Michael Billington Talks About His Career at the National Theatre
At a platform at the National Theatre on a blustery February evening, Michael Billington spoke with artistic director Rufus Norris about his career and processes. Billington stepped down from his role as chief theatre critic of the Guardian, a position he held for 48 years, at the end of 2019.
Ask any critic, and they'll be able to think of plays or genres that they dislike or have difficulties with. Given the length of his career, Billington, more than anyone, must be able to conjure a few examples. He admitted to struggling with mime, and thought David Mamet's recent play Bitter Wheat, about a Hollywood mogul (read: Harvey Weinstein), was a poor offering.
It's not always been smooth reviewing: Billington recalled a rash of bad musicals during the 1970s at the beginning of his career. But, despite all of this, he never tires of Shakespeare's Hamlet.
Nonetheless, all critics make mistakes. Guests Simon Russell Beale and Penelope Wilton performed an excerpt from Harold Pinter's Betrayal - a now revered play that Billington famously critiqued when it first opened at the National Theatre in 1978.
But what makes a great play for this critic? He looks for rich themes, an interweaving of the public and private, a vibrant use of language, and a new experience that adds to his own current stock. So, not much then.
Other topics included Billington's writing routine (which often began at 7.30am to meet the 9.30am deadline), his method (organising the structure first and letting the details follow), and the role of criticism.
On this final point, Billington argues for its forming of an imaginative "ideal theatre", which is present in no single building, but is made up of various ones. Named institutions included the intimate Donmar Warehouse and Almeida Theatre, and regional theatres such as those in Sheffield and Northampton.
When an audience member asked about the "death" of criticism - a fair suggestion given the number of notable critics who left their posts (voluntarily and otherwise) in recent years - Billington remained resolute: it is not dead, he suggested, but diversifying.
The traditional role of the theatre critic is nevertheless changing. Star ratings were mentioned, but not discussed. Yet the life of the critic prompted a comic observation: Billington suggested how throughout his career his wife had "tolerated [his] absence, but now she must tolerate my presence".
To conclude with a quote early on from the platform: "The key thing for any critic," Billington suggested, "is to be honest about your own reactions." If we're being honest, the theatre landscape will look very different without Michael Billington reporting daily on its goings on.