Matt Wolf is London theater critic of The International New York Times and London editor of the broadway.com website. He is also theater editor of The Arts Desk website. This is the second of a two-part column.
EH: How do you review a bad play?
MW: As with anything, you’ve got to back it up critically. Just piling a lot of adjectives — such as awful, dreadful, horrible, worst thing I’ve seen since the last worst thing I saw — doesn’t do anyone any favors. And also it turns the reader off. I think you need to explain what it was that didn’t work. Was it the writing? Was it the acting? Was it the direction? Was it the set? Sometimes the audience can be part of it. Usually it comes down to the writing, sometimes not. Sometimes you can have a well-written play very badly served by an actor or set of actors; they just don’t get it. I think you have to call it as you see it. I don’t think there’s much value in pussy-footing around it, and feeling that the reader has to hold the review up to the light to see what the critic really thought.
As a critic, I try never to be mean. It doesn’t mean I like everything (far from it) but sometimes you read critics, and they just seem very sour — as if the fact of going to a bad play was somehow a personal affront. People don’t set out to write a bad play. It’s relatively rare in theater that the motivation for something is opportunistic and cynical. I don’t get offended or wounded by a bad play. I just think, “Oh, it’s a bad play, on to the next.” I have a pretty strong capacity for renewal, which is exciting.
EH: Is the nature or the vision of theater changing?
MW: Absolutely. Good writing now is as plentiful as it’s ever been. In some ways it’s more audacious than it used to be. In the old days, there was a kind of boulevard comedy, like “Same Time, Next Year.” But that kind of middle-brow commercial stuff almost has entirely vanished, because that sort of terrain has been eaten up by television.
People want something that is just more daring. There is much more interest nowadays in the theatricality of the event — something that could only happen in three dimensions. If you go off to stuff on the margins, you would see that there’s a lot of theater that doesn’t have that much to do with text.
EH: How do you develop a voice as a critic?
MW: I like explaining the workings of the theater to people who are interested. I like engaging with people in the theater. I’m not saying they have to be my best friends; and I don’t encourage that, because it makes it hard to write about them. But I’m interested in them. I’m interested in what they do. I admire them for doing it. It doesn’t always succeed, but I admire the effort. I think actors are very brave. They go out, and they put themselves on the line, night after night. And it’s a ruthless profession. It’s an uncertain profession.
I love reading other critics. I think one of the best ways to learn to be a critic is to read other critics. Not that you parrot their style, but you get a sense of what it’s like to live a life committed to discussing an art form, because that’s what it is. At the end of the day, you have to have a love of language. The language has to be a joy for you.