverpool Post and Echo.
“It was supposed to be for three years, but I left after six months,” says Michael, who found himself drawn to a job in the Lincoln Theatre Royal as a public liaison officer.
To be fair, the theatre was always his first love. He explained: “Theatre was a schoolboy passion. I was brought up in The Midlands not far from Stratford upon Avon and I went there to see everything that I could. They were the golden days of theatre, with actors like Lawrence Olivier and Peggy Ashcroft. I became enthralled by great theatre and great performances but I couldn’t act. So in the autumn of 1964 I arrived in London with an ambition to be a theatre critic.”
Michael wrote initially for small magazines but in 1965 he was given a lucky break on The Times. “I did theatre and film and TV reviews, I was a cultural dogsbody,” he says. And then six years later he moved to The Guardian.
The plays featured in his new book are his personal favourites from the many he has seen. “I wanted to offer my selection based on my experience and memories. I wanted to provoke discussion and stress that the writer is the central theatrical figure. We live in an age when the director is taking over,” he says.
While he’s now at an age when retirement has already beckoned for most people, Michael says he still finds his work interesting and challenging. “When I set out for the theatre there is still that element of hope. I want to be surprised and theatre has that capacity,” he added. “If I ever get to the stage when I’d rather stay at home to watch the football then I know that it’s time to give up. But I still find it a very exciting job.”
* Michael Billington is in conversation with fellow theatre critic Samantha Marlowe, who works for The Times, on March 13 at 1pm in the Syngenta Cellar of the LBT. Tickets are £7 and £10 from www.thelbt.org.uk , 01484 430528. Details of Huddersfield Literature Festival events can be found at www.litfest.org.uk