Backstage: What makes a great play? And a great review?
Matt Wolf is the London theatre critic of The International New York Times. Wolf moved to London in 1983. Since then he has written for most major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, with over 20 years as the London-based arts and theater writer for The Associated Press. We lunched at the RADA Café in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This is the first of a two-part column. The second will be published on Sept. 4.
EH: What makes a great play?
MW: A great play for me is something that inhabits its own world and, in so doing, makes you think afresh about your world. So, there’s always a tension between there and here. I like a play that fully constructs a world, and there’s a carry-away from it, that makes me think about my world. I think that most great works of art force a connection, between it and you, that’s very rewarding. A lesser play or mediocre play might seem manufactured, trite, cliché, over-familiar, opportunistic and cynical. But a great play creates a universe that invites you into it. And you leave it feeling refreshed, enlightened, enlivened.
EH: How do you go about writing a review?
MW: The process would be: Am I familiar with the playwright? Have I read the play before? What do I know about the director? What do I know about the actors? What does it say about the play on the website? Have there been any interviews that are useful? Sometimes you want to know what the critics are saying about a play. What do they think the play is? That isn’t necessarily that you’ll agree with them, but it’s interesting to know.
Then you go in, and the experience of the play happens in front of you. And you respond as you see fit. So the process is: How much do you need to know about the play? Do you know as much as you need to know? Are you in a good frame of mind to watch the play? You want to be as “on it” as you could possibly be. Sometimes I see critics at the theater, and they look stressed to be there. But I think that’s a shame. I try to get into some sort of zone, so that I can be the best possible audience member. It doesn’t mean you have to like the play, but I think you owe the play your best attention to the people who make it happen.
EH: What makes a great review?
MW: The main thing that makes a great review is having a voice. Do you have a voice as a writer that is identifiable, interesting, entertaining, hopefully smart, maybe witty, pungent, informed? If a critic doesn’t have his or her own voice as a writer, I don’t care what they have to say, it’s not interesting to me; because at the end of the day, you’re a critic second, and a writer first, and you’ve got to have an interesting authorial voice. Otherwise it’s just a laundry list. It isn’t about going down a checklist: The set was this; the lighting was that; the sound was this; that actor was this; and the writing was this. That can all be a part of the raw material, or maybe none of it will be — the review should be an interesting piece of writing.
I like the idea that you are trying to give the reader a sense of what it was like to be in that auditorium, on that night, with those actors and that audience. If you can communicate that in a way that is lively to read, you’re 90 percent of the way there.