The Guardian's Michael Billington: A Man for All Theater Seasons

The Voice chats with the U.K.'s leading critic

You're very confident about these plays, but you've freely admitted when you've gotten it wrong. You've renounced your initial negative reactions to Harold Pinter's Betrayal and Sarah Kane's Blasted. What led you to recant? Subsequent viewings of the plays. It would be dishonest, having got Betrayal grossly wrong the first time around, not to admit when I see it the second or third time that this play is much richer and more complicated than I thought. But I don't see anything shameful in critics standing up and saying they've got things wrong.

No, I think its brave! I don't think it's brave—it's honest. Readers obviously love it, because you're admitting your fallibility. But it's the only honest response to works of art. It's the job of the critic, historically, to get things wrong. The artist is always the pathfinder, pushing the art form in new directions in terms of form and content, which the critic cannot initially understand. We as critics are always going to be panting breathlessly in their wake.

So who is the audience you write for? The artists? The subsidizers? The potential spectators? To be blunt, the truth is, we are employees of journals, newspapers, magazines. So we are paid by them, and we're writing for those readers. The other reality is that, given the imperatives of time and space, I don't sit down at night and think about my reader, because I'm writing with 60 minutes to go, if I'm lucky, and 400 words in which to say it all in time for the next morning's edition.

So you still have overnight reviews! Yes, I do mostly overnights.

In the States, we have overnights very rarely. Yes, I think they're a uniquely British phenomenon. Every civilized country in the world has abandoned them. It's an insane way to write reviews. Because Britain has a competitive newspaper market, where The Times and The Guardian and The Observer and The Independent are fighting for the same readers, we're all doing overnights.

And you've been writing these at The Guardian for 37 years now. Do you ever look at the screen with that 60 minutes to go and panic, thinking, "My God, I'll have nothing to say"? About four times a week! There are nights when you have a strong, clear reaction and a strong, clear idea of what you want to say. There are other nights where you're seeing a play for the umpteenth time, and that's when the job is incredibly difficult. Sometimes I've really thought: "I have nothing much to say about this play. The honest thing would be to send in a bit of blank screen."

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