Consensus was in short supply among theatre critics in 2017, with everything from all-too-exclusive shows and gender swapping dividing opinion. Fergus Morgan looks back at the critical voices that reverberated the loudest
On stage, 2017 will be remembered as the year of Andrew Scott’s Hamlet, Marianne Elliott’s Angels in America and Jez Butterworth’s The Ferryman. The year of faltering flops in the Olivier, five-star smash hits at the Almeida, and James Graham taking over the West End.
But what about off stage, in the newspaper reviews, column inches and blog posts? What captured the critics’ hearts this year? What stinkers made them reconsider their career choices? What floated Billington’s boat? What’s ground Gardner’s gears? What caught Cavendish unawares?
Sweet and sour princes
Rob Icke’s technology stuffed, Scandi-noir, Bob Dylan-infused Hamlet at the Almeida, starring the mercurial Andrew Scott, proved one of 2017’s most memorable, most divisive shows. It garnered a lot of love in some quarters: five stars from The Stage, What’sOnStage and Time Out.
Elsewhere, though, some critics didn’t warm to Icke’s unashamedly 21st-century approach. The Guardian’s Michael Billington gave it three stars and denounced it as “eccentrically wrong-headed”; the Times’ Ann Treneman two-starred it, calling it “quirky and rather cumbersome.”
It wasn’t the only Hamlet to cause a stir. Tom Hiddleston gave his Dane in Kenneth Branagh’s exclusive production raising funds for RADA. Comp tickets weren’t offered to critics – a practice swiftly followed by Punchdrunk with Kabeiroi – which gave some reviewers palpitations.
“With respect to the artists and actors involved, the show just doesn’t feel like it warrants a review,” Matt Trueman wrote in The Stage. “Since it sold out straight off, any write-up can only report, not recommend.”
“By not inviting critics in the first place, this Hamlet changed the rules of engagement,” chimed a suspicious Mark Shenton. “Not only did the show get critics to cough up for their tickets, but it made them feel privileged to be there at all – a sense of exclusivity that may have contributed to some great reviews.”
Tamsin Greig vs Dominic Cavendish
A lack of special treatment wasn’t the only thing that got some critics’ blood pressure rising. Back in February, hot on the heels of Harriet Walter’s stellar all-female Donmar Shakespeares and Glenda Jackson’s King Lear came the National’s well-received Twelfth Night, with Tamsin Greig playing the gender-swapped Malvolia to critical acclaim.
This, it turns out, was just too damn much for the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, who complained of “play-land being patrolled by the Thought Police”. He opined: “My growing concern is that in breaking down conventions and reaching for alternative insights, men are being elbowed aside.”
“I think the great male lead will be okay,” responded Greig.
Cavendish later found himself to the fore of another controversy in October, after the West End openings of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Venus in Fur and Mel Brooks’ Young Frankenstein shone a spotlight on the language critics use to describe female bodies on stage.
“There’s a dismayingly adolescent quality to the criticism of some mainstream media outlets that intensifies whenever the work under discussion involves sex or nudity,” argued The Stage’s Natasha Tripney. “Writing like that is not only ugly, it’s lazy.”
Big hits and big flops at the National
It’s been a roller-coaster year for Rufus Norris’ National Theatre, with stonking smash hits and some faltering failures in the press. In the hit column: Consent, Beginnings, Mosquitoes, Follies and Marianne Elliott’s epic, Broadway-bound Angels in America.
It was Ivo van Hove’s Network that proved most divisive, though. The big Belgian director had a hit with the returning Roman Tragedies, but his Luchino Visconti adaptation Obsession was roundly rubbished.
Network, his adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s 1976 satire, blew most critics away. Time Out’s Andrzej Lukowski called it “a giant, chaotic dance of man and video”, but some stick-in-the-muds found it too much to handle, Treneman objecting to the “sheer sensory cacophony of it all”.
In the NT’s miss column: Saint George and the Dragon, Salome and Common. These surprisingly similar clangers – all new works – on its biggest stage prompted many critics to ask the question: how do you solve a problem like the Olivier?
The state of theatre criticism
Behind the critical curtain itself, 2017 was a year of relatively few controversies and catastrophes. The Guardian’s decision to axe Lyn Gardner’s blog provoked dismay, before she was snaffled up by The Stage. Exeunt continued to evolve, expanding its groundbreaking Friends scheme and using the proceeds to launch a call-out for black, Asian and minority ethnic columnists.
In America, Jesse Green’s appointment as the New York Times’ new co-chief critic – another white man in another top job – was greeted with murmurings that rebounded across the Atlantic, putting the diversity of British theatre criticism under the microscope: as The Stage and Act for Change’s Widening the Lens event explored, theatre criticism at the top level remains male-dominated, entirely white, and largely London-centric.
If 2017 proved that the reviews pages can still host fierce tug-of-wars between the hipsters and the haters, the thrill-seekers and the traditionalists, it also made clear how much theatre criticism, as an institution, still needs to change to keep up with contemporary Britain.