What makes a great play? And a great review?

Matt Wolf is the London theatre critic of The International New York Times. Wolf moved to London in 1983. Since then he has written for most major newspapers on both sides of the Atlantic, with over 20 years as the London-based arts and theater writer for The Associated Press. We lunched at the RADA Café in the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art. This is the first of a two-part column.

EH: What makes a great play?

MW: A great play for me is something that inhabits its own world and, in so doing, makes you think afresh about your world. So, there’s always a tension between there and here. I like a play that fully constructs a world, and there’s a carry-away from it, that makes me think about my world. I think that most great works of art force a connection, between it and you, that’s very rewarding. A lesser play or mediocre play might seem manufactured, trite, cliché, over-familiar, opportunistic and cynical. But a great play creates a universe that invites you into it. And you leave it feeling refreshed, enlightened, enlivened.

EH: How do you go about writing a review?

MW: The process would be: Am I familiar with the playwright? Have I read the play before? What do I know about the director? What do I know about the actors? What does it say about the play on the website? Have there been any interviews that are useful? Sometimes you want to know what the critics are saying about a play. What do they think the play is? That isn’t necessarily that you’ll agree with them, but it’s interesting to know.

Then you go in, and the experience of the play happens in front of you. And you respond as you see fit. So the process is: How much do you need to know about the play? Do you know as much as you need to know? Are you in a good frame of mind to watch the play? You want to be as “on it” as you could possibly be. Sometimes I see critics at the theater, and they look stressed to be there. But I think that’s a shame. I try to get into some sort of zone, so that I can be the best possible audience member. It doesn’t mean you have to like the play, but I think you owe the play your best attention to the people who make it happen. Continue reading What makes a great play? And a great review?