Theater criticism is a quick and dirty act – our views change and plays too | Theater

l recently went to a play for the second time and changed my mind. If that seems like a harmless statement in itself, it’s certainly a mea culpa for a critic who gave a damning star rating the first time.

Or is it? The production was Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, which is currently in the Royal Court. I reviewed it in October 2021, when it was first mounted at the New Diorama theatre, and I was undeniably disappointed. All the more so because I was sure I was going to like it, having been blown away by Cameron’s previous drama, Typical, which aired during the lockdown. That play was based on the last day in the life of Christopher Alder, and I was so moved by his story, so excited by his language, that it took me several cups of tea to calm down afterwards.

For Black Boys… is an ensemble piece about masculinity – the ways in which young black British men can be reduced on a daily basis and the effects of this different. I read the script before watching it and saw its power on the page. But in its original form, it seemed to me to be a play that needed serious development, as I wrote in my review.

Does my change of mind make me a flibbertigibbet on second viewing whose critical judgment changes with the wind? In my defence, the Royal Court itself said that Cameron’s play had developed considerably since last fall and what I saw last week was in many ways like another show. While the cast remains the same, Cameron is now co-directing the production with Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu (the original director). The lighting is amazing. So is the choreography. Lines are spoken with balance and power. The whole is smooth, sharply comical, full of pain and beauty.

Dramaturgically it is remarkable to see how far a performance can go in its development. This is the ultimate proof that a two-star show has the potential to become a five-star hit if given the time and resources. Brilliant young playwrights should also be able to fail, as writer Samuel Bailey recently pointed out to me (he’s also a fan of Cameron’s work). In this case, Cameron didn’t fail better, but blown the roof off.

Still, part of me wonders why some theaters invite the reviewers when a show is clearly still in the making of itself, especially one from an up and coming playwright for whom a review could be defining. By contrast, I’ve been asked to do some opening nights on the condition that I don’t review the show, either because it’s still in development, as in the case of Young Vic’s excellent experiment AI, or because of the urgent subject matter, such as the Royal Court’s Maryland, which dealt with violence against women, in the wake of the murders of Sarah Everard and Sabina Nessa, and felt as much as a piece of activism as it did theatre. Theaters could do that more often to protect young writers.

Should have gotten a full five stars… Wise Children by Angela Carter. Photo: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But to return to the accused critic and my… apology: When a critic changes his mind, does he discredit himself? No, because theater reviews are by nature always just an overnight reaction. A fast and dirty critical tradition, it’s a very different proposition to book reviews, for example, where critics are given days, if not weeks, to formulate their opinions. Theater reviews are a more instinctive response, less intrusive due to the tight deadline.

Some of the best plays defy easy reductions in meaning and there are many shows whose themes I have not been able to fully unravel in the allotted 12 hours or so after I got out of the theater. What frustrates me the most are my memories of reviews popping up, refusing to be forgotten, for shows that may have been imperfect but should have gotten the full five stars: Pass Over, Wise Children, Notes from the Field, Shedding a Skin. Imperfection, I’ve realized, is no barrier to brilliance.

Of course, star ratings can also sway the other way: I didn’t like Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem when I saw it in 2009; the casual racism and misogynistic bile that poured out of the characters’ mouths at first alienated me, and I didn’t remain open to the magic of the play’s other two acts that I only recognized in the current resurgence. The piece still annoys me for the same reasons – as well as the sense that it boasts of insularity and sentimentalises a certain kind of Britishness – but I can appreciate the craft and execution better the second time around.

Second viewings are intimidating because they put our initial reviews to the test. Will we like or like the play, movie, or book as much or as much as we did or were we “wrong” the first time? Neil Gaiman recently said he finds it hard to read Enid Blyton to his kids, which is “weird because I remember how much I loved Blyton”. What he worshiped then, he said, is no longer there.

For many decades I considered Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights to be my favorite novel, based on a first and only reading at age 15. , and that I could not trust the judgment of that younger self. But when I picked it up again, in my 40s, I loved it for many of the same reasons—outsider spirit, dark romance, and wildness—as well as some new ones.

In any case, it reminds me that what we liked the first time, usually will be liked the second and third times, and that the first answer is valid, even under the pressure of a deadline. But Gaiman is proof that not everyone is the same and Cameron shows us that some works have a wonderful ability to transform, so take the critic’s opinion.

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