Following the announcement of his “semi-retirement”, Michael Billington is doing the equivalent to a farewell tour (his first?)
As part of the celebrations, Rufus Norris invited him to take part in an early evening platform on the Lyttelton Theatre stage, in an event that swiftly became a glorious homage to the leading theatre critic of his generation.
This turned out to be a starry occasion, both on and off stage, as writers, directors and actors demonstrated their support to a man who, rather than “striking fear into people” as his interviewer suggested, has always striven to be the epitome of a critic i.e. “honest to his [or her] reactions and express them as clearly as possible”.
In addition to the star-studded audience, Rufus Norris had assembled a cast to die for on stage. He opened the evening by asking a few warm-up questions after noting that his predecessor Sir Peter Hall had said of the man who had enjoyed the dream role of a critic for 48 years “his passion for the theatre is undimmed”.
Perhaps uncomfortably, given that it is the next Shakespeare production to be performed at the National, when asked about plays that he would not miss, Billington chose Romeo and Juliet observing that he spotted the same weaknesses every time he saw the play.
On the other hand, he will “never tire of another Hamlet” and could almost always find something new in Shakespeare, Chekhov and Ibsen.
The first performance to illustrate and illuminate the evening came from Aisling Loftus reminding audience members of a show to which the critic gave five stars, Small Island. Her witty extract adeptly demonstrated why.
Norris then moved the debate on to posit the question as to whether it is the role of a theatre to compel social change. His subject certainly believed that theatre can indicate a shift in the public mood ahead of time, citing Terence Rattigan’s Separate Tables, which he believes helped to change the way that the British public viewed homosexuality, which was still illegal at the time.
He went on to say that theatre was much more than a mirror of the times and currently had an important role to play in promoting gender equality and racial diversity, bringing in new audiences to theatres such as the one in which he was sitting.
When asked about his ideal theatre, the names that immediately spring to mind were the Donmar and Almeida, as well as the Orange Tree in Richmond, all intimate.
Thinking more widely, he also remembered good times in the past at the Citizens in Glasgow and the Everyman in Liverpool, while identifying Sheffield and Northampton as venues currently enjoying highs.
The second extract was the Torcello scene from Harold Pinter’s Betrayal featuring masterly acting from Simon Russell Beale and Penelope Wilton. Norris unkindly reminded Pinter’s biographer that the initial pronouncement on that play was one of his rare faux pas.
The final extract was from Sir David Hare’s Racing Demon, featuring a man with whom Billington had acted at Oxford half a century ago, Oliver Ford Davies giving a wonderfully witty rendition of a role that he created in 1990 and doing it not just as well but almost identically, opposite that impeccable straight man, Simon Russell Beale.
In response to one of a number of audience questions, Michael Billington explained his methodology when writing a review was to structure it very carefully in the belief that the words would then follow.
A delightful curtain-raiser ended far too soon leaving everyone in the theatre wanting more.