As an imminent review following publication next week will demonstrate, Affair of the Heart, Michael Billington’s survey of British theatre over the last 30 years is endlessly fascinating.
He makes many bold assertions. For some readers, the most controversial could be his defence of the proposition that his reviews sometimes contain spoilers i.e. they give away too much of the plot and reduce the enjoyment of those who subsequently watch the production in question.
Any critic is likely to have been criticised by a director or sometimes an actor who believes that they have given the game away by revealing a critical element of surprise in a plot in the course of a review. Indeed, occasionally, press officers go to considerable trouble to prevent this happening either by word-of-mouth or occasionally typed missives begging critics to suppress any temptation to reveal a crucial twist, which the producers believe is a key to a play’s attraction.
To take an obvious example cited by Billington, any Agatha Christie play (or novel) has very little to offer beyond keeping viewers in the dark about whodunnit, using intricate twists and turns along the way to hold their attention. Indeed, the very name for the genre makes its own point, since it is not “I know whodunnit”.
Billington strongly believes that, in order to write the optimum review, it is valid and necessary to go into considerable detail about plot in order to write an intelligent review. He then goes a step further suggesting that the viewing experience is often enhanced by having detailed knowledge of what is to come.
This cuts both ways. Frequently, one can derive great pleasure, albeit at some cost, by watching the same play twice. The first time you can enjoy the surprises, while second time around with full knowledge it is possible to relish the skills of the writer, actors and possibly director as they build up to some critical moment.
While the first part of the Billington proposition regarding quality of review is undoubtedly correct, arguments over the second could come down to temperament. Some of us love surprises, while others prefer their lives to be more closely regimented and predictable.
To give a simple example, the first time that this critic saw The Winter’s Tale in a glorious RSC production directed by Gregory Doran and starring Antony Sher, the moment at the end when… (I wouldn’t dare to spoil it for any lucky reader who has not yet seen the play) I literally shed tears. As a result, this remains one of my greatest theatrical experiences. That was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and, while I have loved many productions in the ensuing years, none has delivered quite the same knockout blow. Against that, some plays and productions can seem completely unintelligible when watched without any foreknowledge.
The world is clearly filled with fans of the no surprises approach. After all, much to Michael Billington’s distaste, the West End is filled with a combination of musicals based on much loved books and movies, plays adapted from similar sources and revivals of old favourites.
Sitting in a jukebox musical based on an old movie with screaming fans who know every word of each song—and sometimes even the text after umpteen viewings—know that addicts would be deeply offended if the script was altered in any respect.
Personally, my rule of thumb has long been to outline and explain as much as possible regarding plot developments up to the interval but then leave everything else to the reader’s imagination and subsequent enjoyment when they watch the show.
In more recent years, following another Billington observation, given that intervals could soon be nothing more than a distant memory explained by grandparents to disbelieving youngsters, that rule has changed to hide anything significant beyond the midpoint of any play.
There are always exceptions, for example where the title is its own spoiler, for example The Play That Goes Wrong, but these are few and far between.
Affair of the Heart is not to be missed, but this writer feels obliged to confess that the essay on Spoilers comes just after halfway. Sorry about the spoiler.