The Sunset Limited

In London's evolving critical landscape, how much personal information should critics divulge?

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

This year has marked the official start for two writers as chief theatre critics of their respective papers. At The Guardian, Arifa Akbar formally took over from Michael Billlington following his retirement after over 48 years in the post, while at The Times, it was announced that Clive Davis was appointed to take over from Ann Treneman, who stepped down in September last year (after, as she put it, deciding "at the age of 63, to go back to university and study landscape architecture and horticulture." She can now be found doing just that at the University of Sheffield).

Neither, of course, are new to journalism: Davis has been a long-time music writer (not to be confused with the legendary record producer of the same name) who still writes a weekly jazz record review for the Sunday Times. Akbar, meanwhile, spent a decade and a half at The Independent, including stints as a news reporter, arts correspondent and literary editor, before more recently being the arts editor at Tortoise Media.

I happen to already know both of them; and am delighted to welcome them to the critical fold, where they are immediately and exponentially increasing the diversity of those writing about the theatre in the national newsprint media, which has hitherto been almost exclusively white, especially at the loftier levels of chief critic (in the late 1970s the late Naseem Khan, daughter of an Indian doctor and German trade unionist, had been theatre editor of Time Out and subsequently worked at the now long-defunct City Limits). In a book review of BBC economics editor Kamal Ahmed's memoir, published last October in The Times, Davis gently set out his own credentials as a person of mixed race when he wrote, "Mixed-raced people used to be almost invisible. Now we are everywhere, at least if the advertisements are to be believed. For those of us who grew up in the 1960s and 1970s, it can still come as a shock to see how often smiling brown faces are used to sell jeans or jackets or breakfast cereal."

But readers will only start to familiarise themselves with both - and their respective tastes - as they come to read them; and it is that very sense of consistency and continuity, in which you can come to judge their tastes against your own, that marks out the necessity for papers to have a distinctive critical voice writing on their behalf.

Because, of course, writing about the theatre can never be an objective science; we bring ourselves and our own past experiences of every theatre visit we've ever made with us every time we do so. When Akbar's appointment was announced in The Guardian, this was reported about her past. "Born in London, Akbar developed her passion for drama on school trips to the National Theatre." She was then quoted saying, "I would never have been able to afford to see these shows, or even feel entitled to inhabit such spaces, had it not been for the fact that my north London school took us on these theatre expeditions. But, long before this, I remember watching puppet theatre in Lahore, Pakistan, where we lived as a family when I was four and five years old. It was a vivid and formative experience."

I, too, remember getting the theatre bug after a school trip, aged 14 in Johannesburg, South Africa, going to see a production of Terence Rattigan's masterpiece The Deep Blue Sea, which remains to this day one of the most powerful and affecting plays I know. What I didn't know at the time was just how deeply it would resonate in my own life and love addictions as an adult.

As a reader, you wouldn't know this autobiographical fact unless I mentioned it - so I duly did when reviewing the last major London revival of the play at the National Theatre in 2016. As I wrote then, "I'm not quite sure how or why the play - which deals eloquently with the pain of unrequited love and co-dependency - resonated so powerfully on someone who had not yet had the life experience to draw on to know how deeply truthful it was, as I would find out for myself in the years to come."

As a theatregoer and a critic, I don't think it's possible to leave your own real-life experiences at the front door, nor (in my opinion) should you. It lends weight and gravity to your writing to admit your personal investment in the play, or your own human fallibility and frailties. The reader can then make their own judgement about your judgement based on this information.  

Thus it is that I recently reviewed the UK premiere of an American play The Sunset Limited, and wrote, "We inevitably each bring a lot of baggage to this thing called life, just as we do to this thing called going to the theatre. And some plays speak to us (or about us) more personally than is perhaps comfortable, which makes them resonate all the more powerfully. Such is the case with The Sunset Limited, a play about a middle-aged college professor who is saved from the brink of throwing himself in front of a subway train by a stranger... In a bit of personal disclosure, I watched this play while suffering in the midst of an ongoing depression of my own, and therefore I identified hugely with the character who can only see hopelessness and pointlessness in life - but I also cling to the hope, however bleak, that there is a larger purpose in this current suffering and that this, too, shall pass, so I am also able to recognise the efforts of the other character to try to save him."

Like my former colleague Charles Spencer, previously chief theatre critic of the Daily Telegraph, and also Paul Taylor, who still writes for The Independent, we've all referenced our own experiences of depression in our reviews; I don't think this is over-sharing, just declaring a personal interest (as I regularly do, too, when I review shows that feature former students of mine that I've taught at Arts Educational schools).

And regular (or even only occasional ones) will, by getting to know something of our own relationship to the shows we're seeing, be able to bring their own experiences to them in the light of what we've said. As Hamlet first said, theatre famously holds a mirror up to nature, but it also holds it up to nurture. Readers deserve the knowledge of both that a critic brings to what they're seeing.

Originally published on

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