This week on Digital Theatre Plus we publish our film of Richard Armitage in conversation with theatre critic and arts journalist Matt Wolf. The chat took place at The Old Vic in front of a rapt audience, most of whom were going on to see Richard perform as John Proctor in the theatre’s acclaimed production of The Crucible.
Sitting in the audience on that occasion made me consider a couple of things: the role of the modern day theatre critic, as well as what it takes to have a good plain old conversation in front of a group of strangers. Both are fairly hefty subjects for one blog but I’ll take a stab at it.
Theatre criticism has changed dramatically (excuse the pun) over the past 10 years. In the dark ages, the pre-blog, pre- Twitter era, you needed a platform of some sort to write about theatre and, once found, it usually helped if you were white, male and Oxbridge educated. This is no longer the case, thank goodness, and nowadays, whoever you are, wherever you are, you can join in the debate and engage in a conversation about plays and performance.
Performers often have a fragile relationship with critics. It’s not difficult to understand why. With the pressure on box office to sell tickets, a critic’s voice is part vital and part consumer guide, and their positive opinions count.
So, there we all were sitting in The Old Vic watching an exchange that had the potential to become awkward and tense if Matt, the theatre critic dumped his impartiality, and Richard, the performer, became prickly and defensive in turn.
That didn’t happen of course as Matt, a veteran interviewer, understood that that this forum was not one for subjective expression based on personal preference and Richard, an accomplished performer, brought his native emotional intelligence to the surface.
For conversation to flow, and be simultaneously intimate and lively, both gentlemen had to engage in a tacit agreement to receive and build: a fundamental principle of theatre practice and the basis of all good communication. You may think that blandness ensued. This was not the case, however, as within a safe framework each heard the other properly and were able to participate in a discussion that fore-fronted both their expertise and opinion with agreement and disagreement.
Watching and listening to this exchange I was once again reminded of how nourishing participating in a dynamic conversation can be and the importance of really hearing what is being said.
No one listened to John Proctor but in this pre-show event, filmed towards the end of the production’s run, everyone heard Richard Armitage. And now you can too. Enjoy.